Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kimball Gallagher - Indie Entrepreneur

A Juilliard-trained classical pianist, Kimball Gallagher is on a quest to revive the lost era of salon concerts. He believes in the intimacy of the performance and the immediate impact of the experience. He also believes in the creation of a lasting relationship between the performer and the listener. Kimball's passion for classical music and the importance of musical education has led him to embark on an unusual 88-concert international tour. Each stop represents one of the 88 piano keys. It's an adventure that has taken him from the US to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. He is planning to wrap the tour with a celebration concert at Carnegie Hall in 2014. From the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul to the home of Uma Thurman in New York, Kimball is changing the way we view performer-audience connections with his own brand of independent entrepreneurial thinking.

RL: Where did the idea for the 88-Key Concert Tour come from? How did you turn that idea into a reality?

KG: When I was in my undergraduate at Rice University, a professor introduced me to Jacob Deegan, who had decided to have a concert series in his home. He told me, "Home concerts seem to be viewed as something someone does to get ready for the real concert [at the public venue], but I feel home concerts are the real concert. " After that, I started viewing homes very differently. Every time I went to a different home, I found myself evaluating it for its concert readiness and often asking homeowners to become concert hosts. A few years after that, when I graduated from Juilliard and needed a piano, I organized, with lots of support and ideas from friends and patrons, a fundraiser to buy my own piano. The cost of the piano was divided by 88 and donations were given on a key-by-key basis. In the end 54 people gave $25,000. A few years after this, I was looking for a way to create more momentum with the home concerts I was doing and decided to package them as an 88 concert tour to use the momentum of the piano fundraiser. The tour became a reality one step at a time. First, by simply making proposals and inquiries with people whose homes and personalities seemed to suit the idea. Most of the homes I performed at, at the beginning of the tour, were homes where concerts had not previously taken place. By the 17th concert of the tour, I had been invited to Afghanistan to be in residence at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and played a concert there. This was a salon style concert, so I decided to count it. Then there was a decision to take the tour international. Since then, I've been to over 16 countries. Each concert also includes a personalized composition written specifically for the concert. Often the pieces of music start with the host's or hosts' names spelled out in musical notes, and those notes are used to create a piece of music. The end of the tour will include major venues on each continent with the final concert at Carnegie Hall in the Spring of 2014.

RL: In today's musical climate, what do you feel are the benefits to reviving the salon culture?

KG: The intimacy and immediacy of the space provide the audience with a special, visceral experience of the music and a more personal connection to the performer. Any space can be a concert venue, opening up the possibility for any homeowner to be a concert presenter for their friends. In general, I hear from audiences that the quality of their experience is richer at a private concert than a large public one. I think one of the benefits is that it represents a concrete way to build new audiences one person at a time.

RL: From a performance perspective, how is your experience different in a concert setting compared to a rock show setting?

KG: The main thing is that the audience is seated and, generally speaking, quiet. I don't want my audiences to feel suffocated or forcibly subdued into being quiet but many of the special communicative moments of a concert are quiet and a group silence, when achieved with everyone as a willing participant, is a space where some special moments can be happen.

RL: What is your most memorable show to date?

KG: Perhaps playing Schubert's final piano sonata for an audience at the German Embassy in Kabul Afghanistan. The contrast of a metaphysical, soulful piece of music in the midst of a war-zone was striking. The atmosphere at the Embassy was warm and inviting and, in every way, seemed to contrast media portrayals of the war.

RL: Do you think that being a musician and being an entrepreneur are interchangeable these days? What do you feel are the benefits and drawbacks of that?

KG: I can't give, of course, a first-hand account of being a musician in any other era except for right now. But it does seem, more and more, that musicians have to create their own following and generate many of their own opportunities. Personally, I book my own international tours, set up my own partnerships, find my own students, and do mostly my own publicity. The benefits are that you can shape and mold your own career completely according to your own vision. The drawbacks are that it is an enormous amount of effort and it is an endless challenge to balance creative musical work with promotion, planning, administrative work, etc.

RL: You're active in New York, yet you've experienced a lot of different parts of the world. Can you give us your perspective on NYC as a musical city? What do you feel are its best bits? What do you feel it needs to work on?

