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Jon: Hi, I’m Jon Magnusson, and I’m a songwriter and musician from Stockholm, Sweden, and you’re listening to the Musicality Now Podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Jon, thank you for joining us today.
Jon: Thank you very much Christopher. It’s an honor to be here.
Christopher: I’ve been really enjoying following along a bit with your story inside your progress channel at Musical U, and I’m really keen now to share some of that with our audience because you’ve done something that I’m sure a lot of our listeners and viewers only dream of, which is to make music your full time gig, and before we dive into that, I want to know how you got to that point. What’s the backstory of Jon Magnusson as a musician? Where did you learn music, what did it look like for you?
Jon: I actually started when I was really small, like eight, nine years old in the Swedish Musical School. We have a more or less free music education run by the municipalities of Sweden, so there I started to play the keyboard, and from the beginning I really felt I was pretty talented, but I was also kind of lazy, so if something didn’t go my way I tended to stop progressing, and just keeping on the level where I was at, at the moment. I didn’t really have someone who would really push me to take the next step, but I began to play guitar at 14, and was totally self-taught up until 30 years old, just played by myself, learning chords, so my progress was a bit slow, but at that moment I realized how much I really enjoyed making music, and I also went through a pretty rough period of my life, so it’s also got me thinking what do I want to do with my time.
Jon: That’s roughly three years ago, when I decided that I wanted to make it my full time job, and at that moment I didn’t have any idea how to make it, but I understood that I couldn’t just rely on what kind of talent I had, so I really started learning music theory, learning to play guitar in a more structured way with internet courses, and also learning social media, how to build a website, all the business side around things. It took me roughly two and a half years to go from making a big loss, spending a lot money, to actually break even. In August, I was at the point in life where I could it full time.
Christopher: Awesome, well there is so much there that I want to unpack with you, and let’s begin in that early stage because I think it’s interesting that you said you were kind of provided with this standard music education, but you also self taught yourself guitar, so could you talk a bit about what that kind of official music education looked like. What were they teaching, what weren’t they teaching, and then when it came to guitar, how did you go about learning to play guitar yourself?
Jon: Yeah, the municipality music education is like every kid has the possibility to choose an instrument, and play in an orchestra, so it’s pretty based on an orchestral setting. There isn’t that much focus on writing music, or music theory. Mostly about an orchestra works, and playing together with others. Since I wanted to play keyboard, it wasn’t very easy for me to be able to play with the orchestral band all the times, especially like if it was a marching band, I was the one wearing the banner instead of playing an instrument, but I think that was a really good foundation, and a great way to make kids interested in music. What I wanted, like for me and others who are more interested in music, to be able to take it maybe a step further, but all in all it was the most important thing for me because my parents didn’t play music, even though they have always been very supportive, they didn’t come from a musical background themselves.
Christopher: Got you, and you said right from the beginning you felt quite talented in music. What did that mean? What made you feel like, “Okay, this is for me?”
Jon: I felt when I heard a song, I could more or less play it. Not right away, but not like I had a perfect pitch, but I had a pretty good sense of pitch, and musicality right at the beginning, so I was able to play easier pop songs and stuff like that pretty fast.
Christopher: Great, and so then when you decided to add guitar to your arsenal, how did you go about picking up that instrument?
Jon: Actually, I was doing a conformation. I don’t know the name in English, it’s like when you’re doing in the Swedish church, I had a friend who wanted me to join him, even though I’m not religious myself. The church has a really nice social program for kids where you can do different activities, and I choose to play guitar, so I took five or six lessons through that, and my parents bought me an acoustic guitar, and that’s how I started playing the guitar.
Christopher: Cool, and then a couple of decades passed I guess, one will do anyway, and what were you doing over that period? Were you performing, were you writing music, were you just playing for yourself at home, what did your musical life look like?
Jon: I mostly played at home, and also I really enjoyed writing songs, and I had a few songs that has gotten a bit of recognition amongst my friends and family, also got a few radio plays in other countries. I felt that I had some kind of potential, but at the same time it could take me one year to write a new song because I had to rely on inspiration and it wasn’t always the inspiration came that easy, so I wrote about one song a year, and recorded and released it, but I didn’t really make much progress at that time.
