According to Deniz Ucbasaran of the Warkwick Business School, leaders of jazz ensembles have a lot to teach us about how to innovate as entrepreneurs. Looking at iconic figures in jazz such as Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Duke Ellington, Ucbasaran’s award-winning paper presented many standout concepts applicable to the business world at large that were revealed through investigating how these artists ran their groups.
In line with this field of research, McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies is hosting Jazz & Leadership later this week, a workshop that will explore how these two worlds connect and how to apply these insights to your own work. Along with lectures by experts such as Jay Hewlin, Esq., Merling Sapene, and Dr. Robert Saggers, the evening will also feature live music and interactive conversation from a group led by jazz bassist Marika Galea (MMus 2019).
We spoke to Marika in a recent email interview to learn what unique insight she could offer on the topic through her experiences seeking out new musical opportunities, developing her own skills as an entrepreneur, and more.
Why do you think more and more musicians are acting as their own manager or agent? What have you found to be some of the biggest challenges and rewards of doing so?
I think most musicians today act as their own manager and agent out of necessity. Deciding to bring on a manager and/or agent is a business decision, and so there needs to be enough income coming in to justify the expense. That person should also be dedicated to bringing value to your workflow and trajectory. There needs to be trust that you can work together towards your goals – whether that be exposing your music to new markets, booking key festivals and showcases, or a wealth of other targets. That trust isn’t created instantaneously, and it can be tough to discern whether any supportive individual is going to be able to move your career forward without simply trying the relationship out. Many major artists do go through multiple managers or agents over the course of their career, to get them through different seasons.
Most people start out handling their own administrative work, because there isn’t too much of it, and as their careers grow, they continue to want to be hands-on in all aspects of their business. I don’t think that is a big surprise, given the rise of freelance culture and DIY creation in general. Nobody knows your aesthetic and desires better than you do, and you’re always your own best advocate. With greater control come longer hours, but such is being an entrepreneur. The reward is autonomy - which I really enjoy! It can be extremely empowering (compounding on the artistic joy of a great endeavour) when things work out, and I know it was me that figured out all the legwork. I try to take the long view, knowing I’ll do it again and again, and hopefully better each time.
Some of the challenges include pure volume of details (correspondence, research, mail-outs, press releases, etc.), and balancing that with time spent creating or on one’s personal life. Having support staff in the mix can mean getting out of your own way of thinking, and accessing their expertise and contacts to problem-solve together. It can be tough thinking through problems alone and not having someone around to assist or lend a different perspective. If you’re working for yourself, you get to skip those steps of constantly communicating with a manager/agent, but should be engaging with the community, because you’re going to need help. Ask questions about everything. Share what you’re struggling with, and you’ll find ten people who have been there and have differing perspectives on what to do next.
What are some of the key entrepreneurial skills that you’ve learned during your time as a student at both Berklee and McGill?
Most of what I’ve learned about entrepreneurship has been through family, mentorship and my own trial and error rather than a class or institution.
The main things are to keep an open mind and ask a dizzying amount questions. Speaking with others about I am trying to accomplish or learn has helped a lot. So much has come into fruition through willingness to go out on a limb for something that ‘might go nowhere’ or that I was unsure about. Most people are humbled and very willing to share if you simply ask.
I also think we have to operate with faith. Not in a spiritual way, necessarily, but more so in a decision to believe that if you are consistently taking tangible action towards your goals, you will progress. This is not always easy to perceive (thus the faith part), but surrounding yourself with positive people who can help lend you some perspective is extremely important. You are the company you keep.
On that note, I have always loved people and the social aspect of the music - being and learning together. As I’m genuinely interested in others’ experiences, ‘networking’ has never been a burden for me. I thought that my interest in connecting with others made me unfocused, and didn’t realize until later that not everyone has that inclination, and it is a positive thing. So I’m more appreciative of that trait in myself, these days. At Berklee, we were often told to be kind to everyone, because the music world is small and you never know who will end up doing what. A few years out, I just want to emphasize that that’s extremely true. Always do your best and be respectful, even (and especially) when the situation isn’t great. People may not remember what happened, but they always remember how a situation made them feel.
Also, I try to make engaging with me and my music as easy and streamlined as possible. I taught myself enough in Wordpress to put together a very easy-to-navigate and low maintenance website with upcoming dates, and some demos and videos of performances. I also like to keep in touch with my community via social media and a quarterly (or so) newsletter that listeners can sign up for through my site.
In terms of entrepreneurship as a side(wo)man or artist, I think the central idea is to make yourself as easy to work with as possible. The little things are the big things. Being on time, responsive to messages and calls, keeping track of all your equipment, knowing the music, and showing up with a smile and a willingness to solve problems are really the core of any gig. All of that sounds simple, but it can be easy to let any one of those things slide on a given day. Routine is something that really solidifies those actions into professional habits.
