It occurred to me recently as I got a call from a musician with a great deal of heart and hope but very little in the way of compelling reasons to get people to listen that it was time to discuss the notion of conversation currency. Below is my experience with working with figuring out what to say and do to build a business and meet the people I wanted to meet. For better or worse I built my first business the same way I built the bands I played in or worked with throughout my career.
I started my career with a tremendous advantage over most people since my first real job was as an intern and then assistant for Lava / Atlantic Records working under people who were very established and competent. The phone rang and rang and rang. The people they really wanted to talk to were busy so that left me on the line trying to figure out if I could help them with whatever information they needed and just generally being polite or mimicking things I heard my superiors say and trying to sound less young, inexperienced or blatantly unqualified.
It was not hard to be well connected in musician circles as someone who was a gatekeeper (even as minor of a gatekeeper as I was) for multi-platinum artists and what were at the time million dollar record deals. It was however hard to be taken seriously within the music business community. What I learned was that I had to find something of concrete and renewable value to the people I wanted to get close to. I didn’t know what else to call it – I’ve referred to it (mostly in my own mind) as conversation currency or if that doesn’t ring any bells for you – a reason that people will take your phone call and take your seriously. At the time in my early 20s I was out six nights a week and I knew more bands and artists than a majority of people on the planet. Trading on that information and being helpful was what helped me gain favor within that community.
Let’s fast forward several years, shall we? I’m fairly fresh out of the label system and I’ve had it with mid management shenanigans. I declare there is no going back to corporate America. I spend far too much money (thank you local NYC government officials) on an LLC and start calling myself a consultant. At this point in time I’m not even 100% sure what that means except that I really don’t want a “real” job…
On this particular day I am thinking of I am just staring at my phone and it’s not ringing. It occurs to me quite late in life that there is absolutely no reason for my phone to ring unless I hustle and start making things happen. I really had it somewhere in my mind that my phone would just start ringing the way it did at an almost fifty-year old company like Atlantic Records just because I had incorporated. I didn’t have a reason to call anyone who wasn’t already a contact or a friend. I had no excuse to meet new people because I didn’t have anything to say except that I was a consultant and worse – I was a consultant without any clients.
An ex A&R guy without a new label or a trust fund is like a food critic without a newspaper column or a blog – just a fucking pig with adjectives. Jesus Christ – what the hell was I going to consult on if I didn’t even have any desire to work with artists? (MusicianCoaching.com came several years later after a change of heart. The first company I founded only handles corporate clients).
I spent the first several weeks just trying to figure out what I had that I could use and what I liked to do. Luckily for me both things worked hand in hand. I had a big Rolodex and I liked introducing people to other people in the hopes that these new relationships would be mutually beneficial.
I spent the next few months calling up everyone I knew – asking them what they were working on and trying to determine what kind of person or opportunity they needed. Wherever I could I went out of my way to make an introduction. It turns out that this is the underpinning of business development- a skill that I had previously associated with being about as useful as whistling or being ambidextrous. It turned out that knowing where to get information is almost as good as knowing it yourself.
Pretty soon I got my first clients. Prior to being in business for myself I thought Pro Bono was a way for Sonny and Cher fans to identify themselves. It turns out to be a legal form of slave labor (yea, yea – it’s from Latin and means “the public good” that just wasn’t my experience with it). None the less when some friends offered me a chance to see if I couldn’t hustle up some business for various friends and contacts of theirs I jumped at the chance even when I didn’t fully believe in the project. Why? Because it gave me an excuse to talk to people. Being on the phone and being helpful served its purpose. I was top of mind for an opportunity – I had provided value to my friends and contacts in the past by introducing them to people and eventually one of my contacts would give me a client that would lend context to my business and give me an excuse to talk to people.
Several Pro Bono clients later I scored my first monthly retainer introducing a music start up to the industry people who could help them with their talent needs. After that I closed a tech client who needed help licensing millions of hours worth of music. Several corporate clients of all different shapes and sizes would soon follow suit.
I don’t want to appear like I am preaching to your from the top of a lofty pile of cash, or that I even have delusions of such grandeur, but I am making a living. Unlike past corporate jobs I have never been more grateful for every penny on my own. It is important to note that every experience and every client added to the story I could tell the next client. This is not to say that my business doesn’t hit its lulls but it has gotten easier with time.
So my musician friend – how does this apply to you?
Well – are you a musician without a band? Are you a band without a gig? What do you have in trade to get someone to take your seriously? Are you good at production? Are you great at playing leads or arranging in exchange for some other services? Can you make great beats? Or think even further outside the box – do you know how to fix a tour bus? Do you know every beautiful guy or gal in your hometown and can you bring them out to live performances? Maybe you just know people…lots and lots of people and like talking to them about what they do…
Have you asked people in a position to help you who or what they need today and can you figure out where to get it? Figure out what is interesting about your current story so that you can tell the next gatekeeper you encounter why he needs to know you. Figure out what you have of value and what you like to do and start picking up the phone. Remember – just being a dude in a band or a guy with beats alone isn’t enough.