My Story (So Far)

It’s a very popular bit of British small talk asking what someone’s job is, but when I am asked what I do for a living, it is sometimes hard to explain as it does not conform to most people’s idea of work. I have often explained my business activities to people only to be met with a slightly confused look probably wishing they had not asked. I am sure many of my family and friends still don’t really understand what I do to earn money, how I can be so flexible with my time, where and how and when I do my work.

When people have grasped what I do, I am sometimes asked… How did you get into that? Now that takes even longer to explain.

For those of you who are interested, here’s my abridged story.

School Days

Lee, age 6As a child I did not like school, the conformity wound me up, even at primary school I recall being prone to thinking what is this all about. This is not what I want to be doing… singing… assembly… the Lord’s Prayer… reading out loud… musical movement… running and jumping through hoops in PE… even at the age of 6 I was thinking… What am I doing this for?!

The good thing was, I knew even then that I could be creative, I knew I liked music and I was top of the class at daydreaming. Despite my reluctance, I realised that school was not optional and I had to conform and get on with it.

By the time I went to secondary school I had a record player and had been exploring the world of vinyl records and singles. My dad had a large collection and my taste was eclectic. One moment that stands out for me was hearing Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time on headphones. My brain went crazy, I was not hearing the words just the notes, the intervals between them, the harmonies, the textures. I listened to it over and over and over again. It was a surreal experience being able to identify with musical references that I could not name or possibly have been taught about previously, but although I was fully conscious my mind seemed to have entered a new world that I could relate to and understand.

It was quite profound and almost inexplicable, like fireworks were going off in my head. In focussing on different elements of the music my brain was triggering numerous emotions simultaneously taking me on a journey through the interlinked complexities of the music and leaving my brain feeling like it had been given a full workout. It was almost like all of my physical and mental energy was taken over by the music and nothing else existed.

TromboneAt secondary school I met the brass teacher and I was fascinated by the school brass band. My only aim was to be part of this and the brass teacher suggested that I would be best suited to the trombone (I think that is all he had spare). Not surprisingly this is something I really enjoyed and my brass teacher, a retired policeman, the late Charlie Holt became a great mentor and we remained friends long after I left school. I even played in one of his brass bands for a short time.

As I progressed with my musical training, the surreal experience I had years earlier listening to music was repeated many times while playing and listening to music. It was now at a much higher intensity, on occasion almost like a meditative out of body experience, a complete disconnect with one’s physical self.

In my life, I have only met a small number of people who can fully relate to this, apart from it being hard for me to put into words it does sound a bit bonkers. When I zone into music I don’t really listen to the lyrics in a song; I do hear them, but don’t listen to the lyrical content. I can’t have any other distractions around me if I am going to get into the zone; it has got to be just me and the music.

I tend to not remember the names of songs, the artist, the band etc. but can recall in memory the most obscure things in the production of the music. I tend to hear the first few bars and rather than think… ooh that is [song] by [artist], I will think ooh that’s the one with the cool bass bit in the middle and the one that uses the single extended string note through 4 bars etc.

To me a great piece of music can be any genre or time period as long as it speaks to me internally. It is hard to explain this in words as I tend to relate to the musical concepts rather than what they’re called. Here is an example of my perception of a piece of music that I think is brilliant; it is the James bond theme to most people, but I think of it more like this…

It’s the one that starts with repeating woodwind lines in unison using the iconic sounding bond semitones with the raspy staccato brass chord on beat 2 and 4. I don’t really like the guitar bit, prefer it where the brass mutes start to come in before the crescendo into the exhilarating melody on the trombone and trumpet sections with moving counterparts coming to an abrupt..  ba ba raw … ba ba raw…. ba-dap-be-de-dap and then ending on a calmer split chord bell effect.

Whether any of that makes sense to anyone else or not that is the way I roll, and the closest I can explain it in words 🙂 Singing along, dancing or talking is not an option for me when I hit that zone. Not a highly social experience but addictive, emotional, and an amazing natural high that I return to as often as I can when having Lee-only time.

