As an aspiring management consultant who has also been working as a music producer for several years, composing, arranging, and producing songs for multiple artists, I get a lot of questions about this seemingly strange combination of interests. “If you love music so much, why don’t you do it as a full-time job?” “If you are really that passionate about consulting, shouldn’t you spend more of your free time reading about business trends instead of focusing on your hobby?”
Yes, at first glance the two areas seem very different: Management consulting is thought of as a highly rational and logical process while music is perceived to be purely creative and irrational; it should come from the heart. Consulting is about rigid analysis, solutions founded on facts and numbers, while music is founded on individual taste and perception.
Nevertheless, I don’t think there needs to be a conflict between passion and profession. In fact, most successful consultants I have met throughout the years are really passionate about things that have nothing to do with business – for many good reasons. Not only do hobbies function as a great outlet for work-related stress (and let’s not kid ourselves, a consulting career isn’t exactly stress-free), they also give you a different outlook on many problems you have to solve at work. Let me demonstrate this based on my own experience.
The similarities between consultants and music producers start with the reasons why they are hired in the first place. For consultants, it’s not that companies cannot think of any solutions to their problems themselves. It’s rather that they don’t have the time or personnel to work out solutions, since they have to keep everyday operations running; they don’t always have the necessary experience in the desired area or market; and most of all they need a fresh outside perspective to avoid thinking in familiar patterns.
Likewise, musicians usually know how to play their instruments and have great ideas, but they need producers to guarantee a quick and professional end result. They may not have the necessary equipment to record adequately; they may not have the necessary experience with the mixing process to make a song sound competitive relative to other commercial releases; and most of all they can benefit immensely from a fresh perspective and new ideas regarding arrangement, instrumentation, and effects.
When musicians arrive for a recording session, they usually have a good idea of what they want their song to sound like, but may leave with a very different result. It is also important to involve multiple people in the production process – most songs you hear on the radio have different people responsible for composition, performance, mixing, and mastering, which helps to spot mistakes and prevent what I call “creative bubbles” – when you get so used to thinking about a certain concept that you stop being open to other ideas.
Moreover, the way management consultants interact with their clients is similar to the way music producers interact with artists. Both require a certain degree of empathy and understanding for client-specific issues. At the beginning of each project, it is any consultant’s responsibility to understand the client’s problem, unique background, and boundaries concerning the project. For example, cutting research and development costs when the client’s reputation is based on innovative capabilities wouldn’t make sense in the long run, even if it seems to be the most efficient solution. Likewise, proposing a merger without understanding the two companies’ cultures first may not lead to desired results.
When music producers write or arrange songs for artists, it is just as important to gain a solid understanding of the artist’s musical style, personality, and image. Every sound or word used portrays the artist in a certain way and can make or break a record. The longer you work with someone, the better you get to know them and the better you become at catering to their specific needs. That’s also why many large corporations have been working with the same consulting firm for several years.
Last but not least, good management consultants are just like good musicians because they don’t use standard solutions. Of course, they know what generally works based on experience and data, but they can also tailor successful concepts to the client’s unique situation. While it will be obvious to most readers that consultancies may use statistical tools in order to determine so-called “industry recipes”, similar concepts apply to the music industry. The famous “Four Chord Song” by the Australian comedy group Axis of Awesome, for instance, shows how many popular hits throughout the years have used the same four chords – and while this chord progression seems to be a proven formula, the songs don’t sound the same when listened to as individual tracks. The key is to adjust a successful concept so it fits the singer’s voice, genre, and instrumentation. Similarly, consultants need to adjust business recipes so that they match the client’s core competencies, industry, and organisational structure as well as culture.
It seems as if management consulting and music production aren’t really that different after all and I can guarantee you that a similar logic apply to your passion and profession. You shouldn’t be discouraged to do what you love just because it doesn’t necessarily fit into your job’s stereotype. Actually, spending time on your hobbies can make you better at your job – there’s always much to learn.
Max Kulaga is a finalist reading Economics and Management at the University of Oxford. As a former intern at L.E.K. Consulting in London and President of one of Oxford’s largest business societies, the German-born is keen on sharing his experiences and knowledge about the consulting industry.