Leadership Lessons from the Music Industry

The music industry continues to change. Falling album sales eroded by on-line streaming, questions on how artists get paid and make a living, and technology making it easy for anyone to become a producer. It’s another industry that got hit by the internet twenty years ago (remember Napster?) and continues to get sucker-punched over and over again as the technology evolves(1).

With a young step-son who’s been a professional musician since age 15, and is now recording his sixth album, it’s a topic of interest to me personally – how is he going to make a living doing what he loves,  in an industry famous for manipulators and scumbags, and keep being that good person I know him to be? He’s a talented guy and decent human being, and I look forward to helping him figure it out where he wants my help.

I got to sit in on The Gathering(2) afternoon’s music panels on Friday, and came away impressed with the thoughtfulness and depth of discussions. There seems to be an intersection between artists, brands, marketing, and the people who act as in-betweens.

There are successful artists who have become their own brands (not only making music but also clothing and other products, and doing their own marketing); brands that bring marketing in-house (for example Dr. Dre headphones, who started as a musician(3)); and marketers who love music doing amazing things in the world even though they don’t make music (like Andy Cohn from the FADER).

Turns out music is more than just music. Social justice, innovation and creativity, self-identify, story and narrative, commerce, influence and motivation all get mixed up in a wonderful goulash(4), or maybe a Chili Verde(5). You decide.

Music is unique in the human experience, but it costs money to make it. Surprisingly people want to be able to make music and eat at the same time. Go figure. So music is also commerce, and not surprisingly music also overlaps business and leadership. This became clear to me while listening to the panelists and hearing themes that leadership and business people have been talking about for decades now: values, vision, and people.

Image result for nobody speak
“Nobody Speak” by DJ Shadow, currently on heavy rotation at my house


Here are some of the things I heard:

Your Values

Be really clear about what you’re offering, what you expect in return. You can trade your talent and identity for fame and money if you want to, and that’s okay, but don’t expect it to last, don’t expect it to have an impact, and don’t expect anyone to have your best interests at heart.

You can do better than that. There were some powerful stories told on the stage, but they’re not mine to tell. Let’s just say that music not only influences and changes lives, it also literally saves lives(6).

…or as Joe Belliotti put it, “You don’t have to be an asshole to be successful.”

Your Vision

Overused, oversold, and yet so important. What’s the thing that you would be doing even if you had to pay to do it?

Of all the panelists who shared their “vision statement” (and they all had one, it’s de rigueur don’t you know), authenticity was believable, even if it wasn’t messianic: “Feed my family.”, “Take care of the people important to me.”, “Protect my fans, because they got us here.”


“Touch your people every day, because you’ll be sad when they walk out the door.”  – Jason White

I think this one is pretty self-explanatory, but I will add this from my own experience: if you think you’re doing this well enough, you’re not. Very few people actually do, many fewer than think they do.

It’s more than likely that you’re just fooling yourself. No shame in that, it’s easy to do. It even has a name: confirmation bias. Take a long hard look at how well you treat your people, and what you tolerate in terms of how others treat them, and do better.


(1) See also publishing, newspapers, manufacturing (robotics), transport (self-driving cars), entertainment (pirated movies), etc. Next up professional services such as lawyers and doctors (artificial intelligence). Time to buy an acreage and some goats and move to the country?

(2) In its fifth year, it brings together brands and marketers. Three years ago they added music, integral to telling any story, which is what good marketing does. Plus I love any excuse to head to Banff despite the tourists – they’ve done a really good job of extending tourism past the summer holiday & winter skiing crowd, and I admire that.

(3) If you haven’t watched “Straight Outta Compton” you should, even if rap isn’t your thing. Good movie.

(4) My mother’s signature dish. That and rouladen. Mmmmm.

(5) What’s in the slow cooker right now, and it’s making me drool. Pardon me if I’m distracted by food.

(6) For one example, check out Paul Brandt’s #notinmycity campaign, imagined and executed by marketing students from Mount Royal University. As an added bonus the campaign has ruffled establishment feathers, which delights me because that’s what’s necessary to drive change.


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