Q&A

“The other day I was in a meet­ing and I used the word profit and ev­ery­one said, ‘No, sur­plus!’ ” Ed St John on his tran­si­tion from the mu­sic in­dus­try to the not-for-profit sec­tor

The Australian - The Deal - - News - In­ter­view by: Mi­landa Rout Pho­to­graph by: John Feder

Ed St John from the St James Ethics Cen­tre on mov­ing from rock ’n’ roll to the not-for-prof­its

ED St John spent decades im­mersed in rock and roll. Th­ese days he’s the ex­ec­u­tive gen­eral manager at the St James Ethics Cen­tre in Syd­ney.

How did you start in the mu­sic in­dus­try?

My very first pay cheque was from Rolling Stone mag­a­zine. I was 17 and I was still at school. I had been be­friended by a DJ on what was then Dou­ble J (which later be­came the Triple J ra­dio sta­tion) at an in­no­cent time when it was a lot eas­ier to be­come friends with a DJ. He sim­ply said to me one day, “What are you go­ing to do when you leave school?” and I said I had no idea and he said, “You would make a good writer, how about I in­tro­duce you to my friends at Rolling Stone?” He did. And the next minute there I was, still in my school uni­form, hand­ing in re­views. My very first in­ter­view for them was with Air Sup­ply late 1976. By the time I left school, I was a regular writer. It was a won­der­ful time be­cause the late 70s were the hey­day of Aus­tralian rock ‘n’ roll, with Cold Chisel, Dragon, INXS and Mid­night Oil. All th­ese amaz­ing bands, and I was be­ing sent off to go and talk to them. I am sure my par­ents didn’t think through the im­pli­ca­tions of a 17-year-old boy sent to in­ter­view a bunch of (rock stars)! In ret­ro­spect, it was prob­a­bly a poor de­ci­sion on their part but I loved it.

What made you jump the fence to be­come a mu­sic ex­ec­u­tive?

With the im­per­a­tives of a child and a mort­gage, I tran­si­tioned out of be­ing a writer into a record ex­ec­u­tive. I was one for al­most 15 years, 10 of those were run­ning com­pa­nies. I was man­ag­ing direc­tor of BMG and CEO of Warner Mu­sic. I guess what I got out of [my time as a jour­nal­ist] was the abil­ity to un­der­stand how an artist thinks which then made the tran­si­tion quite sim­ple be­cause I un­der­stood the way they op­er­ated. Some­where in the mid­dle of there, I also did quite a lot of work in tele­vi­sion, writ­ing and pro­duc­ing.

How did the mu­sic in­dus­try change over the 15 years you spent in it?

The dig­i­tal threat started to rear its head be­tween 2005 and 2010. Ini­tially, it was a very dis­tant and fairly min­i­mal threat. Those years were also big years in terms of prof­itabil­ity. It was the peak, so there was a lot of money made, lots of records be­ing sold and CDs were still the for­mat. Along came this thing called Nap­ster and it was this tiny blip on the hori­zon and ev­ery­one was like “what’s that?” There were var­i­ous at­tempts to shut th­ese sites down, to cre­ate our own dig­i­tal ser­vices, but, in hind­sight, they were all a bit mis­guided. Dig­i­tal kept get­ting big­ger and big­ger, the in­ter­net got big­ger and the porta­bil­ity through mo­bile phones got big­ger. Did the in­dus­try see it com­ing? It did but, per­haps, it didn’t quite re­alise the mag­ni­tude of it. By the time I left it was get­ting re­ally, re­ally bad. We were start­ing to get se­ri­ous de­clines in rev­enue. It is hit­ting all con­tent to some de­gree and they are calami­tous changes. The in­dus­try is re­ally shrink­ing. I went through sev­eral rounds of sacking peo­ple, cut­ting record­ing bud­gets, cut­ting mar­ket­ing bud­gets. It [the job] stopped be­ing fun in a way. Be­ing a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive in a record com­pany at that time felt like be­ing a po­lar bear on a shrink­ing piece of ice – it was not go­ing to stop melt­ing. There is a fas­ci­nat­ing para­dox: there have never been more peo­ple con­sum­ing mu­sic – they are just not pay­ing for it.

What hap­pened next?

