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Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a more confident musician?
Are you wondering what it’s like to live the entrepreneurial life?
Then you’re going to love this interview. In this episode of The New Music Industry Podcast, I chat with Christopher Sutton of Musical U.
- 00:14 – Introduction
- 00:27 – What is the concept behind Musical U?
- 01:52 – Ear training
- 03:14 – Tips for people looking to learn an instrument
- 04:49 – What do musician struggle with most?
- 07:25 – How do we avoid burnout as content creators?
- 10:32 – What tools and apps do you use to run your business?
- 13:17 – The Dynamite Circle
- 18:18 – What other tools have you found beneficial?
- 20:05 – Can entrepreneurship be taught?
- 22:11 – Why was 2012 a rough year for you?
- 27:53 – Entrepreneurial depression
- 35:00 – What are the challenges connected to your music and business life being so interconnected?
- 36:30 – Developing your inner circle
- 39:39 – What is something you wish you could spend more time on?
- 41:22 – How to achieve both a successful business and an incredible lifestyle
- 44:05 – Abundance mindset
- 46:10 – Conclusion
David Andrew Weibe: Thanks for joining me. Today I’ve got another incredible interview lined up for you so why don’t we get right into it?
Today, I’m joined by the founder of Musical U, Christopher Sutton. How are you today Christopher?
Christopher Sutton: I’m very well. Thank you, David. How are you doing?
David: I’m great. Thanks for asking. To start things off, I wanted to ask, what is the concept behind Musical U? What can people expect to learn on your website?
Christopher: Musical U came out of my company called Easy Ear Training originally. The genesis was really on this topic of ear training and how do you get a good ear for music. The reason for that was really I looked around and I knew how powerful ear training can be for musicians, but all of the traditional methods were really boring and really theory-based.
And so, I started my company in 2009 to try and leverage technology to make it fun and easy for people to get a good ear for music. For the first few years, we were really focused on that idea of ear training and giving people good exercises to do. But more and more I realized it’s part of so much bigger picture.
And so, with Musical U we’re really talking more about musicality in general, and ear training is a big part of that, but it’s kind of a means to an end. And the end is how can I become the kind of creative, versatile, confident musician that I was probably dreaming of when I picked up my instrument but maybe got lost along the way.
And so, what we do is help musicians fill in those kind of soft skills and inner skills like: Can you recognize notes by ear? Do you have a good sense of rhythm? Do you have the confidence to get up on stage and perform? Leaving aside the instrument technique, can we turn you into the kind of musician you dreamed of being?
David: All right. So, ear training is mentioned a few different places on your website, so it seems like a something pretty important, also part of your musical journey, so talk about that a bit.
Christopher: Yeah. So, ear training is probably 70% of what we teach at Musical U. It is such a valuable thing, but it’s a tricky one because the phrase “ear training” comes with a lot of baggage. A lot of musicians haven’t even heard of it.
And so, you then need to explain what is ear training and how can it help. And those who have heard of it have typically learned it in a frustrating way, so they might have just studied up for the oral skills section of an exam they were taking, or they might have tried an ear training app and found it quite difficult and frustrating, so they decided it wasn’t for them.
And so, we were a bit careful how much we use that phrase these days, just because what musicians actually care about is learning to play by ear, learning to improvise, learning to write songs, that kind of creative fun experience in music, and ear training is just the tool to get them there. And so… Yeah. At Musical U we teach ear training in a particular way that gets away from some of that baggage and some of that tedium and frustration.
David: Absolutely. Because depending on how the material is presented, it could either be boring or hard to understand, so it’s really good when it’s something that’s a little bit simpler and helps musicians get to where they want to be in that capacity. What tips do you have for someone looking to learn an instrument?
Christopher: That’s a big question. So, I think I see a lot of people making mistakes early on. I think if you’re in the hands of a skillful teacher you can avoid a lot of those mistakes. But these days it’s so easy to learn online. I think there are a lot of self-directed learners who are making use of these fantastic resources online but that leaves them open to not having the experience to kind of guide their journey.
And so, for example, I’m a big proponent that the ear side of things should be part of your music learning from day one really. This isn’t an advanced skill that you get to when you’re a master of your instrument already. This is really the heart of music making and feeling like you are a musician.
I think one tip I’d give is just even if you are right at the beginning stage picking up a new instrument, don’t assume that playing by ear is something you need to be gifted to do, or improvising is an advanced thing for jazz musicians only. If you want to enjoy making music, and if you want to feel like you are a natural in music, there are things you can do from the very beginning alongside learning – where to put your fingers on the guitar fretboard or the keyboard. That can really transform the experience you have of learning music.Playing by ear isn’t something you need to be gifted to do. Click To Tweet
David: I have found some people do really well with the self-directed learning side of things, but then I would say the overwhelming majority really kind of need a lot of direction to help them get to where they want to go, so those are some really good points.
