As we musical folk gain experience, we develop practices to make our work go more efficiently. Commonly, we learn about or develop templates, charts, checklists, letters, and other types of documents that we reuse and refine, as experience informs us how to make them more useful and effective. Some of these forms have become common, or even more or less standardized, in the music industry.

My new book, Music Industry Forms, is a collection of 75 such forms, snatched from the clipboards of many veterans of the concert hall, control room, film scoring stage, and publishing house. It presents and describes sample forms with annotations and lists of commonly associated terminology and symbols. The book serves as a kind of field guide to the music industry, with many tools to make our work here easier.

If you’ve followed this blog, you might have noticed that I’ve been interviewing authors of Berklee Press new releases. Now, with another book of my own hot off the presses, the tables are turned. To pinch-hit and to keep me from publicly talking to myself, I’ve invited my colleague/friend and former Berklee Press editor Susan Gedutis Lindsay to interview me about this new Berklee Press publication. Sue is the associate director of instructional design at Berklee College of Music. She’s also an author, an ethnomusicologist, and an active performing musician. A total rock star, really.

Here’s our conversation about Music Industry Forms.

Sue: How did you first get the idea for this book?

Jonathan: Originally, I planned to have a few common forms in the appendix of my previous book, Project Management for Musicians. But I kept turning up more and more useful forms that I wanted to write about, and it started taking on its own identity, so we decided to spin off the “forms” concept into its own book.

How did you get the ideas for these forms? Did they come to you in a dream? A vision?

No way, these all come from real life! My favorite form, the stage plot, is one that I lived out of during my days working in concert hall operations. Then, over my years of editing books about the music industry, I’ve learned about many other forms. Often, as an editor, when I try to press my authors to be extremely specific about some dimension of what they are writing about, or to show examples, the conversation ultimately leads them to whip out a form. Like, “spotting sheets” come up periodically in books about film music. A spotting sheet is used when a composer and film director sit down to discuss what type of music will go with each scene. My authors Lalo Schifrin, Richard Davis, and Mark Cross all discuss them in their books. They are standard practice in the film music industry, and people trying to break in need to understand them. So, I’ve found that musicians are using a lot of forms, particularly the ones who have been at it for a while. (Film director/script writer Isaac Ho also helped me come up with some good samples of those, and some others.)

Why are stage plots your favorite?

Beyond evoking fond memories (it was fun being a stagehand/manager), stage plots are great simplifiers. Consider the task of setting up for a 100-piece orchestra. That’s a lot of gear! But the stage plot reveals the location of every chair, music stand, piano, riser, and so on, bringing order to the complexity. Pass around a stage plot, and everyone relaxes.

So, many of the forms in this book were from personal experience as a musician, and others are forms that you pulled from a large catalog of Berklee books that address many aspects of the professional music industry.

Yes. And from my Berklee Online course, Project Management for Musicians. Also, I interviewed quite a few experts, for all these projects. For example, mastering engineer Jonathan Wyner was very generous with his time in showing me around his studio and discussing what forms he found most helpful for organizing audio media. I used models by him and others as starting points for many of the forms that are in the book, doing some additional research with some other engineers, and then tried to present what seems to be a sort of consensus on what is the most useful information to include, for them. And then back to the original experts for a final sniff. That was my usual process.

What sort of musician would this book be best for? How would it help me, a musician who only seeks to play local gigs but makes enough money at it to actually have a separate band bank account? Or a cover band musician, or a GB musican, for that matter?

Oh, I got forms for everybody.

Ha. Okay, okay. I must say that, when I read this book, all these forms opened a window to business possibilities I had not even considered.

For a gigging musician like you, there are sample gear checklists, registers for how to track what merch you’re selling at gigs, some worksheets for putting together set lists or strategically ordering songs on albums…. There’s one that shows you how to figure out how many recordings you need to sell in order to break even financially, given your investment. A zillion others. You read it. Did anything in particular strike your fancy?

I found the telephone tree interesting. Even with five people in a band, that’s a lot of calls to make when you’re stressed right before a gig.

Yes, it’s like a lever, making an odious job easier. That one’s a classic form, and one of just a few here that are used all over the world, from political campaigns to emergency school closings, beyond just in the music industry. Most forms in the book are more music-centric than this, though some have analogues elsewhere. The graphic design spec is another example of a form with longer legs. But musicians manage a lot of graphic design, for album covers, band logos, websites, and such, so it’s a good communication tool to know about.

Tell me about the Nashville chart.  

Nashville notation evolved in the recordings studios of that fine city. It’s a type of numeral-based chord chart optimized for rhythm section players who want to get the essential information for developing their parts, in a form that is very easy to transpose to other keys. So, for studio rhythm-section musicians working with vocalists, it is generally exactly the right amount of information they require, and easily scrawled out on the fly. Very efficient, for certain kinds of players. And utterly cryptic to everyone else! Songwriter/producer/Berklee Online Instructor Shane Adams was a great help with that one.

Will there be a place that someone can download Excel files for some of the forms you mention? Templates?

Now and then, I post a form at projectmanagementformusicians.com. Really, though, I think these samples should be seen as starting points for your own forms. People hate forms that are not completely on target for their work at hand, and using templates can sometimes lead to extraneous requests for non-critical information. It’s why so many forms still waste people’s time by requesting fax numbers—or worse, Telex! Also, many of these are ideally scribbled out on the spot, with a pencil, in the heat of battle. So, the concept is often more important than the actual sample.

