Entrepreneurship and Career Development

Entrepreneur of the Month

Mike Epstein

Entrepreneur of the Month: November

Mike Epstein: On Taking Risks & Following your Passion

This month, Project Jumpstart interviewed Jacobs School jazz alumnus, Mike Epstein, who serves as president of his self-started and fast-growing booking agency, Mike Epstein and Company, where he promotes award winning musicians.

Mike Epstein and Company currently represents thirteen artists encompassing a wide variety of styles including world music, jazz, blues, and bluegrass. The agency employees two full-time team members and has previously hosted interns from the New England Conservatory of Music. In his own words, "the agency is honored to work with award-winning performers who remind us how inspiring music and the arts can be."

To complement his entreprenuerial activities, Mike produces his own podcast called "Speaking of the Arts," which features prominent programming directors, artists, managers and agents in conversation about the many challenges facing the music insdustry as well as the tools and processes that can be used to succeed in this ever-changing business.


Project Jumpstart: You’re a great example of how someone can use a performance degree from the Jacobs School and turn it into an exciting music business career. Can you talk about how you made the choice to pursue a career that was more focused on the business-side of the music industry? 

Mike Epstein: My first job out of school was as a drummer aboard the Princess Caribbean. That gig lasted 2 months and it was plenty of time for me to know that working on a cruise ship was not for me! I really had no idea what would come next. I found myself working at a non-profit agency in Chicago and thought I wanted to become a psychologist. I went back to school part-time but it didn’t take too long for me to realize I was not passionate about it.

At the suggestion of my uncle, I participated in a one-day workshop called the Unique Edge, which is produced by a company called Strategic Coach. The Unique Edge is designed specifically for people between the ages of 18-26. The purpose of the workshop is to help you discover what you are naturally good at, what you are really passionate about, and how to set long-term goals and achieve them. For me, the outcome was that I realized had to be doing something related to music even if that meant not sitting behind the drums. I remembered a booking agency in Boston (The Kurland Agency) that represented some of my favorite artists including Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, and Chick Corea. I called them and asked if they were offering an internship. I was told they were, but that it was unpaid and that I probably shouldn’t quit everything and leave a salaried job and my grad school coursework and move out there. I didn’t care. I knew I needed to be a part of it and figured the whole experience might last 2 months. I ended up being in the right place at the right time and was able to work my way up. In the end, I was there for almost 6 years before I left to start my own booking agency in the summer of 2013.

Mike Epstein Collage

A few artists at the Mike Epstein and Company agency.

PJ: In your time working as a booking agent for musicians, how have you seen the industry change? What are the current trends and where do you see the industry going in the next few years?

ME: Since my experience has been relatively short, I only know the current industry – one that is constantly changing, where new music apps and technology are rolled out almost every day, where you have to stay very focused on delivering value for your clients and provide them with clarity and direction and not get lost in this huge sea of change. If you look at where things were for professional artists 25 years ago, the bulk of their income came from recording. Now, the vast majority comes from touring and the recorded product is simply a way to help the artist market themselves and get more shows.

I believe we haven’t even begun to see where things are really headed. For example, there are some major changes that are beginning to take place for live concert experiences including the proliferation of live video streaming and virtual reality. It will be interesting to see how the next generation chooses to experience live music.  

 

Mike Epstein

Columbian harpist Edmar Castaneda is one of many unique artists represented by the Mike Epstein and Company agency.

PJ: Talk to us about your podcast, Speaking of the Arts. Where did you get the idea for starting your own podcast and how do you go about curating an episode?

ME: I’m a big fan of another podcast called I Love Marketing. A few months after I started my agency I was listening to an episode where they featured John Lee Dumas, the founder of Entrepreneur on Fire (another podcast I listen to). In the interview, John talked about how to create a podcast and what the various components are. What appealed to me most was the idea that this could be a way for me to get to know some of the biggest names in the business and ultimately expand my network. Approaching these individuals and asking if they want to do an interview for the series is a way for us to offer value even if they might not be interested in booking the artists we represent right now. In terms of curating an episode, I am constantly reaching out to experienced people who are interested in talking about topics in the music industry we have not already covered. 

