Get All Access for $5/mo

Small Is the New Big, Both in the Music Business and Your Business Love country music? This country musician likes to call his fans "customers," and he treats them accordingly.

By John Brubaker Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Mindy Small | FilmMagic | Getty Images

In case you missed it, National Small Business Week was April 30 to May 6. According to the Small Business Administration, small business amounts to 99 percent of businesses in the United States. So much is made of big, iconic brands, yet they actually represent only a small portion of America's business landscape.

Related: Why This New Form of Funding Has the Music Industry Amped Up

In business, too often the term "small" has a negative connotation. Yet, contrary to popular belief, there's an advantage to being that small underdog in your category.

The reason? Today, more than ever, all business is small business.The entrepreneur who gets this perhaps better than anyone is country music superstar Aaron Watson. I share his story here because success leaves clues, and because musicians are the ultimate entrepreneurs. We could all stand to learn from Watson's business model. Here's how:

Small is the new big.

The music game has changed, all right. How else do you explain an artist with no major radio airplay and no record label having his last two albums chart at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on Billboard's Country Album chart? Watson's newly released album Vaquero recently debuted at No. 2 on Country Billboard's chart, and No. 1 on iTunes' All-Genre chart.

Related: Hanson Could Have Disappeared. Here's Why They Didn't.

This is proof positive that small is the new big .And Aaron Watson? He's the new business model, and I don't mean just in the music industry, but all industries. In business today, the big don't beat the small; it's the fast who beat the slow.

This became clear in my interview with Watson, as he explained how he and his team win by recognizing that they aren't simply "in the music business." Rather, they're "in the relationship business." They've grown their brand through personal attention and responsiveness to his fans -- or, as he calls them (really), his customers.

This musician proudly refers to himself as a small business owner.

Watson doesn't think of himself as being in the country music business; his philosophy is that he's a small business owner and is in the family business. (His small business supports 22 employees and their 43 children.)

In fact, Watson compares his business as an entertainer to that of a local small-town restaurant owner. In the two communities near his home in West Texas, there are seven mom and pop-owned restaurants. The reason his family frequents these restaurants is that each makes you feel at home, which makes them places you want to go to and then come back to.

Watson told me he's noticed everything in their operations, from the greeting you get when you pull into the parking lot, to the atmosphere and service inside. As a result, he said, he takes the same approach to the "customer experience" in his business and at every show.

Do you give customers a compelling reason to want to come see you and want to come back?

According to Watson's manager, Gino Genaro, this is a time when country music album sales are down 27 percent; yet, Watson's album sales are up 39 percent. In a homogenous industry and an era when you're only as good as your last single, how does an independent artist buck the current trend and sell so many albums?

The answer is, the same way you win more business. You deepen customers' relationship by caring more about them more than the competition does. Genaro explained that the Watson team's secret sauce is its focus on each fan. When you pour your heart and soul into your fans, he said, they take it personally and want to make sure they help you succeed.

An artist selling a single track is the equivalent of you selling one product; the artist's effort to sell an album is akin to your selling that same customer an entire suite of your products.

Which is more lucrative and deepens the customer relationship? A track is a transaction, and an album a relationship. Is your business purely transactional, or are you relational?

Focus on what's working for you.

If you're thinking you're too busy to build relationships one by one. I'd encourage you to rethink that. Watson, without the power of a record label or massive marketing machine behind him, built what I call a stadium status brand one customer at a time.

While other major label artists he had opportunities to appear on national radio or television, Watson did not; but, still, he focused on what he did have. And what that was was the ability to build relationships. While one of those artists appeared on the Today show, Watson appeared at Walmarts and Targets in the towns where he was performing, to sign CDs, visit with fans and build relationships.

In most industries, there's a lot working against you when it comes to media access. Do you focus on that or on what's working for you?

ROR (return on relationships) trumps ROI (return on investment).

While many artists charge fans for meet-and-greet sessions, Watson does not. But he does spend extended time after each show with his fans; photos are snapped, autographs signed and conversations encouraged. And he does this one customer at a time.

You can't pay for the kind of exposure building relationships like that provides. Your business is built one fan at a time too. How are you investing time with them?

Respect your customer by overdelivering.

They could've chosen 100 other things to do with their money but Watson's fans chose to attend one of his shows or buy an album, so he's going to over-deliver and give them an experience to remember.

That starts with making sure they get their money's worth, and then some. Most albums come with about 10 to 12 tracks; Watson put 16 on his latest album; and in the process he's over-delivered value. Additionally, he tells fans that if they buy the album and don't like it, he'll give them their money back. Do you give your customers more than they expected, and are you confident enough in the quality of your product to offer your own money-back guarantee?

Aaron Watson represents the new business model, and not just in the music industry. So, stop looking for a major brand to support you, and quit hoping for a quick, easy path because there's no magic formula for success.

Related: From Paul McCartney to Radiohead, What Executives Can Learn from Musicians

There is, however, a formula for deserving that success; and here Watson has proven that a strong work ethic, a commitment to the long game and ROR (return on relationship) are strategies that pay big dividends.

John Brubaker

Performance Consultant, Speaker & Award-Winning Author

John Brubaker is a nationally renowned performance consultant, speaker and award-winning author. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, Coach Bru helps organizations and individuals turn their potential into performance.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Editor's Pick


Most Gen Z Workers Want This One Thing From Their Employer. Are You Providing It?

Millions of college graduates are entering the workforce, and many feel unprepared. Here's the one thing they're looking for from potential employers — and how providing it will benefit you and your business in the long run.

Making a Change

Get a Lifetime of Babbel Language Learning for Just $150 Through June 17

Learn up to 14 languages over the course of a lifetime, with bite-size lessons, personalized reviews, and speech recognition tech.

Growing a Business

7 Strategies to Recession Proof Your Business in 2024 and Beyond

Insulate yourself from the turbulence so you can maximize the opportunities and grow.

Business Ideas

63 Small Business Ideas to Start in 2024

We put together a list of the best, most profitable small business ideas for entrepreneurs to pursue in 2024.

Business News

Is the AI Industry Consolidating? Hugging Face CEO Says More AI Entrepreneurs Are Looking to Be Acquired

Clément Delangue, the CEO of Hugging Face, a $4.5 billion startup, says he gets at least 10 acquisition requests a week and it's "increased quite a lot."

Side Hustle

'The Work Just Fills My Soul': She Turned Her Creative Side Hustle Into a 6-Figure 'Dream' Business

Kayla Valerio, owner of vivid hair salon Haus of Color, transformed her passion into a lucrative venture.