Right. But what I also know from my own experience is that people love it when you do forms “right.” For example, the press release template you included. Formatting your press release in the right way makes you look more professional to a journalist. They have a way that they expect to see things, and if you deliver it in that format, then they see you as more of a professional and they pay attention. I wonder if that applies to some of the other forms, too? If so, which ones?

There are definitely some standard practices, and I quote chapter and verse when I find it. That said, I find a huge amount of variation. Some organizations do have exacting standards for certain types of forms. Conventions for indicating chairs and music stands on a stage plot are pretty standard everywhere. Spotting sheets, though, have different layouts at different studios. (I give two competing versions of that one.) Industrywide, most of the time, I think it’s more about being neat and organized and easy to figure out. But yes, there are some conventions, and certain places will really insist on their own form being used, like cue sheets for the different PROs. Same, same, only different. I tried throughout to give both standard formats and terminology, and also some common variations.

In a nutshell, how will having this book improve a musician’s career?

Forms help clarify what work is required and ensure quality control. This helps keep everyone’s efforts focused on completing the project vision efficiently: on time, within budget, and to the highest possible quality standard.

How did you ever score an endorsement from John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants?

I bribed his wife with an alpaca fleece.

HA! How did you even reach her? I need to hear more.

Isn’t it better if that’s my only answer?

Okay, okay, okay.

I’ll add, though, that Robin Goldwasser is a very gifted artist in her own right: actress, musician, and puppet maker. And she’s crazy for fiber. Fortunately.

And I have to say, I am a bit in awe of my back cover blurbists. John Flansburgh, Gary Burton, Marcus Hummon, and Sean Slade. Ridiculous/earth-shattering talent, back there. Their generous quotes are on the product page.

If there were one person on your birthday list that you would give this book to, who is it? Tell me about that person.

YOU. Because You are so Awesome.

Hahah! There’s a lot there that I can use!

After you, I’d give it to musicians at the beginning of their career, who are trying to figure out this vast, crazy, complex world of the music industry. Especially musicians with a history of bringing me chocolate.

Was this a fun book to write?

Yes, this was probably the most fun book I’ve written. Project Management for Musicians is really a deep, methodical exploration of how to get music projects done, and kind of an epic journey about how to become a professional. Hopefully, it’s useful, but yes, it’s also a bit exhausting. Writing this book, to me, was more like discovering a series of little lightbulbs—almost like compiling a book of cartoons. It was fun because it was eclectic, giving me a chance to talk to performers, engineers, concert operations folks, songwriters—lots of people all around the industry, and everyone here is such a character. These forms are each a delight because they can make life so much easier. It’s a joy to be around them.

The book is like a field guide to the nuts-and-bolts mechanisms that really make the music industry possible. To me, each form was a revelation, giving insight into how to make the magic happen. That’s fun!

What’s next?

Well, I’ve been enjoying presenting live workshops about the creative process and music project management, and there are some interesting opportunities in the works along those lines. I continue teaching my two courses at Berklee Online and editing books for Berklee Press—a few great titles in the works, there. My next freelance writing is actually going to be through About.com as their music education expert. I’m editing my wife Marci’s next book about charter school boards, and I’m hoping to edit a book or two about beekeeping. So, I’m keeping busy, occasionally stepping out of the music industry and then bringing the stolen fire back home. It’s always an adventure.

You might have seen a chart like the one below, showing all the different components of a project, such as an album. It is a work breakdown structure—a hierarchical view of a project’s “deliverables” (components). Read this one left to right. I talk about these a lot in my Berklee Online course, book, and live workshops about project management for musicians. By drilling down like this, you can see all the required work of your project and take hold of its details.

Album WBS

One of many uses for a WBS is in organizing how you spend your time. Once you’ve figured out your project’s components, you can draw up a list of action steps required to get each part done, and then chart the status or other information related to it. For instance, by filling in the WBS, you realize that you have to get photos of your band members.  Your first step is to ask each band member if they have a good photo you can use. Somehow, you want to track their responses; as you can imagine, gaining control over this level of detail can be a little challenging.

That’s where project management software becomes particularly helpful. The program that I like to use, and teach from, is Smartsheet, which does a great job of combining power with ease of use (and other benefits). Various PM software products work similarly.

So, then, here’s a video showing how to implement a WBS in Smartsheet for use as a task manager. By organizing your tasks (hundreds or thousands, in a project) in this component-based way, you can easily understand your project’s current status, and see what work is yet to be done.

It is where the rubber meets the road: where abstract theory becomes completely practical and makes your life easier and your projects run better. I recommend viewing it in HD on the YouTube site, as big as you can set it, so that you can read the text.

There’s great buzz now about Music Gateway, a game-changing project collaboration platform that brings together musicians worldwide to create music. Here, its visionary founder Jon Skinner offers some insights about his company, entrepreneurship, and how to manage musicians.

Jon Skinner, Founder/CEO of Music Gateway

JF: What inspired the creation of Music Gateway?

JS: Very simply, it was through my personal experiences during my 26-year career that inspired me to create a business focused platform to meet the needs of music industry professionals. The main issues people face are obtaining work opportunities, how best to develop their own projects effectively and getting connected with the right professionals. The industry is rife with barriers that hinder progression and stop access and connections to the right professionals. I experienced these issues myself and decided to address this problem with the creation of Music Gateway.

