Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
Moneyed musicians, fancy cars, sex, drugs, rock & roll — there’s no doubt that people used to gravitate toward rock stars and their lifestyle. Even I had dreams of becoming one — but I’m not here to talk about that period in history. I’m here to talk about the subtle shift at the turn of the 21st century that slightly blurred the definition of “rock star,” with the entrance and emergence of music-sharing platforms making it a different type of grind for artists to make money and share their music.
Personally, I believe a turning point came in 2010, when the movie based on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s origin story, The Social Network, came out. This movie really turned audiences on to the idea of the tech entrepreneur, as well as the startup. This intrigue that had started to trickle its way into the zeitgeist was suddenly in focus. While people have an undeniable affinity for music that will never change, we’ve started to view the lifestyle of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Gary Vaynerchuk with the same kind of allure and grandeur previously reserved for rock stars.
Nowadays, people are almost equally as captivated by the genius of a product like the iPhone, a device we now use every day, as they are by the creation of a beautifully crafted, chart-topping song. Entrepreneurs are aspirational in the sense that they’re still attempting high-risk feats as creators and that they can fail at any moment, but it’s a different type of creation: businesses, products and services.
A Personal Anecdote
Personally, I can relate to this shift in aspiration. From ages 4 to 12, growing up listening to classic rock and playing guitar, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a rock star. At 12, my dreams and goals changed when I watched the television docuseries Behind the Music — notably the episode highlighting Sting, where I learned that his financial manager stole almost $10 million from him.
When I asked my parents how it happened, my mind switched. While I still loved the music industry, this discovery made me realize that the business side held a different but equally important role. As I grew older, music became more of a hobby. Business took over as my primary driver when I, like many others, realized that the arguably more comfortable side of life is lived by people who can create but also understand entrepreneurship and capital.
Different, But the Same
While in many ways there’s a stark contrast between the world of entrepreneurship and the music industry, the two worlds operate with plenty of parallels. We’ve seen artists like Kanye West get taken advantage of by record labels that have ownership of their music, as well as sizable slices of his paychecks, for years. The same strategy goes for private equity in the business world today, where venture capitalists buy and trade businesses like they would music catalogs and musicians.
Aspiring entrepreneurs think that all they need is a VC to fund them, and they’ll have a successful business. The truth in both industries is the same. In the case of an entrepreneur, what’s important is your product or service. As a musician, your music is actually what matters and makes a successful enterprise.
Everyone’s a ‘Wantrepreneur’
“Wantrepreneurs,” or people who talk about all the businesses they’re going to start but never seem to get off the ground, are attracted to the sex appeal of entrepreneurship but often have far fewer excuses than aspiring musicians who didn’t make it. Yet, entrepreneurship has become so appealing that we’re seeing rock stars turning to entrepreneurship as a lucrative side hustle.
Consider Beats by Dre and Jay-Z’s multimillion-dollar businesses like Roc Nation and Tidal. Look back at David Bowie’s “Bowie Bonds,” an offer to his fans for a chance at the shared ownership of his intellectual property, and just one of Bowie’s imaginative entrepreneurial endeavors.
An Empire Shift
Record labels used to be an exclusive empire, but now I’d argue we’re seeing it shifting to venture capital and private equity. In November, private equity fund Shamrock Capital bought Taylor Swift’s tapes from Scooter Braun, the record executive who had purchased Swift’s old record label and, due to the terms of her contract, became the owner of the first six albums’ worth of her master recordings.
In addition to VCs, we’ve seen tech entrepreneurs leaping into the music scene, with the most prominent being Apple founder Steve Jobs. In 2001, Jobs introduced the world to iTunes, which revolutionized the way we consume music. Spotify, a 2006 Swedish startup, found its way into the U.S. market in 2011 and today is one of the most-listened-to music-streaming services, only behind Apple Music — and not by much. Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify, is also now one of the most prominent money makers in music.
Beyoncé or Daniel Ek?
Many of us from an early age aspired to be rock stars and musicians. Now, we’re seeing people rethinking their desires: Would they rather be Beyoncé or Daniel Ek? Personally, I’d rather be Ek: own a tech platform like Spotify, make all the money, and live a little more under the radar. It’s hard to keep up the Beyoncé lifestyle: touring the world, being on stage, and just being “on” all the time.
As best said by Talib Kweli in Black Star’s 1998 song “Thieves In The Night,” “Give me the fortune, keep the fame.” A lot of people, myself included, understand what he was talking about now.