Christopher: You released an EP over that period, is that right, This is All it Takes?
Jon: No, that one is actually my latest. I released a few singles, and also an EP in Swedish that I’ve actually taken down from Spotify because I don’t think the quality is really good enough, so I use it like bonus content for my mailing list subscribers and stuff like that. Actually the first EP I released that was more of less professionally recorded and produced was the Psalm for Sinners EP, that I released almost three years ago, I think in March 2017.
Christopher: Got you, and let’s go back to that period of we may because I think that’s when you said you were kind of making this decision to pursue music more fully, and it sounds like, excuse me, it sounds like you’ve been really smart about that, if I may say, in the sense that I think a lot of people with the backstory we just described would have been like, “Okay, I’m going to do music, I’ll just kind of rely on my talent, and I’ll figure it out as I go, and I’ll jumble together a living from doing this, that, and the other, and I’ll hope that my talent is good enough to carry me through.” Clearly that’s not the route you’ve taken. You had that kind of strong start in the sense of feeling that connection to music, and having a good ear, but when it came time to pursue it more fully, you’ve been very thoughtful and deliberate, and specific about how to make it work, so could you take us back to that time when you were making that decision. What prompted it, and how did you both emotionally, and intellectually decide to go about it?
Jon: That was just before I was writing the EP I was talking about, and I had one, or two songs finished, and I felt like, “This is okay, but if I want to make it good enough for others to listen to, I actually have to make it better,” so I actually started, because I didn’t have money to go to a professional school, so I started researching on the internet because I think the biggest problem is you can find so much stuff on YouTube, or on podcasts, but if you don’t have a plan, or a route to take, like I can watch Adam Neely’s videos, or Rick Beato’s videos, and it’s great inspiration, but it’s also on a level that’s too high for most people in my position, so I really need to have some kind of basic foundation to be able to use those more advanced videos as well. I actually started on Udemy, which is a site with a lot of good online courses, and I started with a musical theory course there, and also a guitar course.
Christopher: Got you. I’m always impressed when I talk to people who have a mixture of humility and ambition. Clearly you’ve wanted to make it in music in some way, shape, or form, but you weren’t falling into the trap of being like, “I’m so great therefore I’ll make it.” You were recognizing that there were areas where you needed to improve, and you were being humble enough to go to Udemy, seek out the resources, and improve your skills to be able to make that happen. I think it’s a combination that often leads to great success, but it does take humility I think to say, “Okay, my theory isn’t that great,” and rather than saying, “I’ll just make up for it with creativity, I’m going to go learn the theory.”
Jon: Yeah, it was like when I started taking music theory, I’d been playing instruments for 15, or 17 years, and I never heard the concept of musical intervals, it was just, “What is that?” I could read notes, or sheet music pretty well, but I had no idea what a perfect fourth was, so that was quite mind blowing, “Ah, this is why this song of mine works.” With cadences, when I was writing music I was doing a lot of that stuff, but I had no idea why it worked, and it took me so long having to listen to what song I’d write instead of having that theoretical knowledge that would have made it a lot more faster.
Christopher: Got you, yeah, and I think looking at your story from the outside, it seems like at that moment where you were deciding to try and make it a full time living you would have needed to skill up in your musicality, like your inner skills, and the music entrepreneurship side of things, and I guess probably a third area would just be the emotional resilience and the personal development it takes to take full responsibility for your living. You know, that’s something that I think a lot of entrepreneurs at the early stages don’t anticipate, that it’s a very different thing in terms of identity and emotion to go out there in the world kind of all be yourself, versus having a nine to five job that provides you a paycheck each month.
Christopher: I think we kind of touched on the first one there. You were studying some music theory and maybe we’ll cycle back and talk a bit more about that side of things, but first, how were you thinking about entrepreneurship, or the personal development, or responsibility? Was that stuff that you thought would come easily? Was it part of your background, was it slightly intimidating to you, how were you thinking about those two areas?
