Originally published on Forbes.com.
Jesse Metthewson sits under the bright glare of tiny florescent lights strung along the brick wall behind him at Reggie’s Rock Club in Chicago, where T-shirts hang folded up in neat rows. His head is shaved around the sides and back, and his right arm is covered with tattoos. He gives me a welcoming hug and politely thanks me for coming to the show. I pick a shirt depicting a woman whose head morphs into a rhinoceros head. “What size was that?” asks a perky young man with short hair named Dale. “Medium,” I answer, and he promptly notes this on a clipboard in which the band keeps track of their sales and inventory. Back in Winnipeg, Canada, Dale is a seventh-grade teacher.
I get the impression that KEN mode, Matthewson’s hardcore noise rock/thrash metal band, does not sell a lot of mediums. The crowd is 85% men and they wear their shirts loose upon their tattooed bodies.
KEN mode played Pitchforkearlier that day and Matthewson’s voice is shot. In a barely audible hoarse whisper, he introduces me to his brother, Shane Matthewson, who drums for the band, “He’s the one who looks like an accountant.” Which he is.
In fact both Jesse and Shane have Bachelor’s of Commerce degrees, the Canadian version of a BBA. Jesse specialized in marketing, Shane in accounting. Both of their parents are accountants as well, and the pair is quantitatively minded. “It’s cool getting to apply the knowledge you’re learning at school to your own business,” says Jesse. Their small business is their band.
Jesse writes lyrics, plays guitar and sings, Shane plays drums, and Andrew LaCour plays bass. Jesse’s background in marketing is evident in their tight branding. In band photographs they stare ominously. Their videos pay homage to the archetypes of the horror genre: women running in the woods at night, looking back in fright, a man in a suit chopping up a body with an axe, an occult ceremony involving blood, animal skulls, and torches. Onstage, Jesse growls and screams lyrics railing against middle class complacency while playing his guitar so fast his right hand fades into a blur.
The band’s package of horror and madness is so complete it is borderline ironic. Yet it is also sincere. KEN mode plays its music with the mature comfort of artists who have settled on the perfect medium for their self-expression, like Robert Mapplethorpe when he replaced his paintbrush with a camera.
As for any small business, the odds are against success for a rock band, especially in heavy metal. “For a band that makes the subversive kind of music that we do, we’re starting off in harder territory than pop or country,” says Jesse. The Matthewson brothers have compensated for metal’s relative marginality by putting their business education to good use. They write detailed business and marketing plans, including a brand strategy that streamlines their logo, image, merchandise, and their online presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Their accounting is “squeaky clean” and they use data-based decision-making to run their merchandise sales, a key source of income for young touring bands.
Their savvy is paying off. They haven’t held day jobs for a couple of years. In 2012, they won the Juno Award – the Canadian version of a Grammy – for Best Heavy Metal/Hard Music Album. As Shane says, “Knowledge is power. When you’re able to analyze data and use what is going on to your advantage, that’s a good thing.”
The Matthewson brothers represent a new breed of musicians. The era where a band could subsist on a haze of inspiration, perspiration, and intoxication, leaving all business matters to their manager ended the day the first mp3 file made its way across a copper cable. Record labels can no longer afford to subsidize new artists for a few years while they develop musically and grow their audience. Artists now have to do that on their own. Technology enables artists to create and disseminate music relatively cheaply, but they need business acumen to be able to sell their music, grow their audience, and devise a living on their own. And with less money going around, a manager is just too expensive.
The current generation of artists has also learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. In a recent New York Times interview, Billy Joel reflected on how not paying attention to the business side of music cost him more than $30 million. “I always had this sense that O.K., I’m an artist and I shouldn’t have to be concerned about something as banal as money,” Joel said, “Which is baloney. It’s my job. It’s what I do. I didn’t pay any attention to it, and I trusted other people, and I got screwed.”
The Matthewson brothers, in contrast, delve deep into the fine print. They spent seven months negotiating their contract with their French record label, Season of Mist. Most bands borrow money from their record label to record their album in exchange for the rights to the music. The band then pays its debt to the record label from the royalties it earns on the album. Because of their business acumen, KEN mode financed the making of their album themselves and maintained ownership of their own music.
Unlike KEN mode, most bands do not form out of business school, and accountants are relatively rare among rock musicians. Those who lack business skills are at a real disadvantage. How can musicians learn the business skills they need to make a living from music?
In the second article in this series, I present three types of educational programs that have sprung up to address the need to teach musicians to be more business minded. In the third and final article, I reflect on what gets lost when musicians turn their time and energy toward running their band as a business.