Founder of Titan Music Group, Austin Music Foundation talks music industry, data with SJMC students

Nikki Rowling, founder of the Austin Music Foundation and the consulting firm Titan Music Group, stopped by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series on Weds, March 11 to talk music, data and business with the mass comm students. The Q&A style discussion was led by SJMC associate professor Cindy Royal.

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Cindy Royal (left) and Nikki Rowling (right), discussing music and business – photo by Dale Blasingame

Although Rowling is not a musician herself, having a love of music and many friends in the artist class fueled her passion to begin a career in the music industry. In 2002, she and her business partner left the tech world to launch the Austin Music Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on teaching local artists how to make a sustainable living. Rowling realized that she had learned a lot about the tech industry and acquired a lot of skills, but wanted to pour her efforts into something that better captured her interest and passion.

“If I was going to work that hard, I wanted it to be something that mattered to me,” she said. “There is a difference between what your soul needs and what your ego needs. What are you good at? What do you want? What can you tolerate? You should develop a habit of noticing what you gravitate toward.”

As Austin has more non-profit organizations per capita than any other city in the United States, Rowling opined that the music community is lucky to have the amount of non-profit support that it has. Though she no longer serves on the board for AMF, she does provide the organization with advice from time to time, and is proud of the great strides it has made in recent years.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that it’s 2015 and AMF still exists,” she said.

After spending many years with AMF, Rowling felt she did the best she could as far as building a community and support net for the growing music industry, but that it was time as a founder to move on. Today, AMF continues to teach artists how to grow their business, and how to hone in on teaching the next generation of the industry’s leaders about the business side of music.

Austin, according to Rowling, is like a patchwork, made up of several huge pieces that contribute to the city’s appeal.

“Music is one piece of the patchwork that makes Austin so attractive,” she said. “We also are known for our bike trails, the tech industry, and good tacos. But the music part of the equation is enormous. The idea that Austin is the ‘live music capital of the world’ attracts tech companies to relocate. It’s a workforce development tool.”

Rowling and the staff of Titan Music Group are currently working on a study for the city of Austin that will uncover the reality of the city’s growing music industry. Rowling hopes that the scope of her company’s research, through focus groups and extensive surveys, will help the city understand the music community’s needs. She then explained her strategy for tackling large projects such as this one.

“What suits me well is to work intensely for a period of time, locked in my lair,” she said. “I’m careful where I will allow my attention to be dragged. I turn off the TV, turn off my phone, and log out of social media.”

But she explained that her work style is perhaps the greatest thing about owning a small consulting company.

“I control my hours, my time, my clients,” she said. “And when the work is over, I get to travel and play in my garden for two or three months.”

When asked how Titan Music Group stays on top of current music trends, Rowling said that data must be approached with a certain level of skepticism.

“There are new sources presented every day – more than you can keep up with,” she said. “But that data can be opinionated and often narrowly dissected. I don’t see much analysis that is done in a broad context. There is a lot of information, but there is also a great deal of manipulated information. Even some primary data is thrown around cavalierly. You need to ensure that you are looking at all opinions.”

While many fear that Austin’s famous music festival South by Southwest is on the downturn because of several venues’ struggle to book vendors and big-name talent this year, Rowling explains this just isn’t the case.

“It’s a good thing for everyone to step back and take a breath [this year],” she said. “Austin is the eleventh largest city in the country. The city staff cannot handle the events because the infrastructure is stretched too tight.”

Rowling reminded the audience that people are constantly moving to the Austin area to get involved with South By and Austin City Limits, so the city is far from seeing the end of these iconic festivals.

“It’s not the end of South By,” she said, “but it is time to have a more inclusive and mature discussion of what it needs to look like in the future. The data findings show that SXSW and ACL have a lot to do with what is sustaining Austin’s venues year-round, and supporting live acts when it’s not festival season.”

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Photo by AustinMusicFoundation.org

Because Titan Music Group is such a specialized consulting firm, and works primarily on reference, Rowling doubts that the small business will ever be overrun. If it is, however, she explained that she will have to take a step back and revisit her business plan.

“I feel like being overrun would be a good problem to have,” she said. “We can do more than we are doing now, but is that what we want to do? Is this a company I want to grow, or continue on my path?”

Along with numerous other successes in the music business, Rowling shared the story of her work with Music Canada, the trade association for major music labels in Canada. The company needed direction in moving forward and called on Rowling to help. As Toronto houses 90% of the country’s music industry, Music Canada wanted to focus on building the industry.

“We were hired to provide a road map of what worked well in Austin’s music community from a public policy standpoint to recommend for Toronto,” she explained. “We came up with five suggestions, including the creation of a Toronto Music Office – they have one now – and the adoption of a Toronto Music Advisory Commission. They are getting stuff done over there, and I am thrilled we could provide a road map.”

Her advice for those who are preparing to start their own businesses was to spend a lot of time thinking and planning.

“Think about what you want to get into, and take time once a week to work on your business plan,” she said. “Find a mentor or mentors, and stick to them like white on rice. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself, just focus on the year ahead. What can you reasonably try to accomplish in your first 12 months?”

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication would like to thank Rowling for sharing her experiences in music and business with the Digital Entrepreneurship class as part of the speaker series. The next speaker in the series is Whitney Shefte, a Peabody, Emmy and Pictures of the Year International Award-winning video journalist at The Washington Post. Shefte’s Q&A will be held Weds, April 1 at 5 p.m. in Old Main 320, and all are invited to attend.

Story by Cheyenne Meyer

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