[Transcript] Episode 073 – Barbara Siesel and Keith Torgan
Transcript: Episode 073 – Barbara Siesel and Keith Torgan
073 – Barbara Siesel and Keith Torgan on Adaptability as Entrepreneurial Musicians
Today I’m talking to two musicians about how they have made a career in music over the last 15 years. I think their story illustrates what it means to be, not just an entrepreneurial musician, but an entrepreneur in general.
You’ll hear about how they’ve made plans and pursued ideas, while keeping an open ear to what’s going on in the market and world around them, so they can respond with products and services that meet real needs and opportunities.
At points this has led them to make pivots. COVID has been one of these points, but we also talk about how the 2008 financial crisis impacted their work and how they bounced back.
Here’s my conversation with Barbara and Keith.
Andrea: Welcome to the podcast today. Thank you both for being here. Can you introduce yourselves and tell us what you do?
Barbara: I’m Barbara Siesel and I’m a flutist, an educator, a producer and entrepreneur. That sounds like a lot of things. I have been performing and teaching for quite some time. About 15 years ago I started doing the work that we would be discussing today.
Keith: Hi there. I’m Keith Torgan and I am a songwriter and an actor and a storyteller, a children’s book author and I’ve been creating music for children for a very long time and I discovered long ago that I am a child. It’s my immaturity that allows me to write so many kid songs and stories.
Andrea: Well I listened to it. It’s very engaging. I could see my children will like it so we need people like you producing that kind of music for kids. And can you introduce us to the topic that we’re going to be talking about today, the project that you guys started together?
Barbara: When we met, I was a college professor teaching flute and Keith is a musician and songwriter. When we got together we thought maybe it would be great to create some programming that will introduce kids to classical music and musical theater through storytelling. We started to work together right away and started creating these programs that were very grassroots to really reach out into the communities with music because I had been very concerned that kids were not learning about music and not having it in their schools. This seemed like the perfect way to get kids excited about music without blowing them.
Andrea: And you said it was to introduce kids to classical music. What was the first program that you launched?
Keith: Good question. It’s funny I haven’t thought about this since so long. We really didn’t know how we’re going to do it. I think the first thing that we came up with was called Professor Cecille’s Flutoneous Flute Suites.
Barbara: Yeah, and it was not so good.
Keith: We’re terrible. Barbara’s mom who came here from Germany in the 1930s learned English from the British, right? And so Barbara does this sort of great British thing and I thought it would be fun if she was this British flute professor but the first time we performed it nobody understood a word she said.
Barbara: That was a bit of a problem, yes.
Keith: So we decided to try something else and one day Barbara said “What about Rapunzel?” She’s got nothing to do all day she could be practicing the flute. And I said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s create a Rapunzel story and use that as a first way of introducing kids to classical music.” You probably want to know why it’s not called Rapunzel and the Golden Flute and why it’s called Green Golly & Her Golden Flute.
Andrea: Well I think it sounds better. Tell, us why is it called the Green Golly?
Keith: A lot of people don’t know why Rapunzel is called Rapunzel. She’s called Rapunzel because her father stole greens from the enchantress or the witch next door for his wife who was hungry. As she was very pregnant she was craving greens. The greens that he stole were rampion greens which were also known as Rapunzel. So she was named after Rapunzel greens and so as I was adapting the story this name Green Golly just popped in. She was named for the Golly good greens that in her garden grew kind of set the tone and Green Golly oddly enough stuck.
Barbara: So then we were like what music should we put in it. So I went like I know and say more of a beginner flute book that had a lot of iconic tunes and went through to find ones that had different emotional levels whether it was sad or happy or intense or funny, and picked out a bunch of pieces. From there, Keith just wrote the piece in like a day, I mean, he wrote it really fast after that, right?
Keith: I did. I wrote it I think in one night actually. But I wrote it like it was a piece of musical theater, but instead of having songs to forward the action, each of these iconic classical pieces of music forwarded the action.
Andrea: Oh okay. And they’re not just flute pieces right there, like Flight of the Bumblebee is one of them, right?
Barbara: Yeah. There’s a few flute pieces in there but most of them are just iconic, the Spring Song by Mendelssohn and the Gavotte by Gossec. The idea was to bring kids in in a really easy way. Over time we created more pieces, not all classical based, the one with original songs, original storytelling. We ended up doing a lot of pieces. Some were all original songs and some that mix classical music and original songs, some in musical theater veins.