How does the current product match or vary from your original conception of it? If it’s different, what was the path of its evolution, and where do you see it going from here?

It has changed from my original business plan; I actually wrote a 26-page document over 3 days very quickly. I had the whole concept in my mind and just translated it down into a business plan. That was four and half years ago, and I originally parked the concept due to a lack of resource and finance to invest. I drew a line in the sand in January 2011 and decided to self invest in the core development of the website. One of the first things I did was read a book called Rework, which I highly recommend. In fact, I would say that it’s essential to read if you are starting your own business, especially in tech and software.

Without going into detail, I would say Music Gateway is currently at 50% of the original concept; all the bells and whistles will come later.

Even though we only launched 7 weeks ago, we already have 60% of a new site design completed. It’s important you don’t stand still. You have to keep moving.

We aim to add more project types, matching other industry services with clients and driving as much opportunity to our users as possible. This is our core goal for the first year, since launch. 2014 will be a massive year for the company and will launch the new site design, additional features, and fully responsive access for mobile and iPad devices.

What advice do you have about creating a software startup?

Keep it simple; too often people get carried away with feature after feature. People don’t want to be confused. If you get a reaction of, “Wow, that’s so simple why didn’t I think of that” then you should be on the right track. With any tech project, if the lead developer tells you it will take 2 months to complete something, it will take 4 months, and it still may not be fully ready in time.

Focus on the core function and purpose of the product and what it is that will engage the customer. Extra features can be added over time, but if you don’t get to the trading point quickly and you keep putting back the launch date, then you’re burning costs every month and potential competition can come into the market place.

Lock down your PHASE 1 requirements for launch, and don’t budge on these unless it’s fundamental. So, stay focused on your core goal. Make sure you start your marketing and pre-launch campaigns as early as possible. Data and who you know in your sector is most important, so get networking and use LinkedIn to build your connections.

As an entrepreneur, how do you decide whether/when to bring in investors?

If you can self fund, do it and be as resourceful as possible. Give opportunities to people for work experience, and empower them and give them responsibility over aspects of the business, maybe the social media, blogging, pre-marketing etc.

Get professional advice! In the UK, the government has a free scheme for startup companies to receive business consultancy advice [Editor's Note: Analogous to SCORE or the Executive Service Corps. in the U.S.], and these professionals can make a huge difference checking your business model, your forecasts, and improving your pitch or deck to investors.

Most startups look at family and friends who may wish to be involved in a business first, but I recommend that regardless of who it is, get a shareholders’ agreement signed through a solicitor, even if it may seem a little expensive. A shareholders agreement, for those who don’t know, states what the responsibilities, liabilities, and of course share allocation between the parties are. One thing that people forget about is what the hell happens if someone in the business walks away or throws in the towel? This is commonly known as a “bad leaver,” and it’s important to know what happens when the shit hits the fan, or god forbid, someone gets run over by a bus. Get your arse covered, basically!

Your next port of call is private angel investors. They normally look at risky startup businesses with a 10-fold return on their investment with an exit after a 3 to 5 year period. In the UK, there are many tax breaks for investors, so if your business qualifies, then you need to include this in your presentation.

Once you launch and get traction with revenue and your customer base, that’s when you can look at further angel investment or approach VC companies, but here’s the important aspect to looking at any investment! The longer you can do it yourself and get more traction, the less you will have to give away and the more money you will be able to raise. So, if you can do it yourself, keep it in-house, and in the long run you will benefit more.

What tips do you have for hiring people to work on a music project?

Take your time to clearly describe what your goal is, what it is you need to get done, and to what timescale.

Within Music Gateway, when you create a project, define the skills you require—for example, a producer, guitarist, songwriter, etc., and in what music genres. You can upload music and embed video, which is essential if you want people to fully understand your project needs.

Use reference points from other music. It’s much better to ask potential workers to listen to something, than just describing it with only words.

What about tips for delegating work and making sure people deliver what we need?

Communication is key to any form of management, but don’t micro-manage people; that will just piss them off. The aim is to motivate and empower, and if things go wrong, deal with it! Things will go wrong from time to time. We are human and we make mistakes. Big deal. Bottom line is not to see problems and only see solutions to problems, and then fix them quickly. Learn from your mistakes or change procedures if there’s a clear loophole.

Who is the best manager you ever witnessed, and why? Can you give an example of their genius?

Good question. I’ve been working for myself since I was 21 and I’m now 43, so I have not been managed by many people. I have however taken inspiration from a lot of different people I’ve co-worked with, too many to name. One of the most important things I have learnt is that you just can’t do it all yourself. You need good people around you to help you achieve your goals. It’s all common sense stuff: treat your workers as you would like to be treated yourself, make the tea and coffee, don’t put yourself on a pedestal. It’s important not to get too friendly either; it’s a balancing act as a manager, as the saying goes, “Don’t mix business with pleasure.”

Once you define what it is that makes a person tick, tap into that aspect and reward them for their hard work, and set them goals, which act as a benchmark to reward. Not everyone is money focused. In fact, most people with aspirations only see money as a byproduct of success. Being successful and getting job satisfaction is more important than a paycheck (as long as people’s overheads are covered). The worst type of person you can have in your team is someone just looking to collect a paycheck at the end of the month, as they will bring others around them down to their level. Get rid quickly.

What are the biggest mistakes you see musicians making in the projects they manage? How do you recommend that they avoid the common pitfalls?