Jon: Three years ago I had no idea that I had to become an entrepreneur as well. That took me maybe one and a half year more to really realize. I think I had the same idealistic view that most people do, that if I become good enough, and get in front of enough people, someone will recognize me and give me a great record deal. It took me one year to realize that that wasn’t going to happen. It still happens for some people, but it’s very, very rare nowadays that someone gets discovered in that way, and also if you get discovered and don’t have any idea on how things work you are in a pretty bad negotiation position. No, I didn’t have any entrepreneurial ideas at all when I got started.
Christopher: What did you do about that once it kind of dawned on you that you needed to learn those skills? Were there particular resources, or teachers you went to that helped you skill up in that side of things?
Jon: Yes. I actually stumble over it, a bit more than a year ago I stumbled over Indepreneur who teaches marketing skills and stuff. The audience is mainly music artists, but also like digital creatives, and they teach everything from email marketing to running ads, and they have a system that the foundation of it, it’s a system where you take someone who had never heard of you, from getting that first touch when they hear your music from the first time, to becoming a subscriber of your mailing list to actually buying on of your CD’s, or T-shirts, so they have a really solid system, and then you can take different trainings that it’s all related to that basic system. That has been probably the most important thing to get me to the level to actually make money from what I’m doing.
Christopher: Fantastic. That was Indepreneur, is that it?
Jon: I can’t recommend it enough.
Christopher: Cool, we’ll definitely have a link to that in the show notes. That helped fill in that side of things a bit. Tell us more about that period from say three years ago to a few months ago, I guess it was summer this year right, when you were fully full time with it?
Jon: Yeah. I actually had a pretty great job as a social worker. I was a group leader in the Swedish social security system, so I had a pretty good paycheck that paid for all my plug-ins and instruments, and computers. Actually I did like the job, but I also felt I didn’t develop as much as I would have wanted, and I felt I didn’t want to become like the only career step for me to take was to become a boss on a higher level, and that didn’t feel intriguing at all. I started building my music on the side, so from doing a lot of different stuff like learning Spanish, or reading a lot of books, everything I did in my free time was relating to my music either by writing music, or playing guitar, or communicating with radio people, with vloggers, or building my fan base. I spent more or less all my free time the last three years on building my music business on the side.
Christopher: Well you say pretty much all your free time, but I’m sure there are people in the audience who are like, “Oh that sounds great, but I have a kid so I couldn’t do that.”
Jon: Yeah, yeah, I realize that, and when my kid was smaller it was a lot easier because she was totally fine with me playing guitar for her, or singing with her, or having her sleeping on my, I had a how do you call it, like you bury her some kind of a…
Christopher: A sling?
Jon: Yeah, a sling, and I could sit at the computer working, and I worked until she was eight, nine months old, and then I went on parental leave, so I had to slow things down pretty much a lot. When my wife came home from work I had a few hours to get some work done, but yeah, I had to prioritize my kid at that time.
Christopher: Of course, and so was it kind of a hard flip then from being employed to being a full time music maker, or did you gradually transition from one to the other?
Jon: Actually my parental leave came in very handy, and also I had a bit of a struggle with my boss at my old work, and he did some stupid things that ended up with them having to pay me a settlement. How do you call it, a settlement payment.
Jon: Yeah exactly, so that actually helped a bit a well because I was able to have a bit of money saved to really invest in my business, and then I went on parental leave, so the transition wasn’t that hard really. It was like instead of being home with my kid, I was being home with my music, so that was kind of good timing with everything.
Christopher: Terrific, and if you don’t mind me asking, at that stage did you have some revenue from the music side of things, or were you starting from zero at that point?
Jon: More or less, I was starting to break even, and actually that was when I started to, because I didn’t have much time playing, or working actively, I started to curate playlists because I always had a great interest in music, so actually my playlists are bringing in enough money to pay the bills and to build my own music. I don’t have to rush things, or I don’t have to sell a lot of things to my fan base because I have my music creation that’s a good foundation.
Christopher: Interesting, so for anyone watching, or listening who’s never come across the idea of making money from creating playlists before, how does that work?
