Image credit: Bobby Fisher
FEBRUARY 4, 2016
This story first appeared in the February issue of Entrepreneur. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Join Entrepreneur magazine in a live video chat with Hanson on Feb. 9, 2016. The Google Hangout on Air will stream live at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET. RSVP here.
Hanson could have been a one-hit wonder. (Remember “MmmBop”?) But rather than quit after their star fell, they took full control of their brand. Now they’re music makers, festival organizers, beer brewers and marketing masters — and still have legions of fans.
How’d they do it? Check out our Q&A with the busy blond-haired brothers.
“MmmBop” was an international hit. But then your major record-label deal started falling apart. Was that when you realized that to have a long career, you needed to be entrepreneurs as well as artists?
Isaac: We were always a bit hard-nosed, despite our cheerful demeanor. Our first manager really pushed that we not sell our publishing rights, which is one of the earliest things an artist will do: They’ll sell in order to get a cash advance. The premise of anything you do — whether it’s writing a song or any business — is ultimately that it hinges heavily on your belief in the thing that you’re doing and promoting and selling. It’s a reflection of who you are in a very deep way. We looked at it as: We care about the future of what we’re doing. This is not just a way to make a quick buck, but it’s ultimately a life to be proud of.
Taylor: There’s an epidemic in the music industry, which is the idea that artists need all these other people to succeed. You need the manager, you need the label, you need the publicist. But artists of all kinds — designers, painters, everybody — are now seeing that they can be their own brand manager and marketer. The whole creative world needs artists to embrace that. They are the center of their business, not just the center of their art.
Related: Your Recipe for Entrepreneurial Success: Creativity, Beliefs and Purpose
Still, there was surely a lot you had to learn. How did you begin?
Taylor: Distribution of records, retail, radio, press — all that stuff is critical. But our strategy first and foremost was to support this idea that we want to have a hard-core base. We wanted to make the community bigger than us. We can’t be in people’s eyes and ears every single minute of every day, so how can we create a culture with a community that fuels itself?
Isaac: As an example, no matter whether we’re releasing a record or not, every year we put out an EP and it goes directly to the fan club. So fan club members can expect to get five songs from us, hell or high water. And there are various things that go along with that release — watching us make it [through video the band shoots] — that’s always creating content for the core base to talk about.
Taylor: The challenge of most artists is: Labels fight with managers. Managers fight with publishers. Publishers fight with artists. And what we’ve done is bring all of those pieces under our roof so they can all work together, so they’re not in competition with each other. We don’t have one side of our business trying to screw the other side of our business.
When we started talking, I assumed you would have felt like artists learning to be businesspeople. But it seems the inverse: You created a business that was informed by your needs as an artist.
Taylor: That’s a pretty fair assessment. The art is the commodity. That’s the bread. That’s what matters because that’s what created the relationship, the economy of Hanson. And the other stuff, you can learn.
So how did you transition out of pure art, and into products such as your beer?
Taylor: We like to move our focus into areas that create community and create self-identification so that our fans who love our music, who love what we’re doing, can identify themselves in ways outside of just the song. The beer is like the ultimate evolution of that kind of idea. It can stand on its own, outside of what we do, because it’s a whole other artisan business. That’s why it’s evolved more and more into creating its own identity, with things like Hop Jam, our annual beer festival, that stands around Hanson. We’re at the festival, but it’s its own party.
It also strikes me as a smart way to sell more things to your fans. They’ve already bought the ticket to your show, after all, and they can only own so many T-shirts.
Taylor: It’s a natural step to say we’re playing a show, we should have our beer there. One, because we know our fans are five times more likely to buy our beer than someone else’s. And music and beer create the DNA of a great event, so we use that combination as a way to create a secondary event: We’re deejaying and playing the after party ourselves.
When we started producing beer, it was weird: There’s a perishable thing that’s in stores! A song, there’s never a point in which it’s going to go bad. I think that’s a blessing from the point of view of the creative and business minds. You have to measure yourself within those parameters. It keeps you thinking.
So why call it MmmHops? Were you worried it would seem like a novelty product?
Taylor: It was a question of whether you call out the elephant in the room or wait for others to call it out. What we’ve done with MmmHops is actively and proactively tell people, “We are and always have been proud of who we are and our music — and by the way, MmmHops is the 20-year personification of that brand.”
Zac: And we wanted to cut off newspapers from titling their articles, “Mmm, Beer.” Because that’s not even a pun. Also, in the end, you know that the name will get more attention than if it’s just called Hanson Brothers Pale Ale.
On your last tour you did two nights in each city: The first show was covers. The second was your songs. Where do these ideas start — thinking about how to increase your returns on the road?
Isaac: Like anything, it has to start with, is this a good creative idea? If you’re not passionate about it, it will have great risk of falling flat on its face. So the idea was, hey, playing shows that talk about our musical influences sounds really fun. But there’s only so many songs we can play on a set list, so maybe we should make it two nights.
Zac: It’s about expanding the experience, about finding ways for people to identify with the band in different ways. This is an example of how that progresses. It has incredible value because you get to walk in to a promoter and say, “We’re going to be twice as valuable to you.” But it’s risky because in some markets, that might not work. So what we try to do with our audience is ask a lot of them, and in turn require a lot of ourselves. We’re not averse to risk because we feel like we have tried to cultivate a relationship where fans understand that these experiences may not be your average band experiences, but if you make the effort to show up, to give your paycheck to Hanson, that you’re going to get a great experience.
Do you think being an artist makes you more willing to embrace risk?
Taylor: I know a lot of artists who are extremely afraid of risk. That’s why some never change their style. But I think it might allow you to realize that the future could be almost anything. It’s not that the risk is any less scary. It still keeps you up at night. But you have the natural ability to see the new potential in things and believe in the opportunity because you spent so much of your life creating things seemingly out of nothing.
Isaac: Being an entrepreneur means being a creative businessperson. The most creative person is not the person who can come up with the best idea; it’s the one who can take that group of things on the table and assemble them in the greatest multiple of unique ways.
Hanson in brief:
Music: The band releases albums on its own label, called 3CG.
Festivals: The group organizes an annual Hanson Day in Tulsa, full of events and seminars; Hop Jam, a craft brew and music festival also in Tulsa; and an annual destination show, in which the band fills a resort in Mexico or Jamaica, produces a weekend of activities and even curates the menus.
Beer: Its flagship brew is MmmHops, available in 20 states and online.