Not knowing their own strengths and weaknesses. Once you understand this, you know what people you need to bring into your project to make it as best as possible. Everyone is an A&R person these days; by default, you should be your worst critic.

One core issue I see time and time again is people not understanding the music business. Whilst we are being creative and it is still an art, we are creating a product that can be sold, placed, or monetized, so you do have to know your marketplace. If you are selling fruit at a market and everyone is buying apples, then you would be stupid not to sell the best apples you can get your hands on. Whatever is unique about your apples will attract customers, and in music terms, what is unique about your project will attract fans.

In summary, know your marketplace, don’t copy, getting inspiration from others is essential, be unique, and collaborate and work with other professionals. Regardless of your role or standing in the industry, you should treat it as a business. Otherwise, you won’t survive with a full-time career in the industry.

How do you define “success?”

Success is relative to your own personal goals. It doesn’t matter what others think because what’s important is that you are happy and satisfied with what you have achieved. Being successful should be bite sized; you can have a successful day or week but overall have an unsuccessful month, if you get my point. As a general rule, success can mean being admired and respected by your peers but that doesn’t mean you have to be rich.

On a personal note, I currently own and operate 3 companies and have previously had a business with an annual turnover of just under 1 million, but I still feel I haven’t fulfilled my long term goals or my full potential as a business man. I now consider myself on a personal crusade to help an industry that I love combined with a fair business platform that will build a secure financial future for my kids. A family changes everything.

The Marathon bombs were just a few doors away from our office on Boylston Street. I was fortunate that nobody I know personally was injured. But there was blood and glass on sidewalks that I have walked a thousand times. The “second blast” devastated the Forum restaurant, which I’m fond of. Today marks a full week that our building has been closed, while it is inspected for safety issues and evidence. So, these events hit close to home, and I am sharing the complex range of emotional responses that so many of us have been experiencing, over the past harrowing days.

Outwardly, matters are settling. The suspects are no longer at large. Some Berklee buildings are open. My friends in Watertown and Cambridge have mostly stopped circulating photos of SWAT teams in their backyards. My children have been reassured of their safety, and I’ve stopped obsessively checking the news for developments.

It’s business as usual, sort of. Except, that it’s not. Because there are materials I’ve needed for a week that remain under FBI lockdown, so I can’t move certain tasks forward. People I need to make decisions or provide information are similarly constrained, and many of them are facing a host of new, complex, urgent, and stressful issues in their work, due to the major inconveniences that the tragedy brought with them.

While those of us who are so indirectly affected might no longer be terrified, or in mourning, or in a logistical nightmare, there remains a pervasive wave of general stress that seems to be permeating throughout the community, now.

That’s the trickle-down crabenomics. A system was traumatized, the major aftershocks have dissipated, but the networks of work and life remain under pressure caused by that great disruption, due to the backlog of obligations that accumulated as a result of not being able to attend them efficiently for so long.

It’s hard to peg this current phase as tragic, compared to where we’ve been. But it remains new territory.

I’ve made quite a few mistakes in the past week. I’ve delegated some tasks that I should have resolved myself, which I do sometimes when I’m feeling stressed and frantically trying to clear my desk and my head. My OCD is in full swing, and I’ve likely made a pest out of myself regarding some details that really could have been let go, which is driving people crazy. I’ve let a detail or two slip. I’ve answered some emails tersely, particularly when others are delegating things to me that I don’t have the psychic space to address. And I’ve watched a lot of others doing the same.

While the intensity of emotion is reduced this week, there is a level of residual crabbiness that I’m witnessing, and crabbiness is so contagious—even in the best of times.

Here’s how I’m personally trying to staunch this trickle, and I welcome other suggestions. First, before I click “Send,” I’m reviewing my emails with a crabometer, to reduce any unintentional acid in my pen. Second, I’m trying to leave the public swearing to Big Papi Ortiz, so as not to raise the general anxiety level of those around me. Third, I’m trying to minimize the work/stress/over-communication barrage that I generate for others, for a bit, while they join me in digging out of their ruts. Fourth, I’m avoiding checking the news more than once a day, or so.  And fifth, I’m reminding myself of the good that will come from my personal work. As a colleague wrote to me recently, “We’re all on the same team, here.” And forgive me for putting this in overly grand terms, but I truly believe that the work we are doing here at Berklee is ultimately beneficial to the whole world.

It’s time to cool down and focus on making everything better. I hope you join me.

This tutorial teaches how to create tables in MS Word. There are infinite uses for tables, besides simply displaying information: making checklists, charts, and tools such as this lyric chart, aka lyric take sheet, useful in recording sessions. The version used here is MS Word 2011 for Mac, but tables have been around in Word for a really long time, so some of this info should be helpful no matter what version you are using.

(Note: You can view this larger at the YouTube site.)

