Derek Sivers

Interviews → Actual Insights

Matthew Niederberger in Rotterdam Netherlands asks me about selling CD Baby, being nomadic, and the dancing guy

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Link: http://www.actualinsights.com/2011/interview-with-derek-sivers/


Matthew:

Who is Derek Sivers?

Derek:

All right, my name is Derek Sivers, and I'm most known for starting CD Baby, which was a online record store. I started at the end of 1997 where it was really just me as a musician selling my own CDs, but then some of my friends said "hey man, could you sell my CD?"

So it was really just me saying yes to them that accidentally created this company which ended up selling the albums of 250,000 musicians with you know, whatever 200 million in sales and 85 employees and honestly it grew too big for me. I didn't like being in charge of a company that big. So two years ago I left, I sold the company. And now I've just been doing a lot of writing and speaking and thinking and getting ready to set up my new company.

Matthew:

How did selling CD Baby make you feel?

Derek:

Yeah selling CD Baby was a bit like a divorce. In that I realized I kind of come to the end of my line as far as what I could do. It's funny it's a combination of a divorce, because it really was sad. I think things between me and the employees had gotten so bad that I kind of had to sell. No I didn't have to sell, I had to make a big change. But on the positive side it felt a little bit like the way that a painter or a sculptor must feel if they've been working on a sculpture for years or a giant mural of a painting, and all of a sudden you put the last brush stroke on and you go "I think I'm done." And it was like that with the company. I had done everything I ever wanted to do and I honestly had no more future vision for it. I didn't want it to be bigger, I felt it was big enough. And because of that I was actually hurting my clients because I was the owner but I did not want the company to grow, where my clients wanted their careers to grow. So that to me was the turning point, realizing that I had to sell because I was doing a disservice to my clients. So that's why I sold.

But to answer your question about how did it affect me personally, I had to kind of emotionally cut myself off, and that's why it's like the divorce comparison. Say you've got an ex-girlfriend from years ago and somebody says "hey, what is Julie doing right now?", you say "I don't know, I don't even think about it. " So it's kind of like that with me and CD Baby. Still people about every week or so ask me a question about it, like "hey did you see the new thing that CD Baby is doing?", I say "no, it's just not on my mind anymore."

Matthew:

Tell us a bit more about MuckWork

Derek:

MuckWork is a company that I'm starting next year probably, I haven't started it yet. I accidentally announced it two years ago because I thought I was gonna do it right after CD Baby. But then honestly I just decided to take some time for the first time of my life to exhale. So I'm starting it next year, but the whole point is that for musicians there are all these companies giving them tools saying "here is a tool you can use to contact your fans, here is a tool you can use to make a website", but nobody ever says “we'll do it for you.” So MuckWork will be a big network of assistants that want to help musicians and then just one thin layer of management that knows how to take musicians' needs and turn them into specific tasks. So that a musician could contact us and say something as vague as "yo, help me to get some gigs in Chicago in the fall", and we'll know how to transfer that into, say, a series of 30 very specific tasks, that as long as they give us their approval, then we can hire our assistants to do those tasks. So it's really a company full of assistants for musicians.

Matthew:

What is MuckWork's "Art of Profitability"

Derek:

I think sometimes when you start a new company it's done more out of a mission of something you think is worth doing, even if you don't know all the answers yet. So with this new company MuckWork people are sometimes asking me "Ok , well exactly how will this work, and exactly how will this work?" and I say I don't know, I just think this is worth doing and then as you go you figure it out. So it's kind of a commitment to do it more than having to be a know-it-all in advance, do you know what I mean?

Matthew:

Yeah. You used to produce music, any plans to start again?

Derek:

I think in different times in our lives we have different ways of expressing ourselves, so a lot of emotional girls write lots of poetry in high school and later on you may turn that into painting and in a different point in your life you pour it into, you know, teaching your kids, something like that. So to me something switched, I started CD Baby in ‘98 and something kind of switched in my head where it used to be that the way I expressed all my creative ideas they were all music ideas. They were all ideas about notes and how to put them together. And now all of my ideas are kind of in that business-tech related, like how to help people in this way. So it feels though like it's the same creative ideas, it's almost like a different instrument. So it's almost like my laptop is my instrument now, and the most important thing to me that it felt like that's where I can do my greatest good in the world. You know it's like, you have plenty of musicians that can write a song better than me. But there's nobody else that could do CD Baby better than me. So that was my focus. Now with the new things I'm doing, that's the same ideas, like what can I do that's the most valuable thing I could do for the world. And it's not writing a song anymore.

