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The Executive Coaching Corner

Get the Inside Scoop on the Alternative Music Scene: An interview with Ryan Nelson 


What does it take to start a business in the alternative music space? I think youíll find the Executive Coaching Corner video and interview with my client Ryan Nelson, both fascinating enlightening. Ryan, a successful entrepreneur, is the president of Merch Connection as well as an artist manager at Good Fight Entertainment. Merch Connection provides e-commerce solutions, tour fulfillment, and VIP ticketing for a client list that has grown to over 150 bands within the alternative music community. Good Fight Entertainment provides full service management, including big picture career planning, tour logistics, and business services for its clients. 

Elizabeth: Ryan, to begin, how did you land in the alternative music space?

Ryan: I grew up in Westminster, CA, which is part of Orange County. That part of Southern California carries a reputation of being a hotbed for punk, hardcore, metal, and other forms of alternative music. Being a teen in this area through the late 1990's and early 2000's made in nearly inevitable to come into contact with those genres of music. A friend of mine gave me a copy of a CD by a band called Strongarm, and I was hooked from that point on. I had to talk my parents into driving me and my friends to shows, which wasn't always easy. The more difficult conversations came up with my parents when I decided I needed to play guitar, which quickly landed me in the garage. I spent hours every day after school figuring out how to play the songs on the handful of CDs that I had at the time. Looking back, my parents were mostly good sports about it, especially considering that it wasn't something they necessarily agreed with. Naturally, my friends and I starting playing music together, and I ended up playing guitar in several bands, whether it was bands of my own, or filling in for various others. I was able to tour most of the world, and obtain valuable experience that I still carry with me today.

Elizabeth: Sounds like you were having a great time, so what caused you to move from playing in bands to serving bands on a business level?

Ryan: After touring full-time for a few years, I realized that there is a huge difference between a guitar player that likes to have a good time with friends on the road and a guitar player who thinks of his performance as a part of his career. I never really made the switch into being a "professional" guitar player. Aside from that, the business side of music became far more interesting to me as the tours went on. Eventually, it was clear that being in a professional full- time touring band was not for me. However, I have a mind that never stops and an unrelenting interest in music as a business. Once my mind was made up, the switch to merchandising and artist management was quick. I began providing merchandising services for a handful of bands that I had either played with in the past or knew through mutual friends. My friend, Biggie, was a great advocate and Stick to Your Guns (pictured above) became the first band that I worked with on a management level.

Elizabeth: Once you made that transition, what were the early years of the company like? How did you make it work?

Ryan: The learning curve in merchandising and artist management is harsh. My experience was no exception. Our first warehouse was a 350 square foot space in a rough part of San Bernardino. There was one specific time in which we worked 36 hours straight in effort to meet a deadline for a new client. The floor of our warehouse was concrete. I remember tying blank hoodies around my feet for extra padding so we could keep going. I spent many nights in my Honda CRV, which was a better option than sleeping in the warehouse. Once the lights turned off, all the bugs would come out, and I didn't want to deal with that. I had no money, but I loved it.

Every dime that was made just went straight back in to fulfilling the next order. I had a couple very kind friends who would allow me to stay at their houses from time to time. I feel that touring in bands that made little to no money was an excellent way of prepping for the physical demands placed on me in starting the company. Ground was gained inch by inch. Orders were printed and fulfilled dollar by dollar. It worked that way for a good couple years until I was finally able to save up enough money to get an apartment for myself, and move the company to a warehouse that had the needed size to keep up with growth. The opportunity to serve clients, such as Sumerian Records, Stick to Your Guns, Every Time I Die, Between the Buried and Me, and several others were pivotal in the company's growth and success. I love all of those people and am forever grateful to them.

Elizabeth: Despite the challenges you just described, perseverance and tenacity led you to an impressive list of 150 clients with further expansion in sight. If I may, Iíd like to switch back to the band side for a moment. Now that youíve seen both the band and business sides, what would you would encourage bands to keep in mind as they navigate their careers?

Ryan: Be the best version of your own band, and nothing else. Right now, the competition within our music world and all of its sub-genres is devastatingly extreme. I am seeing more bands begin to look over the shoulder of other bands, and put more focus on comparing themselves to others than they ever should. I feel that bands lose their way when the conversation with management is about things like radio campaigns simply because another band they know tried a song at active rock once. It becomes hurtful to the band when they use everyone else's actions or creative decisions as a metric to justify or mold their own decisions. My zone of competence is working with bands that have a distinct identity that can be prolonged for 10+ years, or as long as they want to do it really. I want to work with a band that is not only well aware of who and what they are but also proud of what they are to the point that they are mentally, emotionally, and creatively secure in the music they are making. At that point, I can dive in and maximize their business, provide my own creative input, and enjoy a great fit within the system we've developed at Good Fight Entertainment.

Elizabeth: So Ryan, as you continue to grow your company, how is it different from the numerous merch companies in your world?

We have dedicated staff in place for each part of the merchandising process. Our design team is known as the most talented and progressive team in our world based on their creative work. Our production facility handles screen printing, embroidery, and other methods right here in California with exceptional turnaround times and quality. Our e-commerce platform offers shipping within 24 hours for all of our stocked items. We also create unique cut and sew items that are often sold through our limited edition or flash sale storefront. In recent years, VIP or Fan Club ticketing has become a vital revenue stream for touring bands, and we have our own platform for that offering as well, servicing clients from clubs to small arenas with assigned seating. In all, we are here with our clients through each step of all of these offerings, and we actually provide all of these services ourselves instead of leaving holes in the process. We have another exciting new service that we plan to start offering in mid-2017 as well, and I'll be sure to stay in touch as soon as we launch.

Elizabeth: Thanks Ryan for your candid, entertaining and eye-opening account of the alternative music space from both a band and business perspective. Iíll look forward to hearing about the new service you plan to launch later this year. So readers, stay tune