Interview with Lindsey Lerner - Founder, Level Exchange | Management Consultant, Steel Wool Entertainment/George Watsky

11 Jul 2017 3:18 PM | MC C (Administrator)


1. Success is such a personal concept – we all see and define it differently. How did you personally define your success?

I listened to a talk given by Laura Thompson of Google Ventures at the beginning of the year, and one piece of advice that she gave was that “if you’re not pants on fire excited about something, don’t do it.” For some reason that really stuck with me and, since then, it has been how I define success. If I’m able to get up every morning and do work that gets me “pants on fire excited” while paying the bills, then all is well. I believe that the reason why something may be “pants on fire exciting” to me is how much I am learning from the task, work, or experience. The bottom line is if I’m constantly learning then I would consider myself successful.

2. What advice would you give women who want to enter your side of the industry - What are your top three tips?

The first and most important piece of advice is just show up.  Go to that networking event that you were planning on blowing off. Don’t cancel your coffee meeting because it’s easier not to go. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable in a lot of situations. Most of the time when you don’t feel like doing something the best connections can be made.

Second is a piece of advice one of my mentors gave to me nearly 6 years ago: “NO - stands for NEW OPPORTUNITY.” I don’t need to tell anyone that rejection isn’t enjoyable, but to me, it means the next opportunity will be better.

Third, be persistent. Don't worry about being perceived as annoying, aggressive, weird, or overbearing - when you “annoy” the right person, they’ll see it as persistence - and that’s where magic can happen.

3. How have the personal and professional experiences in your life contributed to your success today?

Freshman year of college I found myself at the Delaware College of Art and Design in Wilmington, DE.

My photography instructor, Ron Brignac, told us to go out and "shoot" whatever we wanted. For the first assignment, I decided to take portraits of the people in the new city I was living in. I hit the streets with two other students, asking every person that we saw if we could take their photo. Common responses were, “no,” “absolutely not,” “you’ve got to be kidding me,” and most popular, “are you the police?”

We were about to give up and go shoot something else when we heard, “Yo, yo ladies! Wanna take my picture?” "Finally," I thought, "Someone wants me to take their picture; this is great!" I approached the boy, who looked a bit younger than me at the time, 16 or 17. I raised my fully manual black and white film camera to my face, adjusted all of the settings, zoomed in, and took a portrait of his face.  As I was adjusting to zoom back out, I saw movement outside of the frame. As I lowered the camera he lifted his shirt, revealing two pistols tucked inside of his boxer shorts.

The other two students I was with sprinted away. I stood there, he asked if I wanted to take another photograph, gave me daps, and let me walk away. It wasn’t until I rounded the corner that I ran back to my dorm. What had just happened? The guns themselves didn't bother me as much as the fact that a kid, nearly my age, felt the need to have them.

From that day forward I spent every weekend in Chinatown, Philadelphia photographing and learning the stories of the homeless people who resided there. Through these stories I realized that I couldn’t be a photographer - I needed to use art as a vehicle for change. The stories behind the images were more important to me than the photograph.

I made the decision to leave art school and ended up transferring to Bryant University, which is primarily a business school, but chose to study anthropology.

The music industry is the one place where I believe business, art and anthropology blend together.

Photography for me was about interpersonal relationships - meeting and connecting with people, learning about their backgrounds and then sharing their story.

I founded the company Level Exchange and every day I get to travel, meet new people, learn their stories and make connections. Music is an international language that is used to get the world talking.

Level Exchange exists to create equal exchanges between art and business.

4. Can you share with us some of the challenges you’ve faced?

Since I went to school for anthropology and decided I wanted to get into the music industry only after booking a few shows in a foreign country during a semester abroad, I think it’s safe to say I got a late start. It was a blessing and a curse to know nothing about the industry I decided to dive into. I say that because knowing nothing allowed me to be excited about every encounter, constantly ask questions and not be afraid about doing the “wrong” thing, because I didn’t know what the “right” thing was either.

During the Summer of 2014 I found out that George Watsky was going to be performing at House of Blues in Boston, so I cold emailed his manager (I won’t admit how many times), Kevin Morrow. Until that point in my life I thought I wanted to be a photographer, so I had decided my foot in the door was to ask to take photos at the show. In all of the internet stalking/cold emailing I had done previously I always made sure to do my background research, but for some reason I did not and made the assumption that since Watsky was a young guy, his manager was some other cool, young guy.

Dozens of unreturned emails later, I received a phone call: “Is this Lindsey?” “Yes…” “This is Kevin Morrow, Watsky’s manager. I received your emails and figured you weren’t going to stop, so what the f*ck do you want?”

