Building a Record Company from the Ground Up
What have you been up to since leaving Hamilton College?
Since leaving Hamilton I have been working in the music industry for the past two decades. I worked at Columbia & Warner Bros. Records for four years, and then left Sony Music in 2000 with a colleague and we started our own record label called Octone. Financed with private equity and a distribution deal with Sony BMG music, we launched the company in 2001 with my first discovery: a young, soulful pop band from LA called Maroon 5. 19 years later, the band has sold over 30,000,000 albums around the world, had a dozen #1 hits and has won several Grammy awards including Best New Artist in 2004.
Building a record company up from the ground was an amazing ride. We broke some very successful acts and had a lot of fun. My first company was also the subject of a case study conducted by Harvard Business School. Every few years, I get invited to ‘teach’ the HBS case study at great schools like Harvard, Stanford, NYU and Syracuse. I discovered that I really enjoy teaching. The students I have met are very inspiring. It’s exciting to see bright young minds interested in getting involved in the music business.
At the end of 2013, my longtime business partner and I decided it was time to make our exit from Octone. It had been a great run but we were ready to move on. We negotiated a buyout from our joint venture partner Interscope Records and successfully sold them our half of the company. After 13 years of nonstop action, my partner and I finally had the time to reflect upon the amazing experiences we shared. As friends, colleagues and business partners for 17 years, we knew we wanted to work together on something new. The big question was how we could evolve and create a new company more comprehensive and versatile than Octone.
Solely running a recording company limited us to just making and selling records, and we were ready to expand and do a whole lot more. Octone was a very hands-on label, and building it from scratch taught us a great deal about every sector of the industry.
Over the next few months, instead of resting on past success, we spent time asking ourselves a series of critical questions: what could we do differently? Where did we make mistakes? And most importantly, where is the void in the industry and how can we fill it?
In the same way we believe Octone differentiated itself from other boutique labels by effectively introducing a modern “uplift” model of record marketing, we wanted to introduce a new modern multi-platform breed of music company capable of working with artists in distinct yet compatible lines of business. We named our company Free Solo and with our joint-venture partners, we are able to record, publish and/or manage the artists we encounter whose music we love.
We now manage 8-10 artists at a time, publish a handful of them and are just now launching a new label with our longtime partner Interscope Records. We currently work with Avril Lavigne, Gavin DeGraw, and a great British Rock band called The Struts in addition to a bunch of talented developing artists. We are very excited about The Struts. We believe the band is on the verge of breaking big and they are getting incredible offers to tour the world with iconic rock bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, Guns N Roses, The Killers and Foo Fighters.
How did Hamilton help prepare you for your career? If not, what do you suggest Hamilton students can do to prepare for the career?
My time at Hamilton provided great preparation for my career — although maybe not in the way we all intended. While at Hamilton, I began working with the Campus Activities Board to bring shows up to the campus. The school had a nice budget to buy shows, but I often found that the faculty advisors to this board were using the wrong metrics to determine which bands we should book. They would see an artist on a chart, assume it was a measure of success and therefore strongly ‘suggest’ we should deploy 1/2 of our annual budget to pay the act. I disagreed, as my instincts and social networks (which consisted of telephone convos with buddies at other schools; remember this was all in the Internet’s infancy and pre-social media) told me my classmates would rather see other artists that were touring the NE, getting no airplay but killing on the road. After the school refused to listen to me and a few of these shows bricked, I decided to go into business on my own. I partnered with a buddy and we began finding talent on our own, paying them out of our pocket, building stages, renting lights, selling tickets, hiring security etc. We made some real money, learned a ton and had a blast doing it. At one of our biggest shows, the proverbial ‘light bulb’ went off and I started thinking, “What if I could make this my career?”
What does an average day look like? What are the challenges and awards of your career?
Every day is so completely different. When you are in Artist Management, you see and do it all. You are on call 24/7 and life on tour can be totally crazy. But it’s extremely rewarding. When you are lucky enough to do what you love, it’s not a job, but more like the most wonderful form of play. I love the very personal connection with artists that my job affords me. I love being there through every part of the creative process: identifying the talent, helping them develop their repertoire, selecting producers, writing the marketing plan and then actually executing it by bringing the product into the marketplace and promoting to radio. It’s all very gratifying — especially when you have a hit and it all works!
Hamilton has a long history of connecting students with alumni and parents whose advice, expertise, and resources help talented young people achieve success for themselves and in their communities.
General or specific advice for students interested in following a similar career path?
Be open-minded, be on time and pay attention to details. Figure out how to make yourself indispensable. In the beginning, no one is interested in your brilliant ideas. We just want to know you aren’t a jackass. Prove that, work your ass off and eventually you will get your break. If you stick around long enough and have something to contribute, everyone eventually does. And be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down. It may be a cliche but there is a reason for that. It’s dead right.
English literature major Benjamin ‘Ben’ A. Berkman '96 currently co-founded FreeSolo Entertainment, a boutique music recording, publishing and artist management company in partnerships with RCA Records, Sony/ATV Music Publishing & Vector Management.