After School

On leaving school at 15 music continued to be a major focus. Getting a job seemed quite an appalling idea. I just wanted to play, write and listen to music.

I have never really liked having a boss and I knew this from my first part-time job at the age of 15. I had a number of business ideas in my late teens / early 20’s but typically got bored with them before they got off the ground. My real passion was music and I really wanted to do something related to this.

The Showband Days

Ashton on Mersey Showband playing at Cresta Court 1990

Having developed to a pretty good standard of trombone playing, I played in a variety of bands and ensembles to improve my ability to sight read, which is the ability to sit down with a band and play a new piece of music straight through, without messing it up. Especially important when it is a live show.

Also at 15 I joined the Ashton-on-Mersey Showband, lead by the late Ernie Waites MBE where I played gigs every weekend for the next 6 years. This was my longest position in a band and I had a great time playing venues all over the UK and abroad, some of the notable gigs included the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; The Ballroom Tower, Blackpool; Aiya Napa, Cyprus in 1990; Universal Studios, the Epcot Centre and Disney World, Florida in 1992. We also got to play for Prince Charles, played alongside the Herb Miller Band and made several recordings in the studio.

The holidays with the band abroad were always eventful. The band and its entourage consisted of around sixty people (at that time). It basically involved having a great holiday with lots of your friends and doing about 4-5 gigs.

Although my stint was just 6 years, the band had been around since 1973 and is still going strong today and has raised almost £1,000,000 for UK charities in its 42 years.

Playing in the Ashton on Mersey Showband in Ayia Napa 1990Later in my teen years / early twenty’s I discovered synthesizers and sequencers and my passion for music was about to enter a new phase. I became obsessive about music tech and purchased technology including samplers, sound modules software, PA equipment and more.

Through my twenty’s I did a variety of sound engineering jobs on the cabaret circuit and created backing tracks using midi and samples. I also played keyboards in a number of original bands before becoming more focused on the live sound and music production for bands and artists.

To start with this was great, a real buzz, but by the mid-1990’s I was disillusioned with my path so far. I was in limbo between a world of low paying music jobs and conventional jobs working silly hours to stay afloat. The music-related jobs did not pay enough and the non-music jobs I had to do alongside were soul destroying for me.

Fortunately, around the same time, I got connected to the internet (hard to imagine an internet-less existence now) and started a personal webpage using basic html. This was a lightbulb moment where I began to imagine the possibilities that the internet could bring to someone in my situation. I began to formulate a plan to create a better, more fulfilling livelihood involving music only. This encouraged me to push harder for a life that had the work I wanted to do and I decided to make some changes.

Back to Education

Old Music TechIn 1996, with a renewed optimism, I became more interested in computer-based technology and music production and decided to become a mature student to learn more about this. I had also developed a nice collection of equipment, as you can see from the picture on the right. I needed 2 A-levels to do the course I wanted to do but did not want to spend 2 years just to get A-levels that would never benefit me. For this reason, I applied anyway and got a rejection. I knew I could do this course, I really felt it was for me and I could not accept this rejection. I went to the college and demanded to meet with the person that had made this decision.

When I finally got my meeting I made it very clear what I felt about the A-level criteria and proceeded to talk at length about why I felt I should be given a chance to do the course. After a healthy debate, the course leader must have realised I was going to be a pain in the a*** until he gave me a chance.

He finally said… OK. I will set you a written test and we will go from there.

Ecstatic about the possibility and the achievement of convincing the course leader of my commitment I knew that I had to put the years of reading music tech magazines and being a music geek into good use. I sat the test and handed it in… and waited.

Gained HND music technology diplomaAfter some time, a letter arrived from City College. I will never forget the feeling of reading that letter. I was in! I had been offered an unconditional place on the HND music technology course at City College, Manchester.