On your website it says you’d rather spend your time creating resources for musicians than getting up on stage and performing. In some ways, I’m the same way. What have you found to be some of the things musicians struggle with and need to learn most?
Christopher: For me, it comes down to these inner skills. I think we have a really fantastic tradition in the US, the UK, Australia, of how do you learn the instrument. If you want to learn to play chords on guitar or learn classical piano or learn slap bass technique, you can take tutorials, or you can take lessons with a teacher. It’s a fairly proven path. You’ll have your ups and downs. It does take hard work. It does take persistence, but the instrument technique side of things I think is fairly well covered. That’s really why with Musical U we focus on what I feel is so often neglected, which is, do you really understand what you hear in music? Do you understand what you’re playing on the guitar, piano, bass? Can you choose what notes to play rather than only ever being able to play what you’ve carefully practiced from sheet music or tab?
And so, the resources I get excited about creating are ones which show people in a fun and engaging way that they do have what it takes to be creative in music and be expressive and kind of feel ownership of the music they are playing rather than just feeling a bit like a robot who sometimes makes mistakes, which I think is unfortunately the position a lot of people get to if they just focus on the instrument technique.
David: Yeah. That is so important. Being able to express yourself creatively and improvising. I was fortunate to develop those skills pretty early on in my development, but unless you’re regularly jamming or getting in front of an audience and situations where you have to play something or perform, then you may not get there as quickly. Those are valuable skills.
Christopher: For sure. I think the other thing to keep in mind is that there’s just such a mindset barrier for a lot of musicians. We have this cultural idea of talent and whether you have a gift for music. For a lot of people that means they never even consider improvising or learning to write songs because they feel like “I tried it once and it didn’t work and therefore I’m not talented”. This comes up a lot with singing too. People think they just can’t sing. The reality is all of this stuff is learnable. You need to kind of break past that emotional barrier and understand that it’s not a question of I have it or I don’t. It’s all stuff that you can learn with the right resources and the right guidance and a bit of hard work and persistence.
David: You create a lot of content, including articles and training modules for Musical U. And as I understand it, you’re also answering questions for the community. So, as an experienced content creator myself, I know how easy it can be to spread yourself too thin even if you enjoy the process. Have you encountered any challenges connected to creating and delivering regular content?
Christopher: That’s a great question. It has been challenging at times. I think in a way I was lucky because, just to give a bit of background, I discovered this thing called ear training only in my 20s when I’d already been a musician for 10 or 15 years.
And so, when I started my company, I was very conscious that I knew a reasonable amount and I knew enough to kind of guide the company, but there were only so many articles I really felt expert enough to write. And so, from almost the beginning I was hiring music educators much more experienced than myself to create content for our website. And so, there was still kind of editing and formatting and marketing work to be done that fell on my shoulders, but it was kind of a collaborative thing from the beginning. I have over the years written articles.
At this point, I’m the host of our podcast The Musicality Podcast. That is very much on me to create that content. Likewise, with the training modules inside Musical U, a lot of that was my writing and creating training tracks and developing the interactive widget to test you on your skills and all of that. It’s kind of fluctuated over the years, but I do have to certainly give credit at this point to my team that helped me. We have a content editor, an assistant content editor, communications manager.
And so, we’re only able to publish at the volume we do because I have that team around me. A lot of the raw material isn’t coming from me. A lot of the important legwork of turning it into a publishable thing is also not on me.
David: Right. So, there’s two things there. Probably, one is be careful not to burn out as you’re creating that content. The second thing is have a great team, if that’s a possibility, to help you put it all together.
Christopher: For sure. It depends a lot on your brand. I’ve always been careful not to turn into kind of a guru brand. There are a lot of companies where it is one figurehead. “If you follow my three-step plan you can be just like me.” We are not that at all. I don’t hold myself up as the perfect example of what you can achieve. I’m more of a coach or a guide. That gives me a lot more flexibility to build the brand independent of me.
And so, while I enjoy creating the content and I enjoy putting myself in there as part of the company, it’s not always on me to be the head on camera or the author of the article. So, I think that gives a lot more flexibility.
David: I remember you talking about that on the blog as well. I think it is very important to be clear on your intentions as well as what people are buying into when they come to the community or the website. Is it you they are buying into? Or are they buying into more of the idea of sharing ideas and concepts with each other? I like that a lot. And it’s just about positioning. Understanding where you stand in the grand scheme of things.
We sometimes geek out about this on the podcast, so what tools and apps do you use to run your business?
Christopher: Hmm. We all got to have to geek out. If I think about my day to day, we’re definitely a Google Apps company in the sense that we use Gmail for all of our email. We use Google Drive for file storage. We use Google Calendar.
