James Curtiss | Crain's Los Angeles

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

James Curtiss

Background:  

James Curtiss joined CMH Label Group in June 2005 as an online marketing and customer service representative. Among other projects at CMH, he has managed the production of hundreds of albums by the Vitamin String Quartet, which records covers of hit songs by popular artists.

The Mistake:

You do the best you can but you can’t hope or predict what is going to get you through fiscally in a commercial, creative capacity.

[Before CMH,] I was working as a customer service rep and as a buyer for this independent record store ... I thought I should parlay the connections I made and expertise I had into a gig at a label or something. My first job at CMH was an online marketing and internet customer service rep, which was hilarious to me because I was always the last person to get into technology. I talked my way into a position there by telling them, “a storefront is a storefront whether that’s in the real world or it’s brick-and-mortar. I can tell you exactly how I promoted things at the store and what I would have bought and stocked and why I would have done these things and how I would have promoted it. Take that and push it into the digital realm.”

Shockingly, I got the job and I was the first, and at that time, the only online marketing and customer service rep for CMH. I was dogged in my pursuit to not only do that but to also bring my own projects to the table. The mistake I made was not realizing that you never can tell where your hits are going to come from.

Sometimes you look at an artist and say, “This is fulfilling on one level, as music I want to interpret and cover.” On the other side you might say, “This artist is so massive, there’s no way it could fail,” and then years later the receipts are in and there’s a big empty space where that revenue ought to be.

You always try to do the best that you can, but sometimes you do things quickly and they get a little less worry and “love” and you put it out into the ether and whatever happens, happens. Whether that’s because people respond to the music, or a piece of the music gets used in a television show or some celebrity latches onto it and starts tweeting about it, all of a sudden this thing you gave maybe the bare minimum of focus turns out to be the biggest success you’re going to have that year. It could wind up being the biggest success you have for a matter of years.

You shouldn’t bet the farm on any one project.

The Lesson:

The one thing I had to learn after years of working in the record retail world and in A&R, project coordination and brand management is you shouldn’t bet the farm on any one project. You never know what’s going to be a hit and you never know what the shelf life of something is going to be.

I shouldn’t really have stressed out about some of the projects that wound up not being the successes or the breadwinners. It’s the things you don’t plan for that sometimes wind up being the biggest successes. It’s the things you think have died on the vine that might blossom two or three years down the road—however long it takes for someone to discover that thing.

In this age of instant gratification, it’s hard to tell people not to look at the immediate returns, but that’s one of the things to think about in a creative position. When it comes to working in a creative field, you have to set aside your hopes for immediate success because it might not be there.  

The best thing you can do is to do what you want because it’s fulfilling, for whatever reason. You just have to do the work and put it out there and see where the chips land. Predicting these things is always kind of ludicrous. As long as you’re doing something that’s fulfilling, then just hope for the best and do the work.

Follow Vitamin String Quartet on Twitter at @WeAreVSQ.

Pictured: James Curtiss. | Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media.

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