Field Report: The Story of My Accidental Music Business

Tyler’s Note:  This is a Riskologist Field Report by Jason Timothy from Music Software Training. Field Reports are written by readers just like you, so be nice, enjoy the story, and take action on the lesson. To contribute your own Field Report, go here.

“Everyday should be a holiday….”

That’s what the Dandy Warhol’s sticker that was stuck on a file cabinet reminded me every day I was at work. This job was no holiday though. I was working too hard doing something I didn’t love. Hell, I didn’t even like it! I had to get out, but I was afraid.

  • Afraid of losing my steady income.
  • Afraid that my life would get worse instead of better.
  • Afraid what others might think.

Maybe you can relate.

I had a tough decision to make and it wasn’t easy. I remember the question I asked myself that made the shift for me.

“Do you want to take a leap of faith and possibly fail, or do you want to stay where you are and be guaranteed unhappiness?”

After running this through my head, I took inventory of all the things I felt I was good at and might be able to get paid for.

  • I was a musician who couldn’t read or write music; I couldn’t even play incredibly well. But I was still somehow able to make music that connected with people. Maybe I could teach this to other non-musicians and help them overcome the fear of having to know everything before they start creating.
  • It was the early days of music software and very few people knew how to turn their computer into a music studio. Since I worked at Guitar Center at the time, I’d been given free music software to learn, so I could sell it better. Turned out I was the only one in the store that actually knew how it all worked. Once I learned one program, it was easier for me to apply that knowledge to another program until I knew them all well enough to create music. I was already saving the store a lot of money in returns from customers who couldn’t figure out how to use what they bought. From all the customers seeking me out to answer questions and offering me money to make house calls, I figured there had to be a business in this somewhere.
  • I’d learned some basic noise reduction and mastering techniques. I figured, at the very least, I could clean up people’s old albums and get them on CDs for them (something that still was pretty costly at the time).
  • Having ten years of experience in bands and winning every battle of the bands competition from the late 80s to the mid 90s, I felt qualified to help people write better songs that weren’t cheesy. I also understood most musicians well enough to vibe with them. Being a person that musicians like being around was definitely a plus.
  • I was always told I was really good at explaining complex things in a very simple way that people could understand. I had a knack for teaching without talking down to anyone and was able to get people up and running quickly without overwhelming them.

It appeared I’d found something I could revolve a small business around, and though it seemed to be a logical choice, I was still having trouble taking that leap. I’d been sold on the idea that being an employee was the safest route (even though this route offered me almost zero security and very little money) and I knew nothing about running a business.

It took some time before I got up the nerve to quit, but there were several big motivators.

  1. I was overworked, exhausted and miserable.
  2. I sucked at selling people things they didn’t need.
  3. I was feeling less and less connected to the people I worked with. They seemed like obedient slaves to me.
  4. I wanted to reconnect with the creativity that had been driven out of me.
  5. I assumed I would probably be fired at some point anyway.

So, I took the leap by telling myself, “This will just be a little vacation from having a job. I’ll sell my services to stay afloat until I find another gig”. This helped to settle the part of me that felt that joblessness was equal to homelessness; it would only be temporary. Soon enough, I’d get back to a normal, miserable job.

I was in such a “wage slave” mindset that I actually felt guilty asking for money for something I enjoyed and was good at. It was ingrained in my mind that the only reason I was getting paid was because I was doing something I would rather not. I’d never been paid for something I enjoyed.

If you hold this belief, you must drop it. Not only is it incorrect, it’s a recipe for a pretty miserable life experience. You deserve to be happy in every moment of your life.

I look back with relief that I have transformed my relationship with work and money.

Here’s how I created my little music empire:

I started off at a price that, at the time, seemed fair. I was charging $25 an hour for local 1-on-1 training and $10 a song for mastering and noise reduction. These prices seem ridiculously cheap now, but I had to start somewhere. I called all the customers I had helped in the past at Guitar Center and told them about my new business. I got enough work to keep me afloat (barely) for several months.

Soon I realized I needed to scale up.

Since I was nervous about raising my prices on my current customers, I took the indirect approach: Craigslist. This made it easier to test out pricing without getting face-to-face rejection.

Within a 6-month period, I’d successfully raised my prices to a minimum 3-hour training session for $250 and $50 for each extra hour. I also upped my mastering to $40 per song after I gained some better skills. I offered to master part of one song for free, which they could buy if they liked it.

This was now becoming a way to support myself and I’d finally let go of the idea of going back to a “real” job. I was living on the cheap, but I had more freedom than ever before.

