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Start Your Business Entrepreneurs

Nominated for a Grammy, But Still an Entrepreneur

grammy, entrepreneur, John Beasley . / Credit: John Beasley photograph by Tim Sassoon

John Beasley, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician who has played with the legends of jazz, doesn't think of himself as a businessman. But, that doesn't mean he's not an entrepreneur.

"Innovation and originality are key in order to stay feeling alive, keep that sense of wonderment and surprise," said Beasley, a veteran pianist, composer and arranger, who earned a 2011Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.

Beasley's innovation has helped fuel his illustrious career, which has included performing with Miles Davis, working as music director for Steely Dan and Queen Latifah, and working as music director for TV shows such as "American Idol" and "Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll."

And while Beasley's life might seem a long way off from that of your average entrepreneur, the issues he's had to deal with along the way may not be that different than the challenges and rejections faced by business owners struggling to make their way.

Beasley tells BusinessNewsDaily his story and how he's managed to keep being innovative and entrepreneurial.

BusinessNewsDaily: How difficult was it for you to find your way to making a living as a musician?

John Beasley: I was playing, composing and arranging when I was in high school and dreamed about being Quincy Jones.  There were a lot of jazz and dance clubs in the pre-DJ era, with live bands, so there was work.  It was the early '80s near the end of the heyday of record and film session work, so there were a lot of seasoned musicians doing that during the day but they wanted to play gigs at night.  I got the opportunity to play and learn from them and then they started recommending me for session work.

When I graduated at 17, I just wanted to get on the road and play, so I turned down a scholarship to Julliard to play oboe and with the people I knew, I started getting more touring gigs. My first world tour was with Sergio Mendes at [age] 19. The very talented jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves was in the band with me.

I was always interested in technology and liked producing, so I had my own studio… and started recording my own songs and my friends' music.  Then, at 24, I was juggling touring with Freddie Hubbard, doing studio work, playing on all kinds of records, even recording music for the 1984 Olympics, writing for commercials and TV shows, like "Star Trek," "Family Ties" and "Cheers."  Then, Miles Davis called and the world shifted for me.

BND: Did you have to support yourself in other ways before you could do that full-time? What kinds of jobs did you do?

J.B.: I have only been a musician and [I am] lucky that it's my full-time job, but I've had to be multidimensional.  I am a recording artist putting out a steady amount of new music every year.  I get hired as music director for very interesting tours, such as the multiple Oscar- and Grammy-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" composer A.R. Rahman's world tour.  Before that, I put a ten-piece jazz band together to tour with Queen Latifah.  Life is never boring.  I continue to write for all kinds of productions and tour with my band and others.

BND: How does your work as a musician require you to think like an entrepreneur in terms of being innovative, original, dealing with competition, understanding your audience, what you think is appropriate?

J.B.: Musicians usually don't like the business side of the work.  I just want to be in my studio writing or going on tour playing and be handled by a crew.  But, it doesn't mean that I am not entrepreneurial in mindset when I'm being creative.  Innovation and originality are key in order to stay feeling alive, keep that sense of wonderment and surprise.  It's like ordering the same burger with the same toppings every time.  No, my palate goes with the trends, I want Mexican, Japanese, Caribbean flavors to expand my palate.  I can't play or write the same way over and over.

The competition is so hard to define these days with so much music software out there and people claiming musicianship.  Supply definitely outweighs demand.  But the key question is whether the supply is giving you the talent you need.  With audiences, you actually have to create a demand for your music, because there's a crowded market of too many sounds out there.

It's tough to figure out how to stand up and get noticed, especially with fickle and disposable appetites and shorter attention spans.  Before fans bought one album because that was their budget and they would listen to the whole album on repeat, understand the production value, study the liner notes, and be able to list the entire band.  Now, most music is digital.  You can't touch anything.  The cover is art on your screen.  Most of the times there are no liner notes or visible lists of musicians.  You listen to the 3,000 songs in your library, never getting deep into one artist or album. I am still trying to adjust to this mindset and trying to adapt my music and business to this paradigm shift.

BND: How did your work as a music director on "American Idol" require entrepreneurial thinking?

J.B.: Reality TV surely re-defined the music business and mass appeal.  I played a few roles during the six years I was on "American Idol."  In season 4, my major role was to oversee the final female contestants, including the winner, Carrie Underwood.  My major responsibility was to oversee the female finalists:  helping them choose their songs, finding the two minutes of the piece that would best display the contestant's voice, arrange it in their key and rehearse with them.  I guess I was entrepreneurial in thinking how to best market the contestants' talents in their singing and presentation. 

BND: How often does being a musician require you to endure rejection?

J.B.: Every day you deal with doubt and rejection.  Whether it is internal or external.   For some TV/film/commercial projects, you have to submit demos. If you make an album and your sales are low, it affects you.  When a venue or festival struggles to book you, it can set you off.   Musicians have fragile egos!  But there's a lot of joy that keeps you steady, whether it's finding the right chord for the right melody or getting called to be music director for the 25th Anniversary Monk Institute Gala gig, where I got to write a 15-minute Thelonious Monk melody for all 25 finalists and have it come off, along with arranging a medley for the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

BND: What's your secret for dealing with it?

J.B.: Just keep working.  Something will hit.  If you don't fail, then you don't learn.  And, learning is more valuable than being the same all the time.

BND: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to make a living doing what they love?

J.B.: My advice is to be honest with yourself.  Don't blame but rather claim.  Most record labels no longer support the discovery and development of especially jazz artists.  I've got music in my head, so I write and I put it out there. Traditional record deals no longer exist for most musicians, so do what you love and find your fans on the Internet.

Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.

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