“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
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!”