Interview with John Watson – Music Entrepreneur

John started life in the music industry as a teenager working in an independent record store in Townsville.  After joining several bands and working as a freelance journalist he eventually was employed in the sought after job as A&R manager at Sony records.  In his role at Sony he discovered one of Australia’s most successful bands ‘Silverchair.’ John left Sony in 1995 to manage Silverchair and to start his own record company ‘Eleven.’  Eleven now represents both record company and artist management clients such as Missy Higgins, Paul Mac, Kiss Chasey, Little Birdy and Silverchair.

Can you start by describing the background to the decision to work for yourself rather than working for somebody else?

I left Sony in the middle of 1995 to manage Silverchair full time and to set up my own management company.  In 2000 Silverchair had fulfilled their deal with Sony and weren’t able to come to terms on a new deal, we made the decision to start a record label as well.’ The record company was probably inspired more by Paul Mac’s record than Silverchair.  We had finished Paul Mac’s record and we wanted to set up a split territories deal, no record company would do that for us.  One record label did say that they could do that if we were a label but not as an artist, we said ‘in that case, we’re a label.’ Having the record label allows us to have a greater level of control over how the records are made and marketed.

Did you feel that you had any role models that engendered you with that entrepreneurial spirit and helped to create the desire to work for yourself from the start?

Definitely, the guy who owned the record stores that I worked at in Townsville. A lot of cities have one or two record stores where the store is actually part of the community.  People congregate there to discover new music.  The stores I worked at were like that and Gary was a very important big brother figure for me when I was still in my teens working there.  He had set up stores and had made a real success of them.  They had put out some independent releases, which nobody else was doing in North Queensland at the time, he was very supportive of the idea that even though you were from Townsville you could still put out a record.

Did you receive any formal training or education that assisted in getting the business started?

I don’t know about in the getting started period, I have a degree in politics and if I wanted to be a smart arse could say that that is very handy in the record business.  I did do some law and a couple of subjects towards an MBA as well which comes in sporadically handy, partially the contract law stuff that I did but I wouldn’t overstate it.  I think that like a lot of people who have spent their whole lives in one industry, the practical experience has been more formative to me than the theoretical.

Did you consider some of your personal goals when moving from Sony to Eleven back in 1995?

Yeah, definitely.  Fortunately, at that time of my life, I was 28.  I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids or anything like that, so leaving the security of the job at Sony was less of a leap than it would be now that I am 40 and have 2 kids with another on the way.  The leap was made easier as well by the fact that at that time Silverchair already had a number 1 record in Australia and they were on course to be very successful internationally.  I had the extremely rare opportunity of working within the record company on this project until such time as it was viable to be able to leave the record company and do it full time.  It was much less of a leap than it might have been had I quit the day that we signed them.

So you had, in a way done your market research ahead of time, you already knew that there was a market for them and that the opportunity for a successful venture was already established.

Absolutely, it wasn’t even market research it was just performance. By the time I left Sony, the record was already multi-platinum.  In fact, I had been performing that management role for them, without the title, for quite some time.

Did you perceive any possible weaknesses at that time?  Was there something that particularly worried you about making that leap?

Well, there are always some weaknesses; I think that anybody who writes up the pros and cons of any decision and can’t come up with anything to put in the cons column is just not thinking hard enough.  But it’s a question of balance.  The pros vastly outweighed the cons.  The cons would have been things like; the band was still at school, the history of teenage artists enduring to adult careers is somewhat minimal, very few people in Australia are able to make a sustained career out of artist management.  In the pros column was ‘go and have a look at this band, their amazing,’ and the way that things have transpired in the 12 years since, has been the proof of that I guess./

Have there been any major surprises along the journey so far that you wish that you had been prepared for or wish that you had taken into account that the planning stage of the business?

That’s an interesting question because it requires you to go back and think about what it was that you didn’t know.  There are plenty of things that I would have done differently, but that’s not what your question is asking.  I guess that artist management becomes many different things in many different situations.  The typical glib description of what a manager does is to say that an artist manager does whatever the artist can’t do for themselves or isn’t willing to do for themselves.  That being the case every artist has different capacities and different desires and therefore every manager ends up with a different to-do list.  So the nature of the tasks been performed varies greatly from situation to situation.  I think that probably when I look back on it, in some of those early days with the band I was probably trying a little too hard and in some respects possibly over-servicing the client when I probably should have backed off a little bit for everybody’s sake.

The other thing that remains constant challenge is ‘letting the urgent drive out the important’ which is a greater challenge with information technology as it is today.  It is very easy in management to become overly reactive, to answer everybody’s emails quickly and to return their phone calls quickly, but never get around to actually going out and initiating the things that you are supposed to be initiating in order to grow your client’s careers.

What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur in the start-up phase of their business?

The advice would depend on what the nature of the challenge was.  I think you have got to be incredibly passionate about what you’re doing. You take the leap and encounter all of these challenges that you never expected to come up against.  In order to go through those challenges and to prevail, you need to be really driven and have a real passion for what it is that you are doing.

The other thing that I would say is that I think that most of the time in business when you do things just for the money it turns out to be a mistake.  So I think that setting up a business in the first place just for the money, especially in my area of business where you are dealing with the creative process and dealing with peoples art, you have to have a regard for the work that goes beyond the financial dimension.  I am not saying that the financial dimension isn’t important, but on its own, it can lead you down pathways that you don’t want to go. I think that’s a constant challenge in the Australian music business because the business is so small that a lot of artists end up getting sold short by their managers because the managers try to make ends meet for example by touring when the band’s already overexposed.  So when you’re starting up a new business it is very easy to look to see ‘how can I turn red ink into black ink’ and sometimes you just have to be mindful of that.

The final point that I would say is that it is important to try to grow the business at a manageable rate. My understanding is that a lot of businesses are killed by their own expansion and that success can be the greatest challenge that business ever faces.  How do you gear up enough to take advantage of that success without creating an overhead that is going to end up becoming the thing that crushes you?  My friend in Townville once asked me when discussing a well-know artist that I was thinking about getting involved with “is it a temptation or is it an opportunity.”  I still use that yardstick on an almost daily basis.