Andrea: So you have this story then and the music mixed in, then how did you get it out to the kids?
Barbara: We got it out to the kids through Keith.
Keith: Well I had done a lot of work in schools and libraries prior to meeting Barbara and I’ve been writing children’s music for a long time and initially I was known for another group that I worked with called Morgan, Torgan and Terry. Many places knew of us so when Barbara and I put together these initial pieces, I started calling people and they were so excited to hear from me because Morgan, Torgan and Terry has disbanded a number of years prior. So the first year that we were performing we booked over 200 concerts.
Andrea: Wow. And these are concerts in schools and libraries?
Keith: Exactly, predominantly libraries.
Andrea: Wow. That’s impressive.
Keith: It was impressive and it was quite wonderful.
Barbara: That was in 2005 I think.
Keith: And we maintained that level of performances until 2008 and if you’re familiar with the history you know what happened in 2008 and the economy really kind of went bust.
Andrea: Yeah, and I know we’re going to get into like the impact of Covid on your projects, but this is not your first time going through a challenging economic time. So talk about 2008.
Barbara: Well 2008 kind of more happened in 2009 because the budgets started to collapse. That was interesting. We just kept going. We did a lot and we started to release a lot of CDs and we eventually created the Green Golly book. We started getting non-profit funding from a foundation and we were especially picked by a particular one in 2011-2012, something like that. We started to have to look at different ways of getting funding and we got more educational. So initially, it was very easy at libraries and still this way to this day, I have to present programming as part of our mandates with schools. They also do a lot of live assemblies as you know but then they need the underpinnings. We had to think about that. We went to foundations and we hired marketing. We had so many different things that we’re trying to do and did.
Keith: One of the great things about Kirsten Martin that she did for us is she actually got us into the Ravinia Festival in Chicago and that made a huge difference for us because Ravinia has a program called Reach, Teach and Play and they bring classical music programs into schools. They also have a huge summer festival with really great artists who come there during the year and during the summer so we were really fortunate. And then we started doing a lot of work in Chicago as a result of the work we did at Ravinia.
Andrea: And prior to that your home base was and still is New York City, right?
Barbara: Yeah, we live in New York City and a lot of years we spend a lot of time touring around the country and naturally, right before Covid we were overseas. We were doing Green Golly work when we were doing that because as all of this has gone on we keep having to expand and we have a lot of programs, six or seven programs. We have workshops and master classes. We’ve now expanded into animation and we just keep rolling the ball.
Andrea: Yeah, well one of the things I appreciate about you two specifically is that you’re working musicians. You are doing creative things but you also want the business to make sense and we’ve had several conversations before this interview and I get that sense every time like you’re going to take a business sense to it. If the numbers don’t work you’re not just going to waste your time on some projects even if it sounds really fun, or you’ll set that aside as just fun and not expected to provide for your livelihood.
Keith: Well Andrea, I really like the way you put it. You make me feel very successful.
Andrea: It sounds like the marketing person that you hired in that when you’re like trying to re-adjust your business and were no longer to get the funds from was it the schools and libraries paying you before 2008?
Andrea: And then, yeah, to depend more on foundations and grants and things?
Barbara: Well it was like a combination because things became project-oriented. One particular foundation was very interested in music education and was trying to figure out how to do that better. They wanted us to get into the schools. They were also kind of concerned about that so they paid for research into like what do teachers want if they’re going to have music come into their schools from outside. We had a grant to interview teachers in New York City area. After that, from them we had grant money to create a curriculum that would combine music with K-12 education. So we did that and we piloted it in schools and we were in a bunch of schools in Chicago and in New York. That’s still alive and we decided at that point to turn that curriculum into tech because we thought that we could reach a whole lot more children with what’s called EdTech. We’re not tech people you know so we have this whole concept, we have this whole program, teacher training, curriculum, live stream performance and we were in what they call an incubator. So there we were in with all the 20-year-olds as we were developing their “EdTech” and then there was Keith and I. We showed up in their office in NYU and we were working on that and that still exists. We still need the tech. We still need the app. We still need that to be done.
Keith: I just have a question because one of the things I’m best at is daydreaming. I’m even daydreaming while you were describing that. Did you describe Curriculive?
