Event organizers often talk about rapid changes in technology that require them to adjust the way they communicate with attendees and the way they plan their events. However, they’ve been able to hang on to traditional business models for much longer than other industries. Take the music business, for instance, which began experiencing shock waves when free illegal MP3 downloading took off in 1999. Today, the business of making music looks — and sounds — completely different.
John Ondrasik, the lead singer of Five for Fighting and opening keynoter at PCMA’s Education Conference, has managed to navigate the past two decades of disruption, topping the charts with his unmistakable falsetto on “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and “100 Years” and selling more than 2.5 million albums. As plenty of record labels have closed their doors and artists have called it quits, Ondrasik has adapted to the new norms of making and selling music by finding new revenue streams, building his own studio, and writing for new artists.
The Grammy-nominated songwriter shared his perspectives on the value of perseverance, the spirit of successful collaboration, and the importance of humility with Convene via email before his June 26 appearance at EduCon.
As a songwriter, you’ve seen the digital landscape completely reshape the music industry. Can you share how digital disruption forced you to adjust your own approach to writing songs, making records, and connecting with your fans?
As with any “disruption,” the challenge — for me, at least — is to take advantage of the new paradigm without compromising your core talents and values. When the digital downloading tsunami decimated the music business, my approach to songwriting did not change at all. My approach to this business of music changed almost overnight. A song that can stand the test of time is not determined by technology; it is forged by craft, sweat, talent, and a bit of luck.
My process in writing a song has not changed in 30 years, though I have replaced my Walkman with my iPhone. With digital downloading, the money came out of the music business. All of a sudden, I had to do the same thing — often on 20 percent of my previous budget. I immediately bought my own studio gear and built a studio in my house to eliminate $2,000-a-day studio fees. Seeing that record sales were going to be a reduced source of income, I focused on licensing music to television, film, and advertising while building my touring base.
The one thing I was late on was social-media engagement. To be able to instantly connect with fans and share information, and take them behind the curtain, can be crucial for young artists, as it is for many brands.
You encountered your share of failures before Five for Fighting’s songs ever reached the top of the charts. Can you share any memories from your most humbling gig and how those rough experiences have contributed to your success?
My song “Superman” was passed on by every record company, and I was a 15-year grinding “overnight success.” Steve Jobs had a great quote that goes something like “Fifty percent of the difference between the successful and unsuccessful entrepreneur comes down to pure perseverance.” I’m an example of that. I’m a full believer that work ethic, will, and integrity are more crucial to success than “talent.” I was also blessed to have supportive people around me along the way.
But there were some rough gigs! When you are an opening act, you better get used to a thousand people talking through your set and find the discipline to focus on the hundred people who are listening — a reality and metaphor that goes way beyond music.
What were the most important lessons you took from the low points of your early career in music?
Work harder than your competition. Work with people more talented than you. Do things that make you uncomfortable (in my case, take every gig). Believe in yourself. Repeat.
You’re a solo artist, but you perform in a range of capacities — with a band and with a string quartet — and you have written songs for a wide variety of artists including Tim McGraw and the Backstreet Boys. What have all those projects taught you about collaboration?
Collaboration is more than the sum of its parts. It can create a healthy competition that brings things out of you [that] you never knew you had. (See “The Beatles.”)
And for event organizers who must work with a number of different people, what is your most important piece of advice about working with others successfully? I always tell young artists [that] the more power and success you attain, the more humility you need to show. Be the same person when you have the No. 1 record in the country as you were when nobody knew you existed. Like any leadership position, it’s about relationships, integrity, and holding yourself to the same standards you would hold for those working for and/or with you. I may not always live up to that motto, but I think it’s a worthy way to approach your job — and perhaps even your life.
John Ondrasik will deliver the Opening Keynote Session at PCMA Education Conference 2019, being held in Los Angeles on June 25–28. For information, visit pcmaeducon.org.