But on top of that, we’re heavy users of Trello. So, that content calendar we publish five times a week, and all of that is managed on a Trello board where we go from kind of raw idea through to edit our first draft article, through the edited article, through to format it, through to published, through to promote it. We have a similar thing for the podcast to make sure everything gets out on time. There’s a place to discuss each item in a dedicated area without having a thousand emails going back and forth.
So, Trello is fantastic for that publishing side of things, and also for some of the product development at Musical U. What modules do we have on the way? What bugs need fixing? All of that kind of stuff.
Aside from those two, I guess Slack would be the next big one. At this point, our team is six people. I realized at some point last year when we were kind of growing fast, to two or three people mark, that you really need to be conscious of developing a company culture of some kind. I don’t mean that in the sense of having a formal document stating how the company behaves and how to communicate. I just mean in the sense that it’s easy with a remote team to feel quite isolated. That’s fine you know. Everyone can independently feel okay with that, but it means you don’t kind of get the water cooler chitchat. You don’t get to know people on a personal level that you’re working with.
And for us, Slack is really fantastic for that because it means we have one place we can chat. We can chat about work stuff. We can chat about non-work stuff. I think it lets us all feel like we’re part of a team rather than all just doing a job.
David: I’ve probably talked to a dozen or a couple dozen business owners that talked about Trello and using it as their content sort of scheduling tool or content workflow tool, which is cool. I think as a small team in my case, we don’t have utility for it just yet, but we’ll get there.
Christopher: You might be surprised I was using… Yeah, I was using Trello to manage our content calendar, but it was just me and a part time person doing the formatting. I don’t remember… I’m not sure they were even looking at Trello, but just for me to keep track of that pipeline it was really valuable.
Because I think for us the critical thing is you can toggle between just lists of cards and a calendar view. So, once you put a due date on a card, it appears on the calendar view, and that just means you have those two views. You have a view of things that are going to happen and what stage are they at. And even just for my own sake of keeping track of things, I found it really valuable.
David: Okay. It’s worth another look then.
On your blog you have a great post about the Dynamite Circle. I would encourage any entrepreneurs listening to this to go and read it, but talk about how the Dynamite Circle benefited you. And for those listening who have never heard of it, what is it?
Christopher: Sure. Entrepreneurial life can be quite lonely, as I’m sure you’ve experienced yourself and some of our listeners here on The New Music Industry Podcast have. I think it’s particularly tricky when you are a bootstrapped entrepreneur.
What I found was I was living in London, I was making ends meet with my company. That’s not that easy to do in London. It’s not a low cost of living, but I was getting by. But what I found was when I tried to connect with other entrepreneurs in person, I’d go to these meetup events where it was all kind of… Ridiculously, it was kind of the Silicon Valley model of startups. Everyone had in mind “I’m going to come up with an idea. Then I’m going to run around and pitch for funding. Maybe some angels will invest, or some VCs will invest. And then, I can do my thing.”
It was either that or it was hobbyists who kind of had a cool thing, but they didn’t have any interest or ideas about how to monetize it and actually make a living with it.
And so, I found it a bit frustrating because I’m actually not naturally someone who really needs that personal connection all that much. I’m an introvert. I’m happy to just do my own thing. But when you’re at that early stage and you’ve got a lot of self-doubt and you’ve got a lot of kind of mindset stuff to work through with the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur and running your own business, I definitely wanted to talk to some people who had made it work or at least were going through the same thing I was once in a while.
And so, the Dynamite Circle is an online community. But what’s most notable about it maybe is that it is very much not necessarily bootstrapped, but very much kind of self-funded entrepreneurs who are doing their own location-independent businesses, which for the most part means an online business. A website might be selling info products, might be selling consultancy services, might be doing e-commerce on Amazon. But the point is it’s a community that combines that kind of business with traveling the world.
I learned about it through that podcast. There’s a podcast called The Tropical MBA. It’s changed a bit in the last year or two. It’s turned into more of a highly produced NPR style storytelling podcast, which is fantastic, but just to give the context, it started out with these two guys, Dan and Ian, basically just sharing their entrepreneurial journey as they sold cat furniture online.
And so, you got to… That for me at the time really gave me that connection, because other podcast like Mixergy, for example, is huge and they get amazing guests and really great conversations, but again it’s that kind of VC massive model that I just found hard to relate to.
Whereas the Tropical MBA, it was talking about how do you do SEO, how do you experiment with AdWords to see if it’s right for your business, how do you learn to write marketing copy that’s affective and not sleazy. All of those things that I was dealing with day to day, I actually had someone to listen to on the subject and that was great.
