Yes… It CAN be done!

I was reading the news today, about how a billionaire by the name of Isaac Larian and a couple of other investors are pledging $200 million to try to save around 400 of the remaining Toys “R” Us stores.  According to Larian, “This is an American icon that needs to be saved.”  Apparently they have set up a GoFundMe page, which is here.

Larien is the CEO of MGA Entertainment, a successful toy making company behind such brands as Bratz dolls and Little Tike.

What struck me as interesting about this article was not just the act – which is pretty cool unto itself – but the drive and passion behind his decision to do this.

What caught my attention, however, was one of the comments that he made:

“During my life as an entrepreneur, I was often told that something couldn’t be done, that no doll could challenge Barbie.  And we’d still get it done.”

That statement really, really hit close to home.  I wish I could count the number of times I have been told that throughout my life.  Myself being creative and driven, it was frustrating to me when I would present an amazing idea, and that idea would not be embraced, but instead would be shot down because either (a) the person didn’t think of it, (b) because they were afraid to rock the boat, or (c) they felt threatened.

I recall working for EDS (Electronic Data Systems) in the mid 90s.  As a tech guy, I had been a contractor for some time and eventually they offered me a full time job.  I ended up taking it, working as the sole employee reporting to a mid-level manager who was in charge of something called “Infocenter.”  This was an internal electronic bulletin board system, that you could probably compare to AOL at the time, which allowed information and files to be shared across EDS’s tens of thousands of employees.  It was actually pretty innovative at the time.  I became the administrator of that system.

However, once I wrapped my arms around it, I was shocked as to how low tech that the system was actually being rolled out to the users.  Instead of capitalizing on EDS’s state of the art intranet – a network that spanned the globe and connected all of the EDS offices – my superior had been distributing the software via diskette and then mailing it.  I couldn’t believe it.  This company was spending, or rather wasting, no doubt hundreds of thousands of dollars a year instead of just sending the required software digitally.

Well, being the disruptive and slightly rebellious but nevertheless innovative person that I am, I of course brought this to my boss, who was terrified of trying anything different.  In fact, he had a complete meltdown after I showed him the amount of money the company could save.  And when I mean meltdown, I mean bad.  And, needless to say, I got the boot.  It was a hard lesson learned, but I knew that I was right.

Fortunately, a later engagement at Sabre/American Airlines was better.  I joined that company in 1998 or so, as a network engineer, helping to roll out the network they were building to airports and travel agencies.  It was a significant job.  During the course of my work, I discovered that the method in which they were accounting for TCP/IP addresses and really the entire methodologies for deployment was very manual and many processes were needlessly repeated.  So, I took it upon myself, on my own time, to write and design a web-based application that I dubbed “Warped,” for “Wide Area Router Production and Design”.

This is where things started to change for me.  Instead of being booted, my superiors at the time saw this benefit and not only blessed the system, but promoted me.  After the ordeal at EDS I was shocked, but very happy about it obviously.  And this is where my life completely changed.

One of my fellow engineers suggested that this system was so good, that I should take the invention, patent it, and go raise money.  At first, that seemed lofty.  As you can imagine, there were many folks telling me “you can’t do that.”  Which of course pissed me off and motivated me to actually do it.  So I took the idea to my director, and he actually thought it was a great idea.  I ended up negotiating a deal with the company so that I could try and raise some money.

Although still a long shot, I decided to try it.  I put together an investor deck, and when doing so, read an article in the Dallas Morning News about a venture capital fund based in Dallas called HO2.  They had recently raised a fund and in the article were talking about how they were looking for innovative startup ideas.  On a whim, I cold called them and sent them an email about my system, which basically automated the entire process of deploying Cisco and other types of routers and network equipment.

In a matter of days, I received a call, and was invited to present my idea to HO2 as well as an entire group of investors at a local incubator called StarTech.  I was floored!  Someone was actually listening to me!

