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Singer Keith Cullen: Why every creative artist needs to think like a CEO

Keith Cullen, professional recording artist
Keith Cullen is a Dublin-born singer/songwriter whose debut single, "Say Something," recently hit the Billboard Dance charts.
Source: Keith Cullen

When I was growing up in Ireland, we had to take what was called the Beep Test in physical education. We'd start at one end of the gymnasium and have to run to the other end before the beep rang out.

After 10 rounds the beep got faster and faster. People who were unfit would drop off. It became a competition among the best athletes, who would eventually get picked for the skilled sports.
I did anything I could to avoid the Beep Test. As a teen, I was overweight and unfit. I was the kid you'd find sitting in the bleachers writing songs instead of playing football.

Eventually, I got tired of the humiliation. I realized I had to pay attention to life's feedback. I started eating better and exercising more. I saw that building my physical stamina would not only help me make it through the Beep Test but perform better on stage, too. I now work out with a personal trainer. When he put me through an aerobic test recently, I aced it.

My experience with the Beep Test, dreadful as it was, shaped the approach I take to my career as a musician. Recently, I have signed a publishing deal with multi-Grammy Award-winning producer Robert Cutarella, and I've released singles like "Say Something," which made it to the top 20 on the Billboard charts. I've realized I can't focus only on my music, much as I would love to do that. I've got to perform in other areas of my life — and running my business as a creative professional is an important one.

For me, thriving in a hugely competitive creative field requires me to use a three-pronged approach. It's one that I believe will help many independent creative professionals succeed as entrepreneurs. Here is what it takes.

1. Think like an executive

Today's creative artists are expected to master many things beyond their music, from social media to online event management. Instead of trying to handle it all on my own, I've recruited experienced executives to help me. For instance, as my music caught on, I hired Phil Q, a music manager who has held executive positions at Virgin Records, Warner Bros. Records and EMI. He has been involved in the careers of recording artists ranging from Linkin Park and U2 to Josh Groban and the Spice Girls.

My manager has advised me that for every marketing dollar we spend, we need to see a return of $3 and create a brand that will be relevant for years to come. Most artists don't think along those lines naturally. I don't, either.

At the end of the day, however, I've learned I need to think like a business person to sustain my career for the long term. As a result, the challenge he set out really excites me — and I'm working just as hard to meet it as I did to pass the aerobic test.

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2. Diversify your social circles

One thing that has helped me think like an entrepreneur is becoming good friends with a number of CEOs that I've met through my professional endeavors. I believe life is one big networking event and feel it is exceptionally important to surround myself with people in all fields — not just my own — who inspire me and encourage me to pursue my vision. I've made it a habit to ask for their insights on building my creative business. I don't mind being the dumbest person in the room.

One CEO gave me powerful advice that has helped me tremendously in my career: Ski with your knees bent, so when you hit the bumps, you won't fall over. "You're always going to have setbacks," he told me. The key was bracing myself with nerves of steel, intuition and honesty, he said.

That advice has helped me throughout many creative false starts, failed launches, financial losses and so many broken promises I've lost count. The knocks still hurt, but now I frame them in my mind as an endurance test, and it helps me keep going.

3. Create a safe space

In any creative field, you'll encounter detractors. There can be valuable lessons in their sometimes painful feedback. Nonetheless, I found that when I work in a nurturing environment, it is easier to put my ego aside, listen to what the world is telling me and use it to get better.

To create a sheltered setting, I enlisted my sister, who has a background in professional management, to start Believe Management, an incubator for me to grow as an artist. It has gradually morphed into a full-service agency that includes other artists who share a similar artistic vision.

One CEO gave me powerful advice that has helped me tremendously in my career: Ski with your knees bent, so when you hit the bumps, you won't fall over.

Working from the incubator doesn't shield me from every Beep Test in life — nor would I want it to. Still, it gives me the distance I need to recognize the situations when I need to act on the feedback I'm getting and when it's better to do nothing at all.

Like most creative professionals, I want to leave my mark on the world in a positive way. That will only happen if I stay focused on what's really important: making the best music I can and creating a business that sustains it.

Keith Cullen is a Dublin-born singer/songwriter whose debut single, "Say Something," recently hit the Billboard Dance charts. @keithcullen