What I realized gradually, because they’re not very prominent about promoting it, but eventually I discovered they have an online community called the Dynamite Circle or the DC. It’s basically forums, like there’s not a lot more to it in terms of the website, but it is forums packed with around a thousand entrepreneurs at varying stages. There have been multimillion dollar exits, but there are also people who are paying the bills and trying to get into six figures. But all of this kind of internet business location-independent type.
Suddenly, I found… Even if only online I was able to surround myself with the people who were going through what I was going through. And so then, getting into weekly masterminds and having one on one calls with people, I felt like I had finally found a place where I could relate to the people and learn things and have a bit of company on that entrepreneurial rollercoaster.
David: I’ve listened to that podcast quite a bit myself. I don’t listen to as many podcasts these days. As much as I love the medium, I think I’ve absorbed a lot of information at this point and it’s either like taking action on it or kind of discarding it as not being totally relevant to my situation or where I am right now. But that was one that I enjoyed a lot. I always heard them talk about the DC. The DC, right? I was like “Okay. That’s cool.” Online community for entrepreneurs. Just like you said, a place where maybe not the misfits but people who are approaching it a little bit differently or thinking about it differently can go to meet and talk about it which I think is incredible.
You talked about loneliness, which I have other entrepreneurial friends in my life, and we talk regularly, and it seems like almost a weekly discussion on loneliness comes up. But you know, I’m kind of sitting there going, “At least we have each other.” We have kind of a support group.
Christopher: Absolutely, yeah.
David: If you want to build a business – and this is a question that will come up a bit later – but you kind of need to prioritize certain things in life over others if you want to move that thing forward. What other resources or tools have you found helpful in building your business?
Christopher: I would have to give huge credit to podcasts I think. I’ve heard it said that there isn’t a university for entrepreneurship, or at least there isn’t an effective course for learning it. It’s not something we get taught in schools. You can certainly learn from books, and I’m a big reader too, but for me if what you need to know is a mix of kind of tactical and strategic and mindset, and you’re also craving that connection with other people who are in the same experience you are – because for most of us, I think our friends and family in real life probably aren’t really immersed in that. I think you’re very lucky to have friends who are entrepreneurial, but I think for me, certainly, there’s very few people in my friends and family before I joined the DC who were at all oriented in that way. So, for me, podcasts provide that. They provide the tactics, you know? What’s the latest in Facebook ads? They provide the strategy. Like the story of how one guy grew his business from his basement into a six figure or seven figure company.
They provide the mindset of what’s normal. Is it normal to wake up most days feeling a bit crappy about where your business is at? Or is that a real sign for concern? Is it normal to be three years in and still just scraping by? Or, does that mean you’re in completely the wrong path? That kind of thing, as much personal development as you do, I think it’s still useful to have those kinds of benchmarks of what is. If not normal at least acceptable. What you should consider is tolerable and what should be a warning sign for you in terms of mindset and how you’re getting on with your business.
David: Yeah. Those are such huge questions and ones that people don’t always get to ask.
I love what you said about not being a formula for entrepreneur. I mean I’ve seen some of the courses out there. I used to be a theater technician at a university, so I saw some entrepreneurial sort of things going on. I looked at it and I said, “But they’re not thinking about expenses. How come they’re being taught to like build a business when they don’t even consider their own time?” So, there’s just so many things out there. It’s not easy to navigate when in a way entrepreneurship can’t be taught. You kind of have to go and do it to learn it.
Christopher: It’s funny that there’s… you know, business has been around as long as humans have, but the traditional model is so irrelevant in a lot of ways. Yes, you can go get an MBA. Yes, you can study how to grow a business with funding. Yes, you can follow the kind of Silicon Valley path of kind of ideation and pitching and fundraising and then developing. Or you can do a very traditional brick and mortar business where you are going to open a bakery. And you kind of know how bakery works. You’re not going to experience the same angst on a daily basis that you do if you’re doing something completely new and innovative. There is all of that tradition.
For me, it definitely took a few years to really feel okay with the fact that I wasn’t learning from that, and I wasn’t doing it the traditional way. Because until you’ve really studied that stuff, I think it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder that “Oh, I don’t have an MBA. I don’t really understand the P&L yet, so should I really be running a business?”
The reality is internet business and the modern kind of tech oriented – or at least internet leveraging business – is so different from those traditional approaches. If you’re bootstrapping, it’s so different from fundraising. It’s so different from the kind of friends and family giving you some money to get started approach.
I think for me, podcasts, and in the last few years more and more books are really the only place that truly represent what that kind of business is like.
David: Great point.
Anyone who listens to my podcasts knows I’m not one to dodge the difficult questions. On your blog you talk about 2012 being a bit of a roller coaster ride. Now, I remember 2011 being a rough year for me also. So, I think I get a sense of where you’re coming from, but talk about that experience and what you learned from it.
