Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Clan

Each month I feature different leaders’ voices offering insights into the future of work and changes they’ve seen within their industry since the pandemic. I’m particularly interested in leaders that approach challenges as opportunities to create positive and lucrative business opportunities. This column profiles everyone from celebrities and business people, to community leaders and change-makers, and gives readers a peek behind the veil of different businesses and industries. 

This month I interviewed Tareef Michael, General Manager and Head of Brand Relations for WU Music Group (Wu-Tang Clan). He is also the creator of Park Hill Clothing and is continuously finding ways to engage his passion for giving back to those less fortunate. His unique insider perspective is a treasure trove of insights into the transformation of the music industry, and how those changes resulted in an altered work environment. Read on for Tareef’s thoughts on how other industries can learn from the adaptability of the music business. 

The music industry has always been innovative. Creativity, hustle and reinvention runs through artists’ veins, and that adaptability can often feed into the business side of the industry. Just ten years ago we were still purchasing CDs or songs on iTunes. A decade later we are primarily consuming music through streaming services. Within the same ten years artists now have more accessibility to share new music with fans through platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud and other social media outlets, whereas before the public would tend to only hear new music if it was on the radio or if they purchased the whole CD. 

Before the pandemic about 70 percent of musicians’ income came from touring, which includes stage performances, in-store appearances and merch sales. Without that revenue stream and fan interaction, musicians have had to consider creative ways to be lucrative and maintain a connection to their fans (artists’ relevancy is dependent on their fans). So it is not just money they have to worry about, but also maintaining the connection to their fans. Even a well established, world-renowned group like Wu-Tang is no exception. 

In the current landscape, any business entity must establish new processes for vetting and implementing new initiatives. Tareef explained that Wu-Tang has had such a system in place for years, so adapting to the new normal was actually somewhat seamless. 

“Wu-Tang would get calls from people pitching us all kinds of ideas and a fair amount of business proposals [including] outside of the music industry – fashion, tech, all kinds of innovative things. We have processes in place for funneling potential concepts we wanted to be a part of. Ideas that are interesting get vetted by a team that reviews them and potentially get run up a pipeline, where the final decision is made by RZA.” For the few that are unfamiliar, RZA is the de-facto leader of Wu-Tang Clan, a groundbreaking musician, rapper, producer, actor, filmmaker and author. 

Collaboration is also key to the success of these processes. Juggling the interests and needs of nine executives (the members of Wu-Tang) might seem like a challenge. Tareef explained that streamlined communication and collaboration are crucial contributors of the group’s success. “If one of the members has a specific interest they will let the rest of the crew know what they are wanting to participate in so that the team can keep their eyes open for those specific types of ventures. Musicians need to supplement their income, now that they’re not touring, and want to maximize their opportunities. Before it was hard to pitch ideas, but now artists are more welcoming of it because they want to expand their horizons.”

Tareef and Wu-Tang Clan

Tareef Michael and Wu-Tang Clan

Artists are getting creative and finding new ways to reach audiences. This year, Timbaland and Swizz Beats introduced the Verzuz Battle, a virtual rap battle show that is a creative alternative to in-person concerts. Verzuz pairs up two musical legends to “battle” live on Instagram, exchanging song for song. Fans have been loving these performances, but with any new idea comes growing pains and challenges. 

“Verzuz was most likely started as a simple idea and they probably didn’t think it would get as big as it is now,” said Tareef. “At the beginning there were lots of technical issues. They had to find ways to accommodate all the fans and produce these events [smoothly]. When starting a new business there are a lot of unexpected situations. There of course is foundational planning, but where it can go is not always predictable. In the case of Verzuz, they had to find a way to accommodate the unexpected influx of fans.”

Fast forward to one of the latest Verzuz, with Too Short Verzuz E-40, and you’ll see that the battle had seamless production with no technical issues and viewers could watch with ease. 

There are some silver linings of not being able to tour. Many musicians staying at home now have the opportunity to reflect and be more creative. There is a lot of recording happening right now. Tareef mentioned a musician that has produced eight albums in 2020 alone.  He is also seeing more artists collaborations currently, and believes that this is because musicians are more available to engage collectively. 

Fans also have more time to absorb all the music that artists are putting out. There are fans listening to whole albums instead of just singles. It’s more clear than ever that music is an essential part of what uplifts and connects us on a human level. 

“There is a reflective spirit happening right now in the music industry. With everyone sitting still it gives people the opportunity to be more creative and work on projects they weren’t able to do before or that have been on the shelves. It is also a blessing for many to be able to spend more time with family and focus on their health.” said Tareef

Tareef Michael, Wu-Tang Clan's Manager

Tareef Michael, Wu-Tang Clan’s Manager and Park Hill Co-Founder

The entertainment industry also benefits from a strong sense of community that other markets don’t have to the same extent. Tareef suggested that the shared trauma of 2020 has been the catalyst for uniting artists in the entertainment industry.

“2020 was one of the biggest moments for entertainers [such as artists, musicians and athletes] to come together, to collaborate and join forces to bring about change. A lot of entertainers have found their philanthropic side and are committing to something bigger than themselves.” 

When asked what he thinks the future of work will look like, Tareef explained his belief that both professional culture and our society as a whole have  become increasingly impersonal. He expects this shift to continue.  

“More people will work and function in their daily lives from home or remotely. For a long time, we have been driving ourselves to a more impersonal society through isolation resulting from digital communication. We are all going to be in our bubbles. If we saw nothing else from this year, we saw that we can stay at home and function close to normal. This will shift the use of office space and it will be interesting to see how these spaces will be used moving forward. I believe the only moments of personal interaction, for most people, will come from home or us getting out to entertainment and sporting events.”

Tareef’s perspective on the future of work encompasses far more than the entertainment industry alone. He went on to explain that while he admires tech innovation, he has concerns about how advances in areas like AI could displace workers. 

“A lot of people enjoy the imagination behind the ideas of new technologies, but don’t understand what these advances will lead us to. For example, diesel trucks are being designed to transport goods without human drivers. That takes away jobs and also things like disability and medical. Now the only thing employers need to pay for is vehicle maintenance.” Tareef suggested that innovators in any field, but especially in tech, must consider the long-term toll of advancements, so that proper steps can be taken to offset issues like workforce displacement. 

This pandemic has given many people the chance to reflect inward and reevaluate their path. Tareef pointed out that workers in most industries now have the option to work from almost anywhere in the world, which opens up a massive range of opportunities. 

‘We live in a society where everything is at your fingertips to have access to in the world. You’re not geographically limited. In fact you are usually not limited at all. The only limit that you have is the limit that you put on yourself. This whole pandemic has allowed people to reconnect to themselves and what matters.”

As one door closes, another one opens. The creative minds of the music industry didn’t let the pandemic derail their focus or their lives, and the rest of us shouldn’t either. We can learn a lot from that adaptability, and we can take advantage of opportunities for personal and professional reinvention if it could lead to increased success or fulfilment.

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Roland Millaner