Music Insight Series // Steve Van Dam
One of the best parts about the music industry is getting to meet the inspiring people in it. A number of musicians have found one secret to "making it" in music involves seeing themselves as an entrepeneur. Steve is an entrepreneur who has seen the music industry from many sides - onstage, on the road, in the studio & now, even in classrooms. He's found a way to combine his passion for music with his business know-how into a dynamic & exciting music career. We hope his stories & experiences are an inspiration to you as you find YOUR way in the industry!
What first sparked your interest in the music industry?
I always knew I wanted to do music, and I guess once I tried some other types of jobs, it became clear to me that I needed to make music my career. Then it was just a matter of figuring out how... which I've done for the last 25 years, changing job titles many times along the way!
You’ve seen the music industry from many sides - how did your career kick off?
I got a really good education at JMU--in music Composition and Theory as well as the music industry, from legal to careers, etc. Also at JMU, I found a group of guys that loved playing live music and we started rehearsing and playing gigs wherever we could, you know, just doing it. From there we started playing more gigs out, and recorded some music at the studio at JMU, released a cassette tape, bought a used van, and away we went! When we left school in ‘92 to go full time on the road, I was six credits shy of my degree, but I had gotten a great music education, and I’ve never regretted that decision.
Touring is not for the weak… can you tell us about your touring experience?
Being on the road is awesome when you are in your twenties! We had amazing times... Epic Adventures, both highs and lows... We were a great example of a Lean Startup company-our “build test learn” cycle was basically 24 hours. We would write songs, play them in front of a live audience, and learn what to do (or not do) in time for the next night. Our band was named Everything, and we were pretty fearlessly experimental--in our music as well as with our use of technology. For instance, we were the first band to live stream an interactive concert, sometime in the mid 90s…
As a musician and producer, which of your tracks make you the most proud?
It's funny, I've created lots of music over the years, and the ones that stand out are the ones that were the most popular. Everything had a hit song called “who got the hooch” at the end of the 90s, and that did really well for us. Still does... I also wrote and produced a track called “bomchickawahwah” for Axe, and that's also seen millions of views online. These are not the most creative things I've ever made, but as a businessperson/entrepreneur they are the biggest successes. I've always envied the “pure artists” who make art just for themselves. but at the same time, I never wanted to wait tables in order to support my music habit, and I guess that balance of music and commerce is something that I’ve learned to be good at. For pure art, I’m working on a Symphony, but I’m still wondering why people will care about it…
When it comes to creating music, what type of music gets you fired up & excited?
I'm a huge fan of hybrids where two opposing genres collide, or unexpected instrumentation on a traditional standard... that kind of stuff. Maybe this sounds trite, but a singer delivering the truth straight from their heart still gives me goosebumps. With our ORO Visual Music app, I have also become fascinated by non-musicians creating music and experiencing the joy/benefits from a creative flow experience. Jamming with other musicians has always been one of my favorite things to do. So being able to give that experience to anyone regardless of musical ability is really exciting...
And you’ve dabbled in music licensing - what are some placements you’ve landed?
I’ve been writing music to picture with my company Dojo Productions for about 15 years now, including film (“Waterboy”), TV (CSI, Scrubs), and a whole bunch of ads (Allstate, ESPN, Ford, McDonalds, Visa, Walmart, etc.). I’ve also worked with some amazing crews from local video projects to recording Geddy Lee for some fantasy baseball spots.
How have you seen the music industry evolve over time, since you began until now?
Oh yes! Back in my day, (he says, adjusting his dentures), we could actually sell our music! I know! It's crazy but it's true! We sold 30,000 of our own self-produced CD at shows and through mail order. (We made way more money from that than selling 300,000 with Sire.) And we had a hit song right as the record label mergers and acquisitions started, so Sire got cannibalized in a takeover by London Records and that was the end of our ride. And it goes without saying the internet changed everything. I switched to recording and producing at that point. Now, in the last 5 years I've seen the commercial business change from a custom music model to a library system, and the budgets now are about a tenth of what they were. So I built a music iOS app and I’m hoping it sees some success. I go back and talk to the music industry classes at JMU and one of my key learnings in this business has been adaptability. Being able to roll with changes and to use my skills in different ways as it all shifts. Keeps it interesting I guess...