Christopher: It’s unnerving that you’ve read my personal blog. I’ve written a lot for my company about musicality. I’ve been on a few podcasts talking about the entrepreneurship side but I kind of assume no one reads my personal blog.
In 2012, if I’m remembering that timeline correctly, it was a really tough year emotionally for me and my business. At that point, I had been running for a few years. I had had a couple of really successful iPhone apps. I brought in some money, but I was living in London, so there was a lot of financial pressure. I was… Like I said before, I was hiring people from the outside. I was hiring freelancers to help with creating content and stuff that I wasn’t skillful enough to do myself.
And so, it meant… I felt guilty anytime I took money out of the business which meant I didn’t have much of a salary for myself. I had come from a pretty well-paid job in audio R&D working for a company in Cambridge. I had kind of jumped shift from a potentially very successful career trajectory, and a very financially rewarding career trajectory. So, I was always faced with that question of, “Am I doing something really stupid here when I should’ve just stayed in a day job and have that nice salary that would give me a comfortable life?” I was kind of grappling with that. I had had I suppose enough success to convince me there was the potential to do great things. I certainly still really had that emotional drive for the mission.
I looked around and I was so frustrated that so many musicians gave up because they felt they weren’t talented or they felt bored and frustrated because they never discovered they could learn to play by ear. The stuff I saw when I looked around online was still so backwards and lacking. There were only a few websites. I’d like to think I was included that really showed people a better way to do it. So, I kind of had that conflict of feeling like it’s not going so well but I really want it to work.
And so, in 2012, I went through an accelerator program. This is probably a good example of where the mold just doesn’t quite fit. This was very well-respected program in London. It’s called The Accelerator Academy. Although it didn’t work great for me, I wouldn’t have a bad word to say about it. It’s a very successful program for a lot of people who go through it. But it’s geared towards kind of transforming business from the early concept stage through to where you can go out and pitch for funding. Mostly to angel investors rather than VC.
For me it was super valuable, because in eight or 12 weeks we kind of ticked all the boxes of the traditional stuff. Like, what traditionally should you know about marketing? What traditionally should you know about branding? What traditionally does it mean to run your finances for your company? So, it was kind of a masterclass in the traditional way of doing things. And to their credit it’s not completely backwards brick and mortar stuff. They are very tech savvy and internet aware, but still the teaching I got was filling in that bit that I’d missed out on in terms of traditional MBA type business training.
It was a really useful course, but I got to the end and I kind of realized I didn’t want funding. It sounds funny to say, but you know, having worked up my business plan and my slide deck and prepared a pitch and done a pitch a couple of times and sat down one on one with a few investors, I realized in my heart I was a bootstrapper. Like I didn’t necessarily want to be answerable to someone else. But more than that, I knew there was still a lot of risk in my business, and I hadn’t quite figured things out yet. I just didn’t feel comfortable gambling with someone else’s money. Like even if you’re very upfront about what stage you’re at, it’s a very different thing to get up each day and be like “Oh, I’ll try this out. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it won’t. It’s my salary on the line.”
Compared with: I’ve taken however many thousands of pounds from these investors, I better make sure we turn a profit by the end of the year or I better make sure we get to breakeven. I just realized that given the amount of experimentation I knew I still needed to do, I did not want to be at that funded stage and answering to investors who were very much focused on the financials.
It was a bit of a brutal year just because I kind of put my heart and soul into this particular trajectory only to realize it wasn’t working out. At the same time, I was kind of scraping by doing a bit of consultancy to pay the bills, and still just heart and soul committed to this mission.
And so, I think for any entrepreneur when you pursue a big project like that and realize it’s not going to work out, that causes a lot of kind of self-doubt and anxiety and stress. I think that’s probably where I was at when I wrote that blog post.
David: I once invested in a company with the model that you just described, basically a startup that was being funded by outside sources or other business owners. I invested in it, and I was sort of an honorary founder but sort of not. In retrospect, I really wished we would have bootstrapped, not that it was my decision, but if it was, that’s what we would have done, because we took a lot of money, wasted it, and didn’t really get anywhere with our business. It was kind of painful in the end, but you can’t bet 1,000 in investing. That’s just the reality of it.
In connection with the last question, talk about entrepreneurial depression and what we can do to cope with it.
Christopher: Yeah. Well, I’m going to assume that our listeners are somewhat in the same boat as us in that whatever type of musician they are they are trying to build a business around it. Whether that is through teaching or developing courses or being a successful recording artist or a session musician. They are taking on that kind of entrepreneurial responsibility that says, “I’m not going to expect anyone else to guarantee to pay my bills. I’m going to take responsibility for that. I am going to find ways to deliver enough value that I get enough money that I can cover my own living costs.”