Jon: It’s like I’m building playlists, I actually wouldn’t recommend it to everyone because it’s a lot more work than you can imagine, so I spend two, three hours of the day listening to new music and arranging playlists to work. The trick is to have enough famous artists on the list blended with new and unknown artists to make people interested in following the playlist, but not getting bored, so I try to keep it 50/50 between famous artists and unknown artists, and then I have promoted them on social media. Especially my jazz playlists and progressive rock playlists have gotten quite a lot of followers who are actively listening to the playlists, and then I use SubmitHub, which is a site where artists can submit music for consideration. It’s also very transparent, like I really try to listen to a lot more than you have to, to earn money, so I’ve got quite a high rating, so I get a lot of songs sent to me daily. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also really fun because I get to listen to a variety of music I don’t think most people come close to.
Christopher: Where does the money come from?
Jon: From the artists pays a fee for submitting to, and then I get a part of the fee and the SubmitHub gets a part of the fee as well for providing the service.
Christopher: Got you, interesting, and the playlists would be on Spotify, or YouTube?
Jon: Spotify in my case.
Christopher: Fascinating. I think that’s such a beautiful example of how there are so many more opportunities these days to make music pay for you, or rather to make money with music aside from the traditional, “I have made a song, I will sell it to people on a tape, or a CD, or whatever the case may be.” It’s really inspiring I think, to realize the possibilities.
Jon: Yeah, and I think a lot of people are using Spotify playlists as a fast way of earning money from starving artists, but since I’m an artist myself I know how important it is to actually getting value. If someone spends three dollars for sending me a song, and I don’t care, I think that’s, I know there are people who just use it to make a quick buck, but I really try to, if I don’t accept a song I really try to write good feedback. Especially if I hear some potential, but it’s not totally right for my playlist, I really try to express that in my reviews, and I think that’s why it has become so sustainable.
Jon: Also, I’m not promoting my playlists to countries where there are a lot of fake listeners because there are a lot of playlists who has a fake following with people who aren’t real people, or who are more or less bots, or click forms, and I think Spotify is getting better and better at sorting those accounts out, so people who has been relying on fake plays I think they are going down pretty soon. Since I’m an artist myself, I have some kind of ethics with me in my creation.
Christopher: I see. It’s kind of the modern day version of an A&R rep being a musician themselves.
Jon: Yeah, yeah exactly.
Christopher: You have to play both parts.
Jon: Yeah, and for me that has been perfect because I can also use, like listening to a song and figuring out the chord progression, and really determine what is my taste. Why does some kind of music make me so intrigued, but some kind of music just doesn’t work for me. It also has been a way of me evolving as a musician and a music consumer as well.
Christopher: You got to the point where this could be your all day every day, apart from you know, also being a dad and I’m sure other responsibilities, but music could be your main thing and clearly you had some training from the Indepreneur site, and I’m sure other resources to help you make sure the bills were more or less being paid and give you some freedom to explore what you wanted to do next. What have been the most important areas to work on since then? What have you been spending your days on to increase the chances of having the kind of success you want?
Jon: I have tried to have like a 50/50 balance between actually making music and musical training, and 50% the more business side of things, creating playlists and building my social media. Actually the first few months I’ve been focusing more on getting everything set up, like my mailing list, my website, so when I’m able to record more music and release more music, I already have the business side of things set up. Actually now I’m coming to that place when I can really focus even more on making music, but at the same time I’ve been using a lot of my spare time to do ear training. When I’m walking from after leaving my kid at preschool, I’ve been listening to chord inversion training, or whatever, so I’ve really been using the time I have to focus on ear training. Ear training is quite easy to do as soon as you have some time. It’s harder to pick up the guitar and play if my kid’s asleep, but I can always lie in bed and do some ear training. That’s the stuff I’ve been focusing on the last few months, like the business side and my ecosystem, and then ear training.
Christopher: You’ve been quite diligent about planning out your day. I remember one of your PJ posts, you were kind of laying out your schedule for the day in terms of what you’d work on when. Could you talk a little bit about that? I remember back when I first started working from home with my day job before I did my own thing, and it was really a learning experience to realize, “Okay, I’ve got a blank day, how do I fill this time, and how do I not just wander off and do something else?”
