Milo Johnson is a recent graduate from McGill University’s Jazz Performance program. Just this past year, Milo incorporated his nine-person electrosoul/hip-hop band—Busty and the Bass, named “Canada’s top university band” by the CBC in 2014—as a registered business. In this post, Milo reflects on how interdisciplinary coursework in social entrepreneurship and innovation heightened his capacity for success as a musician during and after university.
As a student in McGill’s Jazz Performance program, I was immersed in an environment that heavily emphasized practice and study. Curriculum relied on classroom-based learning and focused on the academic side of musicianship, leaving us to navigate the realities of the music industry on our own.
For me and many of my peers, this resulted in an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty, so much so that most people chose not to think or talk about life after graduation. I understood that business skills were important in making a living as a musician, but to me “business” meant the pop world.
I began to understand that honing my
business skills did not mean selling out;
it meant paying rent.
It wasn’t until I took
Anita Nowak’s Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation course as part of a management minor, that the concept of a small business really took root. Exposed to amazingly diverse social business concepts from across the globe, I slowly began to realize that “business” was a spectrum, ranging from Justin Bieber’s $80 million a year all the way to my $500 a month. Most importantly, I began to understand that honing my business skills did not mean selling out; it meant paying rent.
As I began to dedicate myself to the management of our band, I tried to embody qualities that I had learned to associate with “leadership”: visionary, direction-setting, self-sacrificing. However, this type of leadership did not work for me, nor as a management approach for the eight other highly-skilled, multi-disciplinary musicians in our group who were used to having a tremendous amount of freedom and input. In order to truly mobilize the wealth of talent in our group, I had to completely rethink my role in the band and toss aside any notions of “traditional leadership.”
We needed to constantly create and refine a context and environment for everyone to express their own personal brand of leadership.
Because we were trying to do something new and original, no one person could set the direction for the group. In order for us to continually innovate, we all needed to be able to lead. We needed to constantly create and refine a context and environment for everyone to express their own personal brand of leadership.
This philosophy of
collective leadership comes quite naturally to jazz musicians. In a band operating at its best, everyone must be able to lead and support, while being sensitive to the fact that each person’s individual brand of leadership requires a different type of support.
Without an introduction to social entrepreneurship and innovation, I would not have thought about the importance of leadership in helping to foster success and creativity in a band. Alone, neither area of study really made sense to me. Music without business skills meant finding a day job, and business skills without music meant office attire and buzzwords. It was only in the context of each other that these two disciplines really registered for me, and I believe that exposing students to this middle ground is the future of music education.