Posts from the Business School Dropout Category


We’re stuck at home, making our own entertainment, so now seems like as good a time as any to tell you the story of the closest I ever came to winning a Grammy.

In 2007, I had a ridiculous job at iTunes, as part of the team putting together promotions for the store. Most of my job was meeting with labels and listening to new releases, but I also worked on our annual Grammy promotion.

There were something like 117 Grammy award categories, and for each of these there were normally five nominees. Somebody had to look up >500 songs and albums, and check we were linking to the right ones.

You start off at the beginning with the big ones – Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and then things get steadily more obscure. This was how I discovered there was an award for Best Polka Album.

This award has been given 24 times, 18 of them to the same person. That person is Jimmy Sturr. Here he is. It may provide valuable context to tell you this video is not from the late 70s or early 80s, but from 2010.

Now, Best Polka is not Album of the Year, but a Grammy is a Grammy, and it started to dawn on me that if I wanted one, the lowest hanging fruit, as it were, might be in the field of Polka music.

Jimmy Sturr is an experienced and successful recording artist with at least 40 albums to his name, but the Grammys are voted on by a committee of other recording artists. Polka is a relatively small field. Classical music is huge. What was needed, I reasoned, was a crossover album.

I joked about doing this with friends for a year or so, and people mostly smiled and nodded politely and said, “yes, Andy, *you* should do that”, but it takes a village to make a Polka album, and I can’t play the accordion, so nothing much happened.

Until I mentioned it to Lara St John. Now, Lara is a successful violin soloist, she lives in New York, and she has her own label. She knows lots of people who play different types of music and, most importantly, she’s the kind of person who doesn’t just talk about things, she actually does them.

These are my favourite kinds of people. When I mentioned it to Lara, she said “let’s do it”. And so our classical/polka crossover project was born.

An ensemble was formed, incorporating a Klezmer band with which Lara played some gigs, and the contra-bassoonist from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Lara’s friend and fellow fiddler Daniel Lapp rounded up some suitable folk melodies for us to arrange.

Polka-related puns loom large in the American polka canon, so we aimed high, hoping for something that said “this is classical”, “this is polka” and “this is not entirely serious”.


You don’t get a Grammy statue unless you do something, so my French horn got dusted off and I became the most out-of-practice member of what was otherwise shaping up to be a band of very fine musicians. We had fun.

We rehearsed and recorded, we mixed and mastered, and a release date was set. A marketing plan was made. We googled “Polka DJs” and somehow found a list of radio stations who were, amazingly, pleased to hear from us.

We even booked a NY launch gig at a Le Poisson Rouge. There wasn’t much on that week – the NY Phil was opening its season with a new music director, and nobody was going up against that. We got listed in the NY Times.

They even sent Allan Kozinn to to review it. He seemed to have a good time. To give you some idea of what you missed, here’s Clarinet Polka, played on a bassoon.

And when it came to releasing the record, we had some good luck and some bad luck. You may recall I was working on the iTunes store. At the time, our biggest promotions involved free downloads. We’d give away a track each week, and people would buy the album.

Each week, we’d have to get a label to sign a contract to let us give away their track. If they didn’t send in the contract as the deadline approached, the promotion would go to somebody who could get the contract signed quickly. You can guess what’s coming.

So a contract was late, and as the clock ticked down, I was the only person in the room able to sign the contract myself, our track went out to hundreds of thousands of people.

This prompted some interesting reviews.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But at least one person was touched by our record.


And in the end, two things happened.

The first is that we had the #1 World Music album.


The second is they dropped the Best Polka category from the Grammys.

Screen Shot 2018-11-19 at 15.08.26

You can hear our album on Spotify and Apple Music.

The band went on to do a tour and a second album. I left the US for a label job in England. I never did win a Grammy, but I haven’t completely given up hope. When I quit my job at Apple, I had to exercise my stock options, and, with only one child and a fancy job ahead, we spent a chunk of the money on a holiday in Hawaii. It was a nice resort, by the beach, with a bar by the pool. Next to the cash register in the bar was a small statue of a golden gramophone, awarded to one of the bartenders in the category of “Best Hawaiian Album”.

Dear All,

Here are the minutes from the annual general meeting of the International Association of Bravo Guys.