Jon: Yeah, I almost never follow my schedule, but by having a schedule I at least have an idea of the things I have to do like I have to listen to all the songs that are sent to me and review them because that’s the biggest part of me getting paid at the moment. Then I have other things that, it’s good if I follow up on social media, and so I like some kind of priority list, but most often I don’t follow the schedule, but having the schedule keeps me at least somehow in the right direction.
Christopher: If we come back to the music training, you’ve mentioned music theory, and you talked there about chord progression, or chord inversion, ear training, what have been the main areas you’ve been trying to improve there given that you’re a song writer as well as a multi-instrumentalist, how have you decided what to focus on in your musicality training?
Jon: I’ve actually been using the Musical U roadmaps. They have been really helpful. Like I was talking about earlier, it’s so easy to start, “Oh I’m going to learn chord inversions.” You just start with an app, and you realize I can’t recognize any inversions at all, and you’re getting a bit unmotivated, but instead of starting from the beginning, even if I had a basic knowledge, it’s really good to get that foundation that you can get from a roadmap. I’ve actually been using that a lot.
Jon: I started with intervals and I went over to doing melodies, and I’ve actually been doing melodies and chords at the same time because they compliment each other very well. Also, the rhythmic training has been great because that has been kind of a weakness. It’s quite mind blowing to see how little things has to do with inherent musicality, like just learning to speak rhythms has make it so much easier to figure out the rhythm of a strumming pattern, or whatever.
Christopher: You’re talking there about using rhythm syllables, right, ti, tika, ti, ti?
Jon: Yeah exactly, one, and two, and three, and four.
Christopher: Got you.
Jon: Yeah, and how everything kind of goes together. If I’m reviewing a song I can hear this is the chord progressing, this is a bit too standard for me, then I can say that I like the production, but the chord progression is a bit too standard to really stand out, so I can really use what I learn with ear training in other parts of my music business. I actually forgot what the original question was.
Christopher: Just curious to know what you’re working on in that area, and I’d love to ask the follow up which is, what’s this all leading to? I maybe should have asked that question at the start, but what’s your vision? Now that you’re going full time with it, how do you imagine things being five years from now if things go perfectly?
Jon: That’s a really good question. I actually, the playlist part I didn’t, I had no idea that I would think that was so fun and also so making it possible for me to actually make a living from music. In five years time I hope I am at a point where I make a pretty good living from music, so I can be able to jump on all the projects I feel like. I don’t have to answer to anyone like, “You can’t do this and that.” Full creative freedom is the five year plan.
Christopher: Terrific, and what’s been the most challenging part for you so far, whether on the music side, or on the entrepreneurship side? If we think just about the last few months when you’ve been full time with it, are there any challenges that you hadn’t anticipated?
Jon: It’s like when personal life catches up with you, to still keep that routine. Last month I’ve been really tired, but then it has really helped that I build up all the routines. I have a system to review songs and follow up with my social media. I think that’s really important. It’s quite easy when it’s summer and everything is light, and it doesn’t take 20 minutes to get your kid dressed for preschool, then life is quite easy, but some days it’s not like that. Then it’s really, really valuable to have a solid system to keep you on your feet, so I’m really happy that I spent the first months really building up a system, which is making it a lot easier to keep going even if I don’t really have the energy all of the days. Yeah, that is the most struggling part, but it’s like things are going according to plan so far.
Christopher: Good, and tell me if you imagine someone watching or listening is say six months behind you and really wanting to go full time with music, but maybe they’re nervous, they’re not sure how to do it, they don’t know where to learn about what they need to learn, what tips, or advice, or resources would you recommend for someone in that place?
Jon: I would really like my five year plan three years ago was that at this point I was going to work half time with music, and thanks to my severance package and the playlists I’m able to do it full time already, but building things slow, and really building up an ecosystem. How are you going to make people hear your music, and how are you going to keep in touch with them? What part of the business stuff because all the business stuff isn’t that fun. I have to be honest, but a lot of things are fun. To find out what’s actually working for you, and really getting that system in place that the Indepreneur teaches has been really valuable for me, so I can’t recommend that enough. Also, don’t forget what makes everything fun. That’s why I try to do at least one or two hours of ear training, or instrument practice every day because that’s the most important stuff. That’s what makes me want to do this. It’s finding a balance and building things slowly, and don’t think that things will happen overnight.
