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Rock & Roll Hall of Fame President: Music, Entrepreneurship A Natural Combo

Panel Discussion Urges Musicians and Entrepreneurs to Embrace Failure

Greg Harris (center), president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, discusses the relationship between music and entrepreneurship during a recent Zoom call that included UMass Lowell's Thomas O'Donnell (top left), Savanah Marshall (bottom left) and Alan Williams (bottom center).
Greg Harris, center, president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, discusses the relationship between music and entrepreneurship during a recent Zoom call that included UMass Lowell's Thomas O'Donnell, top left, Savanah Marshall, bottom left, and Alan Williams, bottom center.

By David Perry

What do successful rock 'n’ roll bands have in common with hard-charging entrepreneurs who reach the top echelons of business? 

A willingness to fail, to regroup and to try again, said Greg Harris, president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame who moderated a virtual event on music and entrepreneurship hosted by the UMass Lowell’s Innovation Hub. It’s about adaptation, and developing the depth to withstand failure.

“To be honest, I think you’re pivoting, almost always,” said Harris. “You’re reacting to what’s happening and it’s very rare that you chart a course and you actually get to that specific place. You need to get comfortable with that, leading through uncertainty and change.”

Harris told an audience of 150 people who participated in the “Entrepreneurship Rocks! Music as an Entrepreneurial Venture” event. 

The panel discussion included a trio of UMass Lowell representatives: Music Professor Alan Williams, adjunct music instructor Savanah Marshall ’13, ’15, and Thomas O’Donnell, innovation initiatives senior director and director of the Innovation Hub. Also participating were representatives from two Ohio-based schools, Oberlin College and Baldwin Wallace University.

Harris debunked the myth of the overnight success in music or business, describing the long hours of practice and mastery of the basics that are required to excel in both fields.

In charting their paths, musicians and entrepreneurs fail and pivot constantly, which equips them with the tools they need to endure circumstances that might cause others to give up, Harris and the panelists noted. 

“You almost become immune to failure,” said Sean Murphy, assistant professor of arts management and entrepreneurship at Baldwin Wallace. “Musicians experience more failure in one intense practice session than people in a lot of other industries do in a typical week.”

Harris, 52, joined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, following his gig as vice president for development for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Earlier in his career he opened an independent record store and was road manager for a rock band. He is equally at ease with the artistic side of his job, and the money side — fundraising. Art and a nose for business aren’t mutually exclusive, he said.

Speaking of the people he encountered at the rock and baseball museums, Harris noted “a lot of these folks would have succeeded in whatever they did.” Artists such as Pharrell, Bono and Gwen Stefani are “great entrepreneurs,” he said.

The panelists advised students in the audience to build community where artists can support one another as they build their careers. 

“You’re not going to be a billionaire overnight,” said Lesley Rudin, a senior viola performance major at Baldwin Wallace. “You can start small and stay small and still find fulfillment.”

Double River Hawk Savannah Marshall urged students to seek out opportunities in the corners of campus that may be unfamiliar to them. She described how the DifferenceMaker program got her started on a path to entrepreneurship. Her idea for a project called Fresh Beets, a food truck with healthy offerings and live music, won $4,000 in the 2014 DifferenceMaker competition. 

“The opportunity to make money for that idea was a resource that I never thought could be possible. It was because of that seed money that any of it became a possibility,” she said.

Following the event, Marshall received notification that Fresh Beets received $4,000 from the Lowell Cultural Council to stage a concert series this summer at Kerouac Park in downtown Lowell.

Harris said he learned lessons each step of the way in his career, from picking the right business partner to remaining “authentic.”

“You can’t fake it in music, pretending you can play, or that you really feel it. Everybody knows. Work with people you trust and admire. Don’t try to do it just for the money. If you do it and create something you love, you’ve already succeeded. If it goes further, that’s terrific,” he said.

The event was the second in a series of mid-year webinars offered through the annual Deshpande Symposium for Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Higher Ed. The lead organizer was Mary McHenry of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, a leading supporter of the symposium. The symposium was to have been in-person in Cleveland in June 2020 and 2021 after several years at UMass Lowell, a cofounder of the event. Due to COVID-19, both the 2020 and 2021 conferences were rescheduled as virtual events, but plans call for the symposium to return to an in-person format in Cleveland next year, with the annual awards ceremony to be held at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.