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Music Biz Innovators Remain Optimistic in the Face of Change

By John Matthew Simon

“Sometimes you have to stop, assess yourself, and start over,” extolled JMA founder, Jeff McClusky, as he spoke enthusiastically about the ever-evolving state of the music industry.

Optimism appears to be the uniform of those poised with the task of shattering or mutating old business models that previously relied on standardized products.

However, there is nothing standard about the digitization of music media and the shifting landscape that organizations such as JMA, a promotional and music marketing firm, and Audiotree, an “artist-centric music company”, find themselves operating in.

For instance, Audiotree is a Chicago music start-up “best known for (their) in-studio concert series, Audiotree Live”. The in-studio live sessions and efforts to partner-up with bands for distribution are not necessarily new models in the music business. However, mutual ownership, built-in marketing, global distribution at the touch of a button, and the ability to pivot are pushing the old models into uncharted territory.

Chris Watkins, charged with “business affairs” at Audiotree, insisted that what sets them apart is their authenticity, willingness to take risks, and the quality of the content they create. As he succinctly put it, they are “a band’s best friend,” but understand that they “can’t be all things to all people.”

In other words, success in the current state of the music industry, while centered around new(er) distribution models such as streaming platforms, is about being innovative, diligent, and forthright.

McClusky, a 35+ year veteran of music promotions, recognized this when he went back to school at Northwestern University in 2005 for a degree from the Kellogg School of Management. He acknowledged that the old model was porous and that his business had to evolve or it would die.

“We’re in the personal service business,” said McClusky, explaining that radio promotions remain a part of JMA’s business model, but that they are also focused on mentoring artists, overseeing creative growth, identifying and marketing the artists’ brand, and making sure they provide their clients with an intimate experience.

The trope “golden age” is a little feathery for the blustering evolution of the music business, but there are real reasons to be optimistic.

Start-ups like Audiotree and established companies like JMA are two of those reasons, both pushing forward by embracing change and maintaining a willingness to take calculated risks.