Barbara: No, so go ahead you do that.
Keith: Actually, the reason we came up with Curriculive is because we wanted orchestras to hire us to do Green Golly and Her Golden Flute and we had a connection with lots of orchestras. We wanted to figure out how we could make it pay and they didn’t seem to want to hire us just to perform and we felt if we have curriculum that would help them to bring these programs into schools then what we’d be doing is they’d be getting a performance but they’d be paying for the curriculum or vice versa. Again, the curriculum will pay for the performance. I love naming things–Curriculive, living curriculum. What if we made this program alive, a living curriculum, so that it wasn’t just things that teachers had to bring in every day but actually the curriculum would come alive using the performance and the questions and the materials that went along with it. And then ultimately, orchestras are funny. A lot of them like to do their own thing and for the most part they weren’t really interested even though we get a lot of positive responses they said “Well we don’t want to do that kind of thing anymore. We want to do our own thing and we are in-house,” so that was kind of disappointing.
So one of the things we saw was because a lot of schools have no music programs and no arts programs and Barbara thought if we could make learning English, learning Math, learning Science, better and easier with Music, then that would be a really incredible thing to be able to do; using music to teach all those other subjects. So we started and tried to develop Curriculive in such a way when we started with an English curriculum, because really that’s the easiest thing and it’s something we know. We’re not mathematicians. We’re not scientists.
Barbara: We have the Green Golly book so we had–
Keith: Thanks to Kirsten Martin who told us we needed to have a book, yeah.
Andrea: So now you had a curriculum that was not just music curriculum but English. And then have you gotten into the Math and other subjects?
Andrea: No, not yet, okay.
Barbara: We have high school though. We did one for a second and third grade English language arts and we did one for a different program called “Now We Can Sing.” That’s for like 8th grade through 12th grade History and also English language arts and that’s a very different show. Also, Classical and Cabaret that tells a story of music band to Jewish performers before World War II and their subsequent immigration to the US. Schools like that one because it teaches History but it also helps kids really see things that can happen. It’s a little bit relevant for today.
Andrea: Yeah, okay. So it’s still the same like storytelling concept with classical music wrapped in like the Green Golly.
Keith: Yeah, very much so but it’s not as linear, I mean, it’s more like a review and it combines a story and classical music and cabaret songs and original songs. It’s a different format than Green Golly except that it’s us so it’s still us doing something else.
Andrea: Okay. And now you had started to say that you were going through orchestras or trying to partner with orchestras to perform. So then, did you pivot away from orchestras when you started getting into Curriculive and go directly to schools with that?
Barbara: Yes, we did a lot of pivoting. You’ll think we were doing pirouettes all day long.
Andrea: You guys are doing the thing like making sure that your business is working and pivoting when you see it’s not and figuring out why it’s not, asking yourself those questions.
Barbara: It’s like you circle back sometimes like now during Covid it’s pretty easy to book live stream shows. There’s always a certain amount of reinvention even if it’s the same thing. It’s just how do we meet our goals artistically, emotionally and financially.
Andrea: Yeah, okay. So let’s touch on the finances now as you think about like your whole financial picture. Is Green Golly and Curriculive and all these other things is that your full-time focus or you’re expecting other things to contribute to your whole financial picture?
Keith: I would say that right now it’s a combination of things because as Barbara mentioned earlier, when this pandemic started to hit it wasn’t in the US yet. We were in Germany and we were in Turkey and we were teaching and performing mostly teaching there. We were at Hanover School for Music. We were doing two different things. Barbara was teaching Entrepreneurship to the students, which is really amazing to watch what they were able to do with this program and I was working with the students. I do work called ‘Being on Stage Acting for Musicians’. I work with musicians to be able to help them really connect to themselves when they’re performing and help them really break through the fourth wall so that they have more of an impact as instrumentalists. So we were doing both of those things.
Barbara: With those two workshops we did a performance actually of ‘Now We Can Sing’ there for the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz and then my friend who had invited us who’s a professor there and I also performed together with flutes and piano and harpsichord. Then we went to Istanbul where I was teaching Master Class flutes and Keith was being on stage and then we were supposed to go then to China to do the same thing. So some things have changed. There’s been a lot of master level teaching for us over the last two years and we were still doing live Green Golly programs but we had kind of pivoted to thinking about putting everything online.
