Tommy Darker is a thought-leader on the topic of modern music careers. Through his essays and expert talks he educates up-and-coming musicians on what it takes to be a “musicpreneur”, take ownership of your career, and accelerate your progress towards your goals.
This month Tommy will launch an exciting new project, named U25: The Under-25 Musicpreneur Program. We are fortunate to have Tommy on our advisory board here at Musical U so we were able to get hold of him to ask about this new initiative and what it will do for a select group of musicians.
My name is Tommy, I am at the moment twenty-eight years old. I’m from Greece and live in London. Hence this weird kind of Mediterranean British accent that I have. I’m a musicpreneur: that’s how I will describe myself: I’m a musician that is thinking both artistically and entrepreneurialy.
I’m ex-military, I’ve been serving the Greek air force for seven years and three of them were in the headquarters of NATO and Belgium as a military policeman. Then I turned into a musician.
Also I’m the founder of Darker Music Talks, a TED Talks-like series of lectures every month in London and other cities in Europe where musicians learn from proven industry experts how to become musicpreneurs.
I’m also an academic lecturer in the University of Westminster and last year in Berkelee College of Music in their master’s degree.
Finally, I’m the founder of Kenophania, a project where we record the music tour that we’ve been doing around Greece and try to figure out how to create a new genre of music that mashes up British post-punk like Depeche Mode and Joy Division with Greek traditional music, using only natural sounds and acoustic instruments – no amplifications, no electronics, no distortion, no cables basically.
These are my four projects at the moment.
Being a musicpreneur is needed today because we need to survive! We have no war at the moment where I live, we’re not starving to death. In fact we have the luxury to manage our lives in a way that many people in other parts of the world don’t. This means that we have the choice whether to do a 9-to-5 job or do something on our own.
As a musician I haven’t met a single person that is proud of loving his 9-to-5 job and then doing music on the side. Everybody dreams about becoming a musician full-time time and making a living out of it.
The fact that we can arrange our time means we can do what we love and make a living from it. That is being a musicpreneur: doing what we love and making a living from it.
As a musician I haven’t met a single person that is proud of loving his 9-to-5 job and then doing music on the side.
It sounds really amazing but it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of compartmentalizing ideas in your head, so you can be creative and be an entrepreneur at the same time.
A musicpreneur is essentially doing that. They take care of both the artistic aspect and the entrepreneurial side of their career. Creating revenue streams and business models and constantly evolving. And that’s what I’m doing. It’s out of necessity.
I used to be in the army, getting paid. I was not feeding my creative side so I quit. I knew that the army was not fitting in with the values that I had and being a musicpreneur was actually fulfilling that side.
So I quit. I had some savings and I started building these two careers on the same time. Eventually now I can teach it academically which is great – but there’s still a long way to go for me to reach my goals.
Being a musicpreneur is a full-time job, it’s a 24/7 kind of thing, you live and breathe that.
That’s why now I’ve decided to start working with a specific segment of musicpreneurs.
These are musicpreneurs that are under 25 and ideally they already have a music degree. They have finished college or they’re still studying or they’re planning to study. They haven’t yet had their big break in the industry to be in touch with industry stakeholders and pitch their ideas to them and start collaborations and make a revenue out of that.
What the Under 25 Musicpreneur Project is: it’s me guiding five under-25 musicpreneurs every month.
First of all, guiding them through understanding what their goal is. Somebody might want to be a composer for games, somebody might want to get an internship in a big label, somebody might want to tour all the time and make a living from that. So the first thing, pre-masterclass, is identifying their goal.
Then there’s a five day masterclass where we take everything and we create a business model, a marketing plan, we flesh out all the goals and then we have something—a product—at the end of the master class that is ready to pitch.
Then the last part is for every person that participates in the program we will identify three experts in their area that they would like to pitch to, ideally they’re in the same geographical area that they live in.
At the end of the master class they will have taken a single idea that they have for their goal, and will have created a product. Then they will pitch this idea right after the master class to these three people, with the opportunity of them getting what they want in just five days.
That is the whole premise: take a person that has a lot of talent, probably the education and is determined to make a full-time career out of what they love, and to help them take an idea, flesh it out during a masterclass and eventually pitch it to three targeted industry people right away.
After that there is a global community that will be comprised of these kinds of people, on a platform I’m developing right now to put all these people together.
So this is the Under 25 Musicpreneur Project. I launched it a few weeks ago and now we are coming up to the deadline to apply.