I remember the day I arrived at StarTech to do my presentation.  Nervous does not even begin to describe the feelings I had when I walked into a completely packed conference room to deliver my pitch.  When I say packed, I mean there were maybe 12 chairs at the conference room table and probably 25 guys in the room.

Nervously, I gave my pitch, went through my slides, and did a quick live demo.  Once the demo was over, I took questions.  One of the first questions that I got was “Why hasn’t anyone else thought of this?”  I thought for a second, and simply said “Because they haven’t.  Someone had to come up with the idea, why not me?”

And the rest is history.  Less than three weeks later, I had $600,000 in seed funding, and started to build a management team of guys who were 15 years my senior and some of whom had held executive positions in Fortune 500 companies.  Three months later, and we closed a $12 million Series A venture capital round.  And at that moment, my life changed. I had crossed over to what I call “the dark side,” never to return.

Although reference to the dark side of course is a joke, in reality what it means is that at that moment I became a full-on entrepreneur.  A space where the words “you can’t do that,” serve only as motivation to actually go out and get it done.

That company, my first venture backed entity (Voyence, at first known as PowerUp Networks) was my catalyst to continue to pursue things that other people say can’t be done.  If you speak to any entrepreneur, believe me, those words are an absolute driver for their motivation.  That motivation is driven by passion.  Passion for creation, or for positive change.  Disruptive market ideas.

Since that first company, that I was told could not be done, I went on to start another tech company, Immediatek; took that company public; commercialized DiscLive; created the first “instant” DVD; sold that company to Mark Cuban; started more companies, two music venues, etc., and in every single instance, there were naysayers along the way in my ear saying whatever it was couldn’t be done for whatever reason.  Um yea, whatever.  Watch me.

So if you have something you want to do, just go out and try it.  Don’t listen to the people that want to shoot your idea down. You’re probably going to get fired from a job or three, like I was.  That’s because you are a leader and an innovator, not a follower, and you have real ideas, and others feel threatened by it.  And in the days of social media, yep, you will no doubt get your “haters.”  If you do, hey, that’s a sign you are doing it right!  Wear it proud, as a badge of honor!

If you think there is a way it can be done, then push hard, stay focused, and prove it.  That’s pretty much what has to be done if you want to be successful and cross over to the dark side.  Because, if you want it bad enough, and for the right reasons, and you have the passion, then yes.

It CAN be done.

 

 

Lack of Transparency in the PROs – Exemplified

(Originally posted at VNUE.com)

No doubt anyone in the music industry who has anything to do with writing or publishing songs, and/or performing them, has heard of the issues that have cropped up in regard to ASCAP’s “premium payments”.  These payments, supposedly, are paid to songwriters to reflect the importance to ASCAP’s repertory that achieve high level performances on radio, and to compensate members that have some type of a “prestige” value.

Recently, this has come under fire, with those in the industry starting to speak out – loudly – about it.  An article I came across in Billboard, entitled “At PROs, Transparency Shouldn’t Be Just A Buzzword,” by SMACKSongs president Michael Baum, went into great detail about this issue and how country hitmaker Shane McAnally’s (pictured above) woes with ASCAP have put these payments into the spotlight.

To summarize the issue, McAnally notified ASCAP that he was leaving ASCAP to join another PRO, Global Music Rights.  Although he expected his payments to keep on coming – including the premium payments for which he was owed – he was shorted about a million dollars of what he had been anticipating.

He is now in a fight with the PRO to get what he was due, and promised.  And as is typical with ASCAP and the other major PRO, BMI, he got the run around.

According to Baum, they repeatedly asked why the money was being withheld.  ASCAP responded that it “takes a long time” to manually create statements.  Baum pointed out that nobody ever cited a rule as a basis for withholding payments, or in fact that they were phasing out the payments.