I did the course as a full-time student 1996-98 and passed despite having to work several part-time jobs around lectures. It was hard work but a pivotal point in my life that I will never forget.

I graduated in 1998 (picture to the right). I considered doing further education but had become far too busy doing small-time music jobs, including being a roadie, working with solo acts and tribute bands, live sound engineer, studio recording engineer, mobile recording studio, creating backing tracks, providing custom build PA speakers and hiring PA speakers to bands and DJs.

A Realisation

I had been working really hard, mainly unsociable hours in noisy, smoky clubs (before the ban). I would often get home at 3 am (or later), tired, reeking of smoke, which was pretty horrendous for a non-smoker. I loved it at first, but there were no sick days, if you were ill you still worked and holidays were hard to take as I was doing a job that many wanted. The show had to go on, regardless of your level of tiredness or looming man cold.

Even though much of the work had a musical element to it, I was now becoming quite disillusioned with working so hard to ‘earn a living’. I was exchanging most of my time for money, working for other people, some that I did not even like, working hard on making others’ projects successful. It was becoming a rut. I realised that time was a much-limited resource that goes and never returns.

Doing the same thing till I retired was a concept that filled me with dread. I had done ‘earning a living’ for other people for some time and knew I was not keen on it. I went through the stage of being a freelance engineer and doing things that I really wanted to do, but with my waning enthusiasm for it, I knew spending time doing the same thing over and over or getting a job and having a boss would be my downfall and probably send me insane.

I had managed to get the work involving music, at night and at weekends (mainly) but also had a number of other casual jobs to top up my income. I was becoming frazzled and despite drastically changing my life, I still could not spend time doing the thing that truly nourished my existence. All of my time was determined by other people’s schedule. Things needed to change again.

Turning to the internet

My personal website was developing and gaining interest, albeit, minimal interest and mainly from friends and family. The problem was, it looked homemade and I really wanted to be earning money from it, somehow. As such, I decided to start a business selling music licenses via the internet.

Having had no experience of this, a computer programmer friend helped create a ‘proof of concept’ website (music4media.biz – domain no longer owned by me) and I uploaded my own music to it before emailing the website to numerous media production companies. It was well received and with a loan from the Prince’s Trust, we were going to create a much bigger website with much more music.

Dot-com startups had been big news in recent years, silly money was being invested into this new wave of company. As things progressed, other people wanted to be involved in this new, cool internet startup and offered to give their time for shares in the company and seats on the board. It all seemed great and before long we had a team of eight, five of which were board members.

Main Zejo logoWe spent much time debating ideas, plans and strategies before deciding to seek investment for this exciting internet startup now branded Zejo. Around this time, people had been raising large amounts of cash for online startups and we had a plan to do the same and had the team to do it (so I thought). It turns out that having a team of volunteers, some of which had their own agendas and strong views meant that things happened too slowly, too many meetings, too many discussions and too many views on how things should be done. For me at least, it was not a great way to go.

Screenshot of zejo websiteAround the year 2000, the dot-com bubble had well and truly burst. A number of high profile websites had burned through millions in investment and failed to generate income. In May of 2000, at the height of the dot-com collapse, a high profile startup, Boo.com became a spectacular disaster with an overall investment of $120m.

This was one of many that ran into trouble and investors confidence was at an all-time low. Dot-coms were being avoided. Zejo initially wanted £3.5m investment, which may have been possible at the height of the dot-com gold rush, but we were just too late getting to the party.

We had reworked our mammoth business plan many times and traveled all over the country seeking investors for our overvalued, overcomplicated website and so I applied to pitch on a new TV series called Dragons Den. Picture of the Dragons on Dragons Den 1st series

Our 50 page business plan was far too complex and trying to appeal to all markets, rather than targeting one area first. Also, we were asking for the type of money that was laughable post dot-com bubble. The application was flatly rejected and every investor I approached independently or through contacts pretty much laughed at the amount of money we were asking for. If only I knew then, what I know now. The problem was the investment required to fund the unrealistic staffing requirements and overpriced web design and development. It was astronomical in relation to the value of the business.

