Musicians Are Natural Entrepreneurs

By applying skills they acquired as musicians, Berklee alumni are founding successful companies that have empowered thousands of independent artists.

PledgeMusic is fueled by musicians and their personal attention to artists gives them a strong competitive advantage. The phone is answered by real human beings, and Jayce and Benji give out their business cards at seminars and conferences to ensure that musicians are directed to the people who can help them.

Pledge works with major artists and record labels too. “The music industry has always been about risk,” Rogers continues. “We do pre-sales—often months before the album is recorded or mixed. You de-risk that investment for someone who wants to come in on the back end and release it. All the data collected by the artist is owned by the artist or the label. We work as hard for an artist starting out as we do for a big artist, because each is important to us as musicians. We’ll help you get everything you need done. It’s not over until it’s funded.”

“I feel that what we do is meld the best parts of the crowd-funding industry with the best parts of the direct-to-fan proposition,” Varden says. “Ultimately, that benefits the artist, fan, and charity.”

Seeing around the Next Curve

Founding entrepreneurs are out to make their vision and business real. To succeed, they must abandon the status quo, recruit a team that shares their vision, and strike out together on what appears to be a new path, often shrouded in uncertainty, fear, and doubt.

—The Startup Owner’s Manual

Panos Panay ’94 grew up on the island of Cyprus. His passion was guitar, but he had early exposure to social entrepreneurship and business. His mother was instrumental in launching UNICEF in Cyprus, and his uncle was an entrepreneur. “I decided early on that I wanted my own business.” Panay says. “I’ve always approached entrepreneurship as a creative outlet, as a canvas of sorts. If you create something of value, then you’re able to share it and experience it with other people. That’s the most amazing feeling on the planet.”

Inspired by a magazine ad for Berklee he’d seen that featured John Scofield, he decided to head for Boston. At Berklee Panos became fascinated with Don Gorder’s brand-new music business program. He changed his major and graduated with Berklee’s first music business students. “I developed lifelong habits, like reading the Wall Street Journal and The Economist,” Panay says. “I realized that when you do business, you’re not independent of the environment in which you operate. To me, there is really no such thing as ‘the music business.’ It’s business applied to the field of music, but it’s still a business that operates in a broader socioeconomic environment. The Berklee courses piqued my curiosity and have been instrumental in the way I’ve approached business over the years.”

As part of his music business program, Panos did an internship at Ted Kurland Associates, an international booking agency. He worked his way to a six-figure salary booking the artists he grew up admiring: Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Isaac Hayes, Sonny Rollins, and others.

When Panay received press kits from artists that were not big enough box-office draws to merit attention from the Kurland agency, the seeds for Sonicbids were planted. He saw the potential of the Internet to provide a platform that could serve all artists. In September 2000, he quit his job to work on Sonicbids full time.

Over the past 13 years, Sonicbids has become the premier online booking platform for independent musicians and has expanded to include music licensing and brand-marketing services. Just as eBay brings together buyers and sellers, Sonicbids connects musicians, promoters, and brand managers.

In January 2013, Sonicbids was acquired by Backstage, an established company offering services to actors similar to what Sonicbids provides to musicians. With a common shared mission of helping those working in the performing arts connect with job opportunities, the deal makes perfect sense. Panay led his company from the startup phase through a major acquisition.

“The two most important courses I took at Berklee were not business classes.” Panay says. “One was my improvisation class; and the other a conducting class. They put a lead sheet in front of you, and you are supposed to play and improvise around it on the spot! This is very similar to the way business works. There is a misconception that building a business is a superlinear process, but it’s a zig-zag process. You need to have a direction and operate within a framework, which is how jazz works, but you need to be able to course-correct as you go. It’s like improvising with an ensemble. You have to work with others and learn to be as good a listener as a player. Improvisation classes taught me a lot about how to approach business. I think of giving a presentation, or selling, and working investors, prospective customers, employees, and vendors. There is something about being a musician that gives you the tools. The role of a CEO is the same as that of an orchestra conductor. You don’t know how to play all the instruments, but your job as the person who sees the entire score is to make the whole sound better than the individual parts. It is the same in business. It is great if you have a brilliant engineer or salesperson, but your whole operation has to work properly. I’ve always felt that my music education prepared me for a lifetime in business. Without it I don’t think I would have been successful.”