If Your Music Career Was Like a Food Cart

I often like to compare business practices of other industries and to take the lessons learned to apply it towards a music career. The other day, I was thinking about the food industry and it was so much like our world in music. I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family and started helping my parents’ restaurant business when I was still in elementary school so many of these lessons came quite early in life.

Here in Portland, OR, most people are starting their food business in the form of a food cart. It’s less expensive, there’s less risk, and you’re often grouped together in a “pod” of other food carts so often times you’ll just get crowds of hungry people who would like some food but are unsure of what they’d like yet (or you can be exposed to the customers of other carts). Picture yourself as a chef who wants to make a living doing what they love for a living: cooking. Not much unlike the music industry isn’t it?

Musicians who want to take some of the initial steps of their career should go through many of the same steps: they have to think about funding, locations (venues, tour locations), how to get exposure, etc. However, there are some basic business principles that we can see about other industries that we’re sometimes completely blind to in our own.

For instance, much like musicians who want to get great reviews from critics, restauranteurs want/need positive reviews from customers (Yelp, Foursquare, etc.) as well as the local media. However “good” restaurants who aren’t doing anything new or different don’t stand out. The food carts in Portland that get the most attention are those that are cutting edge and offering something that no one else is. Koi Fusion is a quickly expanding street-food empire who has been standing out because of their unique Korean approach to local Oregon foods (so much so that the founder, Bo Kwon, has been name of of the “50 Most Influential People in Portland”).

On that same note, bands/musicians who are not offering anything up new or different (even if they’re pretty good) will often get sorted into a large pile of other good bands in that genre. The talented but common rock band, singer-songwriter, or hiphop artist that isn’t offering anything different gets to be passed like the average, tasty taco truck.The ones that take more risks, who are different or cutting edge tend to be the ones that get covered in Pitchfork. Those are the movers and shakers.

Just like the up-and-coming, hip restaurants get the most attention (the line outside tends to attract more customers), people pay more attention to the band that has been generating a buzz. Even the food stalls in a shopping mall that offer up free samples get more people checking them out than those that don’t (like the incentive of free music). The comparisons could go on and on but I challenge you to take some time and think about what you’d do to make a splash on the culinary world…and how would you take those lessons to apply them to your music career?

1 Comment

  1. Await Rescue says:

    This post really got me thinking and many great things can be taken away from this.

    You are correct in saying that there are very clear and direct parallels between the music and food industries, and I believe that this concept to could be applied to any industry in which there is great competition. For example, the accounting field could be viewed as the music industry’s polar opposite, but if there is an accountant who loves accounting and wants to start his or her own accounting practice, what steps would he or she take to stand out from the other accounting firms? Would they provide free consultations (give away free music)? Would they aim to offer the best customer service possible and go above and beyond to have their customers take note?

    As for the parallels to the food industry and having to create a “buzz,” Lefsetz recently sent out an email commenting a recent interview that Seth Godin gave on word of mouth and how to get people spreading the word about your business.

    You can view the article here: http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/index.php/archives/2012/02/16/seth-godin-on-word-of-mouth/

    Seth stated that you have to simply first make something that is “remarkable,” which may seem like a total “duh” statement, but he defines it as simply doing something that is “worth remarking about.” This relates to how you stated that bands can’t just be “pretty good,” but they have to be doing something edgy. Something different. Something that is pushing the boundaries. Only then will a band be noticed, and I hope that more bands take this approach because the overall vitality of the music industry would stand to benefit as a result. No one cares about how good a band is at imitating other bands or rehashing what has already done. These bands may achieve some success, but they will never be slow burners that make a true impact on the industry.

    It is unfortunate, but in today’s industry an artist’s music has also become the free bread and water that we have come to expect of all restaurants; therefore, since people already expect free music (especially from lesser-known bands), giving your music away for free is not enough to make your band stand out just like a restaurant will not become well-known for their complimentary bread. That being said, you need to be able to create new and exciting music and give it away for free in an effort to entice people to pay for your real money generating items, such as merch and tickets.

    Furthermore, your mention of having long lines outside of restaurants creating buzz could not be a more direct comparison. This is something bands should consider when choosing what venues they will play. For example, I believe that is far better to play a smaller venue that you know your band can sell out rather than playing a larger venue that may be more reputable. I would personally much rather play a venue with a capacity of 150 that my band can sell out than play a 500 capacity venue that has more name recognition but will have a lot of empty space when my band takes the stage. First off, people will notice if your band is selling out shows. Secondly, if people are not able to get into your sold out show, they will take note to buy tickets earlier for your next show for sure (thus creating anticipation) and they will see your band in a different light. For lack of a better word, your band will seem more “legit” and bigger to outsiders if you are selling out shows on a consistent basis. And finally, sold out shows where people are packed shoulder to shoulder will provide a better show experience for both you band and the crowd. There will be a better energy in the room that will translate when people are packed right in front of the stage rather than having a large room with enough space for people to mill around in the back. You will have peoples’ attention and they will notice that your band is doing well enough to pack the room.

    A final thing that artists should take away from this post is that, if we were all chefs, our favorite dish should always be the next one. As musicians, we have to constantly be pushing ourselves to create new art that excites us and pushes our craft forward. We should never become complacent, and if we do start becoming bored with the new material we are working on, then we need to shake things up because if our newest work doesn’t excite us, then it most likely won’t excite people we want to hear it and will lead them to not remark or talk about it. If a chef creates a dish that doesn’t excite him, then it most likely won’t excite his restaurant’s patrons, and people will quickly become bored with his menu.

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