The Recording Academy’s Panos A. Panay On How The Grammys Aim To Reach New And Younger Audiences

Don’t be afraid to fail. If you don’t fail you don’t innovate, you don’t learn. Simple. No one ever learned anything new without failure. Riding a bike? Reading? Playing the piano? So may inventions were created as a result of failure: Louis Armstrong invested scat singing because his music stand fell during a live recording; Ike Turner invented rock and roll distortion because his amp fell off the back of a truck.

As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” — though this one is more of Brand Innovation — I had the pleasure of interviewing Panos A. Panay.

Panos is the Co-President & Chief Revenue Officer for the Recording Academy, which is the organization behind the esteemed GRAMMY Awards.

In his role, he drives business growth and innovation across the entire organization to further expand the service offerings for Academy members and the industry.

Prior to joining the Recording Academy, Panos was the founder of music promotion platform Sonicbids, served as the senior vice president for Global Strategy and Innovation at Berklee College of Music and is a fellow at MIT Connection Science.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have always had a passion for enabling music talent to maximize its potential and reach an audience. I started my career as a talent agent in the mid 1990’s booking artists like Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Nina Simone and many other jazz greats. It showed me the impact that music can have on a global stage and the universality of the artform. My experience as a talent agent, informed the founding of my company Sonicbids, one of the first online platforms that made it easy for bands, especially independent bands, to connect with music promoters around the world. We were an early pioneer in the space, one of the first online companies empowering non-label affiliated artists. I started the company out of my apartment in Newton, MA, funded it with mostly savings and credit card debt and ran it for 13 years until I sold it to the then-parent company of Billboard Magazine. At that time, we had over 500,000 members and helped some 1 million gigs happen through the site.

Can you share a story about the funniest business, career, marketing, branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started my career as a talent agent in the mid 1990s, I got a call from someone called “David Matthews” who wanted to collaborate with our artist Pat Metheny. I thought wow, Dave Matthews wants to collaborate and record with Pat, AMAZING! At the time the Dave Matthews Band was huge and thought, hey that made sense that he’d be a Pat Metheny fan. We talked for about 25 mins, thought he was super cool and set on motion a whole process to get “David” and Pat to connect. Long story short, Pat got on a call with someone called David Matthews who ended up being, well, NOT Dave Matthews. So, Pat politely listened and turned him down, it happened to be another Pat Metheny musician fan who probably was pinching himself that he got to talk to Pat’s agent and then to Pat. So, I guess the lesson is: Don’t be afraid to ask the obvious question. Are you THE Dave Matthews?

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

Yes, I remember when after years of persistence at Sonicbids I managed to get South By Southwest (SXSW) as an exclusive partner where Sonicbids would be the only way for bands to apply to perform at the festival. I started talking to them in 2001 and did not sign a deal until 2007. After that, it put us on the map. And it catalyzed a whole slew of new promoters (we grew to have over 32,000 events on the platform) joining the site. Nearly seven years later, when I sold Sonicbids, the single most important catalyst for the sale was our subscription model (reoccurring revenue) and the partnership with SXSW. The takeaway for me is that you have to earn your stripes before a major company will pay attention to you as a startup. There’s no shortcuts. But if you hang in there long enough and focus on the job, the results, the value you are generating, the pay off will come.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am jazzed by the idea of expanding what the Academy and what the GRAMMYs do beyond what we are primarily known for today. Our job as an Academy is to keep replenishing, building and expanding the ecosystem for all creators that enables them to thrive, be inspired, express their talent, build their careers, and expand their reach across the globe — because nothing in my view is more important to our social fabric than music. Music teaches us to feel, to love, to emote, to learn, to understand, to share, to want to grow, want to become a better version of ourselves. And that musical talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not, so bringing what the Academy does to cultures around the world, outside of the American continent is a big part of what we are looking to do. Not just the show, but the educational, advocacy and support efforts that we so passionately pursue every day.

I am also excited about all the new avenues that we have to engage creators and audiences today, outside of the broadcast network medium. This year around the 2022 GRAMMY Awards, we did an innovative partnership with Roblox that saw the GRAMMY experience expanding into the 40 million daily users of their gaming platform; we are actively looking into metaverse partnerships; we did a partnership with Binance to explore digital ticketing, tokens and other blockchain related activations; we partnered with OneOf on a super cool NFT offering of GRAMMY artwork; and we also struck a major partnership with Facebook where over 130 million people saw the GRAMMY telecast performances within the first 72 hours after the show. I can go on and on but there is no better time in my view than NOW to look at all kinds of new stages and business models that we can expand into as an Academy, as an advocacy and educational platform for creators.