Assuming that, I think probably a lot of our listeners have encountered this question of depression or low mood. I’m always a little bit careful to use the word “depression”, just because there is clinical depression. I think although opinions vary about where to draw the line, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a clinical psychologist and very expert on this. I have only the experience for myself of having severe low mood, and what I would informally call depression for periods.
It was surprising to me, because I had not really experienced this previously through school and university life. It was kind of on a steady course. And of course, I was working hard and there were challenges and ups and downs, but my mood was fairly stable looking back. Like I was sometimes happy, sometimes not so happy, but that was about that.
But once I got into entrepreneurship and phased out of my day job to focus full time on it and had that responsibility of paying the bills and making decisions that no one else was going to check for me, and sometimes really big decisions like what product are we going to develop, or what’s our marketing going to be for this year, you know things that can change your salary from 10,000 pounds a month to zero pounds a month.
Faced with that kind of question, I think it just amplifies the ups and downs that maybe I was naturally prone to. But for me, what it looked like in practice was just I would have a week or two, not normally longer, but like I might have a week where I just felt really rubbish about my life and my business. I felt like nothing was going right. I couldn’t really see a way out of it. I could try and talk myself out of it and talk about the possibilities but just emotionally and physically I was feeling really rubbish. As you would well know David, it’s incredibly hard to get up in the morning, feel like that, and then be an effective businessperson.
And doubly so, if you’re creative, if you’re trying to write an article or write a song and you try to put something new out there into the world and that’s how you’re feeling, it’s incredibly hard. And of course, that’s just a vicious circle that goes around and around. Then you feel low self-worth because you’re not getting anything done. That’s kind of where I was at.
Then certainly in 2012, that’s kind of something I was coping with periodically. They say that for entrepreneurs, the highs are much higher, and the lows are much lower. That’s definitely been my experience. I also had weeks where I’d have a great successful product launch or something, and I felt fantastic, and I felt such faith and confidence that the business was working out and I made the right decision, and then two weeks later something happens that totally scuppers my confidence and I have a really low week.
For me, I guess if I can offer any advice on the topic, there are two major things. One is personal development and mindfulness meditation. It was huge thing for me. I don’t think I’ve ever given any credibility to personal development books than teaching up until I became an entrepreneur, because I hadn’t really needed to. I had my friends and family around me. I was on a career path. I kind of just did what I was expected to do each day.
But when you’re out in that wilderness of anything is possible, that anything can happen, I realized quite quickly if I was going to be effective each day, I really needed to self-manage in a way I’ve never needed to before. Personal development stuff like affirmations and goal setting and weekly check-ins of how you’re doing and what you’re working on, all of that kind of stuff is so important for an entrepreneur. It just transformed my ability to function reliably.
Mindfulness meditation in particular was a big part of that. Just learning to be self-aware and understand that the thoughts that pop into your head aren’t always true and aren’t always helpful. Gaining the ability to see the thought come and decide for yourself whether to give it any time and energy. That made a really big difference to how well I was able to manage my mood. That for me was a huge thing. And yes, something I’d encourage anyone listening to get involved with even if it seems a bit cheesy or woo woo. That was definitely transformational for me.
I think the other thing I’d say is just, my company is at a pretty good stage now and certainly we haven’t achieved all I want to, but in the last couple of years, I’ve reached a stage, really reached a size where the financials are a lot more predictable. That has also made a huge difference to not have money going up and down the way my mood was has just let me be a lot more relaxed and kind of take things as they come and have a bit more confidence that my company is going to be around next month or next year even if this project doesn’t work out.
And so, I just say you will get to that stage if you persist, where some of that burden is lifted. And there’s still all of that intense self-pressure to achieve and make it the most it can be. But at the same time, it doesn’t have to be “Oh, crap. I’m overdrawn again. Everything is terrible. I’m going to fail.” You do reach a stage where things become a bit more stable. That for me has also really helped with controlling the mood.
David: Those are some great tips.
I also recently wrote an article on Music Industry How To on how to deal with depression as a musician. This was a deeply personal piece so, if that’s something that might appeal to you, I definitely encourage the listeners to go and have a read on that. And like you say, there is a difference between let’s say circumstantial depression and clinical depression. I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist myself so.
Christopher: Yeah. And it’s a tricky one because I think it’s really tough for entrepreneurs to admit. What I’d like seeing is since 2012 and even around that time we were starting to finally see people admit that they felt low mood and informally that they were depressed. I think because there is the very serious clinical depression and because as a society we’re not very good at acknowledging mental health issues, don’t reflect on your character or your ability or who you are as a person they are an illness of types. I’ve really valued that the people are stepping forward and saying “This is actually a normal part of entrepreneurship. It’s something you can cope with. There are strategies you can use to help you through it.”
