When Do Artists Make Good Entrepreneurs? Lessons From Joan Jett
We often try to hire people who are self-starters, who will work for us as if they own the business. The risk of finding such a person is that they may one day leave us to start their own company.
This happens to record labels all the time. They invest in a musician, help grow their career, and then the musician decides to go into the label business. They “go entrepreneurial.”
Others start their own labels because no established label would have them. As I’ve written elsewhere, hip-hop artists were pretty much on their own when it came to releasing their music, as no major labels would come near them in the early days of the genre. This created an entrepreneurial culture in hip hop and accounts for why a disproportionate number of rich musicians are rappers, including Sean “Diddy” Combs, Dr. Dre and Jay Z, and why most of their wealth comes not from music but from the companies they own.
Veteran rocker Joan Jett also turned entrepreneurial out of necessity. Twenty-three labels passed on releasing her first solo album, Joan Jett. So, together with producer Kenny Laguna, she founded the record label Blackheart Records. That was in 1980. The label has since released nine additional Joan Jett and the Blackhearts albums as well as albums by other bands.
I recently spoke with Carianne Brinkman, VP of Blackheart Records and Laguna’s daughter, about what makes artists good entrepreneurs. “I think the seriousness with which they take the task,” she said, “and understanding the plight of the artist. Joan was rejected by 23 labels and that’s why Blackheart Records was started.”
ett has produced most of the artists on the label and contributes her aesthetics and artistic vision to the company. “Joan and I are the barometer for our ethos,” said Brinkman. “So if an artist comes in that we feel is commercially viable but they’re not really what we’re about, we won’t go with them. If we go to see them and you can tell it’s unauthentic, it’s just they’re there for something else, it’s a no go.”
The question of which musicians are most likely to become successful entrepreneurs has been the subject of research by Aleksandra Kacperczyk, professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at MIT, and Peter Younkin, professor of Strategy and Organization at McGill University. They obtained Nielson Soundscan data on the careers of 5000 artists over the course of twenty years. They found that artists were more likely to start their own label and sign other artists to that label when they had a broad range of skills yet operated within a relatively defined genre.
“What I find is that musicians who are generalists in terms of their skills, so they have a lot of different career experiences, are indeed more likely to launch their own labels. But in addition what determines becoming an entrepreneur and being successful at it is that they position themselves in a very specialized genre,” said Kacperczyk.
By sticking to one genre, an artist-entrepreneur helps consumers identify and understand the meaning of the brand they represent. But by learning a variety of skills, artist-entrepreneurs put themselves in a better position to succeed. If they’ve been involved in producing, promoting shows, playing different instruments, and designing the outfits, for example, they can utilize those skills in their companies and keep costs low. These varied skills also offer them access to different networks of people who can help them mobilize resources for their business.
“We always call Joan Type O negative, because she’s really across the board,” said Brinkman. “She does a lot of shows for the military and they go crazy for her. Obviously the above 35 love her. And she went on tour with Green Day and the Foo Fighters.” Joan Jett’s fans also include Ultimate Fighting Champion Ronda Rousey and Republican governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley.
To capitalize on Jett’s versatility, Blackheart has expanded beyond music. They have created a clothing line with Tripp NYC that sells Jett-inspired clothes at Hot Topic. “Joan Jett is a fashion icon and she’s a feminist icon, she is all of these things,” said Brinkman. “So many people have told me, ‘I love her music but, Oh My God, what she looks like!’ That resonates with young girls and boys. People connect with her in all generations because she’s looked upon as a woman that’s really torn down a lot of walls for females in all aspects of the arts.” Blackheart is also in the process of producing the movie Undateable John starring Daryl Hannah, Estella Warren, Tom Arnold, and Margaret Cho and featuring Blackheart music on the soundtrack.
Joan Jett was forced by failure to do what all artists have to do now: hustle. In the musical landscape of 2014, few artists can afford not to be entrepreneurial. They can learn from Jett’s experience about the benefits of creating an identifiable brand and leveraging it toward various kinds of ventures.
The video for “Bad Reputation” below tells the story of how Blackheart Records was founded.