I had no idea what I wanted, so instead I listened to him explain to me that he’s not some young guy - he was Senior Vice President of Tours & Talent and Senior Vice President of Club and Theatre Programming of House of Blues Entertainment and was VP of Touring for Live Nation for years before launching his new company, Steel Wool Entertainment. The rest of our hour long conversation revolved around stories of when he missed out on Gwen Stefani and all the times that he’s gotten to work with Eminem and BB King.

A year later I still had nothing to ask of him, but had gone to Los Angeles to visit a friend and decided to show up at his office. I explained to him that I’d been working on building a music scene in Providence, RI and would love his opinion. Surprisingly, he offered advice, but could care less about Providence and told me when I decided to stay in LA that I could be his assistant.

Another year and a half passed and I got another phone call, this time a bit more pleasant: “Lerner, I got a gig for you. Want to work with George?” “Of course.” “Okay, don’t screw up.” He then hung up the phone.

Long story, not so short - for the last year I’ve been working with George as brainstorm partner and executing on all of the crazy ideas he’s come up with. I’m currently on Van’s Warped Tour with George and the incredible musicians that are part of his band.

Every day is a new challenge, but it is also a learning experience and that’s the only way to get better.

5. What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned?

You get out what you put in.

6. What do you think is the most pressing issue women in the music industry face in your region?

Rhode Island does not have a music industry, which is one of the many reasons why Level Exchange exists. What we do have is a music community and the raw materials necessary to incubate an industry, but the puzzle pieces have yet to be put together.

Our team at Level Exchange is primarily male, but the ratio of males to females within the group of musicians we work with is approximately 50/50.  I never fully understood how skewed the ratio was within the industry worldwide until I attended Midem in June. It opened my eyes to how few women were really actively involved in the industry, and how few had decision making power.

As we grow Level Exchange we have full intentions to ensure gender equality across the board. The advantage of being in Rhode Island and building an industry from the ground up is that we are choosing equality as one of our initial building blocks, so it will always be at our foundation.

7. Who inspires you, and why?

I am constantly inspired by the incredible musicians I get to work with and the other people that work out of my co-working space at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse in Providence, RI. SEG is a space where everyone is encouraged to interact regardless of background, industry or age. Their accelerator programs focus on several different verticals which allow a lot of room for learning from different perspectives.

Being constantly challenged and engaged in conversation with leaders across health and wellness, environment, entertainment and government has been amazing when forming new ideas. It’s inspiring to hear how all of these different people and industries have solved problems in their fields and then find a connection back to the problems Level Exchange is working on solving.

8. What do you look forward to accomplishing at Level Exchange in the next year?

During the next year we plan on expanding our content studio into the Isle Brewer’s Guild in Pawtucket, RI.

The Guild is more than just a brewery - they work with established mid to large-size craft breweries looking to expand their capacity, sales and distribution. Beyond that, they’re a community of likeminded people coming together to assist other people in their field to learn and grow. They’re doing for other craft brewers what we want to do for musicians. And it just so happens that they need entertainment, which we can provide, and we need a bigger space for our studio, which they can provide.

Our goal will be to expand into their compound among other businesses that will also be moving in, including a coffee shop, bike share and other retail operations. This will allow us to grow and increase awareness of the music and artistic talent that exists in Rhode Island. By combining our local bands, brands and fans, we believe we can make the impact we’ve set out to have.

9. Tell us more about how you got involved in Level Exchange? What is your ultimate goal and what do you need to take it to the next level?

After a semester abroad in Chile, where I met a hip hop artist studying abroad in the same program, I returned to the U.S with my first management client. We thought that we were going to be able to easily book shows and gain fans like we had abroad, but were in for a rude awakening. When we booked shows in South America we were met with open arms and fans that truly appreciated the value of music, but when booking in the U.S our eyes were opened up to the system of “pay to play.”

I began talking to other musicians who told me that this was something they regularly did in order to play shows in their local scenes. This was absolutely ridiculous to me because the musicians were the ones bringing in people to the venues, they shouldn’t be the ones paying!

After interviewing and working with hundreds of musicians I realized that this wasn’t just a local problem, but an industry problem. This is really what inspired me to start Level Exchange to be able to bring fair trade principles to the music industry. Our goal is to level the playing field between music artists and their consumers. We believe we can do this beginning with our content creation studio. Please check out this video created by Fumetti Media, here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZiKVfByJVI&feature=youtu.be

In order to continue with this mission we will need the help of as many industry leaders as possible to set a new tone for what our industry could be. In addition to our for-profit arm, we are also a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas that allows us to accept donations. This page can be viewed here: https://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/fiscal/profile?id=15855

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