Originally published on Forbes.com.
Aspiring musicians want to be rich and famous. Thanks to YouTube, it’s easier than ever to be famous. Rich is a little trickier. In today’s musical landscape, even a successful rock band can struggle to make ends meet. You could have an album reach number 8 on the charts, a song in a Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial and another on a Twilight soundtrack, and open for Radiohead, like the indie band Grizzly Bear, and still struggle to make ends meet. According to New York magazine, Grizzly Bear is “stuck somewhere between “scraping by” and “comfortable enough,” and unsure how they’d ever manage to do things like support families or pay for any children’s educations.”
This is one of the reasons why musicians end up moving to the financial sector. Like many other talented people, they gravitate to jobs where they can apply their smarts and creative energies while enjoying financial security.
Some have decried the societal loss that occurs when talented people go to the financial sector. “The best minds of my generation are using their brainpower in ways that will not make society’s problems better, and could make them worse,” laments Andrew Lohse, a senior at Dartmouth. Universities are also complaining. Whereas their graduates choose to work in finance, they “would much rather have their students changing the world and using their knowledge to do good,” said professor Vivek Wadhwa, who teaches entrepreneurship at Duke and UC Berkeley.
For the past few years, a group of musician-financiers have been challenging the stereotype that a career in finance means choosing money over social good. For the past few years they have been getting together for Rocktoberfest, a night of rock n’ roll and acoustic music to benefit the charity A Leg To Stand On (ALTSO), which provides prosthetic limbs and corrective surgery to disabled children in developing countries. “The financial industry has an incredible amount of energy and there are some smart people in it. If they get together they can move mountains. And if they move them in the right direction its better for the world,” told me Jim McNulty, a singer-songwriter and former president and CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He’ll be playing at this year’s Rocktoberfest in Chicago with his cousin Michael Hayes, a musician who works as a graphic designer in the financial sector.
Rocktoberfest is going into its tenth year in New York (October 23rd at Capitale) and second year in Chicago (October 3rd at House of Blues). The idea is a fundraising battle of the bands. People can view band profiles and listen to music samples on the ALTSO website and then vote for their favorite band when they buy their tickets to the show. The band that raises the most money receives the headlining spot at the show.
ALTSO was founded by C. Mead Welles, president and co-founder of Octagon Asset Management, a financial services company that specializes in global emerging markets, and member of the rock band The Subscribers. Welles was inspired at an early age by people with disabilities. The idea for A Leg To Stand On came to him when he was on a business trip to Indonesia and saw a young boy with no legs. “The boy was completely malnourished, absolutely void of any emotion on his face. He had dirt all over him because he had been on the ground, and his hands were covered with dark dirty scabs because he had been trying to pull himself around.” At that point he decided to create an organization that provides limbs to children whose families cannot afford them.
Since its founding, A Leg To Stand On has helped almost 10,000 children. “When I get out and I travel to these countries,” says Welles, “I hear the feedback of the parents or the children who have gotten treated a year earlier…you realize that you really are changing these people’s lives.”
Ray McKenzie is Vice President at Intercontinental Exchange Futures (ICE) who is also a musician and former owner of the record label Zero Hour Records. “I thought it’s a great way for me to do two things that I love: to help other people and also to play music,” he told me. “I still play with a lot of people but to play in that environment supporting a big cause and on a big stage and for your Wall Street peers was just so exciting.” McKenzie’s band, The Maple Spark, is playing in the Chicago event on October 3rd.
Playing at Rocktoberfest allows musicians-financiers to lend their talents to a great cause and also gives them an opportunity to present themselves more fully and authentically to their colleagues. “When I was 12 years old, I said, ‘I’m going to be a musician — that’s all I’m going to do,’” said McKenzie. “But not everybody has seen me in that light.” At Rocktoberfest, “People come and they say, ‘Wow, I had no idea that you could play and sing and do the things that you do.’”
Another Rocktoberfest performer is Peter Muller, who founded the quantitative investment firm PDT Partners in 1993. After a few intense years in finance, he took time off in 2001 to focus on music. “I became a singer-songwriter. I hosted a weekly song-writing circle in Manhattan. I put out a couple of albums and started gigging,” he told me. “Then I realized that I kind of missed the quantitative finance business. So I ended up going back with the promise that I’m going to keep playing music.” Muller still plays once a month at Caffe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village and performed at last year’s Rocktoberfest in New York.
Like other musicians on Wall Street, Muller sees synergies between music and business. “The successes in business come from that place of being completely immersed and also completely open. Then all of a sudden something really cool pops in and you just have to let go. You’re just a conduit, a channel for the great idea, the great solo, the great change in business strategy,” said Muller, whose music training was in piano improvisation.
Business experience also helps with the music. Jim McNulty said of his cousin, “Michael Hayes is a task master in the recording studio. When you’re in there with Michael it’s like being in a design studio where you’ve got a project and it has to be done in a certain amount of time. You do it until you get it right. It’s a very rigorous approach.”
For these financiers, Wall Street’s ability to attract top talent doesn’t mean that society loses out. “If you do something that you’re passionate about and you’re filled with joy and excitement when you’re doing it, you’re doing the best thing you can do for the world,” Muller told me. “I like building, I like creating. I like mentoring. And I think you should pick the thing that you do that puts you in the happiest most honest state most of the time and that’s the most use you can be to the world.”
Adds McNulty, “To take care of 10,000 kids is a huge step in the right direction for the world.”
Visit A Leg To Stand On to purchase tickets to Rocktoberfest Chicago and New York, vote for a band, or to donate.