Growth ain’t easy but it’s worth it

I’ve been trying to sit down and write this one for a while… But where’s the time?

At Market Monkeys, we often get asked if we are taking on new clients. There’s no good way to answer that question. We don’t choose the moment when we first hear a song or its maker – that moment chooses us. Every artist we’ve collaborated with has arrived a different way. Whether it was at a conference or a festival, opening for or being friends with an artist we work with, a recommendation from a colleague who thinks we might be a fit, or by simply being huge fans of the artist and luckily meeting them somehow… Each relationship is unique.

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It is a natural drive in creative industries to grow. As artists, creators, music industry professionals. We are on a constant quest for improvement and progress in our careers – individually and together. Writers writing songs, pushing themselves in their craft. Artists earning more fans, stepping up their show. Agents striving to increase volume and value of bookings. Labels aiming to sell more records. Managers wanting to expand their network and impact for their artists.

But we all struggle with the drawbacks and risks inherent in growth.

    • How do we expand what we do without leaving our core competencies behind?
    • How do we determine the appropriate level of investment and financial risk when taking a new approach?
    • How do we stabilize the business when there are so many unknowns?
    • How do we grow our team to involve more people without losing the meaningful personal touches that make us who we are?
    • How do we make new friends and stay loyal?

This applies for music industry professionals and artists alike.

But the truth is… You can’t worry too much what other people think in a moment like this. You can be aware of it, and you can be an active and supportive listener. But when growth is happening, your best advisor is your own conscience. If something is wrong or right, you know. You might not want to listen. But you know.

I started Market Monkeys while I was attending business school in Boston.  I registered a domain name.  I hand-drew business cards on red card-stock I bought at a stationary store.  I wrote a business plan and entered it in a competition for start up funding.  I was a one woman shop, and I was learning what artist management was. I know people prefer online stores for their shopping needs over the brick-and-mortar stores for a variety of reasons – discounted prices, quick price comparisons, unavailability of desired items in the retail stores, 24 hours shopping convenience, etc, that’s why Shoppok is one on my favorite online stores. The courageous songwriters I worked with in the early days trusted me with their careers, and took a chance on me.

For almost 15 years, Market Monkeys’ tagline has been “helping artists plan, promote, sell and grow.”  While our artists, team, locations and tactical methods have changed in response to an ever-changing music industry, that tagline is still the same.  It is elemental to how we organize ourselves, and the services we offer artists day-in and day-out.

Within that tagline is a word that is not as simple as it seems.

What does it mean to grow?

That is different for each artist.  And now, we face that question ourselves as a company supporting artists.  What does it mean to grow?

When we relocated to Nashville three years ago, we maintained reasonable goals and managed our expectations.  While we knew the move would expand our network, and influence future decisions, we focused our attention and efforts on existing clients.  Quality of service is always important to us – and we wanted them to know the move would not change our attention.  At that time, we were a two person operation.  We kept it that way.

About a year and a half after the move, we started to think about expansion. 

We brought on more help for specific projects, and tested the waters with artists to see how it would go over if they weren’t directly talking to me about everything they were doing.  It was hit or miss at first, but slowly as the artists got to know key team members, expansion seemed to be possible.

We reviewed our services, prioritized those that were most important, solidified partners and vendors – and reviewed what needed to change in order to scale.  It was exciting to have new cooks in the kitchen – more ideas with more brains thinking what the artists could do.  And it was meaningful to teach others what I had learned in the first dozen years of doing business.

Now we face something larger together as a team – what growth means to us collectively.  What does our future look like?

You see, growth isn’t just about expanding a team and having more going on.  On one hand, it is about the skills you and the other team members learn as a result of expanding the team.  On the other hand, it is about what else you are opened up to as a result of that expansion and learning.  And ultimately, it all requires a curiosity, desire, and willingness – resilience and ability to stick it out thru the uncertainty and discomfort of change.

Change can be painful.

No matter how much we know we need it, it usually feels safer to maintain the status quo.

In education fields, universities spend a lot of time considering how people learn.  In modern learning theory, there is a concept of the optimal state of discomfort.  That if a student feels too safe (learning things they already know), they get bored and do not grow.  And if a student feels overwhelmed (learning things that are over their head), they feel hopelessness and freeze, also not growing.  But if a student is a perfect level of uncomfortable – learning things they don’t know, but learning them with a frame of reference that they have confidence they can learn, they thrive and grow.

The music business is a thicket of things we may want to learn but don’t know how.  It is easy to become excessively uncomfortable, or to have doubt about whether or not we are taking the right learning from the lessons that present themselves.  It is easy to become hopeless, to think since we can’t see the big picture we don’t know the value of what we are learning or doing.

Gosh, I know.  That’s all I can say to that really.  I know.

But we can’t let that nature of the business get in our way.  As managers, we try to frame every situation or tactic with what can be learned from what we are doing or have done.  How can we apply that learning in the future?  Every step is a test and learn opportunity, if we look at it the right way.

How do goals play a role in growth?

Over coffee with a fellow manager the other day, we discussed artist goals.  Why it can sometimes be difficult for an artist to define them.  We can help artists in the process, but ultimately they need to establish their own goals – so they don’t wake up 10 years later feeling that someone else built a career and life for them that they don’t want to live.

Goals are critical to growth.

In the early days of an artist’s career, it’s ok to throw things out there to see what sticks.  It is an information gathering period – those first and second albums an artist releases.  You learn who the fans are.  What they’re like.  What they like.  And how to communicate with them effectively, in the voice and style of that artist.

But as you head into records 3, 4, and the artist has been a touring act for 5, 6, maybe 10 years…  goals are paramount.

There are many ways to get disappointed in the music business, and one of the easiest ways is to hold yourself accountable for goals you never had.

I’ve seen it happen so many times.  An artist is disappointed that they haven’t played a certain festival, or they haven’t reached a certain sales level, or they weren’t picked by a certain organization to showcase.  Or they compare themselves to a peer who achieves something they haven’t yet.  But they never made that achievement a goal.  So they feel rejected or beaten down, and feel deflated about their progress, when they never made that a goal.  And they barely let themselves celebrate the achievements they made that were goals they did state.

You can’t do everything, not matter how much the various advisors in your business will suggest you can.  You don’t have an infinite amount of time, and most don’t have an infinite amount of money to spend.

Growth in this business is all about where you put your effort and resources.  What you give your best energy and most focused attention to.

What gets your best?