We decided to run a series of articles detailing some of the behind-the-scenes stuff about Musicademy. In a lengthy article (that’s how she rolls), here is a collection of Marie’s reflections from the last 10 years.
10 years of ups and downs (and a lot of DVDs)
It’s often felt that we’ve spent the last 10 years on a roller coaster that is only ever climbing upwards and rarely gets the thrill of the big downhill freewheel. That’s partly probably due to my inability to rest on my laurels (or, in fact, to take a break). No sooner have we launched a new website, produced a new DVD, cracked another technical challenge with our MultiTrack software then we’re onto the next project.
That focus has been necessary throughout our 10 year history. We built Musicademy (as Andy has already described) from the bottom up starting with local teens and adults that wanted to play guitar. At no point have we been supported by any ministry or church movement, we’ve never been funded by another commercial enterprise. All our growth has been organic, the result of us building connections, going to conferences, dispersing useful articles about worship music online and of course, the spread by word of mouth once people have started using our DVD resources.
As the person at the business end of Musicademy (I run the website, the marketing and the administration whilst Andy focuses on the creative output like DVDs and software) there are a number of things we would have done very differently with hindsight. Here’s a random selection of musings, advice and lessons learned that might be helpful for anyone building a new charity/organisation/business/ etc:
Getting the right team around us has been essential. Because we’ve always had an eye on costs, we’ve run most things on a shoestring. We don’t run an expensive office with loads of staff. If you call, you are likely to speak to Andy, myself or our administrator Lindsay. We’ve had some very challenging agency and supplier relationships over the years but I can honestly say that the teaching, admin, design, editing and technical teams we work with now are awesome. We’ve a wonderful network of freelancers and small agencies that keep us afloat. Freelancers help keep the bottom line lean without having to pull favours or expect people to continually give their time for free.
It’s been a real privilege to work with some very talented people over the years. And we’ve been proud to provide an income stream for the many creatives we work with. Musicians, designers, producers, editors etc etc are often not well rewarded, particularly in the Christian scene unless they’ve made it to the celebrity-sphere. Find the right people and you can help them turn their passions into their own career.
We should have commissioned a high end website and email system from the beginning. But it was 10 years ago and websites with user friendly CMS were very much in their infancy.
Legacy systems are a nightmare to change, and end up costing you more in the long run. I’d love to do more sophisticated emailing based on customer history and preferences, but for now we have a rather blanket “spray and pray” approach. But people do have nice things to say about our newsletters so hopefully we’re not getting it totally wrong. So start out with the tools that will help you expand. Sometimes doing things on the cheap is more expensive in the long run if you have a clear goal of where you aim to get to.
Investing in quality equipment is essential. Initially we borrowed and rented cameras and lighting but it soon became apparent this was a false economy. We’ve recently upgraded all our cameras from mini DVD tape to fully digital which has saved us no end of time in editing, and has also hugely improved the quality of the filming.
People often assume that online or video based businesses are just intensive in the start-up phase and thereafter you can go to the beach whilst the website does the rest for you. If only!
Good business practice
Keep the overhead down if you can. Unless your new venture has a steady income stream from day 1, be careful about borrowing money. We still work out of an office adjacent to my home and we have always and still take on freelance work ourselves to keep the business liquid. Me as a marketing lecturer/consultant and Andy as a guitar teacher. Our initial live group lessons funded the original music schools expansion and we always rented rooms rather than being tied to the expense of our own building. The music school funded our first run of DVDs and those DVD sales funded the expansion of the DVD range. The more you can bring down your operation costs the less stressful the bottom line is at the end of the month!
Deal fair and pay yourself last. There’s no point in bragging about being a Christian business, supporting charity work etc. if you abuse your suppliers and freelancers by not paying them according to their terms. We’ve come across MANY Christian organisations who wait 1-2 years (yes really!) before paying their bills.
I think sometimes that people think we are some huge corporation, with money to burn on promotions and high end production. But creating a DVD box set isn’t a low cost undertaking, and our market is very niche. We’ve had the occasional title that hasn’t exactly broken even.
We’ve always tried to pay our teachers well (so often musicians are the last in the queue to get paid) but we are not a Roland or Yamaha with tens of thousands of advertising dollars to spend. I think that one of the reasons we have been successful over a time of huge financial uncertainty is that we’ve kept things manageable and where possible we’ve grown organically and been cautious about what we invest in.
Work hard. Very hard. Talk to someone who’s built a 5 year old + business and try to get a idea of how much time and commitment it takes to get over that initial three year hump (and there are further humps to contend with every time you diversify). If you have an idea or vision for something you want to start, be prepared to give everything to it for much longer than you thought. When someone tells me they want to leave their salaried full time job and start a business so they can carve out more time to do ministry I shudder!
The worship music “industry”
Being independent in this industry is tough. Really tough. Most well known worship leaders or ministries/organisations are backed by or have grown out of particular church movements, record labels or big, big companies.
It’s been particularly hard to get industry profile without bankrupting ourselves on advertising. At one stage we were able to partner with Worship Together putting on worship seminars at some of the big summer festivals in the US. This exposure gave us a big leg up and access to a platform we would never have had in our own right. We’d love to do more work in partnership with other organisations serving the church and Christian musicians. If you have any links, please let us know!
