Five lessons I learnt about entrepreneurship from playing in a band

The lesson I’ve taken from this is that the journey towards your goal should be somewhat uncomfortable. Glitz and glamour are never what they seem. If you’re one year into building a business and you’re spending your time in presidential suites and eating caviar (figuratively speaking, unless that is your actual job) something has to give.

Success should be earned. Many of the world’s greatest organisations were borne out of garages. Apple, HP, Oracle, Facebook and Microsoft all emerged from humble beginnings. Keep those overheads low and slum it for a while.

3. Don’t be unkind

This was the hardest lesson I had to learn. I can be intolerant and difficult to deal with when I feel my own high standards aren’t being met. Unfortunately, this translated into impatience and touchiness at times when I really needed to be more gracious and kind.

My often negative attitude hurt our growth as a band. It’s something I only realised after it was all over. It was a key contributor to some of our most frustrating moments as a group.

There is no excuse for being unkind, to anyone. There is a lot to be said for patience and an open-minded approach. These are business assets that cannot be measured, but that undoubtedly hold a lot of value.

4. Educate yourself or suffer the consequences

I still possess only a rudimentary understanding of who owns our music. As a consequence of this and other contractual maladies, I spent 18 months extracting us from a nasty legal situation that sapped my passion for writing and performing music like a giant bloodsucking, corporate leach.

We were so excited to work with a large management agency, record and publishing label that we signed deals that would ultimately see us handing over a large portion of the scanty income we made to individuals who had done everything in their power to stop us earning it.

I won’t get into the details, but it’s left me feeling pretty embittered towards the industry. The trouble is that we were to blame.

We never took adequate time to investigate what we were getting ourselves into. Dance, You’re on Fire never really expected to make any money – so who cared where the nonexistent treasure went, right? Wrong.

It’s a harsh lesson I wish we had never been forced to endure. Never sign anything of significance unless you’ve had a trustworthy lawyer review the contract, and don’t sell yourself short by agreeing to terms that don’t benefit your personal interests. No one cares as much about your business venture as you do.

The corporate world is littered with intricacies that are easy to smooth over by saying “it will all work out in the end”. Every time I’ve said that, it’s come back to bite me in the ass like a rabid police dog at a protest rally.

Take responsibility and educate yourself.

*Note: I am not referring to Just Music, our most recent label. Karl and his team are a lonely island of kindness and ethical compassion in the swirling vortex that is the international music industry.

5. Timing: It’s important

Timing is pretty critical to success as a musician. The inability to play a song in unison is often (always) a direct contributor towards failure as a band.

This is perhaps the most palpable example of teamwork in a business-like relationship. If you belong to a group that is simply unable to communicate well onstage and execute a tight set, chances are slim that you’ll be putting food on the table for long.

Over the years our live performance waxed and waned according to how much effort we put into rehearsals and communicating as a group. When things were bad and tempers were fiery we often played a lackluster show. When we were enjoying ourselves and appreciating the opportunity we had to share our music with the public we gave them a performance to remember.

It’s not my place to judge our ability as a band. For all I know, we could have been terrible.

What I can say, however, is that communication and teamwork are essential to business success. As such, we’ve put a lot of effort into maintaining an open platform for debate and discussion within Clockwork Media at a managerial level. Sometimes we argue, but we know where we’re going and how we’re getting there. I think that’s important.

Common perception is that playing music for a living is about as far away as one can get from the corporate world. It’s easy, looking at bands like Motely Crue or Guns N’ Roses from a fan’s perspective, to assume that these people are stupid or unwilling to play the game. The opposite is true. I learned a great deal about business in general by slumming around the country with a guitar and few of my closest friends.

We also had the good fortune of making mistakes along the way. I’m glad for the near death van experiences, for the legal letters and for having the money we’d worked so hard to earn gnawed at by smiling sycophants. These experiences taught me valuable lessons. The most important thing I learned, however, was to have fun.

Tom Manners is managing director of Clockwork Media and is a writer and strategist to many of South Africa’s largest corporates.