Membership Survey

The preliminary results of our member survey are in, and we’re happy to report that:

35% of our members shout “bravo” before the applause because they can longer contain their appreciation of the performance
53% are indifferent to the actual concert but are engaged in fierce competition with other local members to be the first to shout “bravo”
13% get really frustrated sitting quietly for the length of a concert
4% have a rare form of Tourettes
1% wrote “echolocation” and gave no further details


Membership figures continue to grow as venues continue to be built and opportunities to be the first person to shout “bravo” now arise in more contexts than ever before.

The option has arisen to merge with a number of other vocal audience participation groups with substantial crossover in membership. After surprisingly heated debate it was agreed not to formally join forces with the Global Society of People who Shout Encore, the Union of People Who Bring Scores to Concerts or The Society for the Advancement of Shushing Anybody Who Claps Between Movements.

We will continue to work together on issues of mutual interest.

Declensions Working Group

The Italian delegation helpfully explained that “Bravo” is for one a male performers, “Brava” is for a female performer, “Brave” (pron. Bravé) is for a group of women and “Bravi” for a group of performers at least one of which is male.

The French contingent said they use “Bravo” for everyone, and the expression has entered common usage in France, making the Italian usage entirely irrelevant.

An English member pointed out that proscriptive grammar was an approach largely discredited among linguists, and that an observational approach examining common usage would be more productive.

The American delegation observed that “Bravo” is more satisfying to say loudly.

A motion was offered to rename the society “The International Association of Bravo (or Any Variation Thereof) Guys”.

Following a lengthy and largely unproductive discussion, it was agreed that the Association should not take an official position on any of this and everybody would carry on shouting whatever they want.


Following complaints from the Operatic Chapter, the chair would like to remind members that:

1) Members may not shout “bravo” (or any variation thereof) until after the performers have ceased producing the final note.

2) The window of opportunity lasts until either:

i) The reverberation of the last note ceases to be audible
ii) Another member shouts “bravo” (or any variation thereof)
iii) More than three members of the audience (not including the stage manager) begin to applaud in earnest

3) If another member begins their “Bravo” before you, they have right of way and you must yield

4) If you regard another member’s “Bravo” to use the wrong declension, it is acceptable to follow up with a “Bravo” of your own to ensure the correct utterance is made at least once, but it is considered the height of discourtesy to emphasise the second syllable

5) Exceptions to Rule (1) only apply to through-composed operas listed in the appendix

Live Recordings

The recordings working group delivered the disappointing news that:

1) The Musicians Union do not consider “Bravo Guy” to be a legitimate category of performer

2) PPL do not currently acknowledge “Bravo” as a musical work as defined by the Berne Convention because it consists of a single word and is not meaningfully pitched. They have not yet responded to our query regarding “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, which we await with interest.

3) Warner/Chappell declined our offer of a license on the grounds that their legal department still hasn’t forgiven them for the “Happy Birthday” debacle.

As things stand, the working group’s recommendation is that members should only shout “bravo” during live recordings if they are prepared to do so on a pro-bono basis. This being in line with the current compensation arrangements for live performances, it was hoped that the membership would continue their enthusiastic work in this area.

Female Membership

Following several submissions from the floor it was agreed to revisit the question of allowing female members.

There were no objections among those present, but as this requires an amendment to the Association’s articles of constitution, it was agreed to refer the matter to a vote of the full membership.

It was observed that the entire question may be moot: since the Association’s founding as an offshoot of the Council of Trent in 1563, records show that not once has “bravo guy” turned out to be female.

Any Other Business

Following the incident last year, we are once again looking for a venue to host our Christmas dinner. Suggestions to the chair of the Entertainments Committee, please.


Why do you want to work at this company?

My life presents few opportunities to feel in control. I toyed with the idea of self-harm, but then I remembered I could get paid to dream up arbitrary rules and enforce them with no real consistency.

What attracted you to this particular position?

You seem like an ineffective manager, and I’m confident I can exploit that.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge in this role?

Finding the time to project my failings onto others when it would almost always have been easier to just do the work properly and constructively in the first place.

Describe your approach to partner management.

The fact that I’m sitting here at all is testament to the revolving-door nature of both sales and purchasing positions. Seeing few opportunities for advancement among a team I had repeatedly betrayed, I happily sold out my last employer to look good in your eyes, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

How would you describe your management style?