Keith: That’s true but we had a lot of live performances lined up in the US and in China and because Covid struck China really bad, we couldn’t go to China. We came back and we lost all of our work and fortunately, Barbara will talk more about this. She had been doing a lot of online teaching and that has really helped enormously.
Andrea: It sounds like it’s a part of your income that you count on but it fluctuates where the majority of your income is coming from. Sometimes it’s more teaching. Sometimes it’s more performing and then you’ve got these more passive things like books and CD sales and things like that.
Barbara: Right, it fluctuates just like you said. We had decided to move everything online because, again, we went to talk with another business development person and because we started looking at our age and getting older, how much touring would we be able to do let’s say in 10 years. So we started to think about moving stuff online and we had decided to create an animation channel, so to take all of the songs that we have and turn them into animations, and that’s quite exciting. We have three now and because it links back to a very old plan that we had when we want to do a television show and I said “Wouldn’t that be so great because we could reach millions of children,” and that was like 15 years ago that we had that idea. Fate intervened or something happened and so we decided to do this animation channel and we’re working on that now.
Because of Covid, as you said, we have been surviving on online teaching. I have many students from China that I help prepare for entrance to American universities in graduate schools. They come here and they meet other professors. I know we will talk about that another time but that’s another way that has kept income flowing. But what has been so interesting is that in the midst of Covid, all of a sudden, we started getting phone calls from libraries and from our institutional partners which is the Midori & Friends Foundation and Ravinia reached each play for live streamed performances. So that means that we have to learn how to do a lot of technology.
Andrea: Okay, so these people reached out to you requesting live stream performances?
Keith: Which sparked me because I thought we’re dead in the wood or what are we going to do? Then I started booking performances again because I didn’t think they were available. I thought it was done. We just did one on Saturday.
Andrea: How have you gone about booking those?
Keith: It’s funny about this Saturday performance because we do adult stuff. I struggled a little with our branding because if I call up people who book adult programming and I say I’m from Green Golly, they think Green Golly that sounds like kids’ stuff. So last year I put an adult programs under the title WEAVE which stands for We Educate and Value Everyone and I created an email address for that and then I stopped using it. Then about two weeks ago, I don’t know why I was looking at it. I looked at it and I saw that somebody, one of our clients, had sent us an email in August asking if we had any programs for adults and I immediately called her up, I mean, it was now three months later and she called about our adult programming but then she said, “You have stuff for kids too, right? I need something for two weeks from now,” so that was great. And then I started making calls which has been not terrible. You know, selling is a mixed bag because every time you get on the phone with somebody you’re risking rejection and I really hate rejection.
Andrea: Most of us do, yeah.
Barbara: But he’s actually been booking like every day one. We might be able to get back to 200 this year.
Keith: I will say though that the budgets have changed and because we’re not travelling, I think places expect us not to charge as much for our programs plus it’s a mixed bag how many kids show up at these programs because it’s Zoom and they’re Zoomed out. They’re going to school on the computer all day long so it’s a razor’s edge kind of a thing.
Barbara: But it does seem that the libraries are doing well with adults coming in from programming so it may be that that’s an easier sell. It’s interesting if kids are home we think animation, if adults are home we think workshops or programs to help them. And then there’s really learning how to stream live performances with not just the technology for sound but also a visual technology, perhaps use a green screen. So that’s a big learning curve.
Andrea: Are you doing these from your house?
Barbara: From our apartment.
Keith: From our apartment.
Barbara: But ultimately, we will have like Green Golly has illustrations from the book. It has some animation from when we restaged the live show and that was part of our whole grant. We restaged that live show with a director and all of that. So two things I want to say about that, one, is that schools and libraries can just buy the pre-recorded show, so that’s another approach that performers and us included will be taking prerecording things and then you can just keep selling it and then with the live stream having some kind of interesting visual. That’s fun and exciting and it’s really such an incredibly new way like a hybrid way of performing and presenting. And who knows what will happen when this is all over.
Andrea: Okay. And you had said that you were noticing as people booked live stream shows they expect you to charge less for your time because it’s live stream. How have you addressed that?