It took me three and half years to find what I now con­sider my new ca­reer. I did a lot of con­sult­ing for start-up busi­nesses look­ing into get­ting into the mu­sic in­dus­try. I found that an in­ter­est­ing space, be­cause as one in­dus­try trans­forms and evolves, there are new op­por­tu­ni­ties thrown up by that crunch­ing of the tec­tonic plate. I also found my­self con­sult­ing to tele­vi­sion net­works for tal­ent on the big [mu­sic] tal­ent shows. So if you liked The Voice and you liked the judg­ing panel, you have me to thank for that. It was a won­der­ful task; I was given a large sum of money by chan­nel Nine and put on the plane to LA to find four judges for The

Voice. I came back with Keith [Ur­ban], Delta [Goodrem], Joel [Mad­den] and Seal and that kicked off a whole era of tele­vi­sion. I worked at an events train­ing com­pany. I worked at Twit­ter for a bit too.

How dif­fi­cult was this rein­ven­tion?

When you change jobs that is hard enough, when you change in­dus­tries that is even harder. It takes a lit­tle time for you to fig­ure out what the next thing is go­ing to be. When you step out of that [the com­pany struc­ture], it can be a shock be­cause you have to mo­ti­vate your­self, be bet­ter at sell­ing your­self and pitch­ing to peo­ple. I found all those con­ver­sa­tions and all the dif­fer­ent things that I tried all quite lib­er­at­ing be­cause it took me out of my com­fort zone. When you are the CEO of a big com­pany, you can kind of go down some fairly well-trod­den paths. Meet­ing all sorts of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, do­ing all sorts of dif­fer­ent things, makes you start think­ing again. I also dis­cov­ered the trans­for­ma­tive power of LinkedIn – the abil­ity to reach out to peo­ple in some ad­ja­cent in­dus­try and lit­er­ally go, “Hi, this is who am, what you are do­ing is re­ally in­ter­est­ing, can we have a cof­fee?” I found more of­ten than not peo­ple would have that meet­ing with you and lots of in­ter­est­ing things came out of those meet­ings for me.

How did you land at the ethics cen­tre?

I al­ways had this view that if you can man­age one busi­ness, you can prob­a­bly man­age an­other. The skills of man­age­ment are not that dif­fer­ent, re­gard­less of what you are do­ing. I like run­ning things, it is fun. I have known Simon [Longstaff, philoso­pher, and ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor at the St James Ethics Cen­tre] for a long time and he was look­ing for a gen­eral manager. We had a chat and he said, “You would be re­ally great at this.” He sees him­self as a theatre direc­tor and he said he was look­ing for a pro­ducer to work along­side him. So I thought to my­self, I know what pro­duc­ers do, they mar­ket the show and make sure there are bums on seats and there is some­one sell­ing the wine, and that it [the show] is at the end of the day, mak­ing money.

Is it a dramatically dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment?

I usu­ally say that I swapped Michael Bu­ble and Kylie Minogue for Simon Longstaff. My job is to find the com­mer­cial op­por­tu­nity and ways to make money, reach an au­di­ence and en­gage with peo­ple. We are a cen­tre of ap­plied ethics but we do ev­ery­thing from writ­ten con­tent to de­bates to the Fes­ti­val of Danger­ous Ideas [in Syd­ney] to con­sult­ing with busi­nesses. It is not a bunch of philoso­phers dressed in robes dis­cussing Socrates. It is a re­ally in­ter­est­ing, en­gaged or­gan­i­sa­tion that is touch­ing a lot of peo­ple.

What has been the big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween your ca­reers?

The crit­i­cal thing is that I was for so long in a shrink­ing in­dus­try where it was all about mak­ing the most with di­min­ish­ing re­sources. Now it is ex­cit­ing to be back in an in­dus­try that is grow­ing. It is a great feel­ing to be in some­thing that po­ten­tially could get big­ger, not smaller, and po­ten­tially have a global reach. I am ap­proach­ing this with more of a sense of am­bi­tion and a strat­egy for growth than is typ­i­cal in a nor­mal not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion. It is not just about sur­viv­ing for an­other month or an­other year, it is how big we can make this and how many peo­ple can we touch with this. I don’t have a back­ground in not-for-prof­its and so you have to be care­ful of be­ing too com­mer­cial be­cause it is not al­ways about mak­ing money, it is about do­ing good for so­ci­ety. If I had to learn any­thing in this new role, it is you shouldn’t al­ways think in terms of profit im­per­a­tive, you should also think “are we do­ing our job and ful­fill­ing our char­ter?” The other day I was in a meet­ing and I used the word profit and ev­ery­one said, “No, sur­plus!”

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