Yes, and that they can be in touch with the industry people and get results. Going from a simple idea and a goal to eventually pitching it to the industry within two weeks.
Some of the things you’ve described like composing music for video games or having a live music performing career or being a studio musician. Those are things where there is a traditional career path and your Under 25 recent music grad might be thinking, “Well I can just apply for jobs in each of these areas.”
What’s different about using the musicpreneur route and maybe applying for the U25 program?
There is one thing that comes in mind and that is the acceleration of progress.
That might not sound impressive now that I say it, but the big difference is that if you take the traditional way eventually you’re not sure when you’re going to have results.
There is a lot of hope to it. You’re relying on other people.
If you apply for a job, if you get a manager, if you start pitching to people to put things together for you, you’re basically relying on other people. That means that they control the time that it takes for you to fulfill everything. What you end up taking with you is not the practical knowledge, it’s you following the guidance of somebody else in doing what you’re told to. You don’t understand the “why” of the things you’re doing.
Somebody else is controlling your program and your schedule – and what if this person doesn’t care anymore? What if this person stops paying you? What if this person goes away? Ultimately there is a big risk behind it. You are relying on somebody else and you do whatever they want, they control a big part of what you do.
Being a musicpreneur and following the Under 25 Musicpreneur program you take control of all that.
That lets you accelerate things because you take control of all of these aspects. Eventually you employ people to do things for you, you partner with people and you let them do the job so you can achieve what you have in mind.
That’s very different from you fitting in somebody else’s schedule and hoping that you will eventually find your way to achieve you goals.
Instead you put these people into your schedule so that they can accelerate what you do to fit your goals. You’re basically in control of your goals and your career. You outline where you want to go, you see where you are, you outline where you want to go and then you start fleshing out every single step and eventually you pitch it so you can see how strong your idea is to industry people.
I would say there’s a big difference of control.
Coming from the world of entrepreneurship there are some people who would say you need to be born an entrepreneur, that there are certain people who have the drive and independence and they can do it – and everyone else they’re better off getting a job.
Does that apply to musicians? Would you have a concern for example that some of the applicants for the U25 Program don’t already have that ownership or sense of independence – or is this something that anyone can be taught?
Anybody can be taught this. I’m pretty sure about this because I was not an entrepreneur! I had no idea.
I became an entrepreneur when I quit my job and I knew that if I ran out of money I would eventually need to do something that I don’t love like work in a coffee or work in a company. Where I would wake up every morning and be like “I don’t really want to do that but I need the money.”
No, I was not born an entrepreneur. I had no idea that I could do that. Now I feel comfortable, through doing it again and again and failing and failing and learning and succeeding. Then failing, failing, failing, succeeding.
I was not born an entrepreneur. I had no idea that I could do that.
Now I can call myself an entrepreneur because I’ve claimed this title by doing things all the time. You just need to start. Not everybody would be courageous enough to start, I understand that. I’m not here to pressure people into it.
That’s why I mentioned clearly in my call-to-action for the application: “if you’re determined to make a sustainable career full-time and you know that this is what you want to do then just apply for the program”.
We will eventually see who really commits to it with time and financially, but it’s not for everyone.
I’m pretty sure that we can see in other industries, being an entrepreneur will become the norm.
People want to claim their independence and take control of their life back so they become their own company instead of fitting into somebody else’s schedule, fulfilling their goals. They want to fulfill their own goals.
I’m pretty confident that within five years we’ll have a lot of musicpreneurs and it will be the norm. I’ve actually seen a lot of progress since I started using the term about three years ago. I’ve seen a lot of people using it now confidently and that shows yes, there is a room for that and the title does represent a real need. It’s not just a fancy title that I came up with!
It’s really interesting that you are not entirely anti-establishment, as it were. Some people would take up this mantle of “musicians need to be independent and forge their own path” and say “Screw the traditional industry, you don’t need those guys, that doesn’t matter.”
Clearly that’s not your approach, you’re talking about putting them in touch with the industry contacts and with your project with Kenophania, you’re pitching it to TV broadcast networks. You’re not saying, “Screw the TV we’ll do it on YouTube.”
Tell us more about that that, why is it a symbiotic relationship rather than you being the new replacement for everything that’s come before?
That’s an amazing question, and that’s the right word to put it: it’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a big ecosystem, we’re depending on other people and they play an important role for everything we do. We cannot be just on our own in a vacuum – that doesn’t exist. In this ecosystem everybody plays its role.
