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How Bands and Start Ups Are Similar

Soundcheck at The Stone Pony

Soundcheck at The Stone Pony

I recently met with a CEO of a Denver start-up. He was in Manhattan pitching one of the largest media agencies in the world. We crossed paths at a mutual friend’s apartment, where said CEO was crashing. We got to talking about the trials and tribulations of being a start-up; that world is not unknown to me, as I counseled and represented many a start-up when I was in public relations. As the CEO talked about what he was going through, I realized there are many parallels between start-ups and bands.

I was once in a promising local band. In fact, I have a T-shirt that says just that. A friend bought it for me when my dream of being a professional musician was at its apex. My band was touring East coast bars, clubs and fraternities; we were recording an album. The sky looked blue and wide open. We were talented musicians. We just couldn’t sing. Singing, believe it or not, is an important aspect of a band. The singing was passable. Average at best. People didn’t come to see us because of our singing, that’s for sure. They came because the music was good. Really, it was. But when you’re missing a key ingredient to a cake, you can’t be surprised when people don’t eat your cake.

For a couple of years, we all lived together and played non-stop. We had regimented band practices at rehearsal studios, parents’ basements and garages, starting with a 10-15 minute jam and then go over song after song after song for hours on end. Some songs were easier to learn than others. Some songs were stronger than others. But we practiced. And we practiced. Then we’d practice some more. When we’d play out of state, we’d crash at friends’ places. On the floor, on a couch, it didn’t matter. Our motto: have band, will travel.

Many startups also live together, practicing. Though their practicing can be anything from creating the perfect algorithm to developing the perfect pitch. I once represented an artificial intelligence startup where five or six guys lived together in a huge NYC apartment. Some would be coding all day and night in one wing of the apartment and in the other wing, others would be working on a business plan, honing their presentation skills. We’ve all seen “The Social Network” and can remember the fraternity house-like environment David Fincher created for Zuckerberg and team. Apple, Amazon and Google each were founded out of a garage. You learn a lot about a person when you live with them. That seems like an obvious sentence, but when you’re a 19 or 20 year-old, you’re still learning life lessons like that. It’s no surprise that many bands and start ups have both succeeded and failed after living together.

The pressure to perform under Klieg lights is intense. As a startup, you’re pitching venture capitalists who can, with the stroke of a signature on a check, transform your life. You close that round and the world seems within your grasp. Of course, you give up a little piece of yourself to make your dream come true, but it’s within reach. Bands, too, know what it’s like to grasp at that carrot that’s being held up by an A&R rep or management company. The band will showcase their material to music execs, hoping that a record deal, a touring contract, something, comes their way. Just like a start up, when a band gets that first record contract, hope moves closer to a reality. For both start ups and bands, the dog and pony show could be life-changing. But it’s only a step.

Start ups work long hours, often with little to no reward, hoping their product takes off. For every Facebook, there are thousands that don’t make it, for whatever reason. It could be the idea; it could be the founders; it could be the timing; it could be anything. Same with a band. Musicians put their soul into their music, often for peanuts and beer. For every artist or band that makes it, there are thousands that struggle to reach the next level.

With the advent of social media, start ups and local bands have ways of building an audience without VCs or record deals. There are also TV reality shows that can push a band or artist or start up into the limelight. But even with these new avenues of distribution, the basics still apply: without a good product, bands and start ups can’t get off the ground. Yet the dreams of many start ups and band still push creativity, even it means crashing on the couch at a buddy’s place to get some attention from potential backers.

I’m sure there are other parallels between bands and start ups. What did I miss?

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


3 thoughts on “How Bands and Start Ups Are Similar

  1. Great post, Josh. I can relate – though I never had the t-shirt.

    One other parallel: startups of both kind truly believe they have what it takes – that special something – and the people who don’t believe yet (read: almost everyone) are just missing the bigger picture. That’s fine, passion is key. But where it turns into a death sentence is when all criticism is dismissed as unjust hate.

    Posted by andrew | April 22, 2013, 4:16 pm
  2. Great post, Josh. I can relate – though I never had such an awesome t-shirt to prove it. Startups (of the business and the musical variety) are both governed by a pendulum that swings back and forth between extreme self confidence and extreme self doubt. The most successful ones are the ones that don’t let the early reaction of the crowd shift them (too much). Listening to a little feedback (like, hey, dude, your guitar is wildly out of tune) is ok. Letting the feedback reshape your vision (man, you guys should totally be covering _______, those guys rock!) can set you off course.

    I think the key is to truly believe in what you’re producing and be ready for the grind necessary to “make it big.” That’s going to mean a lot of couch-surfing and some less-than-satisfying meals, but if you’ve got what it takes, it’ll happen.

    And if it doesn’t happen? Well, you can always give guitar lessons. Or blog.

    Source: Member of once promising but ultimately failed band.

    Posted by hanelly | April 22, 2013, 4:22 pm


  1. Pingback: Start –up Corner | Now’s the time to have your story heard! - April 22, 2013

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