Keith: Well you know some of our colleagues who do a school and library programs say that you shouldn’t lower your price and that has a lot of validity to it. They say charge of price minus your travel time and that’s very fair. That being said, if places don’t have the money, they don’t have the money. So you have to decide whether you’re going to be willing not to work or whether you’re going to work more as they buy in volume? Let’s face it, an hour of your time for a couple of hundred dollars for 45 minutes is not so bad, right, and you haven’t left your home. I think even though when we perform live we charge considerably more than that. Some places can pay full fees but a lot of places can’t so I think you just have to be flexible.
Barbara: Or you could sell them the prerecorded one for less money and then you don’t have to do anything. You’re just sending it to them or you could combine. You could say pay me my full price and I’ll throw in the second one for $100, and then they have two programs. So we’ve been thinking about different ways.
Andrea: Yeah, I think those different packages and like Keith you are saying some people can. Some people, their budget haven’t been impacted yet.
Barbara: Yeah, the one for this Saturday, their budget hasn’t been impacted.
Keith: That was great. They paid our full price. And another of the libraries I spoke to they just had their budget slashed considerably and this is a lot for a small library. A $135,000 was cut out of the budget and this is a place we love and we support them so we did it for what they can afford and I’m happy to do that.
Andrea: How do you approach those conversations? Do you have a sense of “I know this library got their budget cut” or do you go in asking for your full fee and then adjust depending on what response you get?
Keith: I’ll tell you what I use to do and I’m not doing this anymore. People would say, “Well what’s your price?” And a lot of times you’ll get in and go into a sale and before they even know about your work they ask you for the price. I learned years ago that if you don’t like what we do, it doesn’t matter what it costs, but you know if they’re asking for price before you even open your mouth, that price is the only thing that drives the sale or it’s a major thing. What I used to do is I used to say “Well, you know what? We work on a sliding scale,” and we do that because it is our mission to make high-quality programs available for schools and libraries. That being said, we have the places that can afford our full rate because that’s the only thing that enables us to do this kind of work. If they can afford the full price, great, and if they don’t, there’s a bottom line that we’ll go down to and if they can’t afford that, then they can’t afford it. We’re usually done unless I particularly like the person. When you’re doing this in person you can’t do that. It costs money to leave your home. You have to get in the car. You have to pack the car; it is hours of work.
Barbara: It’s not just an hour. It’s at least three hours, right?
Keith: People don’t realize that it’s a big job and the big job is not the performance anymore. We’ve been doing for instance Green Golly thousands of times. We don’t even have to think about it anymore. If you’d say do it now, we could do it for you. That’s not the issue. It’s the equipment and the travel and the expenses and all of those things. But when you’re doing it on Zoom you don’t have any of those things. That’s not completely true. We’ve had to invest in all kinds of new equipment but, I mean, people don’t really care about that. So now I’m just very flexible now because the way I look at it, I want everybody to have these programs and for the most part we’ll do what they can afford to do.
Barbara: Because you don’t want to have it stopped completely because then when things come back maybe they’ll think “Oh we did just fine without it. We don’t need it.” That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is “Oh we could get it for $200. Why do you want $600 now?” So it’s tricky, I mean, with institutions like when we work with our institutional partners we just give them a price and they’re all non-profits and they’re raising money so they pay our price which is great because we don’t have to discuss it with the schools. And that’s in fact how we feel comfortable going into the schools because otherwise schools are run by PTAs in terms of bringing the programming and then they have a committee.
Keith: The educational thing is very hard for everybody because if you are selling anything to a school, whether it’s a performance or a book or a piece of equipment, you have to go through a great deal of–this is my technical term for it–rig-a-ma-role, just to talk to the right person. And then once you talked to the right person you’re probably working against lots of other people who are trying to sell them the same thing or something similar and then there’s a bidding war, I mean, there’s all kinds of stuff.
Andrea: Yes, schools are interesting customers. I worked with a start-up that sells electronics kits and curriculum for that and you can have the teacher totally sold on the product. They may know it this is the best option, this is the thing I want, but then they have to be able to convince their administrator or someone else to also buy and then the sales cycle can be very long, months and months sometimes, especially its curriculum. An important thing to know about your customer is what is their sales cycle? Who is ultimately responsible for the decision? And then if it’s a teacher who has to convince an administrator, how do you equip that teacher to then sell it to the administrator?