Incense Ashes

 

A project is running late, and I’ve had to put myself in hyper-focus lockdown mode in order to rein it back in. So, I’m keeping the Internet more or less off, only letting myself use Dictionary.com, and hiding from the social media sites that call to me like sirens, from their treacherous rocks. I monitor email only every couple hours, just to make sure nothing urgent has come up, and that I’m keeping everyone busy that I can. Chat is mostly off. I’m not checking in with anyone to get their status reports, and am temporarily not giving some languishing authors any productivity pep talks. I haven’t started my tomato seedlings, I’m not peeking at my new book’s activity analytics, and I’m only writing this blog post because it’s nighttime and I’m taking stock of my strategies for keeping focused, in hopes that it will help me keep the momentum going after tomorrow, which is shaping up to be a brief reprieve from this charrette. I’ve been soaking in coffee, and avoiding sugar, red meat, and certainly alcohol, until after I’ve moved enough of the day’s ink. Okay, enough pixels. And not checking the news during my coffee breaks. Just editing. Because by nature, I would rather do any of these things than maintain this intensity. But that’s what needs to happen, for a few days, if this book is to be in print by an important deadline this fall, in seven months. It seems a little far out, but I see the potential cascade of falling dominoes that must be circumvented, so here I am.

Ideally, project managers should focus on strictly PM tasks, rather than having their hands in content. But in many environments, that purity of specialization isn’t possible. Particularly in relatively small shops, where everyone wears multiple hats. And particularly in the arts. There are many reasons why being a generalist, like this, is a bad idea. First, there are benefits for project managers to be emotionally detached from the content, so that we can focus on making cool-headed logistical decisions, regarding a project’s rate of progress and ultimate destiny. Sentimentality towards details can sabotage the over-arching project vision. (Yes, it can also save it, but for now, let’s acknowledge that it can sabotage it too.) Second, fragmented attention leads to mistakes. Multitasking generally results in loss of quality control, and when experts practice their highest trade, we get the best results, if it’s all managed well. Again, though, while that kind of division of labors is an ideal, it is not always the most cost effective. I’ve got my own hands deep into the content. It works out okay most of the time, but there are periods like this when I’ve got to stake out some territory and focus, on one side of the work or the other.

This week, I’ve had to pull my personal nuclear option for maintaining focus: keeping incense burning most of the time. The perpetual jasmine scent and slight stinging in my eyes reminds me that I don’t have the luxury to mess around. I’m not answering the phone, and only checking for messages every two hours. Strangely, the world hasn’t come crashing down around me, yet. And in the past week or so, I’ve reviewed 600 pages of galley proofs and edited about 90,000 words. Too much. And not enough.

I imagine the incense smoke rising from my writer’s garret in central Massachusetts, reaching out a gossamer strand towards the Vatican, where the College of Cardinals’ black smoke will be soon similarly wafting upwards, as they burn their papal ballots. Hopefully, it will turn white for all of us before too long.

Who Decides?

Feb 01 2013

Three often-confused roles at any project’s core: the project’s sponsor, manager, and visionary. Here’s a diagram showing them all connected, like a molecule (borrowed from my new book, Project Management for Musicians).

PM Triangle

The actual titles for the people performing these roles varies. The sponsor might be called a record label executive, publisher, or client. The project manager might be called a producer, tour manager, recording engineer, or agent. The visionary could be an artist, company founder, teacher, or author. And these roles might be fulfilled by three different people, by just one or two, or even a lot more people involved—most commonly, in the case of a board serving as sponsor or a band serving as the visionary.

However the roles are staffed, the three roles are present. Understanding how they relate can help alleviate some tensions and make sure that the essential functions are covered.

Let’s take a look at what each role’s responsibilities.

The project sponsor is the person who decides whether or not the project should exist. He or she is its chief advocate and controls its funding. This person might be on staff or might be a client. Say, for example, that you are a producer, and for your current project, the parents of a teen-aged singer/songwriter hire you to produce their daughter’s album. The parents are the project’s sponsors; they can turn the money faucet on and off. The producer is the project manager, who coordinates all the logistics involved in making the vision real, given the resources that the sponsor’s funding makes available. The singer/songwriter daughter is the visionary—the person who imagines the project’s content (guided by the producer, to one degree or another).

This means that ultimately, the parents are in control, in this case. The project belongs to them, and they are ultimately the “deciders.” If the daughter starts failing math, they could decide to halt work on her recording until her grades improve. If the daughter tells you, the project manager, that what her parents say doesn’t matter and that you must proceed with booking the studio, you have to clarify that it’s her parents’ call, not hers, and certainly not yours.  Remember the golden rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules!

Let’s look at a more corporate model. Imagine a television studio. The board of directors meet with the CEO and together, they decide to send down a mandate to a senior executive vice president that they need a hit show. The VP sets a market research team in motion, and they determine that a viable concept could be a reality show about the adventures of a guitar technician. (It could happen….) So, the vice president tells an A&R/producer guy on his team to find a suitable guitar technician for this role, who will serve as both the on-screen talent and the show’s creative director. Auditions are held, and a charismatic and visionary surfer-dude guitar tech gets hired.

Here, the vice president is in the role of project sponsor, though the project’s funding is ultimately at the mercy of the board of directors. But it’s easier for one person to serve in this role, so he’s nominally and effectively the sponsor. The A&R/producer guy is the project manager, and the guitar tech/surfer dude is the visionary.  The show will get funded only for as long as the “people upstairs” want it to continue. The guitar tech might now be the star of the show, and his specific pixie dust may make or break the show’s viability, but there’s a limit to his actual decision-making authority. If it turns out that he likes to tune guitars in the nude, that will only fly onscreen if the sponsor ultimately agrees to try it. Similarly, if the guitar tech tries to insist that live concert footage must be included with every show no matter what the cost, it’s not his call to make. It might be a captivating idea, but it’s not necessarily possible, given the available resources; figuring that out is the project manager/A&R/producer guy’s role. So, there’s a limit to how much of the vision is possible to implement, and deciding how the money gets spent is not the surfer dude’s gig. Temper tantrum off, please. If the dude wants more control, he can fund a project himself, rather than collaborating with a studio. These days, many artists are opting to do just that, and so they need to replace what’s missing in the triangle: the project’s sponsorship and its management. Which are each, a whole lot of work.