KG: New York always strikes me as incredible in its musical diversity and consistent high quality. New Yorkers themselves easily become jaded but the fact is, there are countless venues for so many genres of music that showcase a revolving door of remarkable talent. I wouldn't want to presume to criticize it really. . . it's a competitive place with a huge number of very gifted people. I find it difficult, actually, to get creative work done in such a kinetic and energetically charged environment.

RL: What do you think are the main things musicians need to focus on today if they want to achieve a certain level of success living through their art? What has been the greatest tool (apart from playing live) that you've been able to use to build your audience?

KG: To me, the most important thing has been creating creative partnerships and creating your own pool of clients, as well as an audience. In my case, a "client" would be a house concert host who would like to have a concert personalized for a special occasion. To give some examples: In Tunisia, the interim finance minister after the revolution was a composer as well as a banker. He organized a concert for the interim Tunisian government where I performed many of his piano works, along with a featured Tunisian violinist and a featured Tunisian singer. In a private home in New Hampshire, I composed a personalized short piano piece for the hosts based on their names (spelling out their names in musical notes using a special system) and also chose some works that were composed on the date that their historic home was built. In Egypt next year, I'm commissioning a work by a NY-based Egyptian-American composer for a string orchestra in Egypt, with myself, and an Egyptian singer using a special Egyptian text. The funding for this will come from playing in private homes in Washington DC and Cairo for families who will like to entertain their guests at home and support causes that promote cross-cultural interaction. This is definitely a way to diversify an audience and also to bring enhanced value to an audience at home. . . that is, by sharing these experiences with them.

RL: How have the shifts in the industry, (the disintegration of most major labels, the rise of social media, music being exchanged freely, etc. . . ) affected you as a musician?

KG: I think I'm a personality that chooses to be a bit on the outside of things. I decided to focus on salon style concerts in private homes because I enjoy those sorts of concerts and I believe I would be doing them regardless of the state of the music industry. Same with the fundraising. As it is, it has inadvertently led to speaking engagements at music conservatories around the US and the World, speaking about entrepreneurship for musicians. So I think that's the biggest way.

RL: Do you believe that music should be free? If yes, in what context? If no, why not?

KG: I encourage artists to donate music and performances and to do so in a way where the value is retained. If I play for free, I want the people at the concert to know I donated a performance, and if it's for a fundraiser, I want the organizers to know that the performance is normally valued at such and such. The same way any other donated service would be valued. Also, I encourage artists to follow-up on gifts of CDs and mp3s. Ask for reviews. Honestly, I haven't done this nearly as much as I feel I should. . . but then, essentially, you can trade a CD for an online review. This gentlemen's agreement can create online legitimacy and that can be quite valuable. So, in general, I think we should be asking, "If we are going to strategically give a CD away or donate a performance, how are we going to remain engaged with the recipient?"Artists definitely need to remember their own value regardless of a dollar amount placed on a performance or a recording. In many cases, I think it's important for artists to educate people on what it takes to be a musician. I didn't just wake up one day and start playing the piano. It really took 25 years of constant practicing and sacrifices of all kinds to make it happen.

RL: Where do you see the future of music heading?

KG: I can see a lot more entrepreneurship. Also, I can see music showing up in what are now considered to be unlikely contexts, unlikely venues, with unlikely business partnerships. Musicians engaging with their audiences more deeply.

RL: How do you define success?

KG: Being able to do what you would like to do when you would like to do it.

RL: Do you have any advice for musicians out there about to embark on a life in music?

KG: Put as much creativity into creating the relationships that will support your career as you do into creating your music.

At the time of this interview, Kimball was in Tunisia.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Derek Sivers - The Man Who Led The CDBABY Revolution

Derek Sivers would spend most of his formative years and his early adult life as a professional musician (and circus clown) before stumbling on an idea that would launch a revolution in the music industry. In 1998, Derek's search for a solution to getting his self-produced CDs properly distributed without a record label would lead to the creation of CDBaby. This little 'accident' would go on to become the largest seller of independent music on the internet, with over $100 million in sales for over 150,000 musicians.