Mike Epstein

A video of Söndörgő, also represented by the Mike Epstein and Company agency, performing at the 2014 Lotus World Music Festival in Bloomington.

PJ: Tell us what it’s like to be in charge of your own business. What were some of the steps you had to take in order to not only create but manage your own company?

ME: I’ve learned a lot these past 2 years but I really feel like I’ve barely started. Some of the concepts I learned in the Unique Edge workshop I mentioned earlier really helped me in the beginning and continue to do so now – the importance of clearly articulating your vision and purpose, breaking those down into measureable, yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals, and documenting your progress along the way. To me, that process is far more important than trying to decide if the company should be a corporation or an LLC or another business entity. None of that matters in the beginning until you’ve determined where you want to go, how you are going to get there, and the value you plan to offer your particular market.

In addition to being very clear about your vision and goals, I would also reference a book that has really helped me called The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber. One of they key takeaways in the book is that if you are making the transition from being an employee of another company to starting out on your own company, you need to understand the difference between working on your business and working in your business. Working on your business means spending your time creating the systems, processes, and capabilities that will allow your business to be run without you. In other words, your business is essentially self-managed and does not rely on you being there to make it work. The alternative is what most people end up doing, which is they actually become stuck working in their business.  The result is that you’ve gone from being an employee in someone else’s company to an employee of their own company, with the main difference being far more work for far less money! I’m still working on the “working on” your business part and have a long way to go, however, it helps to be really passionate about what you are doing so it rarely feels like actual work.

Mike Epstein

Jazz vocalist René Marie of the Mike Epstein and Company agency was a 2015 Grammy nominee for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

PJ: You work with amazing artists all of the time. What makes certain musicians stand out from the crowd and make you want to represent them? 

ME: There are essentially 3 criteria we consider. First, we have to be extremely passionate and excited about what the artist is doing. Second, the artist has to be in a position where they actually need representation. Lastly, the relationship has to benefit both sides. The reality is that most artists either have representation or they don’t need it but they think they do. 

PJ: You follow a booking process that is different than a lot of other major arts agencies. Can you elaborate on what makes your particular company different than the others? 

ME: We work very hard to develop and maintain exceptional relationships with the organizations that book our artists. At the same time, we build the actual booking process around each artist based on his or her unique abilities. In other words, what works for one artist does not work for another. Other agencies do this as well. In the end, I believe it is the combination of our own unique passion for the work and how we deliver the experience to both our clients and the organizations that book them that will set us apart.

Fred Hersch

Another great artist represented by MIke Epstein and Company is pianist, Fred Hersch. Vanity Fair proclaimed him, "the most arrestingly innovative pianist in jazz over the last decade." 

PJ: What about your studies at the Jacobs School helped you get to where you are today as a successful professional in the music industry? 

ME: Without a doubt, going through the music program at IU was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I had friends in the same major as me who seemed to be able to get through everything without nearly as much effort and stress. Maybe they had perfect pitch. Maybe they already knew about composition and were way beyond the basics. Whatever it was, I always felt behind in a lot of areas and that I had to work really hard just to keep up with everyone. When I think about those countless hours spent practicing my instrument, learning music theory, memorizing recordings in the music library, and everything else required of a music student, what prepared me most were the habits, focus, and persistence I developed as a result of it all. The buzzword in a lot of startups right now is “grit.” I’m not sure where else I would have developed my own sense of grit had I not gone through the program, so for that I am really grateful.

PJ: Any advice to current Jacobs students on how to navigate the music industry?

ME: I’m constantly amazed at how interconnected everyone in the music industry is. Reach out to as many people as possible that are doing what you would like to be doing. Ask them for advice. Ask them who else in their network you should contact and get to know. Find a mentor. Do not be afraid to put yourself out there and take risks.