Typical of snarky behavior that small venues are used to dealing with (when it comes to “blanket licensing”), no one said anything to the point that removing works would also mean leaving those monies at ASCAP, even while ASCAP continued licensing McAnally’s work.

This is beyond snarky.  I would say it borderlines on illegality, but since I’m not a lawyer, I cannot make that assessment alone.  It sounds like Baum, however, is going to take this to the Justice Department, and I hope he does.

This practice is yet another glimpse into the tactics that these organizations utilize to withhold money that songwriters, artists, and publishers expect – along with the already egregious tactics used to force mom and pop shops to license a PRO’s entire catalog.  There is ZERO transparency.  They state that they are “protecting” the interests of their members.  But in my eyes, and moreover the eyes of more people every day, they see this as a money making machine and somehow, somewhere, someone is lining their pockets with the hard earned money of the songwriters and creators as well as the licensees that pay for it.

Through our technology at VNUE and through education of the public, and working with organizations, artists, writers, and publishers, we hope we can help to facilitate change that will ensure folks are being paid and that the entire process is transparent.

Opioids and Futures Lost

This morning, as I usually do before I start my day, I was perusing my FaceBook feed.  One of the first things that popped up was the image of a beautiful young woman, obviously a “car selfie.”  With big eyes, long brown hair, and a smattering of lipstick, the photo would make anyone take pause for a second look.  She also looked familiar – I am fairly certain I have run across her in one of establishments, or mutual friends.

However, as I read the caption for the photo, which was written by someone else, it became apparent that this young lady, one Angela Cates, of Bartlett, TN, had passed away unexpectedly, and far too soon.   I messaged the person who had posted the photo, and learned what I had already suspected and feared:  that she had apparently become yet another tragic victim of an overdose of opioids.

Angela was the parent of two young children who will now be without their mother.  And her parents lost their child, something no parent should ever have to endure.

Although I did not know “Ang” personally as she was known to her friends, and these overdoses seem to continue unabated, this loss struck home a little harder than most.  Why?  Well, a year ago (within days), another young woman lost her life because of the same problem.  Emily Billings, who I did know, and who had a kind, gentle spirit, died at the age of 26, a victim of the same deadly circumstance.

Emily and I shared the same birthday (March 6th) and had an unusual bond because of that.  I knew she had some issues and demons she was fighting, but when she would call me (randomly), I would try and help her now and then – give her a ride somewhere, or lend her twenty dollars.

The last time I saw her was a week or two before her death.  I knew in my heart that there was something going on, and likely she was an addict, and encouraged her to stay away from people that would enable that addiction; she promised she would.  Soon thereafter, she was gone, and my heart broke for Emily and her family.

Like Angela, Emily was a beautiful young woman, who had her entire life in front of her.  Although it is unlikely either one knew each other, they both shared the same demons, that of a powerful addiction to drugs that are far to easy to obtain.  Too often, addicts have people around them who claim to be their “friends,” but in fact are the very people who provide them with the drugs, and who bring them one step closer to death.

In Angela’s case, sources report she had been clean and sober for 81 days.  And in the case of many addicts who have a relapse, she apparently relapsed and dosed with the same amount of narcotics that she had been using before getting sober, resulting in an overdose and her untimely passing.

After Emily’s passing, I made it a point to become more vocal about the crisis that is embracing our country.  It is far more prevalent than most people realize.  Memphis, where I reside, is absolutely terrible.  I know of at least a dozen people who have lost their lives because of opioids in the last couple of years, if not more.  And I fear many others will follow.

This crisis cannot be addressed unless it is tackled on all fronts.

First, laws must be put in place that severely punish those who supply drugs to people who then die of an overdose.  They should be charged with second degree murder at minimum, and ideally, possession of illegal narcotics that contributed to death, i.e. “murder one.”

Dealers, regardless of those who have caused a death, should have strict penalties.  There should be no “third strike.”  There should be “strike one” and you are out.  Life or even the death sentence.  Zero tolerance.  Those who manufacture or import illegal narcotics also need the book thrown at them.

