I spent a good part of my early entrepreneurial life running away from the fact that I had a music degree and not a business degree. Looking back, I convinced myself that a creative background somehow put me at a disadvantage, believing that not having a traditional business degree made me appear to be a weaker business person, a tamer negotiator, and a lesser strategist.
It was not until I sold my company 18 months ago and took on the position of founding managing director of the new Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship at Berklee College of Music that I came to realize that I succeeded as an entrepreneur not despite the fact that I had a music degree, but precisely because of it.
Learning how to play a musical instrument and becoming a musician is an exercise in developing good listening skills, experimenting, overcoming repeated failure, self-discipline, and successful collaboration. It is simply impossible to become a successful music professional unless one also masters certain theoretical concepts, develops good presentation and improvisational skills and, ultimately, attains that elusive quality of originality that only comes once fear of failure is overtaken by the desire to acquire a new insight, a fresh perspective, and a unique voice.
Turns out that these are not just the skills for developing great musicians but also the attributes and behaviors found in successful entrepreneurs. This may explain why so many accomplished entrepreneurs like Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple, and Roger McNamee, founder of Silver Lake Partners and Elevation Partners are also active performing musicians.
It’s unfortunate so many of the teaching tools and techniques that are ever-present at music colleges are sadly still absent from most entrepreneurial programs. The focus is too often on analytical and left-brain development, at the expense of cultivating the corresponding creative and right brain skills.
Business school entrepreneurial education is still largely centered around solitary or make-believe activities, such as business plan writing, business plan contests, roleplaying, spreadsheet building, etc. These are all necessary skills, but hardly the only tools needed to cultivate the next Richard Branson or Steve Jobs.
At a time when the world needs innovative, entrepreneurial minds more than ever, it would be great to see entrepreneurial programs incorporate some music education techniques into their curriculum. Here are a few suggestions:
Musicianship is about learning how to listen and respond to the environment around you, be it the chord changes of a tune, a drummer’s improvised riff, or dealing with the unexpected events of a live performance. Developing aspiring entrepreneurs’ ability to observe their environment and respond to it is paramount to their success. Why not then see a jazz improvisation course introduced alongside traditional business courses?
Contemporary music students are exposed to diverse music, from classical and jazz to blues and rock, and they are encouraged to perform with people of varied musical backgrounds, genres, and cultures. Cool things come out of cross-genre pollination: take for example the 2007 collaboration of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant with bluegrass musician Alison Krauss or the duets of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and singer-songwriter Norah Jones.
Entrepreneurial education needs much more cross-departmental, or even cross-university, collaborations where engineers, designers, business students, and creatives come together to imagine and cocreate. Watching a documentary on the making of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band can be one of the best lessons in innovation and collaboration.
Speaking of Sgt. Pepper, no one becomes the Beatles by practicing alone in a bedroom—the Beatles famously honed their craft by playing endless amounts of shows in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962.
It’s time we see more programs that encourage budding entrepreneurs to get out of their classrooms and home cities and hit the road to experience the actual lives of the customers they want to affect. Want to upend the rural pizza delivery business? How about spending part of the semester working as an actual pizza delivery person for credit in small towns across your state?
At Berklee, students first learn how to interpret other people’s music, but the real mission of the college is to help them develop their own unique voice. Freely borrowing from other genres or art forms is encouraged and it’s understood that musical innovation often comes by fusing things that work in one culture or genre—like conga drums or a baritone saxophone—with another—pop music. Entrepreneurial programs should borrow from this and introduce courses that encourage this form of synthetical thinking.
After all, much of the world’s innovation has come from borrowing a concept from one industry and applying it to another.
—Panos Panay is the founding managing director of Berklee ICE (Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship) as well as a passionate entrepreneur and active startup mentor in the creative media space. As the founder of Sonicbids, he created the leading platform for bands to book gigs and market themselves online. He led the company from its inception through its successful acquisition by Backstage LLC, in a deal backed by Guggenheim Partners.