How Musicians Can Think Like CEOs To Improve Their Business

Words by Bree Brouwer. The reality of artistry is less glamorous than the depicted lifestyle. It takes an inordinate amount of time, hard work, discipline and focus to truly make it in the music business. As the old adage goes, it’s called the music business for a reason.

While fun can fill a musician’s life—from the freedom of not having a desk job to the fulfillment of following your heart’s desire—the need to balance creativity with business acumen persists. A healthy mix tends to result in success. With that in mind, Stem invites you to look at how artists can think like CEOs to improve their careers.

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Embrace decisiveness in the music business

Waiting for the perfect moment often leads to stalled progress. If you are satisfied with playing and writing songs in your bedroom, and that is all that you want—perfectly okay, for the record—then no further action is needed. That’s music, not the music business.

However, participation in the latter mandates more action. For example, consistent practice requires the recurring decision to maintain that effort. The same goes for venue selection and tour routing. Even something as presumably simple as meeting new people boils down to the decision to do so. You don’t have to be impulsive, just proactive and thoughtful. As Jay-Z says, “Those who are successful overcome their fears and take action. Those who aren’t submit to their fears and live with regrets.”

Additionally, internal dialogue impacts a team’s progress (and state of mind) as much as external forces. Decisiveness manifests in the form of radical candor, a communication concept that balances directness with care. In practice, radical candor expedites decisions by surfacing honest feedback without hurting feelings.

“A lot of us default to ruinous empathy because we’re afraid of upsetting people,” Rabkin-Lewis notes. “In truth, that hurts you and them by not giving them the opportunity to grow. You start to harbor resent. Ideas flow when you can be both direct and caring. You can’t just be candid without establishing that you care because then you just come across as a jerk. Your team is your team for a reason.”

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From the book Radical Candor

Strategize now to facilitate decisions later

Michael E. Porter, esteemed professor at Harvard Business School, says, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Artists benefit from allocating time upfront to think about their mission, their end goal and how they’d like to arrive there. Resultantly, knowing what you value, and how you want others to perceive you, makes it much easier to say yes or no to different opportunities.

In short, strategy allows you to plan and prioritize your daily activities so that you make progress toward your end goals. For example, an artist who dislikes social media might create an overarching strategy with the goal of using it less and less. In practice, this looks like daily activities or digestible goals (grow an email list for direct contact, invest in promotion now to let you disappear for a year later, etc.) that directly aim for that accomplishment.

Strategy makes it clear when to invest your time and resources. You might find it helpful, as an exercise, to divide your time in half. Spend as much time planning your release and marketing strategy as you do creating music. To start, consider the following questions.

  • Who are my listeners?
  • How will I reach them?
  • What do I stand for?
  • How do I communicate that?
  • What is my competitive advantage?
  • Why do my fans enjoy my music?
  • What are my goals?
  • How do I plan to get there?

If you’re new to developing strategic plans, a goal-setting planner can help. (BestSelf Co, for instance, offers a great one.) Take the time to sit down and develop five-year, one-year, quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily goals. Even if 85 percent of those benchmarks change, the exercise will inherently infuse a healthy dose of structure. It’s easy to forget that what we do today can impact our options weeks and months down the line.

Every morning, take time to plan your day, set goals and execute. Every night, assess your day and start envisioning the next. Hold yourself accountable and shift gears when necessary. If your single is actually accumulating fewer streams than one of your album cuts, consider allocating resources to the latter instead. Artists can use platforms like Stem to facilitate these decisions, leveraging data to make smarter, timely choices. This kind of planning can help make the difference between hope and fulfillment. Progress awaits those who treat the music business with professionalism. Think of your career as your own startup.

Build the right team to let you focus on you

CEOs may lead their companies, but they do not serve as head of every department. Instead, they find trusted advisors—experts in their field to do the work they either can’t or don’t have time to do themselves. As Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Beats By Dre and Interscope Records, puts it, “I always say ‘I love chocolate, but I’m not Willy Wonka.”

To that point, it helps to know—and prioritize—what you’re best at (and enjoy!). While an artist can benefit from singing, writing and producing their own work, sometimes the best course of action comes down to finding help. A gifted singer-songwriter can focus on their craft if they don’t have to worry about Pro Tools sessions or booking the next tour. The best team members showcase your artistry and amplify its impact with their unique skill sets.

“You have to be self-aware to know what you’re good at, then find others to do everything else well,” says Milana Rabkin-Lewis, Stem’s cofounder and CEO. “Artists should know what they need their manager to do and let them do it. That’s your operating partner. Music teams are like sports. You or your manager have to know peoples’ strengths and weaknesses and configure your lineup to maximize the odds of winning.”

Other aspects of the business you might want to outsource to experts includes publicity, marketing, social media, graphic design, tour management and booking. If you’re not in a position to hire out yet, you can ask trusted friends and consultants/experts for their advice.

Lead—and inspire your audience to do the same

True CEOs lead—leave the micromanaging to someone else. In action, quality leadership often comes down to empowerment, the best gift you can offer your team. Scooter Braun, founder of SB Projects, feels strongly about this: “My company motto is ‘inspire the world to try.’” Musicians can do the same. Artists—through the magic of songwriting, sound, vulnerability, and authenticity—can inspire others to improve, heal and grow. The people who attend your shows and play your music are humans first, fans second. They contribute to a community.

An empowered fan base is unstoppable. For instance, look at the long-term impact of J. Cole’s Dollar and a Dream tours. His intimate, $1 concerts built one of the most devoted audiences in recent memory. Your shows are about your fans as much as they’re about you. If conversations with your supporters reflect that relationship, they’ll appreciate you that much more. As such, a leader builds loyalty by nurturing relationships, not by selling to fans or followers.

Stick around for more tips to tackle the music business head-on.

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