Christopher: Got you, and I was going to wrap things up there, but I want to ask one more question based on what you just said, which is have you managed to find communities, or connections that help you? I know you’re a part of Musical U obviously, but I’m thinking more about the entrepreneurship side, or the business side of things, have you been able to find support and guidance as you need it?
Jon: Yeah, also through Indepreneur, they have a Facebook group that’s really supportive, and I also have for my instrumental stuff, I have a lot of contacts. We’re helping each other, building our playlists, and getting playlist placements for our music. I have a pretty good network, and also I was running a network of independent artists like one year ago, but it became too much, so I had to drop it, but I still keep in touch with a lot of people from there. I got to know so many people thanks to the music. If it’s a lot of work alone, it’s also a lot of social contact.
Christopher: Terrific, I think that’s, for me, certainly it’s such an important part of things to know that you’re not just by yourself in isolation, that you have other people you can commiserate with and support each other through your journey.
Christopher: We talked a little bit about your singles, and EP’s, and your most recent one, This is All it Takes, would you let the listeners, the audience know a bit more about your current musical projects, and if they want to hear Jon Magnusson’s music where can they go?
Jon: Yeah, like I said before, I started out making mostly Folk rock and Indie rock stuff, so that can be found under my own name, Jon Magnusson, but also the last few years I started making more instrumental stuff like Jazz and a bit of Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock, so actually the last release I did was yesterday when I released a Jazz piano piece that I wrote, but it’s arranged and played by an Italian Jazz pianist, so that one I’m really happy with. I actually have three main projects, but it’s Jon Magnusson, that is the most, which is mostly in the Folk and Rock, and then I have Beyond the Seasons, which is more Jazz and Progressive rock. Then also, my piano stuff that’s under the name of Georg Nielson, but I have links to all the projects on my website if anyone’s interested in checking it out.
Christopher: Fantastic, cool, and for anyone who isn’t ok with Swedish pronunciation as you are Jon, and I mangled your name when we first started talking today, and called you Jon, for anyone who doesn’t know how to spell these names, you can head to JonMagnusson.SE, that’s the main website, and we’ll have a link in the show notes of course, and Jon I apologize for calling you Jon at the beginning if this conversation and was spelling out that name, but yeah sadly I think most of our audience would not know how to spell that, including myself.
Jon: Yeah, yeah.
Christopher: That’s the link, definitely check it out. I really have enjoyed diving into your website myself, and listening to some of your music, and what’s coming up for you in the next few months in terms of your learning, your training, and your releases?
Jon: Well, I never know what will happen, but on next Monday I’m releasing a Jazz tune with my Beyond the Seasons project. That’s actually arranged and played by another Italian Jazz pianist, so I’m really excited for that as well. That’s actually quite mind blowing that I have a professional pianist that want to arrange and record my stuff that I have written. Then I actually, I don’t know, I think I will take some training in mixing to be able to record more at home and put out more instrumental music from my home studio, and maybe later next year I will start working on a new Jon Magnusson EP with more Indie, Folk, and Rock stuff.
Christopher: Terrific, great, and one thing I just realized we haven’t mentioned is you’re a podcaster yourself, and everyone watching, or listening to this should definitely check out your own podcast that’s available in audio and video format, and you can find that also on Jon’s website, which we’ll have a link to in the show notes. Huge thank you for joining us today Jon, and sharing this journey. It’s been such an interesting one to hear about, both before the school inside Musical U, and in the conversation today, and I know it’s one that’s going to inspire and hopefully encourage a lot of people in the audience who’ve considered taking that leap themselves. Any parting piece of guidance, or wisdom to share with the audience?
Jon: I think the important thing is to find what you enjoy yourself, and also decide if you want to, it’s totally okay to keep it at a hobby level because it is a lot of work if you want to make it as a professional, but also if you choose to make it as a professional, nowadays you can really go the independent way.
Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you so much again Jon.
Jon: Yeah, thank you. I really enjoyed it.