Students Chat with the Pros at Music Business Roundtable

Brenda Pike
April 30, 2012
At the startups roundtable, entrepreneurs Mark Montgomery and Chris Woods talked about founding their own businesses.
At the music rights roundtable, Morgan Mallory (top left) gets advice from Jim Griffin (far right).
From left: Mark Montgomery, Peter Alhadeff, and Chris Woods at the panel discussion that evening
From left: Katy Marttila, Don Gorder, Jim Griffin, Mark Montgomery, Caz McChrystal, Chris Woods, Trudi Lartz, Kristin Thompson, Kerri Cockrill, Peter Alhadeff, and Darla Hanley
Professional Education Division dean Darla Hanley welcomed the audience.
Music Business/Management Department chair Don Gorder introduced the panelists.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Just before the Rethink Music conference brought representatives from all over the music industry to Berklee to discuss the future of music, the college's Music Business/Management Department hosted a more intimate event for students. Two dozen students were able to sit down and chat with industry specialists about various topics, including startups, rights issues, and revenue streams.

Each year, the department's Envisioning 21st-Century Music Business Models series brings music industry professionals to the college in order to discuss contemporary music business issues, both with students and each other. This year, an evening panel was open to the public, but an afternoon roundtable discussion gave music business majors the chance to get up close and personal with the gathered experts.

Professor Peter Alhadeff, who organized the event, likened it to "speed-dating: seven against two, for about 40 minutes at a time. Students ask specific questions about their own business plans, get a reality check, and network all in one."

Since Alberto Azout '13 had already founded his own production/management company, So-Stereo, with fellow Berklee student Salo Sterental, he saw the event as an invaluable opportunity to get practical advice about it. "It is incredible that as a Berklee student you get to personally interact with and receive advice and mentorship from people who have made such a big impact within the music industry," he said.

What was the best piece of advice that Azout received? Entrepreneur Mark Montgomery, founder of Echo Music and FLO{thinkery}, told him, "Ideas without execution are hobbies."

"Some people tend to believe that ideas are a passport for success," agreed Azout, "but it is important to realize that fixation on a great idea can be hazardous, distracting your attention from proper execution."

At the startups table with Montgomery and TuneSat founder Chris Woods '01, Azout asked how to go about making So-Stereo grow. Montgomery suggested that he and his partner decide now who is CEO and who is COO. "As a startup, you'll do everything," he said, "but eventually you'll move from a generalist to a specialist." For his part, Woods emphasized that you have to make sure you have a quality product to deliver, and once you promise to do something, you have to do it, even if you lose money on it. Montgomery agreed, adding that "once you get a bad name in the music business, you'll be blacklisted everywhere."

Student Fred Choquette wanted to know what happens if your startup is doing the same thing as another. Woods responded that it's an organic evolution. Eventually, as the companies grow, they will collaborate or even merge.

In response to a question about how to get investors, Woods said you have to know your product's worth, with research to back it up, and approach many investors. Montgomery cautioned, "If you want a company for the rest of your life, don't take institutional capital, because they're going to want it back in a few years." Woods agreed: "If you can, eat ramen noodles for two years and keep your own equity."

On the panelists' part, this was an opportunity to discover the interests of the next generation of entrepreneurs. "The music business is really in the hands of the 20-year-olds," said Montgomery. "So I try to hear in their questions what they're trying to get to."

It was also a chance to give advice that they themselves might not have received early on. "When you're in your 20s, you don't have a lot to lose by trying," Montgomery said. "So I wish people had told me, just try. Just do. And don't worry about failing. Failing is actually a better teacher than success. I think trying to protect people from that actually does them a disservice."

Music synthesis alumnus Woods is just happy to see students paying attention to this aspect of their careers. "There were a lot of required courses at Berklee when I was there, but music business wasn't one of them," he said. "And it absolutely should be. I remember leaving this school, I knew how to program a synthesizer, I knew how to use Pro Tools, but I knew zero about the music business."

Vocalist and soon-to-be music business graduate Morgan Mallory asked the entrepreneurs about mistakes that she should avoid. Montgomery warned that you have to be selective of your partners, because "you're essentially getting married," and when money shows up, it changes the dynamic.

"This is the best advice I received," said Mallory. "Don't just look at the product, but look at the people surrounding the product. Another solid piece of advice came from Jim Griffin, [head of the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization,] who said that no matter what aspect of the music business you are involved with, it all boils down to relationship. These two points spoke volumes to me, because I'm not only a performing artist, but a businesswoman, as well."

For this generation of businesspeople, those relationships are beginning before they even finish school, and the Music Business/Management Department hopes that they'll continue long after they graduate.