Matthew:

The dancing man, please tell us more...

Derek:

About a year and a half ago, there was this video that people were just passing around, saying "hahaha look at this dancing guy", and it's this video of this shirtless guy dancing at a conference. And at first it's just him... sorry dancing at a festival. And at first it's just him, and the funny thing if you look around youtube, apparently he was just dancing by himself for like an hour. People were filming this guy for like an hour, he was just tripping out, dancing, but the bit of the video that everybody loves is where one guy gets up and joins him and starts imitating him. And then a second guy comes and starts imitating the two of them. And then pretty soon two more, then three more and like twenty more. And eventually a few hundred people over the course of like three minutes, one song, 300 people gather around in this huge festival, all around this dancing guy. So people were passing it around, just kind of saying "isn't this funny?" And I laughed the first time I saw it, but then I thought it reminds me of all of these books I read about leadership, about making a movement, you know whether it's like Seth Godin's Tribes, or Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, seem to be describing this kind of thing, but usually over the course of many years. And here it is in three minutes, it's like the perfect visual metaphor. So I kind of wrote a little article on my site, just posting the video and then below it writing some thoughts about how this applied to leadership. And nobody noticed it much until I went to the TED conference and they asked me to give the same talk there. So I gave the talk at the TED conference and got this big standing ovation and like 500 people tweeted it and fucking Peter Gabriel came up to me afterwards going "that was really wonderful, that was powerful, that was profound and funny." I said "thank you, Peter." So right now it feel kind of like that's my current hit single, a lot of people know me from the dancing guy.

Matthew:

It's part of your CV now as well, right?

Derek:

Yeah exactly. Creator of the dancing guy video.

Matthew:

Do musicians need to be web savvy?

Derek:

Ok, good question. Nobody needs to do anything. So anytime somebody says you need to have a social media strategy, you need to use the social media tools, of course you don't need to. You know, there's some amazing musicians who are going to continue to be amazing musicians, very valuable people love their music and they've never even used a computer. You know, you don't have to do anything. But what I think is fascinating is that if you are the type of person where this stuff resonates with you, if you get it, if you love it, if you are very... social type person, loves being connected with lots of people, then what's cool is you can now change the way that you do everything. You can write songs in a collaborative kind of way, where you can post the original idea out there and have your fans start to like, give you feedback from the point that it's a very tiny germ of an idea. Before you spend any money recording it. You can just sing it into your laptop with one guitar, one keyboard, and upload it and get feedback. And have people tell you early on do they love or hate this idea. And then you can develop the songs that people seem to like and ignore the ones that people don't. Instead of going and spending 50,000 dollars recording an album only to find out people don't like it. I love the way that this... you can use the current tools that are available in 2010-2011 to totally change the way you do everything, but only if it really resonates with you. If you're excited about that, you do it. But if you're not loving that idea don't let anybody tell you have to do anything, cause you don't. That's what I love, you can be as rebellious as you want. Say no to all of it.

Matthew:

There's no hidden advantage for those people that do grasp the current technology or put it to use?

Derek:

Let's look at it both ways, there could be an advantage to those who do, and there could be an advantage to those who refuse it. But I think that right now, the norm is there are hundreds of thousands of musicians spending hours a day clicking their mouse, doing things online. And imagine now, if you're somebody who's refusing all of it, and you're spending those many hours a day instead practicing, and you're singing your scales, and you're practicing your arpeggios. And instead of just writing a song, you're writing 23 verses and picking the best two, or improving your songs. Imagine you're writing a new song every day while the rest of your friends are clicking around Facebook adding their friend list. You're writing a song every day. In the end I think that will be a huge advantage to you. The fact that you were able to resist the temptation and distraction of social media. So, again it's like whatever works best for your personality. Some will find their huge advantage in using the tools the best, some will find their best advantage in refusing the tools.

Matthew:

How has it been to live a nomadic lifestyle?