Again, for the TV show, the A&R guy/producer is in the role of project manager, taking care of logistics, managing resources (i.e., people’s time, gear, and budget),  and keeping the trains running on time. Sure, he might be a seasoned pro, and perhaps even the person best able to determine what will actually make for good television, market research be damned. He could well consider this show his personal masterpiece. But in the end, he is an advisor, rather than the ultimate decision maker, at least for the most significant issues. For in the big picture perspective, the purpose in this case is to get a hit show for the studio, rather than to depict the actual world of this guitar tech.

In the end, the sponsor decides. It is human nature to feel a sense of ownership of the work that we get hired to do, but the project only actually belongs to whoever is funding it. (Muddying the waters is who owns the copyright, but that’s kind of a separate issue. I’m glad you thought of it, though.) So, clarifying this chain of decision-making authority is really important to a project’s success.

Success is not necessarily determined by how great a project is artistically or even how financially viable it is. It is determined by the project sponsor’s opinion regarding whether or not they got what they paid for. Likely, artistic quality and financial viability will be among the sponsor’s criteria for success, but you never know. In the singer/songwriter example, the project’s ultimate purpose could well be to motivate the daughter to do better in math. For the TV studio, it might simply be whether it gets an Emmy or not. The sponsor’s metrics are the only ones that truly matter, from a purely project-management perspective. Hopefully, these metrics get articulated and communicated to everyone who needs to know, so that they can all be working towards the same result.

In any case, ideally, the people who are brought aboard to create the project are aligned philosophically with the sponsor’s over-arching goals, beyond the objectives of the single project. This is why hiring for values alignment is so important. It makes some of the necessary decisions—such as changing a project’s artistic direction, extending the timeline, or even terminating the project entirely—a lot easier for everyone to take, if they understand why the project is being funded.

Various factors will influence what project you should undertake next. Emotional need can be a strong motivator, for creative artists, and so following the day’s muse might be the best route, sometimes. But in some situations, you will want to choose a new project based on its anticipated profitability. Knowing how much money an endeavor is likely to rake in is an inexact science, but if you’ve been at it for a while, there are some tools that can help you make an educated guess about how the next one will fare.

Here’s an approach that might be helpful. It’s a cold, financial look at project acquisition, which might just be one of several factors you want to consider. But the tighter the cash situation, the more decisions should likely rely on unromantic looks at data such as this, as opposed to riskier, more intuition-based approaches.

In this modeling, we can see the financial performance of different types of projects, in comparison with other categories of endeavor.

Say that you’re an agent, and you’re trying to decide what kind of new artists to sign. Your projects are “artists.” You might make a chart that shows the performance of all your artists by genre. There are two data points for each category: how many artists you’ve got and how much money the category rakes in, as an aggregate. (Note: For the money received, a measure I like to look at is “average income per month based on the previous twelve months.”) It might look something like this.

Category Artists Monthly Income (Net)
Rock 9

6,400

Blues 3

750

Hip-Hop 3

1,050

Classical 6

3,000

Wedding Bands 3

42,750

Total 24

53,950

 

If you convert these numbers to percentages of the totals, with a few clicks in Excel, you can create the following kind of chart, which shows the relative profitability of each genre.

 

Now, it’s easy to see the relative performance of each category. Red to blue shows profitability compared to representation in the product line. We’ve mostly got rock musicians (longest blue line), but the income they are bringing in is relatively low. Our wedding bands are among our lesser signings, and yet those few are bringing in most of our income, by far. The classical artists are also quite profitable. So, if we want to base our next signings on who will bring in the most Do-Re-Mi, then we hope that aspiring wedding bands will come knocking on our doorstep.

(We can also use this chart to spark an exploration of why some of these genres perform so much worst than others. For example, why do the classical musicians net more than the others? Is it because they are acoustic and require less rented sound gear? Or do we simply have better classical artists than the other types? That’s another kind of exploration these genre comparison charts can motivate.)

The assumption above is that each type of artist requires roughly the same amount of work to manage. Perhaps, that’s the case. In my industry, music book publishing, it is roughly correct; books about jazz improvisation take roughly the same amount of effort to prepare as books about bluegrass mandolin technique.

Sometimes, though, the amount of work required for various efforts will be radically different. If you’re a rock band, you might produce albums and you might produce t-shirts. Albums are harder, so it’s not a fair comparison, yet. No matter, you just need to add another step to level-set the data.

So, let’s say that you’ve got a band that’s been around for a while. You want to do a new project and are trying to decide what. You’re all dead broke, and so the goal is to rake in some bread. Art, shmart.

You make that chart, showing your sales history of previous endeavors: various things you create, and also efforts to make your existing tracks available on download sites, such as iTunes, Pandora, and so on. To make it more of an apples-to-apples comparison, include another column, showing the number of hours required to do these. (You could get more sophisticated and also factor in cost, but let’s keep it simple, here. For variation, I’ll say “profit,” meaning total profit for all products in that category.)

