On this episode of the How Music Charts podcast, Milana Lewis, Co-Founder and CEO of Stem Disintermedia, talks about the current state of music distribution, financial tools for artists, and how Stem makes it all easier — sharing her thoughts on how artists and leaders can best execute their visions along the way.
Stem is a platform that makes it easier for artists, managers, labels, and brands to distribute music, manage contracts, share data, split royalties, and stay independent.
After six years working in talent agencies, spending the majority of that time as a Digital Media Agent with United Talent Agency, Milana started Stem in 2015 with the goal of simplifying how musicians and their teams pay collaborators. At the start of 2020, Stem announced Scale, a $100M cash advance program aimed at giving artists a way to access alternative funding with fewer restrictions than a label typically imposes. This year, Inc. featured Milana on their Female Founders 100 list "for providing a financial lifeline to musicians."
That lifeline is the product of a vision that's haunted Milana since she was young. As she writes in "Why I'm Doing This," she grew up watching her family members give up their lives as artists in order to actually make a living. They were forced to treat music as a hobby instead of a career, and the need to change that is at the core of Milana's being.
I have this vision that haunts me. And I can't imagine living the rest of this world unless I try to solve this problem for everyone else.... I think for artists, storytelling is the same thing. They have to do it. It haunts them if they don't.
Milana's understanding of the plight of artists imbues her vision with a sense of empathy and authenticity, making her lessons for artists and leaders all the more significant.
Typically, an artist will bring on a manager, and the manager becomes their righthand partner to executing across the business, and one of the things that I've learned is that not all managers have the same skillsets and competencies.... I'll sort of put manager competencies in two buckets:
- Chief Operating Officer (COO): Their job is to figure out how to scale your business and how to find the right strategy for you as an artist and take you to the next level. More of their job is about saying no to things than saying yes to things, so if you're the artist who wants full creative control over your product ... but you want someone else to figure out how to put it in the market and scale, then you want the COO manager for yourself.
- Chief Product Officer (CPO): If you, as an artist, need help with developing your product — so, taking those ideas and the vision you have for yourself — but you're not quite sure how to productize it, meaning how you get yourself in the room with the right songwriters and producers, to help you collaborate to make those songs, or how you create a cohesive story for the market about who you are as an artist and the world you're trying to build and the religion you're going to be selling to your audience to get them to be fanatical about it, you need a Chief Product Officer type of manager.
Finding a manager may not be the right first move for every artist. According to Milana, artists should approach their music business like any good founder approaches their own business: with an understanding of what responsibilities they want to have and what responsibilities are best delegated to someone more qualified.
I think of artists as founders and visionaries.... They're trying to translate their vision into a business.... My biggest advice to an artist is to first figure out what jobs they want to be accountable for in their business and then figure out what the gaps are and who they need to hire in order to execute that.