Hitting the Right Note

Well, well. The pundits and the pollsters had it completely wrong and here’s David Cameron with a workable majority. What’s more, the new business secretary is hanging a picture of Margaret Thatcher in his office. Stand by for five years of a low tax/high enterprise economy.

But let’s not get carried away. What Harold Macmillan called ‘events, dear boy, events’ will inevitably come along. And as George Osborne has said on many occasions, the UK cannot be immune to what’s going on in Europe and the rest of the world. So when you factor in the slowdown in the Eurozone, the worrying figures from China, the uncertainty of the European Referendum and the noises from North of the Border there’ll be plenty to keep the Prime Minster and the journalists busy. Most importantly though, it looks like we’ll be able to get on with our businesses without our hands being tied by any more red tape. As Francisco says at the opening of Hamlet, ‘For this relief much thanks.’

Enough of politics: I’m sure you can wait until 2020 to watch the next Leaders’ Debate. Let’s turn our attention to something rather more restful: music.

I was at an Institute of Directors meeting at York University the other week. It was the usual stuff – and then someone made a comment which really made me sit up and take notice: ‘music undergraduates make some of the best entrepreneurs.’

The speaker’s rationale was that music undergrads do a wide variety of jobs to fund their degrees – and hence they’re exposed to a lot of businesses. But I thought it must go further than that – especially as I remembered writing this post about the lessons we could learn from the rapper, record producer and hugely successful entrepreneur Jay-Z.

Was Jay-Z a one-off? Or does musical ability go hand in hand with entrepreneurial ability? It certainly seemed to as the next day the papers were full of stories about Gene Simmons – ‘the financial powerhouse behind Kiss’ – and his net worth of $300m.

A study from Michigan State University suggested that successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to have had music lessons as children – but that might simply be because their parents could afford music lessons. I did some more research and gradually four key characteristics emerged that are common to both musicians and entrepreneurs:

  • You cannot become a successful musician unless you’re prepared to listen – to your own work, to constructive criticism and, above all, to feedback from fans
  • You’ve got to experiment – and you’ll almost certainly need to overcome repeated failure
  • You’ll need to collaborate with other people
  • And finally – as Gene Simmons graphically illustrates – you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors

No entrepreneur can succeed without ticking those four boxes – but let me pick up on the last two points in more detail.

Firstly, musicians – and entrepreneurs – need to collaborate. Well, if anyone reading this blog has ever played in a band (or even the school orchestra…) you’ll know that once the collaboration goes, so does the band. The ability to collaborate successfully is going to become an increasingly important skill for the entrepreneur. Over the next five years we’re going to see more and more people starting their own business – we’re all going to be working with freelancers more, and in many cases those freelancers are going to be people we’ve never met. Skype may become the business equivalent of practising in the garage, as successful collaboration increasingly becomes key to building a business.

Secondly, brand – or identity, or USP. Call it what you will. Every successful musician has a recognisable brand – and they know their target market. Whether it’s Jay-Z, Kiss or One Direction (sorry) they all know their market and the brand is tailored to it. Let me give you a simple example. Why does a band need a logo if it’s not a brand? And some of those logos (AC/DC, the Stones, the Who – off the top of my head) are among the most instantly recognisable logos anywhere.


So maybe the traditional MBA course needs a module on music appreciation as well as supply and demand curves? Maybe there needs to be less emphasis on left brain logic, and more on right brain creativity? Let me know your thoughts. I’ll be in the garage, looking for my old guitar…



  1. Simon Hudson · May 19, 2015

    I need to declare an interest/bias right up front, since I am entrepreneur, musician and physicist (more on that shortly) in one compact package.
    I can certainly see a correlation: musicians may well make good entrepreneurs for the reasons stated. There are some other factors as well – creativity, spontaneity (for the better popular musicians) or the ability to digest and respond to complex, real time information (for notation reading classical musicians). For ensemble musicians, the ability to play well (literally) with colleagues and to not dominate the piece inappropriately, playing to each available talent. I rather suspect the metaphor can be extended considerably.

    However ‘correlation is not causation’ (one of my favourite phrases). These very attributes appear in many other roles/vocations and whenever they do the people with them tend to rise to the top. And with good reason.

    On the issue of brand, or distinctiveness, one of my observations is that it is very often our weaknesses that define us and prove to be our strengths. As you say, in a world of similar sounding musicians/businesses it is the ones who are different that stand out, and often this is in response to what you can’t do, not what you can (Sun Tzu also has something to say on this subject). Django Rheinhart, BB King (RIP), Alanis Morrissette, Sting and so many others have allowed their weaknesses to be central to their distinctive sound, while in our business we have used our comparatively modest technical skills to create a technical proposition that is based on a business-centric approach. If you aren’t different you had better create something distinct, but if you are you should flaunt it.

    Having flogged that point sufficiently, I’d like to briefly reflect on the guest musician/freelancer. Whenever I have played with new musicians they have always brought something new to the music, interpreting songs in unexpected way and finding depth or nuance that I had missed – it’s one of the great joys of the experience. Equally revelation’s about their style, skills, weaknesses and approach/instrument have led to me writing new material with that in mind. Them point is that every new perspective is an opportunity to reflect on your current approach, extend it or to add something entirely new. It’s that ability to listen, evaluate, not be too precious and to adapt. It’s a vital skill in music, in business and in science.

    I encourage everyone to take up music (and science). The skills you need for them are hugely valuable and transferrable, if performed at a sufficient level.

    • edreidyork · May 21, 2015

      Simon – I know you always offer erudite and meaningful comments, but this one is a particular highlight for me – thanks for sharing with everyone, as it really adds to the discussion.

      Not being too precious in business, and the ability to listen; 2 incredibly powerful traits, and for what it’s worth, 2 that you definitely have!!

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