It might look something like this:

Category Products Total Hours Profit
Albums 3 540 2,100
Videos 18 108 0
Gigs/Performances 30 240 15,000
T-Shirts 6 148 2,400
Distribution Campaigns 2 8 160

 

Now, just graph number of hours, rather than number of products. Again, do it by percentage, to make the graph more readable. We see now that the quickest way to make money is to play more gigs. Introducing a new t-shirt could be a good bet as well.

Of course, in the grand scheme, all these activities are interconnected. The videos might not draw money by themselves, but perhaps releasing them has a stimulating effect on our fan mailing list, which then encourages people to come to gigs and buy t-shirts. New material on albums might give you a reason to perform, and be why the concerts are so well attended. And perhaps, your efforts on the distribution campaigns are so recent that they haven’t had an effect yet, but in six months, you will get more significant rewards.

So, these data points must be seen as isolated looks, and used to inform decisions, along with other data points and more nuanced conversations. But they can offer a clarifying glimpse into exactly where the income is coming in, and thus help inform what you should do next.

 

Pascal the Tortoise

There’s no denying the math. If you compose just two measure of music every day, which doesn’t seem like a lot, in a year, you’ll have completed dozens of songs, or a symphony, or perhaps half of an opera. If you write one page of words every day (not very much), in a year, you’ll have written a significant book, or four practically sized music method books, or developed the curriculum for a 12-week college level course. Call it the power of plugging away.

In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses how it takes about ten thousand hours of experience to become a master musician (or exceptional at any skill). If you can’t play guitar right now, but today, you start practicing two hours per day, you can expect to be a fantastic guitarist in fourteen years. That’s a long time, but within reach, for most of us. If you practice eight hours a day, obviously, you will dramatically crunch that schedule, but you also greatly increase your risk of career-ending injury, so the math isn’t completely indicative here.

While achieving true mastery within a college degree program might be a full-time, body and soul exhausting aspiration, achieving basic competency and a clear future path will happen much sooner than the ten-thousand hour mark. You’ll need to play/practice about seven hours per day to come out swinging. But a few dozen hours, total, can give you a basic capability at an instrument (perhaps, fulfilling enough for an amateur), and after a few hundred hours (an hour a day for a year), you’ll be able to make some decent music. It’s amazing what a focused year can bring to a dedicated student. On the other hand, practicing bass for just an hour a week probably won’t be enough for you to make Victor Wooten break into a cold sweat. At that pace, it will take you a century to catch up him (by which point, Mr. Wooten will also have a century’s worth of additional experience, so you’ll still be cooked).

Now, again, this math isn’t precise. Some people progress faster than others. Some are lucky enough to want to play an instrument that is well suited to their hand size and shape, and they will have an easier time of it. Some styles are more exposed, some instruments are more difficult, some practice strategies are more effective and efficient. Nobody just writes two measures a day. We write sixteen measures, then revise it, then write lyrics, then go back and reimagine the chords…. You might write an average of two bars per day. An hour of thoughtful study with an excellent guitar teacher will facilitate more efficient progress than will eight hours of aimless strumming along with your favorite Justin Bieber track. The point is, though, that achieving any of these goals will require time to create those words or notes. For the endeavor to reach completion, somehow/sometime, a certain number of synapses need to fire and the work has to get done. There’s no escaping the math.

After watching hundreds of authors work to complete their books, here at Berklee Press, I have noticed two things about productivity. First, you have to work at it constantly, almost every day and certainly every week, to get anywhere. Our books require between 60 and 400 hours or so for an author to create a first draft, and somehow, that time has to be found inside busy schedules. Hours simply need to be devoted to it. It’s like dieting or exercise. Once it becomes a regular habit, the drudgery becomes easier, and we start to see results. That’s the conventional wisdom. The tortoise. Slow and steady wins the race. It’s true, and there’s no escaping it, especially for long-term goals such as developing muscle memory.

The other side, though, is that there’s nothing like a deadline to inspire a burst of productivity, and I have come to respect the speedy, frantic running of the hare as well. Summers end and semesters begin, and suddenly, there is no longer an easy hour a day to find. So, we have to avoid Facebook and work into the wee hours, or else our upcoming textbook won’t be published by the start of the school year. Or the album won’t be ready before the tour. Or our band won’t be rehearsed enough before we go into the studio.

While an eleventh-hour, panicked, monomaniacal effort isn’t typically considered best practice, I’ve found that it can be remarkably productive—often actually necessary—because it inspires heroism that might otherwise be elusive. Burning the midnight oil comes with great risks, and details can suffer, but the momentum and the caffeine-fueled fun of a late-night charrette carries us forward and brings us to places that well-behaved, constant, respectable plodding often does not. Many personality types require that kind of excitement in order to actually bring a major project to conclusion. The fire helps crystallize ideas, make it easier to jettison the debris, and let us see the overall work as a whole.

So, to truly be productive, you might need a combination approach, between the tortoise and the hare. Mostly, realistically, it’s regular, constant work that advances our efforts. But the plodding might need to be punctuated by goal milestones and delivery deadlines that you will do anything to achieve.

If you are managing a project, you need to find the right balance. It’s your job to make everyone aware of deadlines, and prod them to deliver slightly ahead of the critical dates, so that you have a buffer against bad luck. Musicians’ careers are increasingly eclectic, and people have a greater number of simultaneous projects in their lives, as well as a host of distractions. They often need assistance in structuring their time, understanding how delivery points affect the overall project timeline, and getting reminders of deadlines well in advance of the critical dates. This is a reason why frequent communication is necessary for schedules to work out; it just keeps the ball rolling.