I’d say you’re a jack of all trades -- tell us about some of the hats you’ve been wearing.
I started off a musician, then a small business owner, performer and writer in a band Well that’s not true. If you added up the hours, we were actually a moving company who moved the same gear all over the country and played music in our free time. Next, with Dojo Productions I became a studio owner, audio engineer, producer, composer, mixer, field recordist, in that order. I’ve done a bit of teaching throughout. I can usually DJ the right track at a party. And my latest venture has me as a startup founder, app designer, and educator. The skillset through all these is: musician, listener, entertainer, innovator, salesperson, manager, and hard worker. I don’t give up very easily--I feel like there’s always a solution, just gotta find it.
Being an entrepreneur, how do you strike a balance between “work” & “play?”
Ha! I was just about to talk about how I worked for almost 2 years on getting commercial music jobs before I won my first one. So I’ve always maybe worked a bit too much, certainly more than 40 hours a week. But I love what I do, most of the time, so it doesn’t feel like work… And I’m learning that I’m often more productive when I have had enough rest and relaxation. Sometimes the best ideas have come in my kayak or on my yoga mat...
As you’ve been developing Oro, what have been some of your favorite moments?
There have been some awesome ones! I thought I’d never out-awesome the feeling of being onstage in front of 40,000 people, but launching an app has provided a lovely roller coaster of emotions. A few of the best include: seeing an autistic 3 year old going nuts in ORO, and his mom saying “he loves this app, he doesn’t do this with any other ones!”, or when some of the kids at Faison last year were so stoked on their creations, they would show everyone, just bursting with “I did that” pride. Same at Steward with neural typical kids--I think we’ve changed the trajectory of some of these kids’ lives, straight up. That’s pretty cool. Also, seeing ORO in the IMAX theater was kinda awesome at Makerfest...
As a business owner, what are some challenges you’ve faced starting something new?
Ah yes, the many agonies of defeat. So many dead ends, and all that. I had no idea about apps or app companies, and the mysteries of developing software, so it’s just been this huge learning process the whole time. I still worry that what I don’t know might be the thing that causes the company to fail. I mean each new chapter is like ok, now let’s learn all about ____________… and then try to nail it. And it seems like most of the lessons I’ve learned by doing the wrong way first. Hire slow, that’s a big one. Be very careful who you share your business with.
Why should everyone stop what they’re doing right now & download the “Oro” App?
ORO let’s you have a creative musical experience in like 2-3 minutes or less. No matter if you’ve ever played music in your life. Just try it! Put down your social media for a sec and make music. Lose yourself! Playing music has been proven to be good for your brain, so think of it like a fun, healthy brain boost.
What are some of your plans for the future? (Either Oro or any music-related pursuits)
I want to travel the world, co-designing cool visual music experiences with intriguing musicians and artists. VR/AR for instance… I’m hoping ORO becomes a thriving platform for creative types, teachers, and therapists. I’d like to give a TED talk. And I think I might have a few symphonies in me.
What are some of your biggest sources of inspiration in music, or just in general?
I’m inspired by creativity, whether it’s Kendrick or Alt-J, or Bjork. Any time I can hear sounds/words/music put together unlike I’ve ever heard before, that huge. Similarly, I’m inspired by people who have changed the world with their ideas, whether Steve Jobs, or Beethoven or Beyonce. And whenever I get down/lazy, Gary V can get me back out on the field.
What are some words of wisdom you’d offer indie artists just starting out?
Be fearless, be patient, work tirelessly, say yes a lot, maximize your authenticity, and have fun! That’s why you should be embarking on such a risky, failure laden path-- because it fills you completely up, and you can think of nothing else, and everything is perfect when you’re in that moment...
If people want to check out some things you’ve created, where can they look?
I sprinkled links throughout, but here are the websites-- please reach out if you have questions or want to get involved, especially around the ORO app. I’d love to work with you on changing the world.