The Christian “marketplace” is a hard one to communicate with. In the UK there is no magazine serving Christian musicians, in the US there are a couple but their exposure is limited (and advertising – which I’m sure most people ignore – is super expensive). Andy has loved writing a regular column for Worship Leader Magazine, and we know some folks have found us through his “Musical Chops” column. In the early years we did well exhibiting at Christian events such as New Wine, Spring Harvest, Worship Leader Conference, Breakforth etc etc but we’ve found that as recession hit Europe and North America, takings dropped, numbers at the events were reduced yet fees for booth/stand space seemed in some cases to double.
We’ve ended up focussing on our website, newsletter and platforms such as Facebook to help us with promotion. Our single biggest challenge, however, is to get to the tens of thousands of Christian musicians I’m convinced would love our products but currently don’t know about us. (Any suggestions gratefully received!)
Getting industry awards has been brilliant. We’ve won Editors Pick and Reader’s Choice awards from Worship Leader Magazine many times over the years and our blog has been recognised in various awards and industry lists. There’s nothing like a bit of third party endorsement to give prospective customers some faith in you.
We would definitely have had an easier time had we been based in the US. North America is by far our biggest market and it would probably have made a lot of sense to be based there. But we’re English (and Marie has a family with no intention of moving stateside) so we’ve had to do a lot of marketing from across the Atlantic. This is occasionally challenging with cultural faux pas, but practically speaking it has often meant that we’ve simply not been able to have the on-the-ground presence at US conferences and events because a) the airfares and hotel fees can triple the expenses of the event and b) all that time so far away from the office severely limits our ability to create more product, write stuff for the blog, manage customer enquiries etc etc
Our latest traumas with international relations include our US bank account being closed in a big shutdown by HSBC of international accounts – you have no idea how much work sorting that all out is turning into. It’s almost impossible to sell in any quantity into a foreign market without at least some presence there (so we have US manufacturing, distribution and banking set up).
We may speak the same language but culturally the UK and US church is poles apart. The language used by our American vs our British or Australian customers is very different. The humour (not to mention the spelling) can get us into big trouble.
Lifelong learning and embracing digital
As an old school (read offline) PR and marketing person, I’ve learned masses over the last 10 years about the digital revolution. As well as becoming fairly proficient in ecommerce and website development I’ve been able to turn those PR skills into an expertise in social media and digital marketing ( I still remember the day I first learned about blogging and was encouraged by our then web developer to write an occasional update. That day spelt a new beginning for Musicademy and I’m immensely grateful to Kris for getting us on the blogging gig before every other company was doing it). I’m really allergic to companies that spend all their time talking about themselves and their products, churning out pushy sales messages rather than delivering valuable content to their customers. That’s why we have focused on building a website with thousands of free resources (you’re probably one of the people who reads our weekly newsletter with articles, tips, videos and other useful content). I’m sure we could monetise that all better but for now we give it away for free and hope that people feel that they would like to buy some of the DVDs and online learning once they have read a bit more about us.
Being a “lifelong learner” has really helped us keep abreast of opportunities in technology and good marketing practice. Since we started Musicademy I’ve done a teaching qualification (really helpful in learning how people of the 21st century best learn and putting that into play in seminars and DVDs) and also earned a distinction in a Masters in Digital Marketing at a very prestigious university. That experience has kept me at the cutting edge of best practice and I’ve been able to bring much of it back to the day-to-day marketing of Musicademy. It’s also connected us further with a very able network of experts and freelancers. I still do the odd bit of marketing consultancy for clients, and almost everything I do for them is either out of my experience with Musicademy, or alternately any new learning is fed back to the business.
It’s been great “meeting” people on our blog, on Facebook and very occasionally in person at a conference such as Breakforth (Canada where we teach and exhibit each year). We’re on first name terms with many of our customers who ask for advice, offer others their advice and generally give feedback and encouragement online. When we do local training events it’s brilliant when people come up and introduce themselves and I recognise their name from our mailing list or from comments they have written on Facebook or the blog.
I’m constantly amazed at how rude and aggressive people can be by email. And those same people often have an email sign off with a Bible verse about grace! We always try and respond politely – quite often the individual is cross because they feel we’ve done something wrong. Quite often it ends up being an error on behalf of the person themselves…
My dream for the future
As I alluded to earlier, getting the word out to the Christian musician world (and for Worship Backing Band to smaller churches who would benefit from backing track solutions) is fundamental to us. I think we’ve done as much as we can without either moving to the USA or properly partnering with a US based organisation. So 10 years on we are faced with probably fairly small future organic growth unless we partner with someone else.
Our portfolio of 60 or so titles reflects a decade of investment. We have some amazing training resources sitting on the shelves of our warehouse in Texas. We’d love to partner with another organisation that serves a similar market to us in order to get some of that product out to their customer base.
What can you do?
Without our customers we would be nowhere. And we truly appreciate how many of you have faithfully bought our latest releases and encouraged us over the years. I spend a lot of my working day writing content for the website, for Facebook and the newsletter. It makes my day when we get some Likes, Shares and comments there. So please do keep talking to us!
We’d also love for you to help us spread the word. As you know, we’ve masses of free resources on the website. People don’t HAVE to buy stuff (although we do love that as it helps pay the bills). So do tell your musician friends about us, do share our posts on Facebook, do forward our newsletter on to others in your worship team.
And if you happen to be the Chief Executive of an organisation with links to thousands of Churches and Christian musicians, then do drop us a line!
Marie, along with Andy Chamberlain (no, they are not married) set Musicademy up in 2003. As well as her role in marketing and administration at Musicademy and Worship Backing Band, Marie enjoys a parallel career as a digital marketing consultant and lecturer. She has married to Steve and has two grown up children.