Barbara: Well that’s the thing and that administrator has to sell it to the superintendent who’s dealing with the budget. And there are actually special people that just sell to schools that you could hire. When we were doing Curriculive we tried that.
Keith: But that’s us. You know what? We did the best that we can. What we do best is we create programs. We’re really good at it and then we try to sell it. It’s just that these are not giant ticket items so to get somebody else to sell your work. It’s not a long sales cycle that I’m getting paid right away and they only get a percentage. It’s not like they’re selling something that’s $40,000 where they’re going to get 10% for their sale and making $4,000 is worth spending a few months on that one sale, right?
Andrea: Yeah. Do you do anything to foster referrals or how people invite you back the next year or things like that?
Keith: We always try at the end of a performance to try to book another performance afterwards. You know what? It’s funny about referrals. Somebody will say “Oh, call so and so. I love your show. Tell them that I suggest it,” and then I call so and so and then you’ll learn what their real relationship with the person who referred them. A lot of times people think that if you call so and so they think what I say is gold and then you discover that they don’t even like the person that referred you.
Barbara: We do try to book in our show with the person that booked us and we write a thank you note or we call or we do some kind of follow-up. It’s been 16 to 17 years and I sort of I’ve forgotten stuff. We’ve had managers who tried to work with us.
Andrea: So it sounds like that over the years you’ve made a lot of investments and kind of taken on risks putting money out to invest in your business in different things. Can you talk about some of those and what your thought process was and how you evaluated those opportunities?
Barbara: That’s a very interesting question. Thank you for that question. We have done several different things. When our first CD came out, when The Green Golly and the Golden Flute came out, we hired a publicist and she did a very good job in that she got us a lot of reviews, like 70 or 80 reviews. So in that sense it was a good investment. Did it help us get more performances? Not that much. No.
Keith: At first it helped us sell CDs because that sort of what the mode of transporting music at the time and our CD was at CD Baby so we’re actually were starting, I mean, we’re not selling millions of CDs but we were selling more and we got great reviews. I would say 99.9% of the reviews were really phenomenal. I should read them again. They make me feel good.
Barbara: They make you feel good. We hired, as we told you before, this woman Kirsten Martin, who was very expensive and we basically could only afford to hire her, well she ended up working like six months for us but really we paid for like the first quarter and she made one really fantastic connection which was the Ravinia connections so in the end that paid itself back. That definitely paid itself back. We made money on that.
Keith: Yes, absolutely. I should just mention about Ravinia for people who don’t know what it is. It’s like Tanglewood. It’s the Tanglewood of the Midwest of the Chicago area.
Barbara: Chicago Symphony is in residence there in the summer and then they have this educational foundation that does not just what we do for them but has jazz and really goes deeply into the Chicago school systems.
Andrea: Okay, so that was like your entry point into all those schools.
Barbara: Yeah, right there. So that turned out to be well worth it. We worked with another person who was really trying to get us to streamline how we ran our business–that was two years ago–that was very good if we follow everything that they tell us to do.
Keith: Was that Red Sapiens?
Barbara: Red Sapiens. We were really the theory behind Red Sapiens and they don’t do that anymore. They pivoted themselves but the theory was that small businesses should behave in their processes on how they work and how they sell like big businesses and they put together just a whole program. It was very thorough and very, very good for us but what they discovered and the reason why they pivoted is that that most small business don’t have a huge amount of money to invest in the thing that they were selling. So when I talked to him about the teaching stuff, one of the businesses that they ended up spinning off from us was the teaching stuff and that has made us a lot of money and will continue to make us a lot of money in relative terms, but could make a lot more. So that was a good investment.
Keith: It was a good investment. One of the reasons also was because Joe Rojas, whose company it is, is a real lover of people and he’s very committed to the people he works with and he’s committed to having them succeed. For him it’s more than just about the money. It really is about making every business he works for a success. To this day, even though we’re not working with them now, he’s still a friend and we love him, we really do. He’s an amazing person. You know sometimes there are peripheral results that make it worthwhile. And they actually suggested the animation thing if I remember it correctly. So that’s another result we got from working with Joe Rojas and his Red Sapiens company was that we found an animator. And as a result of that, a new streaming service got in touch with us. They saw one of our animations. Now this is not a closed deal yet but they said they wanted to produce our animation show.
Andrea: Oh wow.