I have come to believe in paying yourself first - not necessarily in terms of money, but time. Schedule your day around the key tasks that you need to get done in order to have a good (read as: productive, rewarding, etc.) day. Whether that’s exercise to clear your mind, personal practice to keep you grounded and connected to your instrument, or time to reach out to new venues and grant agencies, activities that feel important to you absolutely need to take priority. They are too vital to be treated as afterthoughts, to ‘hopefully’ be slotted in between the unexpected tasks that land on your plate each day.
Breaking down large and overwhelming projects is also extremely useful. It can clarify which parts simply need to be completed by a certain deadline, and which parts require added research and understanding. I also keep lists hanging around, of venues, residencies, grants and other opportunities I may choose to apply for in the future. When I see something interesting that I am eligible for, I add it to the list, and try to throw my hat in the ring for at least a few things each year. I also sometimes use rainy days to research what new opportunities may have popped up.
Nourishing my mind with a diet of inspiring and motivating content is probably one of the most important parts of my ‘entrepreneurship routine’: masterclasses, podcasts, music, lectures - anything that reminds me why I’m on this path is very welcome. Even if I don’t directly incorporate all of the ideas I listen to, I do think that a combination of this consumption and regular physical exercise keeps my mind sharp and curious.
Who has acted as a mentor or role model for you over the past few years, and what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve taken away from them?
When I was in first year at the University of Toronto, pianist David Braid could often be heard practicing late into the night. He once told me not to worry too much about how I sounded at the moment, but that people respect someone that is constantly improving over time. That comment has helped me keep a long-term view and not get too bogged down in difficult moments, over the years.
Another incredible mentor, drummer Neal Smith, who teaches at Berklee, told me that my career in this industry is “a marathon, not a sprint. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” In one instance, I had wanted to drop my classical composition major near the end of my undergrad. The program had really not been what I thought it would be, I was exhausted while completing another major and minor, and trying to focus on playing bass, getting a work visa, and a host of other stresses. He said, “Absolutely not. What if you are destined to be a great musician and composer, and one thing you learn in the next few months helps you down the line? I’ll walk you to every class myself if I have to. I’m not letting you quit anything.”
Studying privately with bassist and Juilliard-faculty member Ben Wolfe in 2016 completely changed my idea of practice. He was of the mindset that your practice be extremely strict, so that you are completely free to ‘not think’ and do as you wish in the moment during a performance. Jay Hewlin, consultant, lawyer, and professor, who will be facilitating at the Jazz and Leadership event, and I have had a similar discussion; prepare intensively, and draw the confidence to really do your thing in a relaxed and assured way from the knowledge that you’re prepared.
Finally, my father has been a huge source of inspiration for me over the years. He has tried to encourage me to fall in love with the process of creation and growth, rather than the results. The progress may not fast, public, or fancy - but small, consistent actions over a long period of time carry weight. Be brave and ask for what you want. People often say yes. If they don’t - next! He often reminds me, as a true hockey fan, that “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” And to stay in my lane, on my own trajectory. I often refer to the following saying in our social-media age of voyeuristic ‘compare and despair’: “The only reason you should look at your neighbour’s plate is to make sure that they have enough.
What advice could you offer to those who are trying to balance their playing career with the administrative side of being a musician?
If the task takes two minutes or less (i.e. texting back to confirm gear for that night), do it right away. If it takes more than two minutes, it goes on to the task list for that day or that week. This has allowed me to be more present with the activity I have allotted time for, and to compartmentalize other times for administrative tasks.
Another (somewhat painful but incredibly useful) exercise is to keep a journal or calendar of exactly how you’ve spent your time for a week or two. It is tough to make changes until we really see how our habits affect our time-management, and what pleasant things (family dinners, seeing our friends’ performances, alone time to read) we suddenly ‘don’t have time for’ when we’ve been less disciplined than we could have been. Change suddenly seems worth the discomfort.
Finally, commit to finding a routine that works for you. The tips above have helped me handle the ever-changing schedule and demands of balancing my playing career with administrative tasks, but I am always open to other approaches. I know someone who simply dedicates the same hour in the morning every day to handling administrative tasks - maybe ramping it up closer to a big competition or grant deadline - and that routine works for him. In The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about cutting out multitasking and paying attention to any numbers (bills, etc.) for a week as preparation for an intense period of being creative. Both approaches (daily consistency vs. on/off periods of admin) are valid for their two very different personalities.
Most of the battle is believing that you are fully capable of being a great player and on top of your administrative work. The dichotomy of creative musician vs. responsible business-person is only folklore. The admin side of things creates opportunities for you to be creative, so appreciate and enjoy that part of your work, too. It’s good to be busy. Ask for help, be kind, and be consistent in your actions. Time will take care of the rest.
Discover more about how the worlds of jazz and entrepreneurship overlap during the Jazz & Leadership event by McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies on December 13, 2018 at the McGill Faculty Club.