Dot-coms were no longer a millionaire’s trophy investment, they were no longer funded based on future potential or street cred. It had become a bootstrapping business where investors were looking for lean startups that had good revenue history with ultra-low running costs. Our business plan was out of date and doomed.

It was 2004 and Zejo was pretty much dead in the water. Also, by this time I had gained some knowledge about the internet and was beginning to realise that we were pretty much doing the internet thing completely wrong. By now, the team was fragmenting and it was clear that any attempt I made to change the plan or the mindset of some of the team members was futile. Like trying to run up a sand dune – exhausting and you do not get anywhere quickly.

It was time to cut my losses, Zejo was history, a dinosaur in the context of the internet.

Looking back, all-in-all the experience was invaluable and I have no regrets.

This is it!

MediaMusicNow logoIt was 2005 with a new startup and two very like-minded shareholders – MediaMusicNow was conceived. Contrary to my last business experience I was free to call the shots and make decisions fast. No lengthy board meetings or chats, it was a breath of fresh air and a welcomed new start. The other shareholder provided a relatively small amount of personal investment and helped out with many of the business tasks leaving me to steer its course.

The way this business was going to work was to take a new approach and fully embrace the fast-growing online world. It was all about search engine rank now and keywords.

You have to remember, 2005 was when Google started to become the dominant search engine, Google Maps, YouTube, and Facebook launched, (2004 it was still called TheFacebook). Twitter wasn’t to launch until 2006 and blogging was about to become mainstream and change the internet forever. I was now 34 and life had been a mixed bag of experiences so far. I needed a big win this time.

Getting momentum

This was an exciting time, but despite my experiences so far I was about to embark on a learning curve that would finally change my life in the way that I really wanted. Media Music Now was formed and the original website went live in 2006; it was all down to me now. I finally have no boss, no slow moving team, no debates, no conflicts, just my own thoughts and decisions and a limited amount of time to make this happen before the money ran out. No pressure then!

After the website went live, I had to contact the composers that we had badly let down with Zejo. We had promised so much but had delivered so little. Most were understanding of the situation but some did not wish to work with me again, which was fair enough. Some were happy to work with me but gave me a piece of their mind before they committed. I could not really argue with anyone, accept responsibility and say that I had learned valuable lessons with Zejo and would not make the same mistakes again, I would do everything in my power to make MediaMusicNow a success.

I also had a knack for being enthusiastic and optimistic when I truly believed in something and this won me the support of many.

Glass half full

Even in moments when I was secretly terrified, or completely unsure of what would happen, whether something would work or whether I could even do a particular task, I would always try to be outwardly optimistic and confident and try to put doubts out of my mind. I would also receive well-meaning, but badly timed advice from friends and family, to get a job or try something different. I responded to this advice with strong-minded resistance insisting that it would be worth it in the end.

This often meant putting on a positive front while at the same time being horrified and anxious at the thoughts going through my own mind. It did also land me in disagreements with others at times, but experience had conditioned me to resist taking any of the same types of decisions that I had made in the past. I was now more confident in my own ability and would treat others opinions with skepticism unless they could show me how their views/actions had resulted in success for them.

My only influence now was from studying people that had already made it. These were my guide and reading / listening to business books was to become a major factor in my future.

Come in, we're open signIn 2006 MediaMusicNow was live and stocked with music. People could license and download. But… they weren’t!

To be honest I did not know what to do. I was working tirelessly trying many strategies that I had convinced myself would work. The problem was, everybody was saying the right thing… things like… we will definitely use your service for our music… website looks great, we will use it on our next project… the problem was, people were not using the website.