Keith: So we’ll see what happens, I mean, that’s not a done deal yet but they’ve already said they would invest in it considerably. They’re in the process of raising the funds for that. We’ll see what happens. We found an animator that we could afford. We had to go out of the US to do that. We have to search far and wide and Barbara did a lot of research. She looked at lots and lots of animators before we selected the person we chose. They’re doing a great job and they’ve made it affordable for us so I think that’s a great investment also. It’s really interesting to see your work animated.
Andrea: Yeah, I bet. I have not had that experience but I have a brother who’s an animator and every once in a while I get to see something he’s working on and yeah, just like seeing something come to life in that way I imagine is really rewarding as a musician artist.
Keith: It is. You know it’s another kind of collaboration.
Andrea: How have you gone about hiring people who have skills that you don’t have yourself like an animator? How do you start that research? What questions do you ask them?
Barbara: Well for the animator, each thing is different and I won’t say that we’re 100% perfect in how we go about this research. For the animator, because we were still working with the adviser at the time, he basically told me places to look and he said “Look until you find what you want.” That’s what I did and I think for other things sometimes we meet people like we went to a New York Chamber of Commerce event. New York Chamber of Commerce is gigantic.
Keith: We went there for a particular event at the event. We went there for a speed marketing and dating event where you get to present your work to a hundred other people. You’d get a minute with each of them, and these guys were sponsoring that event. Afterwards, we started talking and we fell in love with them and they fell in love with us. We realized we have a lot in common. That’s how we started working with them. And we didn’t get anything else out of that event.
Barbara: Nobody hired us. So I think that unlike other musicians sometimes I try to look at things in a business-like way sometimes and I’ll go where people know nothing about the arts or music or have very little relationship to it. I’ll just go and I’ll explain it to them or talk about our business to them because I think that I can see all the connections. They can’t necessarily see all the connections but I can see all the connections. We’ve met a lot of interesting people and we’ve gotten interesting opportunities from just showing up. And so one thing that I could say to advice any musician listening here who’s building up a studio or for all of those things is to show up as to not shy away from the whole business thing. In my training, business was kind of a dirty word. It was like stay in the practice room and don’t come out until you can play it better than anybody else. And then you could play it better than anybody else but nobody gave a shit because they couldn’t hear you. So I say to musicians, you know, just get out there and I don’t mean just get out there and perform because those things aren’t always available. Get out there with your business and really talk to people and take those risks as much as you can.
It looks like he’s got a song. I’m feeling a song coming on.
Keith: Okay, so when you said that, there’s a scene in The Dragon Show where we’re talking and Barbara just starts thinking. I say “What are you thinking about?” And she says “Well I’m thinking of going through this door over here” and I say “Well, why aren’t you just going? What are you avoiding?” And we play this from the perspective of children who says, “Well, there’s an audition for the school orchestra and I don’t know if I’m ready for it,” and I say “Well, why don’t you play something for me?” And then she plays something really good and I say “I think you’re ready but you know if you’re just playing it here, nobody out there will ever hear you so you know, go through that door.” So then I sing this song.
[Keith sings a song]
Andrea: That’s great! We’ve never had a live performance on the podcast before so thank you for being the first and what a great message too. So on that note, what is next for you guys? What are your goals for this coming year? What are you looking forward to?
Keith: Peace on Earth, goodwill to man.
Barbara: Just health for everyone under the pandemic and children being able to be in school. I think for us, we’re going to keep going with the animation. I’m supposed to be right now be in China teaching as a visiting professor but I couldn’t go so I’m looking forward to that working out. Keith and I will both go in April, hopefully, or maybe next year. So we’re still in this mode. I’m going to try and work on our art. I’m going to produce an entrepreneurship book out of all of my entrepreneurship articles. I guess we just don’t have to be present as much as we can in the hope that the future will bring opportunity again to connect with children and adults and share what we do.
Keith: And those are all nice things. So I have a hard goal here too which is 200 virtual performances this year.
Barbara: And how much money, because sometimes we put money on this?
Keith: We’re not going to mention numbers on the air but we’ll talk about it. We’ll discuss that. I think that’s one of them and that this animated series which we keep going back and forth in terms of how we’re going to do it. We’re looking at making a combination of live and animated stuff and our audience for children is very diverse. We have programs for preschoolers and elementary school kids and high school things and it’s really hard for me to say, “Okay, this is just going to be for preschoolers,” because then I’d start thinking of all the songs I want to do that aren’t for preschoolers.
