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For Music Entrepreneurs, Detroit Is Fertile Soil

Crain’s Detroit Business
Jay Davis
Feb. 7, 2022

Spot Lite owner Roula David is a huge advocate for the city’s music scene and sees great opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to break into the business.

Just getting the doors of Spot Lite Detroit open cost venue founder and owner Roula David about $550,000.

David has been part of the city’s arts and entertainment scene since coming to the city in 2011. She said the east side cafe, bar, gallery, record store and music venue would not have been possible without various resources available to Detroit entrepreneurs.

“Those resources are essential,” said David, who opened the 5,000-square-foot entertainment spot last spring. “No (traditional) bank is going to give you money. It’s all community lenders. Mind you, the loans are high interest, but the risk for the lenders is high, too, if the business fails and you can’t pay it back. With the pandemic, our lender gave us interest-only leniency. No other bank was going to do that. Without the community lenders and other resources, this would not have been possible.”

The Detroit Development Fund aided Roula’s entrepreneurial efforts with a $264,000 loan. ProsperUS Detroit and Michigan Women Forward loaned David $50,000 each. And in 2018, David won a $40,000 Motor City Match cash grant.

David is one of many who believe the city is ripe for entrepreneurs either already in or looking for a way into the music industry.

Detroit is nearly unrivaled as a music town, at least when you count its contributions to musical history, from jazz, soul and Motown to punk, techno, garage rock and beyond. Although the business is changing, there are still plenty of opportunities — and increasingly, targeted resources — for artists, label owners, and other cultural entrepreneurs to thrive in Detroit’s rich musical soil.

Learning the Ropes

Jeremy Peters, assistant professor of music business and entrepreneurship at Wayne State University and the co-founder of Ann Arbor-based Quite Scientific Records, is deep in the music entrepreneurship game.

Peters, a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, is also a member of the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. He pointed out that the music industry has evolved over the last decade, with streaming platforms changing not only the way artists are compensated but how creative projects are presented.

“Things are definitely more centered around the experience a consumer has,” Peters said. “Something like a live show, a sponsored event with a lot of artistry and creativity plays a big role. Third Man Records right off (Cass Avenue) is an experience. You walk into the store and it’s not just about the recordings. It’s a whole world (company owner) Jack White has put together.”

Wayne State’s music business curriculum offers a formal education option for aspiring music entrepreneurs. The program readies students to work in various professions in the music industry, including arts administration, the recording industry, entertainment law, music publishing, the digital music industry, and public relations and marketing. The bachelor’s degree program covers areas such as accounting, marketing, and basic music technology.

The Detroit Institute of Music Education also offers a bachelor’s of arts program. Current courses, according to the school’s website, focus on home recording, music industry income streams and essentials of music theory. DIME also offers courses on commercial music performance and commercial songwriting. Degrees are granted through a partnership with Oakland University.

Detroit is also home to a growing number of incubators that give emerging artists hands-on experience, support and chances to earn their chops.

Take Assemble Sound. Last month, the Corktown-based artist development, management, and studio company announced a partnership with Atlantic Records. That partnership will pay dividends for Assemble artists, said co-owner and general manager Garret Koehler.

“From our free studio residency program to our free panel series, Assemble has demonstrated a willingness to assist upcoming artists however we can,” said Koehler, who founded the company in 2015 with partners Seth Anderson, Nicole Churchill, and Tifani Sadek with $14,000 of their personal savings and a $6,000 loan. Assemble later received a $100,000 Motor City Match cash grant award. “Our Atlantic partnership gives us access to a new set of inputs, specifically capital, infrastructure and knowledge for artists and their businesses.”

Resources in ‘Music Mecca’

Detroit Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship Director Rochelle Riley, whose office was established nearly three years ago, believes there are limitless opportunities in Detroit for music creatives.

“Artists are small businesses, whether they’re gig musicians, dancers, designers, actors, storytellers, set designers, puppeteers, or any other creative,” Riley said. “My office’s mission is to invest in and support our creative workforce and provide opportunities for artists to improve their ability to thrive, to be successful businesses.”

The city offers music entrepreneurs in particular the chance to build their businesses in a city with an almost unparalleled musical heritage, Riley said.

“Detroit has always been a music mecca with recording studios, community and professional theaters, and opportunities to rub shoulders with some of the best in several genres,” she said.

Through July, Detroit ACE is collaborating with Southfield-based Art Ops to offer business and financial management workshop series for Detroit creatives to improve their chances for success. Through the courses, artists learn to market themselves online, create invoice systems and navigate copyright and trademark regulations, for example.

In December, ACE and the city procurement office hosted the city’s first artist vendor fair, allowing artists from several genres to sign up as city contractors. Once signed up, the contractors are alerted when the city issues a request for proposal that fits their interests.

Close to 40 artists have completed the process, with more than 100 working to join the list, Riley said.

“That could be a game-changer as far as work goes,” she said.

Big-time Push

What could also be a game-changer is the introduction of an entrepreneurial venture led by a music industry veteran.

Che Pope, who since 1994 has worked with stars such as Dr. Dre, Aretha Franklin and Jay-Z, plans to establish his new music-based lifestyle company WRKSHP in the city. The venture, backed by billionaire Dan Gilbert, focuses on finding new talent in Michigan and from afar and plans to serve as a space to help artists grow their brand in a variety of ways, such as influencing on social media and in fashion.

Pope, who began visiting the city in 2015 for the first time in about a decade, said a plethora of resources will be available to WRKSHP talent.

“Every artist is different,” he said. “What artist A needs is different from what artist B needs. One may need talent development and media training. Another may already have great music, but need some marketing.”

The city’s music scene has a storied history, but Pope sees potential for the future. Upon connecting with other creatives, the longtime producer said he sees Detroit artists excited about WRKSHP.

“That excitement is inspiring. It’s infectious,” he said. “We’re not just working with musical artists. We’re working with visual artists, photographers. I’m drawn to that. As an entrepreneur, when you’re building a company, you want to give it the best opportunity to succeed. Detroit, with its rich talent and culture, does that.”

Seeing It Through

Even with access to support and resources, patience as a music entrepreneur is vital, Spot Lite’s David said.

“Because we own our building — that was one of the reasons (the bank) lent to us, because we had collateral against the loans,” said David, who owns a total of 21,000 square feet of building space at the corner of Charlevoix and Beaufait streets. “I do know a lot of people, though, who have gotten loans even though they don’t own a property. Resources are available, but the waiting process is intense. There’s a lot of paperwork and running around. You just have to be tenacious.”

Still, David is inspired by the energy and potential she sees every day in the city’s music scene.

“There’s a lot of room to grow the scene,” she said. “There are people here who want to do the work, but they need support and a push. This is the home of Motown, Techno, and it’s essentially the home of R&B. There’s a great opportunity for everybody to be a part of it and create a huge, well-rounded scene.”

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