Passive-agressive with a twist of unpredictably despotic.

We have an unusually high turnover of staff. How would you address this issue?

You have to break their spirit quickly. Once they develop hope, they are harder to control.

Describe an occasion when you encountered conflict in the workplace, and explain how you resolved the situation.

A co-worker used some of my almond milk without asking. I sent a SWAT team to his house at 5am.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

As an indispensable part of the organisation. Having inserted myself into every conceivable process, I’ll function as a speed-bump. Nothing will get done without me and precious little will get done with me, but I’ll be too powerful for anybody to get rid of.

What are your salary expectations?

More than is justified by my contribution, but not so much that I can’t conceivably resent those around me. This might seem like a fine line, but actually my wildly inflated sense of my own importance gives you quite a bit of leeway here.

Do you have any questions?

How long should one decently wait before cooking up a spurious HR complaint that results in no real action but which renders one essentially unfireable for all eternity?

Your article about streaming is misleading, contains factual inaccuracies, and gives bad advice.

I just wrote an article for NewMusicBox about streaming (it has cat pictures and everything). My goal was to provide some practical advice about what to do, because this is a thing that’s happening, and arguing about how good or bad it is doesn’t change the fact that some of us run labels, our jobs are changing, and we need to know what to do.

I see that you take the opposite stance. When you’re trying to get people to do something, the burden of proof is on you. You have not made a good case. Let’s address some specifics from your article:

1) “With virtually no consultation, musicians and independent labels are being led down the path of the streaming music construct controlled largely by technology companies.”

No music company was forced to agree to anything. Let’s be clear about that. They do it because they think it is a good deal. There is a chance they have more information at their disposal than you do.

2) “Streaming royalties for these services remain mired in mystery. Nobody is privy to how royalties are calculated or assigned to different players in the streaming ecosystem.”

Spotify explain how it works on their website. You could have Googled that.

3) “In what other industry would suppliers offer their goods to distributors without being told precisely how much they’ll receive for their inventory?”

The CD industry. Deals with CD distributors often work on a percentage, with final pricing at least partially at the discretion of the distributor. This is what I meant when I said “There is a chance they have more information than you do”. I’d encourage readers to make up their own minds, but it looks to me like you have no idea what you’re talking about.

4) “It’s clear Apple’s hand was forced and it had to enter into the streaming world, just to maintain credibility and market momentum for its device ecosystem.”

The download market was worth $3.5bn last year (2014) and streaming was worth $2.2bn. Might I humbly suggest that an alternative explanation is that (a) Apple customers would like to use a streaming service and (b) Apple see this as a way to make a lot of money?

5) “‘Streaming makes it very difficult for cult bands who sell 1,000 copies of each release,’ the noted British guitarist and composer Matt Stevens told me. ‘If 1,000 people stream an album 10 times, we probably make a few pennies versus 1,000 download sales which create a model that will pay for modest recording expenses.'”

If everybody who might at some point in the future stream a song from your album is also willing to buy the whole album right now, then you are in a very unusual position indeed and you might be well-advised to avoid streaming services. Such an extreme example of inelastic pricing, though, is in my experience unusual.

6) “Musicians and independent labels jumped along for the ride when Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, and the rest of the streaming companies essentially constructed services with payouts so low, the end result isn’t much different than piracy. That, however, doesn’t hold true for the core investors in these services, which include the old major label guard. For instance, Spotify’s key backers include Warner, Sony and Universal.”

You expect us to believe that these companies – that’s right – these ones – have conspired to depress the price of music? Ok. By “key backers” you mean “minority shareholders”.

7) “…as the services scale, the streaming royalties actually shrink. Only ad and subscription revenue grow for the services, not royalty payouts.”

This is misleading. I refer you to this graph, which you can find in context here:


If the per-stream royalty has fallen, it can only because subscribers are, on average, listening to more music. Would you rather they didn’t?

8) “The grand irony of all of this is that no streaming service is yet profitable.”

This is simply not true. I have worked on profitable streaming services. You just don’t know about them. If the big ones aren’t profitable, it’s because they are doing something called “investment” which I have explained before here.

9) “Because of the incredible complexities of licensing and the ponzi-inspired nature of these organizations, money is rolling in.”

Also because people like them and they pay a lot of money to use them. Most of the money gets paid to labels. What happens next is between them and the artists. Just like with all other music sales.

