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Solid-Gold Music Businesses

You don't have to be a rock star to make a living from music. Find out how four entrepreneurs have turned their love of music into thriving enterprises.

There comes a time in most musicians' lives--a crossroads, if you will. No, not the infamous crossroads where Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to play the blues. Rather, it's the crossroads where you must decide to sell your rock 'n' roll dreams for a steady paycheck. Yes, it's time for a day job.

But that doesn't mean you have to give up music. Many entrepreneurs have found ways to keep music in their daily lives by creating music-oriented businesses. They may not be rock stars, but they're making a living--quite good livings, in many cases.

Take Tena Clark. A Grammy nominee, songwriter and producer, she's worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including Aretha Franklin, LeAnn Rimes and Patti LaBelle. But when Clark was facing her 30s as a musician, she took a long hard look at her future. "I got to the point when I [imagined having] kids some day. I didn't want their friends to say, 'What does your mom do?' 'She plays down at Joe's Bar and Grill on the weekends,'" recalls Clark, who is now in her 50s and does a whole lot more than bar gigs.

Clark's 10-year-old company, DMI Music and Media Solutions, has 70 employees and five divisions. Her company has helped big names like Target and Victoria's Secret with branding, Build-a-Bear Workshop with in-store radio, and shows like Desperate Housewives with soundtrack music.

"What I started, my whole mission was to connect consumers to brands through music," says Clark, who runs her company out of a picturesque firehouse in Pasadena, California. "As the company grew, we realized we were a 360-degree music solution. It all just started out purely from a love of music."

New Fans Mean New Opportunities
The complexity of DMI makes it almost a microcosm of all you can do in the music industry without being a rock star. Of course, there are even more routes you can take, from musician management or musical instruction to selling music or running a club.

Bryan Townsend has found two niches online: selling rare CDs and cool family-friendly music. Townsend, 34, owned a bricks-and-mortar music store in South Carolina from 1997 to 2000, but then his wife's job was transferred to Atlanta. He closed up shop and started selling obscure CDs through sites like eBay and Amazon. In 2006, his first child inspired him to start his second business.

"When my wife and I were expecting our son Gaines [who is now almost two years old], it really made me think of the things I loved--good music, art, etc.--and wanted to share with my son," says Townsend. "So The Pokey Pup is an extension of my love of great music and wanting to share [it] with my son. I figured there were other parents out there who wanted the same thing." Townsend was right. The Pokey Pup's sales have grown enough that he's hired a part-time employee.

While Townsend is targeting cool little kids and their parents with bands like The Sippy Cups, They Might Be Giants and Candy Band, who have an album called Lollipunk, Tim Hill provides a venue that these kids might want to frequent in the future. Hill's all-ages club, Chain Reaction, has become an Orange County, California, icon where both up-and-coming and well-known alternative bands like Atreyu, Thrice and Dashboard Confessional play for teens who can't get in to other venues with age restrictions.

Chain Reaction sells candy and soda, and Hill, 47, credits the lack of police problems with the club to the venue's no-liquor policy. While it took him several years to bring the Anaheim club to profitability, he now employees 14 people, including a booker he relies on to bring in the new bands his young audience craves.

"Kids don't want to listen to their parents' music; they want their own artists they can relate to," says Simon Cann, author of Building a Successful 21st Century Musical Career. "There will therefore always be a place for new artists." So for smart entrepreneurs like Hill, there will always be new opportunities to keep music-hungry kids coming back for more.

The O.G. Independent: Mannheim Steamroller?
Chip Davis is a music business pioneer, but that may sometimes be eclipsed by the fact that he is the Christmas music guy. He began his career in advertising, penning the jingle that eventually became the '70s hit--and movie--"Convoy." While he was named "Country Music Songwriter of the Year" in 1976, his true love is combining synthesized sounds with classical music.

Record companies couldn't figure out how to market Davis' first Fresh Aire LP. So Davis started his own label, American Gramaphone, in his garage and sold the record to HiFi stores as a demo LP for high-end stereos. Customers wanted the record as well as the stereo equipment, and word-of-mouth spread. Soon, retail stores were seeking out the record, too.

In 1984, Davis released his first Christmas record under the name Mannheim Steamroller. "It sold 8 million copies," says Davis, 59, who still runs American Gramaphone from his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska--albeit with 50 employees helping out. "We got approached [by record companies after that], but by then, I knew all the retailers."

Davis stayed independent and has sold more than 36 million albums during his nearly 30 years in business. Not only does he still write all the Fresh Aire and Mannheim Steamroller music, he's also an astute marketer who knows how to find new outlets. He had an early presence on the internet and embraces new digital technology like downloads and ring tones. Mannheim Steamroller has more than 700 branded products, including 25 food items Davis concocted himself.

What It Takes
Passion--that's a given. But you've also got to convince your market of that passion. "If there's a single-most [key to success], I would say perseverance," says Davis. "It's hanging in there and staying with your product and working it. There's nothing in a marketing plan that replaces enthusiasm."

Clark says it's also vital to know when it's time to switch gears. "It's important to know when to reinvent yourself. There are so many things you can do in the music industry and be fulfilled." Clark says she's often asked if she misses her former life. "I don't write and produce as much as I used to when I was doing that full time, but I've reinvented myself, and 80 percent of what I do during the day has to do with music."

Clark emphasizes that there's no time like now for musical reinvention. With technology revolutionizing the music industry, the gates are wide open. "It's like the Wild, Wild West right now because there are just so many opportunities," says Clark. "There's never been as exciting a time in the music industry as now because [it's] been turned upside down in a good way. There are so many creative ways you can be involved."

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