Do musicians make better entrepreneurs and managers?

What has been missing from the canon of management books is, apparently, music. Panos Panay and Michael Hendrix have attempted to fill that gap with Two Beats Ahead. Musicians, in their eyes, are just as creative in business. Maybe more so.

They have filled their book with endless examples of musicians who have branched out or moved on altogether. Everyone knows of singers who have suddenly become fashion, makeup or sneaker designers. But the authors have found fund managers, psychologists, neuroscientists and educators as well. They have different approaches to business, something the book attempts to attribute to their music, i.e. their different kind of creativity. In interviews, they say things like: “The most exciting projects to me are the ones that incorporate unconscious thinking with superconscious tinkering.” That from Spencer Tweedy, drummer and luxury audio equipment maker.

Better collaborators

I found the most insightful observations were about collaboration. Musicians are built to collaborate. They must learn their instrument, have stage experience, and accurately observe and absorb. They are the best listeners. They can meet up with any other musician on any stage, and they can perform together, creating new music instantly. Taking that training to business can yield a different kind of management.

Better at hiring

The same principles apply to their hiring practices. They look for collaborators, where many other businesses look for potential superstars. Musicians seek people with broad experience and interests, not the laser-focus on one subject that has been drummed into college students for so long. To regular businesses, a generalist is all but useless. They want people who have done nothing but their specialty. They look for 30 year olds with a minimum of ten years’ experience in the same position elsewhere. But musicians say things like you should have one specialty that you have mastered, and a passion for some other subject that drives your creativity.

Architecture, or gardening?

And what exactly is creativity? Here’s Brian Eno’s approach: “Gardening, he believes, is a more apt metaphor (than architecture) for creativity: ‘One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator. You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together. Gardener included.’”

The demo process underlying

Musicians’ process usually involves a demo, putting the kernel of the idea onto tape. Then all kinds of people, from management to musicians can play with it, change it, help it evolve into an exquisite expression of creativity. Everyone can contribute, and no one can dominate it. Otherwise, it is not collaboration, it is command and control. The antithesis of creative music.

Some, like Bob Crewe, work from a song title alone. They sweat over the title, and only then attempt to match it with complementary music and lyrics. It takes all kinds.

Attitude: art has no boundaries

Charlie Parker has said that music is art, and art, unlike music, has no boundary lines. Looking at it that way, the permutations, combinations and extensions are endless, and the authors find that musicians see creativity today as vastly expanded and speedily expanding. And they don’t mean into business. They mean artistic achievement, as in crossover, sampling and remixing which have all been hugely democratized. So many more people have access to so many more tools that the whole business is no longer predictable. And not simply because of streaming. It can go anywhere now, and it is doing so, abandoning the verse and chorus model for pop music, for example, driven by musicians who have not had to limit themselves by strict rules and training.


One of the nice things about the book is the interlude following each chapter. Readers are encouraged to listen to selected music from the artists who featured in the adjoining chapter, giving life and flavor to what the authors have been saying about their music and their path to it and through it.

Doesn’t everything work this way?

It’s nice that musicians can step outside themselves and succeed in other domains, but honestly, this is a story for every branch of everything. Farmers have gone into manufacturing, film stars into ecommerce, comedians into self-management, and everyone into finance. Sports stars are young when they retire, and attack new projects with their lifelong drive. Astronauts have gone into politics, comedians and reality-tv stars too. It is the nature of Homo sapiens to explore and grow. Musicians are no more adept at these jumps, as far as I can see. The book doesn’t venture beyond musicians in its talent analysis.

And the starving musician is not just a Hollywood construct.

Who are these guys?

Panos Panay is a recidivist entrepreneur, building several new arms onto the Berklee College of Music, where he has been VP of Global Strategy. Michael Hendrix comes from two decades at IDEO, helping companies think outside the box, achieving more with creativity. They met at a conference where Panay was speaking (he almost didn’t bother), and have been collaborating like good musicians do ever since. They say this book is their first album together. It is a fount of personality trivia for music buffs, because these two authors know everybody in the business.

David Wineberg

(Two Beats Ahead, Panos Panay, Michael Hendrix, April 2021)

Author, The Straight Dope, or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviews. 16 Essays. Free with Prime

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