10) “In Spotify’s case, they are looking at a giant monetization event in the form of an IPO or acquisition. If either occurs, everyone — including the major label backers — will cash out, and all that will be left is a feeble shell that will eventually collapse.”

Or, possibly, to build a long-term sustainable business that generates a profit for its shareholders while satisfying its customers and paying a fair price to its suppliers. One of the two. Unless your doomsday scenario has no expiry date, there’s an easy way to find out which.

11) “It’s obvious virtually all the insiders of the streaming companies see this model as a short-term, unsustainable play.”

No it isn’t. You see that there? I made that case with the exact same amount of evidence as you produced in your argument to the contrary.

12) “My advice is for musicians and labels to opt out of the commercial streaming services…”

Why the hell would anybody follow your advice? It is founded on falsehoods and unsubstantiated accusations.

13) “…and seek out other options available to them, such as Bandcamp and PledgeMusic, which appear to remain relatively honorable territory.”

Is this an aesthetic argument? They seem like nice indie guys? Is this what you’ve got?

14) “The big question musicians and independent labels need to ask themselves is why allow these companies to determine the value of your music?”

To reach a big audience. That’s it. Do it, don’t do it, it’s up to you. It’s the same dilemma you’d have doing a deal with a supermarket chain or a big box retailer: your products reach more people, all music is priced the same and that price is lower. Cut all the crap about conspiracies, and this is a straightforward business decision about pricing.

15) “You can send people interested in what you do anywhere to access your music.”

True, but people who have never heard of you won’t go looking for something they don’t know about in a place they don’t go. There’s a balance to be struck here, and not all records are expensive to make.

16) “The inevitability is musicians and labels are eventually going to be on their own again as the streaming services begin to collapse one by one across the coming years.”

If this is going to happen anyway, what are you so worried about?

17) “It’s time to plan for that future by establishing your own model now, apart from these companies.”

Better advice would be to seriously consider what part, if any, these companies play in your strategy.

18) “Reclaim your independence and ensure your music benefits the people that really believe in it, not soulless streaming companies seeking to take you for everything you’ve got.”

By all means retain (or reclaim) your independence. It matters, and it’s my job to help people do this. Part of that means not making business decisions on the basis of the unsubstantiated ramblings of some blowhard with a blog and the rhetorical flair of a low-budget Glenn Beck. These soulless companies pay out 70% of their revenue to rightsholders, they’re playing a long game, they know what they’re doing and labels participate because they see it is a logicial step towards more sustainable revenues. If you don’t accept this then prove me wrong.

If major labels are screwing people (which would hardly come as a massive surprise), then investigate that. Talk to some artists, collect some evidence, make a case, show people which specific clauses in the contracts are causing the problems. Find somebody who found a way round this and share what they did. That would actually be a useful thing that resulted in tangible action. Produce some evidence or shut up, because right now you have nothing but clickbait bullshit and it is not helping anybody.

I’m often astonished at the extent to which people who run record companies can be bad at maths.

Yesterday I sat in a meeting where it was suggested that the success of a promotion might be measured be checking the sales of the records in it before, during and after the promotion. It’s not a totally barmy approach, but without comparing the sales of the records in the promotion with sales of some other records over the same period, any increase or decrease might be the result of normal sales patterns or overall fluctuations in the market.

Still, that’s not nearly as daft as this thing I found today. The headline is “Which music services are growing, which are shrinking” which would make for a pretty interesting article if it actually told you the answer to that question.*

It’s not easy to measure this unless you sell music on these all the services** so the author has instead used Google Trends to find out which services people are searching for. In the medical world, this is known as a surrogate outcome. The thing you want to measure is difficult to measure, so you measure something related instead. It can go wrong.

The trouble is that a related variable isn’t necessarily strongly correlated to the outcome you care about. If you’re gong to use a surrogate like this, it’s a good idea to check if it’s really easy to find examples of it not working at all well. The examples below are literally the first things I searched for.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 13.51.21

According to Google Trends, Steve Jobs was never more in demand than the day he died, and is still not as unpopular as  when he was alive (that last bit might be true).

