The Sincerest Form of Flattery…
For twelve years I lived in New York City, hanging tough through the daily grind as a self-employed jazz musician, schlepping instruments to and from rehearsals, gigs, shows, and promoting myself as best as I could among the din of millions of other talented musicians. As I entered my twelfth year as a New Yorker, I decided I’d finally had enough, and drastically transitioned my life. Two years later, I’m now proud to call myself a Montanan!
I moved out west for quality of life and big skies, but also to be a part of a growing scene of some of the most talented artists and musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of associating myself with. As I immersed myself more and more into the Flathead Valley music scene, I began to realize what a commodity the Montana arts culture really is.
A year ago I started a business called the Northwest Artist Syndicate, a database and booking agency for the best talent in the region. The philosophical oomph behind this endeavor comes from having had almost twenty years experience as a professional musician. My biggest investment in this business is the sweat equity I’ve earned having been a performer, educator, consultant, director, producer and author. I’m proud to say that my investments (both financial and otherwise) have paid off, and in one year my agency has earned tens of thousands of dollars of revenue, produced recordings for local musicians, filmed a bad-ass music video, and hosted several events that have benefitted the community.
Soon after I had launched my business, a young lady (we’ll call her Patty) began to hover around the local bar/performance venue I frequent. She was very interested in learning about working with musicians, and several nights a week would stop by and ask me questions about my business, while also picking the sound engineer’s brain about mixing for live music. Patty seemed like she genuinely cared about the scene and was inspired by everything going on. While she only had a small amount of acting/modeling experience and no musical ability to speak of, I was happy to share my philosophies with her, and was impressed by her persistence. She would text to see if I were going to listen to a show, and if she saw me, would come over and start a conversation. Being a squeaky wheel can be a very beneficial quality in this business, so I decided to let her shadow me for a bit.
I went to NYC for some gigs last April, and while I was gone I asked Patty to do a few clerical tasks such as scanning documents, updating a few things, and checking the business voicemail. I entrusted her with keys to my office, and access to pretty much anything NAS related at the time. She completed the tasks very professionally, did a great job, and returned the keys to me upon my arrival. At that point, she wanted to continue working under me, but I had no other tasks for her. For about six months I heard nothing from Patty.
On Halloween I was playing a gig with my Nola jazz group when my drummer asked me if I had heard about another booking agency that recently started up. I then learned about a new company that works with local musicians, helping them to book shows at venues and private events. Sound familiar? When I went home that night I then found the website. Patty had started her own company using part of my business name, and a website template nearly identical to mine.
Having lived in NYC for over a decade, I became well aware of different types of theft. I’d had my apartment broken into in college, I’d had money stolen from my wallet once, and colleagues of mine had musical instruments lifted from them as well. Moving to Montana makes you think that you might be immune to theft, and that individuals interested in your projects have honesty and integrity on their side. This was a different type of theft – theft of an idea, and an identity.
At first I freaked out, and wondered if she had delved into my hard drives and taken valuable information (she might have), and also worried about my investment. Did I have legal grounds to sue? Should I confront her? What do I do? There’s honestly nothing I could do – anyone is welcome to start a business wherever they want, doing pretty much whatever they want. I had learned a valuable lesson about trust.
I then began to think about the situation. Had I really created something so cool that someone here is doing their best to recreate it for themselves? In it’s short year of existence, the NAS has gotten such positive feedback from the Flathead Valley community, it’s proven to be of obvious value to venues, artists and party planers, and also apparently to fledgling young entrepreneurs with no original ideas of their own. My feelings of disgust were more or less replaced with a feeling of flattery. I guess I’ve hit on something that someone else wishes they had done for themselves…except I’m doing it with two decades of experience under my belt.
As a student of the music scene, it’s crucial to imitate other great artists through transcription and emulation. This only strengthens one’s playing and understanding of the language. One can’t just hack through a performance and call oneself a musician because they think it’s cool, just like one can’t just start a business (especially in artist booking and management) because they think it’s cool, and expect to be successful.Artists who have been at the grind years don’t realize how much knowledge and insight they have gained regarding the ins and outs of their business, especially when they haven’t yet made it big financially. It’s taken me awhile to realize that the experiences and abilities I have gleaned the are my greatest asset, and it’s quite flattering that there are folks out there who wish they had that arsenal of sweat equity for themselves.
With business success comes partnership and camaraderie. In other words, you can’t do this on your own! Without the guidance and resources that others provide, anyone endeavoring a business venture can’t expect to be embraced by a community, let alone get off the ground. In the arts world, one’s credo, intent and philosophy must be pure and sound. The only path towards success is by being a badass at what you do, simply because there is nowhere to hide. Audiences can tell an inexperienced, untalented musician from one who has performed for years, just as people can sniff out someone doing business in a dishonest way. If your pursuit is backed by experience and carried out with heart, the money will follow.
I’m inspired by the fact that a few individuals have tried to emulate the projects I’m fighting tooth and nail to erect here. Their attempts to recreate my designs, even those who are less than altruistic, reinforce the fact that I might be onto something.
The music business in an unpredictable beast, and that fact won’t change. However, what’s certain is that I won’t be lending out the keys to my office anytime soon…