A lifeline

Web 2.0 sphere graphicDuring my Zejo days, I had made a few connections and one of them was called Clare, from a company called Adoofa. Clare had always been direct and honest with me about Zejo and I knew I could trust her. She is one of those people that took pleasure in giving people advice, and often for free.

I asked her if she would be prepared to meet with me and see if there were any pointers that she could give. She already knew I was fast running out of cash and she knew the Zejo story. I think she took pity on my plight and she agreed to meet.

At our meeting, she proceeded to politely but firmly point out all of the issues the website had. It was amazing, a real revelation at the time. There was nothing wrong with the way the website looked but its ability to rank in the search results was very restricted by a number of factors. Clare was doing well with her business and although I never doubted her knowledge, she certainly showed me that her services were essential in pointing us in the right direction. She offered to do some work on our search engine problems for a favourable rate and I promptly agreed.

Days later we had spreadsheets of meta information and keyword reports. I had instructions to implement these changes and to educate myself in search engine marketing. As a result, I started to look for help on the subject and realised that it was a minefield of information, much of it conflicting. Also, many of the American websites seem too much of a hard sell for me, I ideally wanted a UK expert. Fortunately, I stumbled across The Internet Marketing Bible by Michael Cheney, a UK entrepreneur who was and still is doing really well online.

Meeting with Clare and finding Michael’s Internet Marketing Bible, combined with the focused activity changed the fortunes of the business. The knowledge I was gaining set me off on an internet marketing learning curve that was to see MediaMusicNow become a contender in the royalty free music/stock music market.

First real steps

End 2006 we saw the first modest sale come in. The changes we made had taken some time to be picked up by the search engines and the sense of relief was amazing, I was finally moving in the direction that I had dreamed about. Media Music Now was growing, slowly but steadily and I did not need to work anywhere else. My next task was to make sure it stayed that way for the rest of my life.

Development

As things progressed the business was now in need of an extra pair of hands. Fortunately, the other investor/shareholder was not finding his JOB fulfilling and was waiting for a time when he could also work for MediaMusicNow full-time. Adam was able to sack his day job in 2008 and the business became a joint operation with each of us working on tasks that suit our strengths. From there on in the business evolved and is now fronted by either of us depending on when the other one is working or not working. It is a very flexible arrangement that works really well.

With confidence growing and knowledge gained about the workings of the internet, the business started to grow. Watching website stats and keyword monitoring became an essential task and was fundamental in making MediaMusicNow successful. However, that was not the end of the story, there were more bumps in the road as nothing stays the same online.

Google, now the prominent search engine was making big changes and has done ever since. The result is, search engine marketing and optimisation is a constantly changing skill and your tactics as a webmaster need to evolve at the right time. A lesson that was going to be painful for MediaMusicNow.

At one time, paid links were very popular. We were able to pay for links and appear on thousands of website pages instantly. Knowing what I know now I would not have used these services, but at the time most people were saying that they were ok to use, but a subset was saying that they artificially skew the search results – something Google doesn’t like.

In my naivety, I did not apply previous knowledge and react quickly to this situation. Soon rumours were circulating that Google was going to implement a change and even Google itself implied that it was coming. Before I knew it, some high traffic websites were reporting massive losses of traffic. Within hours of hearing this, I canceled all paid adverts but it was too late. We had been Google Slapped. Our website had been pushed out of many Google search results. Fortunately, we had regular clients and still had a small traffic flow but it took us a few months from rectifying the problem to getting back to where we were.

Lesson learned. We kept on top of what changes were looming and have done our best to react in a timely fashion ever since. As you can see, our traffic has been growing steadily and naturally since 2007.

Google Analytics graph stats

Despite this, I never lose sight of the fact that Google is very powerful and can change your fortunes in an instant. Everything we do now conforms to Google’s terms and we want to keep it that way.

Don’t drop the basket of eggs

Since 2007 there have been a growing number of requests for services that we didn’t offer. This has resulted in us creating multiple income streams. Some are active, some have ceased and others are primed ready to grow when / if more work is put into them. Some are direct personal incomes, others via company dividends and it is a mixture of digital products and work for hire.