Secondly, there needs to be considerably more outreach and treatment options for opioid addiction, mental health, and public funding necessary for it.  There needs to be resources available where addicts can seek treatment and know they are not going to be judged, and there should be more paths through churches and volunteer organizations to help these people kick the addiction and stay off of it.

Lastly, addicts should not be treated as criminals.  Instead, those caught with small amounts of drugs should be drug tested and if that test is positive for addictive substances, maybe have a mandatory stint in an in-patient clinic.  They need help, not punishment.

Until all three things happen, this epidemic is going to continue to grow and take the young lives of people like Ang and Emily.  Families and friends will continue to have heartbreak, and entire futures will be devastated.

If you think drugs are “cool,” I’m sorry, you’re completely misguided.  Drugs take lives, especially opioids.  They destroy people.  Families.  Futures.  They suck the life out of everyone and everything that they touch.  If anyone who frequents my establishments wants to complain about my absolute zero tolerance for ANY kind of drug in said establishments, this post should make it clear, and you can simply stay the hell out.

I’m angry.  My heart breaks again, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time.  But what I can absolutely, 100% assure you of, is that I will in no way contribute to that culture, and I will do everything in my power to help facilitate positive change.

RIP Angela Cates.  RIP Emily Billings.  You will not be forgotten, and I hope your deaths have not been in vain.  If I have anything to do with it, they won’t.  And all the others who have recently been lost to this crisis as well.

If you have a loved one you have lost, please feel free to eulogize them on this blog post.

Artists and Musicians Earning Potential: Time to think outside the box

As many of you know, I have been an artist advocate since before I even moved into the music and technology sector.  Having the benefit of being a performing musician at times (granted not at the level of many of our clients at VNUE), it is very easy for me to see and identify problems and current trends in the industry.  With the added benefit of having worked in technology, and constantly looking for solutions that will help artists make more money and give them more control over their art, I’ve been fortunate enough to create viable solutions and have a very good understanding of how to fit the pieces together.

But what many artists and musicians don’t think about is this:  They are ultimately the sole decision makers when it comes to creating more of an opportunity to create revenue (income) for themselves.  They are the facilitator; and they can also be the roadblock.

For example, if you think you are going to make a record and strike a big deal with a label, guess what?  You’re wrong.  Well, at least 99.9% of the time.  These days, things are a lot different.  Unless you already have 100K or more followers on your social media, a major label won’t take a second look at you.  And even if you get a deal, you likely will still be relying on your touring income for years.

But there are other ways to take control of your career and make a good living, and even succeed.  Innovative solutions such as what VNUE is rolling out such as set.fm can help make that difference.  Utilizing Youtube and generating interest and followers is a positive strategy.  Old-school posters and flyers when you play your gigs are never out-of-style.

To be clear when it comes to set.fm, I’m not tooting our own horn, so to speak, but using this as an example.  You MUST be able to think out of the traditional box.

Set.fm is our technology platform that we use with VNUE to record major artists and release the content to fans right after the show via mobile devices and the web (this is in addition to our traditional physical DiscLive products).  There is no risk to the artist – we do a net split – and the artist gets the major percentage of a revenue share.  As we like to say in the business,  it is “found revenue,” because the artist just gets on stage and does what they always do:  play music.

But did you know that our technology is available for ALL musicians and artists?  Musicians can download the set.fm “STUDIO” app, and utilize it to capture and upload pristine live recordings of their performances, and market it to their fan base.  Artists can set their own price, and have total control over the content.  You need only go to set.fm and sign up.  There is no cost.

The biggest thing for artists both large and small alike is getting over the jitters for putting something out that is live and “raw”. VNUE has overcome this to a large degree because we mix and master everything on the fly for our clients – folks such as Peter Frampton, Devo, Blondie, Simple Minds (above), and others.  We have built up trust in that regard – quality unsurpassed.

