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Dave Kusek is a consultant, entrepreneur, digital music pioneer, author, speaker, educator and Artist Development Manager at New Artist Model. Dave was Vice President at Berklee College of Music in Boston for 14 years, where he created Berklee Online, the world’s largest music school reaching over 30,000 students in 170 ...

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Samantha Brickler

You’re a Start Up, Not a Student: New Artist Model Offers Alternative to Costly Music Degrees for Indie Musicians

Musicians are often students of the school of hard knocks. Music technology, business and education veteran Dave Kusek thinks it doesn’t have to be that way.

His instructional platform New Artist Model was created to provide straight-shooting yet in-depth training for the serious professional musician and songwriter. The first tenet, explains Kusek: “Think like a startup. Find and build your audience. It’s not hard to figure out your online platforms, your distribution and publishing, all the other infrastructure, once you’ve got that,” he notes. “But you need an audience first.”

To do this, most indie artists don’t need a full-blown degree, with its years of commitment and hefty price tag. They need a guide, a roadmap to help navigate the forks and curves of musical journeys. They need a model, not a diploma.

New Artist Model teaches indie musicians how to find their way, choosing the training level that best fits their time and resources. The structure was a conscious choice, developed by Kusek in response to what he saw as the holes in existing music degree offerings. “Musicians don’t need an MBA, or even a bachelors degree,” he notes. “No one is going to ask you for that. Instead what you need is the knowledge of what is working today and how to operate in the digital world. This is a powerful alternative.”

Focused on the practical and actionable, New Artist Model has two tiers of formal music business training, the Essential and the Master levels. Each provides a straightforward path to building a saner, more sustainable career. Artists can learn at their own pace, on their phones, from the road, and while working, choosing from more than 200 hours of video on a dozen overarching topics. From the first strategy session, NAM helps artists create what amounts to a business plan, to help them manage and expand their careers, however they envision them.

That vision can vary wildly, as Kusek knows from experience. “One of our main principles is that we meet you where you are. Everybody’s dream is different and everybody’s path is different. Everybody is at a different point on that path when I encounter them. I want to help them go further, not get them to fit into some mold that I have. I have some students playing 150 dates a year, and some that would love to break out of recording songs in their bedroom, and everywhere in between.”

Yet the principles of entrepreneurship and business development still apply. They can have a profound impact and shape an musician’s model of her career. “The startup revolution has influenced my thinking. I took a lot of the concepts that have been developed for starting a small business and applied them to a musician’s professional life.” For those that scoff at business notions dictating the shape of art, Kusek has an answer: “The same concepts underlie both endeavors: understand your audience, understand your goals, build a team, figure out where the financing is going to come from and have a plan. Learn how to market on a shoestring. You create a business step by step as an entrepreneur.”

Kusek has lived this approach, from his late teens, when he scratched his way into a job at an early synthesizer company near his hometown in Connecticut. He learned the music business from the ground (and the warehouse) up, eventually befriending many of pop and prog rock’s biggest music makers.  From the likes of Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, he learned that superstars were not untouchable, but were “regular people” like him. From mentors like Ovation’s founder Charlie Kaman and Chairman of Hal Leonard Music Publishing Keith Mardak, he learned about publishing, entrepreneurship and the power of treating art as a business.

When he was 24, Kusek and several friends formed the first music software company, Passport Designs. They got involved with a cool new interface called MIDI and became evangelists for the technical standard that has arguably done more to revolutionize the music business than the MP3. Passport’s products included MIDI sequencers, music notation programs and tools for electronic musicians.

Kusek also founded Berklee Online, the storied music school’s ambitious online education program, which became the world’s largest music school. After some time, Kusek realized he needed to take a different tack, and cut loose from old paradigms and academia, and give growing legions of indie artists the tools they need to succeed on their own terms. He wrote a best-selling book called The Future of Music, which analyzed the impact of filesharing and predicted the iphone, siri and the collapse of the record/music industry. From the Future of Music’s tenets, a New Artist Model was born.

“By 2013, it was really obvious that a new model had to be developed and was being created by people who were out there pioneering new techniques, like direct-to-fan marketing, social media, and digital distribution,” recalls Kusek. “So I thought, ‘Why not bring programs to market that would teach this new model using a very practical, on-the-ground road warrior approach?’ We made the New Artist Model accessible in every way: very inexpensive, easy to digest, and completely mobile. Because that’s where the market is.”

Kusek is onto something: NAM students have grown year to year by approximately 40%, reaching thousands. They come from 60 countries, all over the US, Europe, Australia, South America, Canada, attracting a wide swath of popular genres (pop, country, singer/songwriter, R&B, EDM). These musicians, songwriters and entrepreneurs are developing sound business practices to thrive in the new artist economy, learning to strike a balance between creativity and commerce.

“These days you have to be both an artist and a business person,” says Kusek. “If you can learn how to build your knowledge and confidence, grow an audience, and manage your time, the rest will come. I see it happening every day.”