David: Awesome. That’s great.
This is kind of a selfish question, because this is something I think about too, but what are some of the challenges of balancing your music and business life? Or what are the challenges of them being so interconnected?
Christopher: The main challenge for me is that trying to run a successful business takes most of your time. Even if you’re working smart and trying to apply 80/20 and make sure all of your time is put to maximum use and maximize effectiveness. The 4-Hour Workweek is not a reality for most people. Even the author, Tim Ferriss, would say it’s about efficiency. It’s not about literally working four hours a week.
And so, for me, it’s been a challenge, because on the one hand I love music and I love learning music and I always want to improve my own skills, but I have a business to run. I have a family that I want to spend time with, and those are my top two priorities. Music in so far is something separate from my business is number three for me.
Unfortunately, my business is music related, and so I get a lot of ear training. I get a lot of music chat. I get a lot of chance to play an instrument or try something out as part of my genuine work, but in terms of you know, sitting down for an hour and really getting better at my instrument or in terms of really pursuing playing in a group or something like that, it’s just not something I can realistically fit in at this stage of my business.
David: Yeah, absolutely.
This is a conversation I’ve been having over the course of the summer, because I realize that some people I know, and some friends and entrepreneurs don’t necessarily guard their time quite as closely as I do.
We’ve got these conversations about our inner circle. How closely do you guard your inner circle? How careful are you about the people you regularly interact with and draw from? Even as an introvert I know that’s still an important thing.
Christopher: More and more I guess is the short answer. Certainly, 2009 when I started my company I was in very much the standard cultural model of I have friends, I have family. If someone invites me out, I’ll go out. I’ll probably go out a few times a week. I’ll spend my free time watching TV and doing relaxing things. In my day job I’ll do my work.
As soon as you make that shift to entrepreneurs and taking responsibility for your own success in life, like fully taking responsibility for that, you do have to start to question – well, there’s only so many hours in the day, what do I truly care about? What’s really going to get me to the life I want to have? That is socially very difficult.
At that podcast we mentioned that there’s been couple of good episodes of the Tropical MBA talking about this. It’s not easy to say to one of your high school friends “Actually, I’m not going to come to your kid’s birthday party.” But if you know that you can do five hours work in that time and that might have a transformative effect on your business success in the next few months, you kind of have to prioritize that if your business is truly what you want to succeed with.
And so, socially it creates a lot of tension. I think thankfully I have not been an extroverted person who is kind of the life of the party every party, and so it was relatively easy for me to just kind of tone down my social activity when we were living in London.
Then I kind of cheated by moving abroad. We were living in Ecuador for a little while, just my wife and I. There, I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have a social scene. Culturally, we have such baggage. Literally, right now, I feel really guilty saying it, but I didn’t have to see anyone. I could just focus on my work. I had time with my wife in the evenings. That was enough for me for a year or two there.
It was so much easier to focus when I didn’t have those expectations around me. I was able to 100% choose who am I going to talk to online in this case and who is in the same mindset as I am so that when we have a conversation it’s not just general chitchat, and you know what restaurant did you go to lately, and let’s make conversation for the sake of hanging out socially.
It’s let’s talk about the three things that are really important to you right now and see if we can help with them. It is more masterminding and one on one calls with people who like me were really driven to achieve a particular thing. That makes me sound super anal and A-type and antisocial. I’m sorry for that because I’m not. At the same time, if you want to have as much success as possible with your business or with your creative projects, you do have to be quite honest with yourself about what matters most, what are you going to prioritize, and what can you get away with saying no to?
David: So true.
This is connected to something you hinted already. But as a business owner we know we have to prioritize our businesses. So, what’s one thing you wish you could spend more time on that you feel is being neglected in your life right now?
Christopher: Number one would definitely be music. At a fairly sustainable stage with my business in terms of priorities, so I have a wife and I have a young daughter, and I’ve moved to actually taking a day off each week, which is a big change for me in the last few years, and also just kind of cutting loose at 6:30 each evening so that I can spend time with my daughter before she goes to bed. And so, that kind of gives a structure to my life that automatically allocates my time pretty well to keep those two priorities top.
But if I had an extra day of the week, it would be music day. I love learning new instruments. I’ve been playing bass this year and taking lessons with an online teacher. That’s just been so much fun for me. I wish I had more hours each day just to put into that. Yeah. I think there’s other things.
I’m living in Mexico City at the moment and my Spanish is conversational, but it could be a lot better. I wish I was better at Spanish. My workouts are really important to me, but at the moment they’re crammed into 30 minutes at the start of each day and that’s all I have time for. That’s fine. It’s sustainable but if I had extra time, I’d love to be doing more serious training on that front.
