What A Ride

originally written & published in Screen Magazine in December 2010

In 1990, I was two weeks into my new job at Editel/Chicago when I was called into President Bob Coleman’s office to help organize the company softball team.

In that meeting, Bob told me “I can tell you’re going to run your own company, some day, you seem to have an eye on the bigger picture.”

Turns out, he was right. About six years later the well-respected post-house announced that it was closing its doors. At the time, Editel had a small music division headed up by Steve Zoloto and Brando Triantafillou, and I was the company’s sales rep. I never looked at it as a sales position, though, because if you have passion for the industry you serve and talented people to represent, you don’t have to “sell” anything, you just have to build trust.

Besides, everything I needed to know about being in that role I learned from Reid Brody, which was to treat every potential client differently. Don’t treat each client like a golfing buddy, because some clients don’t care about golf. In retrospect, maybe that’s one of the reasons Editel slowly closed; they had so much work that they began treating clients as if they were luggage at an airport. This one goes in this direction, that one goes in that direction, very efficient, but very impersonal.

A word of advice to anyone reading this thinking of opening up their own business: even with all the technology and creativity needed, at its core the industry is still about people.

But I digress. I don’t want this to turn into a “how to succeed” sermon, because I’ve made more than my share of mistakes (I’ll highlight those mistakes later). Anyway, within a few months of Editel closing in 1996, Brando, Steve and I started the Rhythm Café. It’s a pain in the ass to start a business. I remember begging 20 clients to write a letter to the Small Business Association (SBA) saying that I was a nice guy and they plan on bringing me plenty of work over the next few years. Of course, most of my clients ended up asking me to write the letter and they’d sign it on their letterhead. I don’t think that’s illegal, is it? I digress, again.

The first year was the roughest; in addition to taking everything I had out of my savings account, and agreeing not to receive a salary for six months, we decided to build-out our first studio ourselves. So, we would each come home to our wives dead broke and completely exhausted.

In year two, we started making our mark. We were doing some great work with some great clients. Folks like Dan Fietsam, Michael Rafayko, Bruce Alcock and others put a great deal of trust in our new company. Early in 1997, I remember Cheryl Lindquist stopping by the office with a case of beer and a check to say thanks. She said it wasn’t much, but it was huge to us. First, I like beer, and second, it was a clear sign that we were doing something right.

In year three, we hit our stride. We composed a piece of music for Minute Maid that everyone seemed to like. The rhythm section and vocals were recorded in Chicago and the string section was tracked at Capital Records in L.A. It was so well-received that, while we were in Prague recording an 80-piece orchestra for Maytag, I was sent to Paris to retrofit the Minute Maid music to a new spot out of Leo Burnett/Paris.

Sears spots from Ogilvy & Mather, McDonalds and Coca-Cola from Leo Burnett, and Wal-Mart from Bernstein-Rein are just a few of the highlights from 1998 to 2000. The cool thing about running your own business is that you get to decide how you want to go about doing it. At one point, we became friends with two young creatives at Leo Burnett named Justine Frosolone and Teddy Brown who designed several print ads for us. Most of the stuff they submitted was fun, but weird. At first we weren’t sure if it would even work with the Rhythm Café direction. But who were we kidding? We didn’t have a direction, and we were getting all this great work for free.

In the end, I think we went with a tag line that read: “Rhythm Café…The passion of a street corner musician, the soul of a street corner whore.” I guess my point is, sometimes throw the risk-reward thing out the window and try being fun and weird.

Anyway, we were fortunate to build many client relationships/friendships that would serve as the foundation of our business for many years. Brad Slaughter of Bark Productions in Kansas City comes to mind; he’s a really nice guy. The only problem was, I didn’t enjoy the success as much as I should have. I was stressed when we had too much work and I was stressed when we didn’t have enough.

You would have thought that I would have stopped and smelled the roses a bit more. After all, we went from a start-up to one of the best music houses in Chicago, making 1.2 million in annual gross sales. So why wasn’t I happy? Perhaps I thought I would get complacent. Sitting still was difficult for me. I often compared running your own business to swimming across a river. You have to continually fight the current to make it across. There was no coasting. Every day brought on new challenges. I finally told myself, you don’t always have to jump in the river, just enjoy the view.

By the end of our third year, Rhythm Café faced the same dilemma that many businesses face, should we expand? Our financial advisor once asked me, “How much money do you want to make?”  I thought it was the stupidest question I’d ever heard. Then I realized that it was a great question to continually ask yourself when making big decisions. How much do I need to spend to make as much as I want? How many people do I need to do it right? What is the true goal?