The big companies they have their own way of doing things, they have their own goal and they’re reaching consumers.
If the consumer, the audience, is actually interacting with different stakeholders in an industry then eventually these stakeholders are valuable because they’re bringing value to the audience.
What I’m trying to say is that there’s people watching TV, there’s people consuming music from big labels, there’s people streaming music on Spotify and other services. These people are valuable and everybody has their own goal: the industry players have their own goals and we can have our own goals.
The point is that having your own goals doesn’t mean that you turn your back to everybody else. Because in every business model there’s a way of accelerating things by getting partners or by doing things yourself. I’m totally against doing everything by yourself because there is no way of scaling up. You’re only one person, you only have that much available time every time every day.
You need to partner with other people, you need to be in a very organic relationship, in a symbiotic relationship with everybody else. What I’m preaching is actually: embrace everybody. You can be valuable to them, they can be valuable to you.
If you want to achieve your goal you definitely at some point need to find a way to partner with other stakeholders in the industry so you can both achieve your goals in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Create a team and create a network of partners – that’s the best way to do it yourself.
So I’m definitely respecting everybody in the industry, they do bring value for people. People pay for that, to have them in their lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. It might not be the way that I’m doing things, I might not agree with everything they do. However, they bring value to me, I can bring value to them. Let’s find a way to make it work.
I would say: It’s not about doing it all yourself it’s about doing in yourself.
Most musicians make the mistake of trying to do it “DIAY”: Do It All Yourself.
Graphic design, promotion, booking, blah, blah, blah.
Create a team and create a network of partners – that’s the best way to do it yourself. You’re in control of things, however you’re not doing everything yourself.
For example, I know artists who really struggle even with Patreon and the idea of asking people to back them and support their projects. Because they feel the art should be free, and it shouldn’t be tied up with all that “money stuff”. I know that some of them think it’s even tacky, the idea of putting a price tag on your music or creating rewards for your fans.
How do you help musicians reconcile those two worlds of musicianship and entrepreneurship?
There is a very harsh answer to that: I don’t really try to.
These are not the people that I’m planning to work with.
I have nothing to say to somebody that believes that music should be free and they should create it for free. They’re hobbyists. That’s totally fine – if you don’t plan to, if you don’t want to, if you don’t have the sense of the market value of what you create, that somebody is ready to pay for that – then clearly I’m not trying to be a psychiatrist and try to convince them otherwise.
It’s a worldview that I respect – but that’s not the people I’m working with.
I have nothing to say to somebody that believes that music should be free and they should create it for free. They’re hobbyists.
If somebody does want, does understand that what they create is valuable and there are people that want to pay for it, and that they actually dream of making a full-time living from that – waking up in the morning and like, “What I’m going to do, I’m going to make music and I’m going to do stuff around my music,” like I do – then yes, I can help you achieve that.
But I don’t want to convince you. If you’re convinced that what you create should be for free and you’re just doing it and playing around with the gear and everything and you enjoy doing that without any commercial side attached to it – then you are a musician, you’re not a musicpreneur. Being a musician is fine – but for me I call them hobbyists. And they’re okay, the world needs hobbyists.
The numbers show that around ninety percent of musicians around the world don’t make a living out of it, they don’t even make any money from it. They are undiscovered, doing it on the side, and they’re hobbyists.
Technology has opened up various ways of everybody creating music and recording it essentially for free. There’s nothing bad to it, there’s a lot of creativity in the world. Everybody can listen to music created by anyone in the world that’s great.
However, there are tools for the global distribution, there is an audience for people and there is a way of these people making money. If they don’t want to claim that, it’s up them and it’s totally fine. If they do want to claim that then they’re musicpreneurs, or potential musicpreneurs, and I can help with that.
So I don’t try to convince the former group. I can help the latter.
For those who maybe don’t fall into that category or have missed the deadline, what’s the best way for them to get into this world of musicpreneurship and start taking ownership of their music career in that way, and to maybe find out more about your own project in this area?
There are a lot of resources, there’s a lot of people writing great blogs, there are a lot of great communities like Musical U. There are a lot of people that want to help musicpreneurs achieve their goals and they have done it themselves. If they just Google it, they will find a lot of people eager to help.
As for me, my website is tommydarker.com and on Facebook you can look me up, “Tommy Darker”.
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