Thursday 16 November 2017

How to succeed in the world of music and culture

Ok, let me put a few cards on the table. In 1979 I started a business that has grown to be one of the worlds leading centres for musicians to rehearse and record. We have musicians coming from across the world to record music. This week it is one of Africa's finest musicians Fiston Lusambo, working on his latest album.

The studio business runs without subsidies and is unencumbered with debt. I'm also on the organising committee for Mill Hill Music Festival. This is one of the few music festivals that receives no subsidies from the taxpayer. We put on Opera, classical music, Jazz and a whole host of other music. The finances of the festival are extremely healthy and this years festival was a great success. I also help organise a whole stack of other festivals and events. I mentor bands and artist and advise them on how to have a sustainable career. This year, as one example, I've helped a band called The Black Doldrums. As a direct result of my advice on crowd funding, marketing and merchandising, they've managed to release an album, sign a record deal, tour the US and UK and elevate their career. I explained how they could use crowdfunding and merchandising to develop their potential. As a result of this advice they are on tour as we write this and recording their second album.

I'm in the lucky position that by and large I can pick and choose what I want to work on, because I've been successful. It may surprise you to learn that people pay me to advise them and speak at events. I generally only do this when it is something I am interested in. Generally I don't seek a fee as I really don't need the cash, but if it is a commercial organisation and they are doing good things I will take a fee.

Generally most people treat me with respect and recognise that I know what I am talking about. I understand music and I know many of the worlds top musicians. I apologise for writing this "I am wonderful" blog. I generally don't really like telling the world what a marvellous person I am. I didn't get into music for accolades, I do it because I love it and it is life enhancing. But I do know what I am talking about and I have the CV to prove it.

So what is my secret? How do you succeed in music and culture? Well there is no secret at all. There are three simple elements.

1. Hard work. If you are not prepared for the slog, don't bother. For me, this has not come over a few days or weeks. It's been nearly four decades. I am constantly exhausted. Late nights, early mornings, crisis after crisis, people continually lying, bs'ing and letting you down. The earth is promised and nothing delivered. I've built studios from materials I've reclaimed from skips, rigged PA's for festivals in torrential rain and lightening, threatened gig promoters with physical violence when faced with non payment of commitments, consoled artists after personal tragedy, done my back in lifting heavy PA gear, seen relationships fail when I've been to busy to nurture them. The upside has been awesome but the downside is soul destroying at times.

2. Set clear goals. This is perhaps the most important. For the first fifteen years of our studio business, we had no focus. It was just a place for our band to rehearse and to earn beer money. I realised that it was potentially a great business but my then partners didn't share my vision. I amicably bought them out and got a new business partner, who shared my vision and my desire for success. We also started to get involved in local festivals, as part of a wider strategy to ensure that our customers had a thriving scene to make their efforts worthwhile. We wanted to be the best studio, a one stop shop for artists and a cultural hub. And we wanted to do it without subsidies or grants. I believe these damage the focus of many organisations. I've seen so many, surviving on public money, serving the management rather than the artists. Often these organisations are lead by patronising individuals with no talent, who stifle creativity and innovation. For us, it is important to constantly reinvent ourselves. If we fail, the customers go and we go. Sadly many artistic organisations simply gobble up cash to pay people to do nothing useful. Of course there are also great creative organisations that receive subsidies and couldn't exist without them. I'm not suggesting that the V&A for example could run commercially or even that such an idea is desirable. What I am saying though, is that if you want to build a creative business, the financial discipline of commercial reality should be viewed as an asset. It will ensure you focus on the right things.

3. You need a great team around you. From the early paragraphs you may think I have an inflated view of my own capabilities. In truth, none of it would be possible without the teams I am a part of. For Mill Hill Music Complex, we have a great team. Every staff member makes a huge contribution. I will pick out a few, just to illustrate this. Clare looks after the finances and billing side. If these don't get paid, we cease to exist. As company secretary, she is absolutely key. She previously worked for Central TV, ensuring productions such as Sharpe, which was filmed in the Ukraine, were effectively managed. She is also a fine musician with the BBC Elstree Concert Band.She gives our organisation planning and financial discipline. She also understands our mission and ethos. Darren is our studio manager. He organises our staff rosters and day to day management of operations. He's been with us for 17 years. Fil is our chief recording engineer. He's a talented musician and is very gifted as a sound man. He's been on the staff for 20 years. Stuart is our equipment tech, previously he ran Manta and Rocket studios. He's also a working musician. He's been with us for 20 years. Then there's Kasia, our cleaner. If we had filthy toilets etc, we'd have no customers. She is as vital to the business as anyone else, in some ways more so. It is attention to such details that make the difference between success and failure. There is Kelechi, our web designer who ensures the studio websites work. There's Derek, who is our building designer and creative guru. There's David, who is our electrician. Then Carl, Ted,   Steve, Nick, Matt and Tom, who run the reception shifts, detailing with customers and keeping the show on the road.

You may wonder what I do? Well sometimes any of the above jobs, but mostly just plan strategy and direction. I work out our priorities and hopefully ensure the team have the tools to deliver them. Ultimately we need to make a profit to survive. Mostly this is around advertising and promotion. So there it is, the secret of how we've built a successful business that's known around the world. Of course we don't always get it right and every day brings a new challenge, but as we have over 1,000 musicians a week pass through the doors, and our customers have included Amy Winehouse, The Damned, Kate Nash, Mose Fan Fan, The Beautiful South, London Grammar, Eddie Floyd, Tom Jones with Chicane, The BBC, Channel 4, ITV to name a few, we must be doing something right. I consider myself lucky to have been born and raised in Mill Hill, an ideal location for such a business. I was also lucky that my father was a small businessman and was happy to rent me premises and advise me. Unlike some (The current US president) my parents didn't financially back my business. My Dad said 'it has to stand on its own and you have to work hard to make a success of it'. That was the best advice I ever got.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Awesome, thanks for sharing the blood sweat tears and triumphs