Andrea: Where can listeners follow along with what you’re up to?
Keith: Our website is www.greengolly.com. Social media right now is kind of an iffy proposition. There’s so much political stuff on there and so we’re looking at what to do next in terms of keeping our stuff in front of the public.
Andrea: Awesome. Well thank you so much for sharing today.
Keith: You’re welcome. Thank you for having us. It was really fun.
Barbara: It was really fun. It was a pleasure.
[00:50:01] [End of interview]
What strikes me about Barbara’s and Keith’s story is that they’re committed to their goals, but they hold their methods of achieving those goals loosely. Let me explain what I mean.
Barbara and Keith are strongly committed to exposing people to music, and all their projects work towards that goal. At the same time, how they’ve pursued that goal is very fluid. It’s flexed over time to respond to the opportunities they’ve discovered, changing technology, things going on in the world, and market conditions.
They’ve done live performances, virtual performances, pre-recorded performances. They published books, curriculum, CDs, and now animated videos. They’ve worked through schools, libraries, orchestras, and festivals. They’ve done all sorts of things!
I think this approach of being focused on the goal while flexible with the path has served them well over their careers and can be helpful to all of us as we figure out what it means to be studio owners and music teachers during times like COVID – when we’re forced to do things differently – or other times of uncertainty or change that we’ll encounter in our careers.
Barbara and Keith also don’t just sit around waiting for the next opportunity to come along. Keith talked about making phone calls.
Now, once upon a time, when I was maybe 8 years old or so, I loved receiving mail, but it didn’t come very often. I’d get a flurry of cards around my birthday and then it would just be the random letter here and there from a couple of friends and family I sporadically corresponded with.
I remember my mom telling me that when she was my age she received a letter every day. Every day! Letters from England, Japan, and all over Canada, where she grew up.
Of course I wanted to know her secret to achieving this postal popularity. She told me she did it by having a LOT of pen pals. Well, that sounded fun – people writing to me every day from all over the world? But then she explained that to get a letter every day she also had to write a letter everyday.
Ahhh, the catch.
Of course, it makes sense that I’d have to input some effort to receive some output. I wanted to skip the hard part and just get the reward.
I think Keith has mastered this lesson.
Keith does not wait by the mailbox or phone for people to book shows.
Sometimes they come out of the blue, but when times are tighter, he’s the one who takes the initiative. He actively makes phone calls.
Just like my mom’s letter-writing strategy – in order to predictably sell one show a day, it makes sense he probably has to pick up the phone every day. Probably many times each day. Every time, risking rejection, and doing it anyway.
I don’t think it was “luck” that got them 200 shows in their first year with the Green Golly Project. I think it was this hustle.
I’d also add, that when the random booking does happen, it’s probably because of some effort he put in earlier – a phone call he made or a chamber of commerce meeting he attended – that had no immediate reward occasionally produces some long-term benefit.
This habit of active outreach – whether it’s through phone calls, texts, emails, or regularly showing up on social media or in-person in meaningful ways – is a time-tested and proven way of building business. And, while the sales that result from them are great, the more significant thing I notice is that musicians and business owners who have developed this habit tend to have a really healthy sense of ownership over their careers. When the world is changing around them, they don’t sit back and wait for things to go back to a comfortable normal. Instead, they lean in, they listen, and they respond. They keep doing the work.
Thank you for the fantastic conversation, Barbara and Keith! It’s such great encouragement for the time we’re in.
A couple of previous podcast episodes came to mind while preparing this one. The first was my conversation with Lance LaDuke from Carnegie Melon about portfolio careers. Barbara and Keith didn’t use this term to describe their careers, but I think they fit the definition.
The other is a more recent episode with Jason Bay about sales for non-sales people. I’ve gotten great feedback from teachers about how some of the strategies we talked about in this episode empowered them to step outside their comfort zones and enroll students they might not have enrolled otherwise. Very cool!
If you want to dig deeper into some of today’s topics you might enjoy those as well. I’ll link to them in the show notes for this episode at MusicStudioStartup.com/episode073.
That’s all for today. Thanks for listening! I’ll be back next week!