Derek:

Nomadic is, I think it's kind of built in to the way I've always felt. When I was a little kid my parents would always moved around a lot, so I've kind of just... it seems to be my natural pace. I never lived anywhere more than two years in my life. So when people say "where are you from?", I say "...er, this is where I am now." But I think that the approach it gives you, it lets you kind of zoom out a bit. Sometimes people get very provincial. They focus on just their small market. And they see the way that things are done locally. But if you find yourself moving around a lot, and not just looking at things as a tourist, but deeply understanding. You know, living in New York City long enough to deeply understand the New York City way. Living in California long enough to understand the California way, living in Tokyo long enough to understand the Tokio way. Then what's kind of cool is that you can apply these different mindsets in different situations. Perhaps Tokio could use some of the California mindset, you know? California could probably use some of the Singapore mindset. So I think it just also keeps me very aware, especially in the US. A lot of the journalism, and sometimes even business books, they say things like "9 out of 10 Americans tadadada." I think for people in America that means 9 out of ten of all people in the world. But now I'm just very aware when it says 9 out of ten Americans I think what about the Greeks? What about the Brazilians? What about the Chinese? It just makes it really clear how it's like... you need to... especially on the web, god, everything on the Internet is worldwide. And I cringe at so many websites that are for example English only, you know? I just really encourage every entrepreneur who's starting a new website that's really meant to be used by lots of people to make it multilingual from the beginning. Like make sure that you just structure it in such a way that the messages that appear on the screen are taken from variables that are taken from a language file. So that even if you're English only right now, it leaves you the room that some day in the future when you need to be multilingual, you don't need to trash your website and start over. Because if you're just forward thinking from the beginning. You know if you're ecommerce make sure it's multi-currency, if you're anything with... make sure you're multilingual from the beginning. So I guess that's the kind of advantage that nomadic perspective gives.

Matthew:

On your site, you describe yourself in 10 seconds... can you do that in front of a lens too?

Derek:

Ok, this is my me in ten seconds. I have to look at my notes to remind myself what I said. So first, I'm an entrepreneur and I really treat work as play. So I think some people get into business out of sheer necessity that, you know, "gotta feed the family, it's all about the numbers, and you gotta grow the numbers as much as you can!" To me it feels like business is the adult sandbox, that's where you get to play.

I usually spend my time learning how to help people.I think sometimes in life you try to think of the common thread in everything you do. So whether I'm learning how to program or reading business books, or writing, what it always comes down to is I'm always learning how to help people better. Because I have this weird need to feel valuable, like why am I on earth, I need to be valuable. I live by this motto of whatever scares you, go do it. It's something that I learned when I was 19, I don't remember where I heard it the first time, but I remember I was like 19 years old and I heard this phrase like "whatever scares you, go do it." I went "yeah..." And it's a good motto cause wether it's like going and talking to the beautiful girl that seems out of your league, or applying for a job that seems out of your league, or starting a business when everybody is telling you that you're gonna fail. I think whatever scares you is what you're excited about. And I think too many of us try to stay in our comfort zone, but I think boredom is a bigger fear than... fear, wait no, bigger... anyway, I think you know what I mean.

So I wrote that I'm very comfortable being the leader and being on stage. Again, I think that came from being 19 and always saying yes to the things that scare me, I just got very used to being the one that... nobody else wanted to be in charge cause that was too much responsibility and I always found myself to be the guy in charge. So really it's like the last time I had a job, like a boss, was 1992, ever since then I've always been doing my own thing and I guess, got very used to that.

I'm a minimalist, which I think affects most things I do. It means that... when you say minimalist you usually think of somebody who you go into their apartment and there's nothing but a chair. So yes, I'm kind of like that. But it means other things in life. Whenever somebody says "you need this", it means you automatically say "no I don't need that, I don't need anything." So kind of like we were talking about earlier. You don't need a social media strategy, you just say no to all of it. You don't even need to be online, you know? So I think being a minimalist can carry forward philosophically into so many other life choices, you know? So, right now, everything I own fits into a suitcase. One suitcase. I'm just kind of nomadic and to me that's a certain kind of freedom. Always finding that kind of philosophy in every single way. And my last one is I like not knowing the future. Especially at conferences like this. You have people upon a panel or doing a workshop telling you what the future is, and I'm so against that. I think that people are so scared to say I don't know. And they think that, oh my god I'm on stage, and they've asked me to come, I'm a big know-it-all so whenever somebody says "what is the future of social media?" that you're supposed to give an answer. The truth is that nobody knows the future. And I think there's a lot more wisdom in admitting that. You know, I mean, think of how much religion is based on this whole like "I'm going to tell you what happens when we die." Just admit you don't know, you don't know what happens when we die. If you would just admit it, there would be a lot less fighting. And to things like this, if somebody asks me what is the future of this, what is the future of that? I just say "I don't know" and I always think that people who claim to know are full of shit and not to be trusted.