If I lived in an ideal world, I’d love to be able to spend more time with my family and my nieces and nephews. So, there’s always that laundry list that you feel guilty for not spending enough time on.
And you know, laundry list is maybe not the right term, but there’s a big list of things you really actually care about a lot, but there’s only so many places at the top of that list, and there’s only so many hours in the day.
David: I personally know entrepreneurs who want both a successful business and an incredible lifestyle. You would think that’s every entrepreneur, but it’s not. Some people want it more than others to be able to have that flexibility. Some people just want to be serial entrepreneurs. I do believe this is possible to achieve, but getting there can take time and patience. What is your advice to someone who wants to build a business but also live free?
Christopher: I’m hesitating because it’s an important question. I think there’s a couple of business coaches I really put stock in. One is Dan Sullivan of The Strategic Coach. He says that the primary driver for an entrepreneur is freedom. They want full freedom to do what they want to do in life.The primary driver for an entrepreneur is freedom. Click To Tweet
And the second is Tim Conley. He used to run the Foolish Adventure Podcast, and now has a great coaching program. He has a framework of three freedoms – time, income, and mobility. And so, he very much is teaching that same thing. What you’re trying to achieve through your business is almost certainly freedom in one or more of those dimensions. You want enough money to spend on what you want to spend. You want the ability to manage your own time. You want to be able to go where you want to go when you want to go there. That definitely rings true for me. I think as you say, it takes time and patience to get to ultimate freedom. But I think what I’d say is it probably doesn’t take as much time as you might imagine.
And so, for me, moving abroad is a good example of that. It’s not something everyone wants to do, but it does show how once you are your own boss and once you’re paying your bills you can totally transplant yourself if you have an internet based business to a different place, and you have total freedom of location. You can also wake up when you want. As long as you get the work done, your hours are your own. You choose what to spend them on. You choose which hours are going to be work hours, which days are going to be work days. And so, almost from the beginning you have that freedom of time.
And of course, like Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. You immediately feel that pressure to spend every hour as well as it can possibly be spent. But you do ultimately have that freedom to decide for yourself where to draw the line. I think the ultimate free lifestyle where you can live on a beach, do four hours work a day, and spend whatever money you want to do is attainable and it will take time. But for me, it doesn’t really matter because actually as an entrepreneur you have incredible freedom from day one and you can increase that over time as your business grows and becomes more successful.As an entrepreneur, you have incredible freedom from day one and you can increase it over time. Click To Tweet
David: That’s a wonderful perspective. I love that.
One more thing about mindset. I believe that your competitors in business aren’t really your competitors but your partners. Based on things you’ve talked about on your blog, you seem to share that belief. What does it mean to have an abundance mindset?
Christopher: I think this is something that has also been really powerful for me in my journey as an entrepreneur, and something I think I would credit the Tropical MBA. That kind of personal development work with is something that sounds very woo-woo when you hear it. Think abundantly. Everything’s wonderful. No problems. No shortages. It’s easy to dismiss, but fundamentally what it boils down to is truly believing that it’s not a zero-sum game.
Competition is a great example of that where when you saw in business you can feel very threatened by other people in your market or other people you feel are competing with you. But the reality is like, to get concrete I know that even if someone comes to Musical U, joins, has a fantastic experience training their musicality, and we’re providing them with all they could possibly want, they’re going to buy other products. They’re going to buy music magazines. They’re going to buy little apps for their iPhone. That’s just the nature of the world. And it means buying my thing doesn’t mean they’re not buying a competitor’s or vice versa.
It literally is not a zero-sum game. Yes, they have a limited amount of money to spend on their hobby and there are restrictions, but over the course of their life, they might buy every product out there. Once that clicked for me, and once I realized that I don’t gain anything by taking that scarcity mindset of worrying of someone else taking my stuff or there isn’t enough to go around, or I’m not going to get everything I need, and shifted to an abundance mindset of there is plenty to go around. Me getting something doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t or vice versa. We can all win. And the way to do that is more through collaboration than competition.
Once that clicked in my head, a) I felt a lot less stressed and anxious, and b) I was able to have much greater success. It’s not just a woo-woo, wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-feel-this-way thing. It is a very practical approach to business that leads to much greater success for everyone involved.
David: This has been an amazing conversation. I knew it would be based on the research I was doing on you. Thank you so much for being on the show. Is there anything else I should have asked?
Christopher: No. I’d just say a big “thank you”. I’m a listener of the New Music Industry Podcast, and a reader of The Music Entrepreneur HQ blog, so it’s a real pleasure to be here with you today, David. Thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation and share some ideas with your audience.
David: Yeah. It’s been great chatting with you. Thank you so much for your generosity.
Learn more about Musical U here.
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