But his contributions to the world didn't stop there. In 2008, Derek sold CDBaby to Disc Makers for $22 million and set up a charitable trust for music education that accepted all the proceeds of the sale on his behalf. In 2011, his book "Anything You Want" was published by Seth Godin's The Domino Project and rose to #1 on all of Amazon's lists. His unique perspective and highly sought after advice has made him a frequent speaker at the inspirational TED Conference. After knowing Derek for a few years, I was extremely lucky to access the thoughts of the man Esquire magazine described as 'one of the last music-business folk heroes.'

RL: What does the term 'independent' mean to you?

DS: Free to do what you want. Run your business how you want, make the music you want. Having no higher authority than yourself, when it comes to your work.

This was the big eye-opening experience for me, when I was 20 years old and worked at Warner Music in New York City. I realized that all of these famous rock stars get to act cool and rebellious, but really they've signed their rights away to a record label that has the ultimate control over what they're allowed to do. I spoke with many musicians who wanted to record or promote a certain song for their album, but their label wouldn't let them. To me, that horrible lack of freedom is not worth any amount of money.

That's when I changed my goal from "getting signed" to "being independently successful". And I did it! Even in business/entrepreneurship, a lot of entrepreneurs are out there trying to "get signed" by an investment firm. I don't want that, either. I really want to be the sole person in charge of my destiny.

RL: How have you changed over the years - in terms of creativity? How about personally?

DS: Music is not my creative outlet anymore. Now, programming and writing are my tools, and the Internet is my media.

Personally, about 3 years ago I decided to accept the responsibility of being a public figure. Before that, I was really shying away from it. I seriously considered changing my name, and moving somewhere where nobody knew me - to just live a nice anonymous life. But then I realized I could manage what I've been given and keep it at a level I liked, instead of avoiding it completely. That's when I started blogging, speaking at TED, and being more public. I'm glad I did. It's got a lot of upsides and very few downsides.

RL: What slivers of the world have impacted you the most? Musical or otherwise?

DS: Not any one sliver, but realizing that there are so many out there! Reign, I know you've had a very multi-cultural life, but I really just grew up in America. I was born in California, and spent almost all of my first 40 years of life in America. I was interested in other places and cultures, but just as a quick visit, never really immersive. I always felt that my California culture was the best - all others inferior.

But now I'm fully the opposite. I've banished myself from living in the U.S. again. (I can visit, yes, but not live there.) It's a big world, and I really want to really understand it from many different points of view.

That kind of thinking has permeated everything for me, now. I can't help but look at everything from different points of view, knowing that no one way is right or wrong.

RL: Were you or have you been surprised by the lasting impact CD Baby has had on the music industry?

DS: Yeah. You never see it while in it. While I was there, it was just dealing with daily problems, just focusing on the week at hand. But you do that for 10 years, and I guess it adds up to something special.

RL: What made you walk away from CD Baby? You created the ultimate company with a personalized touch. Did you have any concerns about handing it over to as big an organization as Disc Makers?

DS: I challenge myself to stay out of my comfort zone. It was tempting to stay with CD Baby forever, but I realized the bigger challenge for myself was not to stick with it, but to give it up - freeing myself to go on to something completely new.

I knew Disc Makers would be a good company to run it, because I'd been working with them for 5 years and saw how they had made thousands of my musician clients happy. They were really focused on customer service, and that personal touch.

True, they're not as quirky as me, but oh well...

RL: How did you come to the decision to transfer the ownership of CD Baby to a charitable trust for music education?

DS: I didn't want the $22 million. That feels like too much money for any one person to have. $1 million? Sure! But not much more. When I mentioned this to my lawyer, he told me about the charitable trust, and how it could pay me out a bit each year for life. It seemed perfect for what I wanted.

Plus, it felt really good to know that this money came from musicians and will go back to musicians.

RL: Where do you see the future of music heading?

DS: I never think like that. I don't try to predict.

Nobody knows the future.

That's a hard but crucial lesson to learn.

If even ultimate government insiders don't know the future, then neither does your stockbroker, music industry expert, nor you.

We have a human need for certainty that desperately yearns to believe that someone can turn our future from unknown to known.

Even if we logically understand that it's impossible, we're emotionally sucked back in and fooled again when someone important tells us with such conviction what the future will hold.