You may need to light some brush fires, in addition to regularly raking the leaves. Just keep your eyes open for the mistakes that likely creep in, during these intense efforts, balancing mad dashes with particularly careful quality checks. This can help you keep your project on track, avoiding it dragging out indefinitely, and finally bringing it to a successful conclusion.

In 2008, I had the rare privilege of watching producer Phil Ramone up close, running a recording session—rare especially because he hates when extraneous people such as myself hang around the control room, like slugs on a tomato. The session was at Avatar Studios, one of the world’s best recording studios in New York, with an A-list session musicians, Elliot Scheiner behind the desk, an on-hand arranger, gear techs, and others—perhaps fifteen people in the studio, all together. This was a high level production, and I can only imagine the project’s cost per diem. Maybe $60,000 per day? Double that? I don’t know, something big. Too big to allow for distractions.

Time was money, as they say. Yet, Phil set an easygoing, professional, fun, and focused tone for the session, and watching his insights into how to improve the performance was incredibly inspiring, to me. My most memorable moment, though, was when Phil decided that a song needed a vocal harmony part. One of the world’s great session arrangers was sitting just a few feet away from him, but Phil cheerfully grabbed a sheet of manuscript paper, and simply wrote out what he wanted, while everyone else waited. It took him several minutes.

From a project management theory perspective, a purist might argue that Phil should have had his excellent arranger write the part instead. But I would classify that as a sophomoric suggestion. Composing what he knew would be the most effective line was what was best for the project, at that moment. Grabbing the pen was the simplest and most pragmatic solution, even though it perhaps blurred the lines between project management and specialist. But Mr. Ramone has enough Grammy awards that those of us theorizing about how to achieve success should examine what he does as a model for how great work really gets accomplished, rather than measure his every action against some laboratory standard regarding how managers must spend their time.

In much of the literature, project managers are told to focus only on planning work, analyzing and managing progress, and facilitating productive communication throughout the project team. That’s the project management role, in its pure form. The vision for the project comes from someone else, and the actual creation of content is executed by specialists. For example, a producer such as Phil Ramone (i.e., project manager) will be hired to work with an artist or a label executive (i.e., a visionary) to guide/clarify/implement the vision, and then various engineers, performers, arrangers, and such will create the recording according to spec, of which the producer is the guardian. That way, during project execution, the producer can focus on coordinating logistics and resources to make sure that the project’s vision gets actualized according to the agreed scope.

That’s the theory, and that’s what’s considered best practice. If a project manager starts to get seduced towards wandering too far into the details, their focus on the big picture can be compromised, their stature as leader is said to be potentially diminished, and there is the danger that they will lose sight of the overall project vision. Conventional wisdom says that this increases overall project risk. That’s a major reason why artists do well to partner with producers. It keeps logistics in the hands of someone who has emotional distance from the content, so that they can keep the trains running on time.

On the ground, though, things are rarely this simple, and there are also risks when project managers become too detached from the details.  And it’s an easy excuse, for executives to dodge responsibility for disasters by claiming that their role requires detachment. “Passing the buck” is one way to phrase it. Contemporary music history books have endless anecdotes about clueless suits steering artists in inappropriate directions.

The ability to delegate depends a lot on available resources, as well as circumstances, and this “pure” model of project manager is perhaps more effective in larger organizations where increased staff on hand gives freedom for everyone to be a specialist. But in music, particularly on artist-produced projects, the roles between project manager, visionary, and worker bee are frequently best intertwined. Music is an art of cross-pollination by multiple creative spirits, and producers sometimes have clearer visions of the projects than do the performing artists. That’s our reality, and we can embrace it without guilt, because examples of this model’s success are legion, where success can come from either abandoning ego and collaborating, or from embracing ego and pushing forward. Flexibility to entertain either approach—to accept inspiration where we find it—seems to be the necessary paradox of the music project manager’s mindset.

To maintain focus on the big picture during any digressions down rabbit holes, it’s just important for us project managers to be self-reflective that our own time is a limited resource, and it should be managed as such. If the PM wants to do detailed work, they must also step back, consider how much time they are spending on that compared to other required tasks, and confirm that all can still remain on track.

I would argue that project outcome is more important than maintaining purity of role, particularly in the case of someone in a more managerial role taking care of the business of a more content-creation role. While you probably don’t want a session drummer to take the initiative to, say, redo the singer’s mic placement uninvited, any producer would do well to have a detailed enough understanding of audio engineering to have a meaningful conversation with whoever is actually running the board. While project management is a specialized skill, it is helpful in our business for the PM to have a diverse, applicable skill set, in order to be able to put out fires (or write the occasional background vocal line) with the greatest efficiency.

Micro-management is to be avoided, obviously, but too much golf also increases project risk. Sometimes, project managers need to roll up their sleeves and address details, in order to keep things moving, and having a project manager capable of nuts-and-bolts problem-solving brings a kind of resilience to a project, as well as the ability to take advantage of serendipitous opportunity. The deep dive just needs to be done with our eyes wide open, regarding how that diversion affects the big picture: the timeline, the budget, the quality, the team morale. In the end, what the project needs is an over-arching consideration of what the situation demands, rather than how neatly tasks are accomplished in accordance with theories of best practice.