If the music industry had a Robin Hood, it very well could be Derek Sivers. He’s made a career out of selflessly helping others and has been called “one of the last music-business folk heroes” by Esquire Magazine. Sivers started the company CD Baby from his bedroom in 1998 when he was selling his own CD on his website and was approached by friends asking if he’d sell their CDs too. Always eager to help others, he agreed, and not too long after, CD Baby became the largest seller of independent music on the web, with over $100M in sales for over 150,000 musicians.
Sivers has since moved on to form a new company, MuckWork, which is helping artists to continue furthering their careers without the need of a major label. The musician and entrepreneur took time out of his busy schedule to talk to LA Music Blog about MuckWork, his work as an author, and his advice for people wanting to break into the business side of the industry (the first step for him: not acknowledging the industry in the first place).
In 1998, you created CD Baby and 10 years later sold it. After 10 years of running a company, what was it like going from running a very successful growing business to having nothing to do?
Actually, in 2002 when the company was only 4 years old, I was feeling trapped. It was the entrepreneur’s curse: because it was my company, every tiny decision was running through me, and I just wanted to escape. So I spent the next 6 months systematically teaching everyone there everything I know and made myself unnecessary to the day-to-day running of the company. I was still involved in long-range development, programming and inventing the new stuff, but I didn’t have to be at the office anymore.
That’s when I started traveling the world, working from anywhere, and living the life described in the “4 Hour Work-Week” book I highly recommend. Selling CD Baby in 2008 didn’t make a difference in my life. I had already been gone for years.
The new project you are working on is MuckWork. Can you tell us a little about that? How can this help musicians or industry professionals?
The “DIY/Do It Yourself” revolution was empowering, but maybe too much. Now everyone can do everything themselves, but nobody has enough time to do the things they know they should do or need to do. You can hire an intern or assistant, but then you have to spend hours teaching them how to do everything. Then they flake out, and you have to repair the damage and start again, so you do it yourself.
But what if there was a company who had a bunch of assistants that already knew how to do everything you need? Instead of you having to manage the project, you can just toss it to the company and they’ll make sure it gets done? No need to worry about anyone flaking out. If one assistant disappears, the company immediately completes it with another.
That’s Muckwork. That’s my new company. It’s a hell of a lot to manage, but I’m psyched about how many people it can help. I know so many great musicians who waste too much time doing boring, stupid, uncreative work that someone else should be doing for them.
How do you think the new generation of music industry businessmen/women can help to change the music industry in a positive light?
The implosion of the music industry over the last 10 years means that people who get into it now probably aren’t doing it for the money. That’s a good thing.
Companies should be smaller and keep their focus on being lean and efficient. Less giant bureaucracies or extravagant waste. Less prima donnas. The new generation will be like hunters in the outback instead of the emperors of ancient Rome. They’ll have to keep their focus on keeping the musicians and the fans happy, and finding creative ways to do so.
You have also written an e-book called “How to Call Attention to Your Music.” What inspired you to want to write this book?
Over the last 10 years, working with thousands of musicians, I got asked my advice about music marketing all the time. So I wrote down all of my advice in one place and give it away for free. Go to my sivers.org homepage to get it. It’s really good.
Why did you choose to give it away for free when others are selling the same info at $10-$20 per book?
I don’t need the money. Everyone needs to know this stuff. It’d make a lot of musicians a lot more successful, which would make the world a better place.
It seems like you have made it a personal goal to help musicians and the industry as much as possible. When did this turn from a passion into a career? Is it still just as passion-driven?
The Internet has always been a place where people share what they know. Since 1994 when I got into online mailing lists about recording equipment or whatever, people would ask questions about a problem they were having and others would jump in to help. So it feels like that’s the deal. Welcome to the Internet, an incredibly helpful place where everyone is sharing what they know. In return, please do the same.
That led to my co-op approach. If I built a great system to sell my own CD, I should let others use it. If I built a great webserver to run my website efficiently, I should let others use it. Luckily, people paid me a little something to use the stuff I made, but really it’s all just my responsibility to give back to the Internet.
I talk to a lot of industry veterans and many of them seem to be put off by how the industry is running today. This doesn’t seem to be the case with you. Why is that?
Industry? What industry? I ignore the industry. I don’t read Billboard. I don’t know anyone at any labels. I know a bunch of musicians and a bunch of music fans. I’ve never seen a need for much in-between.
What advice would you have for young entrepreneurs that are trying to start companies in today’s economy and music industry?
Learn marketing. Really, really learn marketing. Read every book you can about marketing. Learn the philosophy and psychology of it. Deeply understand that marketing is just a way of being considerate. Design a business that’s considerate, that’s a dream-come-true for your customers or clients. Be egoless and make it all about them. Then learn profit models. As long as the dream-come-true is the first priority, find a way to make the numbers work. Find creative avenues of profit that are less obvious.
How can someone get involved in some of the projects that you are currently working on?
Just go to sivers.org to see a quick overview. Each project has a place to sign up to let me know if you’re interested. That’s where I’m keeping everything organized. Also, anyone can feel free to email me directly.