Words  Start-Ups: The New Rock & Roll Is Not What You Think.
The worlds of music and start-ups have far more in common than a zeitgeist-y faddishness. Both are designed to suck money and years from the lives of those who enter them in search of fame and fortune.
Pull back the curtains on the mist of time, rewind Kurt Cobain’s fateful shot, and spool that cassette to the start, and what most young kids aspired to be were pop and rock stars. Video games were something that happened in Japan. TV shows were something you ended up in if your theatre or film career didn’t take off. Comedians told racist, sexist and filthy jokes to working men in the smoke-filled basements of strip clubs. Sports stars earned little more than factory wages.
In the UK at least, the homegrown popstars of the 1980s looked like you and your mates. “I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar” went the most memorable line in Human League’s chart-spinning colossus Don’t You Want Me. We knew the stories about the band’s female vocalists being discovered dancing in a club in Sheffield. Rick Astley was the studio teaboy who surprised his bosses with the power of his voice. Sonia was supposed to have worked the till in a high street store until she miraculously made it into the top 10.
If you don’t know all — or even any — of these names, it doesn’t matter. Neither does it matter that those backstories were salted more heavily than a Minnesota freeway. It sold the myth that chart success was within your reach in a way that emulating the alien unstoppable force of Madonna never could.
These were heroes and heroines you could touch. Happy Mondays were the guys who sold you stolen gear in the pub car park. Bananarama were the office girls singing their hearts out after work on a Friday night; harmonies be damned. Bronski Beat were the kids who spent their time running along school corridors, pursued by bullies.
We could aspire to being those people because we recognized them. Knew them. We thought we were them. Duran Duran might be jetting around on yachts with supermodels, but there was always The Smiths, with their cardigans and loafers, or Mel & Kim, with their high street style.
What has any of this got to do with start-up culture? Well, whenever we hear that something is the ‘new rock & roll’ it just means that it’s cool. Right now, progressive politics is the new rock and roll, with stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proving that you can break the Internet without hawking weight-loss lollipops.
Comedy was the new rock & roll. So were various sports. Video games had their moment as the techno pulse built towards start-ups. But comedy was never like rock. You could gig and tour and build an audience without needing to beg, borrow or steal money from the equivalent of a record company. Seemingly, all you need to do to score a lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster is to say you’re Australian.
Of all the new rock & roll stars, the only one designed to put as many obstacles in your path as the real rock & roll is our start-up culture.
Look at the parallels. Like Paul McCartney before you, you wake up in the middle of the night with the grains of a chart-topper rattling around in your mind. It’s the Let It Be of Apps and it’s destined to create download fever the moment it hits the App Store. Right now, all you have is an idea. You sketch it out. You make a rough demo, nudging it forwards over days, weeks, months.
Take into account the band’s formation, discovering your sound, writing and gigging, getting signed, recording you’re looking at years.
In tech as in music, the path to success is a slow one. The longer you stay on the path, the more money it takes to bring that vision to life. And, like music, when the profits eventually start rolling in, only a sliver is headed for your pockets. Someone else is virtually guaranteed to take most of the money.
Imagine you’re a budding alt-rock act. You, some friends and acquaintances get together — probably after messing around with other groups and ideas that came to nothing — and you write a couple of catchy tunes. You gig locally, scrape together enough cash from your day jobs to record some demos and outlines. Get some higher profile support slots when bigger acts roll into town. Print a few tees and sell them out of the van at live shows.
If you’re a hobbyist, that may be as far as you take it. You’ve had some adventures. A few stories to dine out on at weekends. But to take it further you need money. You need a manager. An accountant. An agent. People who will connect you to the real source of the money: the record company.
All of this takes time. There’s probably no average, but once you take into account the band’s formation, discovering your sound, writing and gigging, getting signed, recording, and then fitting your releases into the music company’s schedule you’re looking at years, not months. Is it beginning to sound like a start-up yet?
And did we mention that statistically, you’re doomed to fail? For the venture capital guys, like the record companies of old, funding is a numbers game. Think of each round of funding like an album release. The money guys pony up just enough cash to let you develop and release the product. It gets some rave reviews; a little bit of media attention and you get a few fans and followers along the way.
They want you to go stratospheric right away but they’re realistic enough to know that it may take a few rounds. As long as you hit the markers, the funds keep flowing. But your desperate need to succeed isn’t theirs. You’re a hedge, a bet, a file numbe in a portfolio. They bet wide, you win narrow.
In music, for every N*Sync there are dozens of Can’t Swims. In tech, for every Uber there are scores of frat boys who failed to reinvent the bus. The game is rigged. The balance is tipped: you need them more than they need you. By the time you’re looking at real money and that IPO-exit, you’ve forgotten that you ever owned the whole pie. You’re happy to take the single digit share the equity dilutions have left you. It’s still a lot of money. A fraction of what the guys with no ideas are getting; you finally realize that you’re not a hit-maker; you’re a small part of their numbers game.
Bleak as it sounds, that’s the upside. Statistically, you’re going to make a mediocre album that only a few of your closest friends will love, let alone buy. The band will break up, you’ll go back to that McJob for a while and you’ll meet some new people, also disillusioned by failure and hungry for success. You’ll form a band, find your sound, start gigging and the process starts over.
Start-up culture has co-opted that magic roundabout. Another five years lost to long nights, bad food and crowded accommodation. Thousands of eager and desperate entrepreneurs, coders and marketers gambling that this time the pay-out will allow them to take their lives off hold.
Start-ups are the new rock and roll because they dangle a false promise of fame, respect and fantastic riches. For every Coldplay and Adele there are literally thousands of acts, some risible, mostly average, and an occasional jaw-dropping few, whose songs don’t chart. Whose careers don’t ignite. Whose DNA is spat out by the zeitgeist.
The lucky ones rebuild their lives. But too many become addicted to the lure; the prospect of someone else’s money fuelling their rise, fawning fans and media attention. That’s what rock and start-ups truly share: their casualties.