While it is reassuring to have more than one business and more than one stream of income there is a downside too. It divides your time and always takes more time to develop and set-up than expected. Remember, I am good at being too optimistic at times, so I often think something will be easy when it’s not. I do fail at things yet I am never scared of trying something else.

Yikes. 40!

I am now in my 40’s. Although I still feel like I am 21, but with more experience and confidence. It has taken a few years of ups and downs to be here now, writing this story. It is the weekend, I had planned to get outside, but the weather is bad so I started this on my phone. Remember, I work my own hours so I will take some time out in the week when the weather is better. This is just one example of how my life and mindset has changed. I am doing something that I enjoy so it never feels like work.

At this point in time, with my timetable largely at my own discretion, it is interesting to think about how the events from my past have shaped my life today. I can work at the level I decide to work at and work when it suits me. I also can take leisure time when I please to (all within reason).

Work that I do now is work I enjoy. It is rare that I end up in a project that I do not like or want to be involved in.

My skill set and interests have expanded far beyond where I expected them to be and I think the best is still to come.

At this stage in my life, work consists of contributing towards the running of MediaMusicNow, working with composers and voice-overs and working with studio-grade software far beyond the capabilities of my old hardware setup. It has also progressed into other things including, audiobook projects, DJ intros, website development and online marketing courses. Although not a millionaire, I don’t have any money worries and although money is helpful I don’t really think my life would change for the better if I was abundantly rich.

My life is good, I don’t have an alarm clock, I don’t need one and I do not commute to work. I also have a much better life than some very financially rich people who are tied into the life of excess, deadlines, work commitments and all that goes with feeding a lavish lifestyle with cash. My definition of wealth is good health, personal choice, enjoying what you do and having enough income for a lifestyle that makes you happy. It is not to work as hard as possible in order to make as much money and buy status symbols. To me, that feels so old school and at odds with how I think and feel now.

My work life balance has never been better and technology is abundant and aiding me in all aspects of my life. The divide between work and enjoyable activities is becoming increasingly hard to define.

This is the life I have created and continue to work at. Anyone can do it, but it does not happen overnight. Don’t be afraid to be an individual and create your own life.

Finally

Since embarking on a more mindful way of living and concentrating more on the now, rather than dwelling on the past or projecting too much into the future I am feeling very content with life and have started to embark on writing new music for the first time in many years with the natural buzz I get from it, playing it and composing it is very much going to fuel my progress.

Yes, it is a learning curve but I am still very optimistic, I can’t change the past but my future is still to be created. I have found my purpose, my vocation and my reason to be. Life is good.

My internet journey has had its failures, I have lost sleep, I’ve lost money and I have even lost friends, but fortunately none of my real ones 😉

I strongly believe you get what you deserve out of life. For me, hard work, personal sacrifices and sheer determination have rewarded me with a lifestyle that now gives me an amazing amount of enjoyment, a good living and most importantly personal freedom and choice about how I use my limited time on this planet.

Me 2014 ishI never lost hope or faith in my vision, but it changed many times over the years as I gained knowledge and grew as a person. It was not a straight course and it is still always under development.

I get to work with some really great and interesting people, many of which I am pleased to call my friends 🙂 Also, my business websites contribute towards the livelihoods of over 100 people globally which is a nice feeling.

Is it success? For me, very much so. I believe that success is something that you define for yourself, in-line with your own morals and worldviews. My success is not determined by others opinions or ideas of conformity; this is my version of success.

Thank you for reading. I hope this has been of interest, better still, inspired you a little.

Updated 28/03/2015

Update 2018:

I have now updated my website to hopefully communicate what I do. Also, I am now mainly focussing on being a composer and I am back playing the trombone. I am also back in the Ashton-on Mersey Showband.

References: Boo.com collapse

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