We thought about a Santa Monica office and even looked at spaces on Wilshire Ave. In the end, we took all the money we saved and bought a 6,000 sq. ft. commercial condominium space. It turned out, buying the property was a great investment, but it kind of sidetracked me. I put too much on my plate, and still asked for seconds (as it were). By 2000, I ran a music company, a real estate investing company and took over the building’s condo association.

Remember the mistakes I mentioned? I took on too much.

I love challenges, always have. I thought I could take on just about anything and succeed. My business ego was inflated. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. For example, at one point I thought I would get into the record business. We had  the money, so why not give it a try? I remember asking Tom Duff if I could lease the studio space above Optimus so we could produce records with Ramsey Lewis and his son Frayne. Tom said no, and, at the time, I thought he was making a mistake. Who would say ‘no’ to $10,000 a month?

His reasoning was something I’ll never forget: “I don’t want to be a landlord. I don’t want to worry about whether or not your air conditioner works. I need to focus on my core business,” he said.  Good advice, why didn’t I listen? I didn’t lose any money in my real estate investing, in fact the investments always worked out for the better, but it didn’t make me a better music producer either.

I digress, again and again. Another example of a misstep came in late 2001 when we produced a Gatorade project with Doug E. Fresh. The spot itself led to much more work with Foote, Cone and Belding, but for the next several months I was consumed by a new business idea that had Doug acting as a Creative Director/Conduit to celebrity recording artists. It was a really good idea, one that could be quite successful even now, but then Doug blew off a dinner meeting with Juan Woodbury in New York and I fell out of love with the idea. The point is, how much time did I waste on that when I could have been focusing on my core business?

Over the next couple of years, it seemed the music business changed. Although we were still very busy, it seems our focus was more on the business aspect of the organization and less on creating the music. I expressed my concerns to friend/client Stephanie Blocksom about what I was going through and how it all seemed to be getting more difficult.  It was becoming a job, she summarized for me.

I had never looked at it like that. Everything I did until then was fueled by my passion for the industry. I followed my instincts and I was fortunate that they were right a majority of the time. I went into business for myself because I trusted those instincts.  I think my partners soon realized that it was becoming a job, as well. Not that it wasn’t a great job, but once that realization hits you, you start wondering if it’s the right job for you and your family. Does the investment of stress, money and time equal the return?

By the end of 2003, my partner Steve Zoloto decided it didn’t balance out, so we bought out his shares and moved on. In 2006, Brando Triantafillou came to the same conclusion, so I bought him out of his Rhythm Café responsibilities.  There I was; a guy who doesn’t even know how to tune a guitar was the sole owner of a music company.

So I re-invented the shop to be more of a music broker business. I would match the creative direction of a project to the skills of a composer. It worked. Rhythm Café had a great 2007. We composed a four-spot package for DDB/State Farm, assembled a great team for Spyder Motorcycles/Cramer-Krasselt and even reunited with Doug E. Fresh to produce a PSA track for HBO. The PSA went on to win an Emmy. And when HBO called and asked me if they could fly me to New York, pick me up in a limo and I be their guest at the $10,000 a plate premiere, I said “Hell yeah. I’ve learned from the past, I’m going to enjoy this.”

I sat between the HBO president and the star of the PSA, Jamie Foxx.

I was revitalized. It wasn’t a job anymore, I just needed a reminder. After our studio was seen on the Oprah Show, people started calling to see if they can rent space there. Sure, why not. I leased office space, and rented the lounge out for parties to people like rap star T.I./Atlantic Records.

Then, I got distracted again. My passion for business development coupled with my love for the industry led me to start consulting. I think I did it well. I went to the Grammy’s with a recording artist, I helped a company find new revenue streams and helped bring attention to a great record label.

But in the end, my business consulting hurt the Rhythm Café brand. I should have known this when Shirley Portee asked me: “Why are you calling me from Red Car?”

Over the last year, Rhythm Café has done well, but not well enough to survive. So, after 14 years, I’ve decided to close up the shop. I’ve explained to a few people that I can do more by doing less if that makes any sense. My passion for this industry extends beyond what I can provide at Rhythm Café. I want to work for someone again and put all of my focus towards their goals, not mine.

I’d like to thank all the Rhythm Café staff and clients with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to work over the years. It has been an incredible journey and none of it would have been possible without you.