Perhaps its fairer to compare Google Trends with a better-known indicator of company performance: share price. Here, Berkshire Hathaway’s search popularity has been in steady decline for the best part of a decade.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 14.06.41

Don’t tell their shareholders that, though. According to the NYSE, business has never been better.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 13.54.19

Meanwhile, at Yahoo, search interest hit a high plateau in 2010:

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 13.55.24

And the stock price is doing almost the exact opposite.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 13.55.14

Pretty much the entire foundation of all scientific progress is to come up with an idea and then try to prove it wrong, because if you can’t prove it wrong, you might just be on to something. If the author had made even a cursory attempt to check how poorly search popularity was correlated with company performance, I think he might have offered a stronger disclaimer than:

“Of course, these search trends are not the same as having an actual measure of activity. Millions of people play music on Spotify or iTunes every day without performing a search. However, until we can get raw user numbers from every music service, this is probably about the closest we can get to understanding which services are growing and which are shrinking.”

When I wrote “almost everything you read about the state of the record industry is, at best, totally useless” this is just the sort of thing I was talking about.


* Perhaps I should avoid reading articles with questions in the headlines. If they ever answer the question, it’s because the answer is “probably not”. This is often the way with rhetorical questions.***

** If you don’t sell music, why do you even care which ones are growing?

*** And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?**** And was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?**** And did the Countenance Divine, Shine forth upon our clouded hills?**** And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?****

**** Probably not.

I’ve done a several interviews in the last few weeks where journalists have asked about the value of music, as if this is a major cause for concern.

I’ve never really worried about this, and here’s why:

We just got our water bill. Water is clearly valuable – we would die without it – but it isn’t always expensive. In the last six months, we used 66,000 litres of tap water, at a price of just over £162 (including standing charges).

Water is fairly readily available where I live. It falls out of the sky. Indeed, an average of 736,000 litres of water land on my house and garden each year.*

There’s also a stream at the end of the street which must carry far more than that, and I live walking distance from the sea. Let’s forget about these sources though: the hundreds of millions of people around the world struggling to survive without clean drinking water wouldn’t appreciate it if we confuse this with the stuff coming out the tap.**

Still. In the park at the end of the street, there’s a drinking fountain. There’s also a cafe where you can get a plastic cup of water, free of charge. If these are closed, the reservoir is at the top of the hill. With some inconvenience and fewer baths, I could get free water if I wanted.

The water supplied to my house costs about 0.1 pence per litre. It’s metered, although some people are still on the “all you can drink” subscription. Whichever tariff you’re on, you’re allowed to put the water in a mobile device or “bottle” and take it out with you.

The bottled water we buy from the supermarket is 8.5p a litre***. I’m fairly sure this is tap water, marked up to more than 80 times the price, but it still seems hilariously cheap when you can pay ten or twenty times this amount for a glass bottle of fancy water, still or sparkling.

The cafe in the park offers bottled water at £3 a litre. This is 3,000 times the price of tap water, and it’s offered right next to the big jug of free stuff. Still, business is good. People buy the bottles. If you’re willing to leave the Shire, you can pay a lot more.

What I find really interesting about all this is that most of the bottled water brands (or at least the companies that currently own them) entered the market when cheap, good-quality tap water was already available to almost**** everybody in the country, apparently unfazed by this massive pricing disparity.*****

I’m surprised, then, when people tell me streaming music is somehow unsustainable, will completely replace downloads or is devaluing music. I don’t have to pay anything to listen to the radio. People give me free CDs. I can listen to most things on Spotify when I’m at my computer. I still buy music, both as downloads and occasionally as physical products in almost every imaginable format. I buy them with the money I make from selling recordings, and while I fully expect to have to keep looking for new ways to do it, I have no plans to change career.

With apologies to Information is Beautiful.



* You can figure this out yourself: multiply the length of your property by the width (in meters) and multiply this by the annual rainfall in mm. Then check the order of magnitude about six times because it seems like A LOT of water. I live in one of the least-rainy parts of the UK.

** With a big tank and a filter we could be self-sufficient, but this over-simplifies the clean water problem. To live off the grid, we’d also have to disconnect the sewer. That’s where things get problematic, especially if any of the neighbours were planning to use the water from the stream at the end of the street.

*** Including delivery.

**** The near ubiquitous availability of bottled water makes us less inclined to install drinking fountains in public places, which may not be a good thing.

***** My local water company announced a profit of £79.9m last year, up 147.7% on 2011. The global bottled water industry is doing fine.