Soon enough I decided I needed to somehow expand to people out of my local area and decided I now had enough experience training people that I could create a DVD of training videos and sell them on Ebay.

I buckled down and learned screen capture video software and edited three hours of video. It was far from perfect, but at $20, it started selling pretty regularly, making me an extra $40 per week.

I kept fine tuning and adding to the collection and eventually upped the price to $37 (once again, indirectly) and was soon making about $150 a week, on top of my 1-on-1 training and mastering that I was still doing.

The next step was to slowly eliminate the need to ship DVD’s all over the world by building a website and going digital. I fully admit that the original website sucked. I had no skills at all, but it started bringing in income right away and that is important.

You can’t sit on your hands waiting for things to be perfect, you just have to do the best you can.

I started blogging on the site about things I felt would help my customers and attract new readers. This took a bit to ramp up, but eventually really improved the traffic, which increased sales. I also started making more video products, which gave my current customers something new to learn.

By this time I had enough value to trade free video collections for website design work and soon had a nice looking website built for me. I also put Facebook and Twitter to use to offer more value and make new connections.

Now, my next step is to launch a membership site that will have a reasonable monthly charge and offer even more value and resources.

I just keep adding another piece to the puzzle as I go and try to avoid taking on too much at once.

Banishing “Expert Syndrome”

A major mental block you’ll need to get over is in thinking that you have to be an expert at whatever you decide to do for money. This is rarely true.

Unless you’re planning to be a brain surgeon or something where a mistake means life or death, you only need to know more than the people you’re serving.

You don’t have to be a concert pianist to be qualified to teach beginners and you certainly don’t have to be a professional writer to start a successful blog.

I knew nothing about any of this when I started. I just started and fumbled around until I found my feet. The most important thing is that I didn’t wait. If I lacked information, I hunted it down. I certainly hit some really frustrating moments more often than I would have liked, but that’s just the universe testing my commitment.

Luckily, for each year that passes, the steps become easier and easier to complete to build this type of business.

It may seem counterintuitive, but in most ventures, the Ready-Fire-Aim approach is much more effective than Ready-Aim-Fire. Most who choose the latter rarely get to “Fire”. They get stuck on aiming for perfection, not understanding that you have to take actions and make real world mistakes to get better at something.

So what is the “Ready Fire Aim” approach?

It’s a simple way to go from motivated directly to taking action. Most people get stuck at motivated until it fades to unmotivated. Then, the wait for the next brilliant idea to come. This is typically because they spent too much time preparing.

If you think of it like playing darts, the “Ready” part would be buying the necessary equipment, darts and a dartboard. Or you could just find a pub that has free darts and boards to start with. You can figure out what works for you as you go, but that part of the puzzle is done.

Next, instead of aiming for the board and refusing to take a shot until it’s a guaranteed bull’s-eye, you need to go ahead and fire (take action). And you must fire a lot!

As you continue to throw, you can start adjusting your stance and throwing style until you get closer and closer to the bull’s-eye. This is the “Aim” part of the equation. Fire and Aim are interconnected, but Fire (action) almost always will need to come first.

You may find that the equipment you are using doesn’t suit you and might decide to upgrade, but you wouldn’t have ever known what works best for you if you never got started.

Redefining Risk

We are conditioned to think of working for others as safe while working for ourselves is risky. From my experience, it’s the opposite.

We need to reframe our definition of risk.

We always tend to relate risk to the things we do. How about considering the risks of not doing something as well? Staying in the confines of your comfort zone is incredibly risky. It’s only when you reach outside of it that you shift from merely being alive to actually living.

Your life is never going to be perfect and neither is your business. But when it’s something you are passionate about that resonates with your being, it makes all the little details worthwhile.

Yes, you’ll have to become self-motivated and focused. You may have to learn some aspects of your business that are tedious until it’s stable enough to outsource that work. You’ll have to sort out your taxes (which I hate) and healthcare.

But it’s better to struggle for your own dream than somebody else’s.

Wouldn’t you agree?

I now have more time for friends, family, travel, making music and DJing, and I can work from anywhere in the world. Living any other way now seems risky to me.

I can’t say that everyday is a holiday for me quite yet, but I’m getting closer all the time and enjoying the journey.

Jason Timothy is a Non-musician/DJ/Producer/Blogger teaching thought-provoking music habits and Ableton Live music software. If you want to think more creatively, you can download his free creativity e-book just for readers. Also, follow him on Twitter.