But nobody knows the future.

Some people predict so many things, so when the random future lands on their number they can say, "See! I told you!" But how many times did they say so, and it didn't come true? (Like the joke, "He correctly predicted 12 of the last 3 recessions.")

Our pleasure-seeking brains remember the times in our past when we were right, and forget when we were wrong. So it's easy to think we're smarter than we are.

Every time I speak on a panel, the moderator has to ask, "What's the future of the music business?"

My first thought is always, "Nobody knows. Anyone who pretends to know is not to be trusted." (Even the ultimate insiders, the heads of every major record label, got it wrong.)

But then my thoughts turn to whoever is asking the question.

Why should it matter what anyone says?

Realistically, what would you change about what you're doing, day-to-day?

And so it comes back to fundamentals.

Just like we know there will be gravity, and water will still be wet, there are laws that don't depend on predicting the future.

You know that people love a memorable melody. You can't know what instrumentation or production-values will be in vogue.

You know that people prefer people who make an emotional connection with them. You can't know what technology will carry that communication.

You know that writing lots of songs increases your chances of writing a hit. You can't know which song will be a hit.

So the best thing to do instead of predicting the future is to focus on the fundamentals that never fluctuate.

If you're a songwriter, write at least a song a week, always aiming for a memorable melody and words that make an emotional connection.

If you're a performer, make weekly improvements on your ability to captivate an audience, and make a goal of really connecting with 10 new people every week.

The details are unique to you, and will change constantly. But the real point will never change.

RL: Do you think that being a musician and being an entrepreneur are interchangeable these days? What do you feel are the benefits and drawbacks of that?

DS: I held an online poll where I asked everyone, "What's the opposite of music?"

All kinds of wonderful answers: noise, silence, Celine Dion.

But the best answer by far was this: business.

It's a totally different mindset, focusing on music - the craft, practicing, performing, affecting people's emotions.

That said, of course the business of promoting your music is like being an entrepreneur, absolutely. But let's not confuse that with what it really means to be a musician.

RL: Is music about business or passion?

DS: Music is about nothing but music. Music itself is just music. Whatever meaning you're projecting onto it is your choice, but it's not inherent.

If music, to you, means business, you're very likely going to be disappointed. Your rewards will have to come from outside.

If music, to you, is pure passion, you're very likely going to be happy. Your rewards are internal, in the music itself, no matter what the world thinks.

RL: I know you were looking for a place to settle down for a long time. What made you decide on Singapore?

DS: Great central location. Truly multi-cultural. A little Chinese, a little Malay, a little Indian, a little British - all mixed together.

There are other multi-cultural cities like New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, but they're always filtered through a country - they are inside America, England, France, etc.

Singapore is not a city in a country - it's a city in the world.

Plus, it's incredibly well-run, constantly improving not declining, and a place I felt I could confidently invest my time and money long-term.

RL: What is your impression (if any) of music outside of the US and it's ability to garner attention on a world stage?

DS: Sorry, I'm completely biased on this, so I have no idea. I only know what I like. I have no idea what the marketplace likes. Two of my all-time favorite artists are Fela Kuti (Nigeria) and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Pakistan). Attention on a world stage? Who knows?

I do know it's a lot more interesting when people flaunt their unique offerings, instead of trying to copy someone else's. So it's really disappointing to hear a band from Cambodia or Kenya sounding exactly like regular American Top40 pop.

RL: There are a lot of opportunities for unsigned artists in today's new version of the music business. But what are some of the mistakes you see a lot of indie artists making?

DS: Well... I wrote a free PDF ebook about exactly that, so instead of trying to rehash it all here, please go to and download it free.

RL: How do you define success?

DS: Ha! Probably the same as your "independent" question! Doing what you want. Setting out to achieve something and doing it. Freedom.

RL: What is next for you as an avid student of life?

DS: Building and launching a few new business ideas. Learning new programming languages. Exploring, then living, in different parts of the world.

Derek Sivers continues to be an avid student of life. Check his blog regularly for interesting insights on life, love, business and everything in between - they are usually entertaining and always thought-provoking. His book, "Anything You Want" is a must-read for anyone seeking an alternate viewpoint to entrepreneurship in the modern world.