For the average artist, however, you simply must be confident in your art, and treat it like a live broadcast.  It is going to go out, like it or not, right after the show (which is how you can increase your sales potential).  This additional revenue can help underwrite your tour costs, and provide additional exposure so you are not GIVING away your content to gain exposure.  You have worked hard for it.  Let fans support you buy buying it – and buying into you.

There are a lot of other opportunities out there too, today, to help you make money.  But you must be willing to think outside of the traditional box, and take some risks.  There is a glut of content out there, and everyone wants to call themselves an “artist”.  You need to differentiate yourself, not just by your music, but by your effective grassroots marketing, and your strategies.  And you must tour.  Tour hard. Fans are built one by one, at each show – not by hoping you get a “LIKE” on social media, or a one-hit wonder on the radio (fading fast, folks).

At the end of the day, the industry has changed – but the work ethic to get to the top has not.  Work hard, play hard, and create a name for yourself.  Be smart, and use smart tools to help get you there.  Focus on that, and you stand a good chance of making a living at your art.

Gumption, Ambition and the Music Business

(Originally published on the Music Think Tank, 27 Sep 2017)

I’ve been lucky enough to run several successful businesses. VNUE, along with its partner DiscLive, has grown to be the global leader in recording live concerts and releasing them in high quality to fans on limited edition CD sets and USB drives, immediately after their performance. We’ve worked with venues and artists all over the world, from Father John Misty and The Pixies to Blondie and 3 Doors Down. I also own and founded both RockHouse Live venues in the great city of Memphis, offering live entertainment every single night (as well as some killer grub).

It’s surprising how often people assume that someone like me was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, or that I somehow stumbled upon these businesses and got lucky, or that my clubs are just a write-off.

So I’d like to rewind a bit and talk about ambition and “gumption,” which is defined as “shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness.”

I was raised by a single mother – a lifelong educator and an English professor who was very hard on me growing up, but did teach me values and lessons that I employ every single day in my life. While she could barely afford to keep a roof over our head, what’s important is that she succeeded, and she often worked 18 hour days to do it. We never, ever went without necessities, but we did not live lavishly by any stretch.

My skinny butt was out mowing lawns at a very young age to keep a few coins in my pocket, and then I got a job at 14 as a Sonic carhop. (Sorry, unfortunately no skates.) At 16, I was already promoted to night manager because of the aforementioned “gumption.” I paid for my books, I bought my own lunches, I bought my first motorcycle, and after that, traded up for my first car. I did it all on my own, without a cent from my mom, and felt great about it.

So even though I didn’t have the proverbial “silver spoon,” I did have the very smart values my mother had taught me, and unknowingly leveraged that in virtually everything I did. She gave me the skills to forge my own path, and the ethic to do my best to treat people right, both of which I’ve been working hard to do with VNUE and both RockHouse venues.

I also have an undeniably deep love for music – which is a must if you want to make it in this business – from my days as an engineer and producer to my current, more entrepreneurial role at VNUE. I’ve been so fortunate to do what I love at the intersection of music, business and technology, and create things that make people happy. I’ve worked with amazing artists and been to amazing places, and can trace it all back to the lessons my mother instilled in me – not luck or fortune.

While pretty much any position in the music industry takes sacrifice, most of the musicians and entrepreneurs I’ve worked with over the years know that you can’t stand on a corner and expect success to come to you. You are the only one who can create your own destiny, and you are responsible for your successes and your failures.

So if you have to take something away from this post, let it be this: Work hard, focus on your objectives, and don’t make the mistake of thinking there are any shortcuts, because there are none. If you don’t go out and fight for what you want, someone else will take it. Don’t be afraid to stand up to people who say “that won’t work” or “that can’t be done,” and don’t be afraid to show them that they’re wrong.

​And more than anything, if you’re going to make it in the music industry – show some gumption.

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