What advice would you give to other innovators / business people to thrive and avoid burnout?

I loved reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a young college student, it changed my life. The whole approach of “Sharpening the Saw” meaning paying attention to replenishing yourself mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically shaped my ability to just keep going. Remember that your own well-being is what makes EVERYTHING else possible. Ignore yourself at your own peril. I meditate, read, exercise and remember to have meaningful personal conversations every day. That’s my nourishment.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to always finding ways to keep it relevant and innovative?

A brand is a living, breathing thing. It’s not stale or built in cement. It’s organic, it requires care, replenishment, growth, watering, pruning. Look at great brands over the years that went stale and died or have become less relevant than they once were: GE, Kodak, Atari, Hewlett Packard, Polaroid. They were all pioneers, all leaders. If you confuse your purpose with your product, your invention with your intention, you are bound to become obsolete.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to innovate their brand/company to better serve clients/members, etc.? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

  1. Change is constant, embrace it. As I described above, it’s important to not conflate intention with invention, product with purpose. The GRAMMY Awards as a TV show is an amazing platform that has served us and our mission amazingly well for 65 years. But the world is evolving, viewing habits are changing, audiences for music are everywhere, and the very nature of a music creator is also being redefined. That’s why we are experimenting with all kinds of new partners in blockchain, gaming, metaverse, social, etc.
  2. Don’t be afraid to fail. If you don’t fail you don’t innovate, you don’t learn. Simple. No one ever learned anything new without failure. Riding a bike? Reading? Playing the piano? So may inventions were created as a result of failure: Louis Armstrong invested scat singing because his music stand fell during a live recording; Ike Turner invented rock and roll distortion because his amp fell off the back of a truck.
  3. Look for Unexpected Success: When things we expect to succeed, fail, we do postmortems and examine failure oh so closely. But when things we DON’T expect to succeed yield results, we often dismiss them as a fluke and move on. But many a business were created because they paid attention to unexpected success. Gloria and Emilio Estefan realized that crowds would love to get up and dance when they finished their straight up pop set with a fusion of Latin sounds and playing the conga. They then practically reinvested contemporary pop culture by fusing Cuban / Latin music with American pop. There would be no “Despacito” if there wasn’t a Miami Sound Machine.
  4. Ask a dumb question: Edwin Land invented the Polaroid instant camera because his young daughter asked one day after he took a picture of her with his film camera why couldn’t she see the photo instantly? That set him on a path to invent the Polaroid camera. Would Instagram exist today had that three-year-old not asked that question?
  5. Diversity is good for the environment, good for society and good for organizations: If you want to think differently, you have to bring different people together. You have to listen to different points of view, have different lived experiences, have your own assumptions challenged. Homogenous environments don’t survive for too long. At the Academy, I am proud to be part of a team that doesn’t just talk diversity, we embody it, we live it, we are it.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job at constantly staying relevant and innovating? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

I am a big fan of the job that Satya Nadella did at Microsoft (full disclosure, my namesake cousin, Panos C. Panay, is Chief Product Office there!). In many ways, this is a company that was still competitive, still incredibly valuable, but underperforming and under innovating and overdependent on a couple of long in the tooth product lines that it had introduced decades earlier. I am impressed with the way he and his executive team and board were able to execute a massive cultural shift, ween it off its dependency on minorly-incremental innovations on Windows and Office; and remade a 40 year old company into an innovative startup all over again, competing with companies like Amazon and Facebook that as half its age or less — and recapturing its pizzaz. That does not happen.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would call it the Listening Movement. In the 21st century there’s too much talking, not enough listening, too much broadcast, not enough reception. How different would our societies and world be if we all learned how to be better listeners?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Yes, my wife told me to learn how to substitute the words “have to…” to “get to…” Instead of thinking, gee today I have to call this person, go to that meeting, respond to this email, get on this airplane to go to that conference, think of the difference in perspective when you change all the “haves” to “gets”. You realize how blessed your life is.

How can our readers follow you online?

Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

The Recording Academy’s Panos A Panay On How The Grammys Aim To Reach New And Younger Audiences was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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