SEAN O'LEARY has combined his passion for music and art with his talent for making creative people thrive under his management to found SYFR Projects. Sean’s background includes over 8 years in sales, strategic partnerships, and scaling startups. In his most recent startup, Sean played a critical role in bringing the now billion-dollar tech unicorn, Pendo, into the Pacific Northwest market. At the time, he was the youngest employee at the company. Growing up, Sean was the frontman in a number of his brother’s bands covering everything from Johnny Cash to Muse. As CEO of SYFR, Sean is using ‘Agile’ business practices adapted from companies like Pendo to develop artists, art, and meaningful partnerships.
How was SYFR Projects created and how do you decide what creators you will support and work with?
SYFR Projects was first created around the development and management of our artist and co-founder WONDR. We got our start two years ago booking and promoting shows in Nashville, TN. As new opportunities and needs for WONDR arose, we studied and built relationships that, to this day, continue to help us create, market, and protect our artist’s intellectual property. “We win by helping others win” is our #1 core value and has been at the center of everything we’ve done since day one. We have helped artists and individuals, on and off our roster, with everything from performance and vocal training to representation at film festivals and modeling. Every business and artist win at SYFR has come from helping the creative people around us enjoy the work they do.
There are two things we consider when making a decision to help or bring on a new artist: talent and belief. Talent is an apparent effortlessness and style in which someone creates. Belief is energy behind their talent. We ask ourselves the following questions: If we do not work with this artist, what will they do with their talent and energy tomorrow? And will the value we bring help guide and protect their talent and energy? For lack of a better way of saying this, if the answers to these questions align with our values and resources, we will bring on a new artist.
Artist development and growth is an important mission for SYFR -- how do ensure that your artists have access to the resources and support they need to be successful?
We are a music startup that employs our own version of “Agile Methodology” learned and adapted from experience with some of the world’s most successful technology companies. This process allows us to better understand our artists and acquire the resources and support they need to be successful. Originally used as a way to improve efficiency in software development, we use Agile’s incremental and iterative work sequences called “sprints” to learn, experiment, test, assess, repeat efforts that drive growth, and quickly move on from ones that detract.
Although we are a small company, our version of Agile has helped us execute successful projects across most major DSP and social media platforms, build a network of radio and industry professionals, develop high-quality music and content at an increasing pace, learn about publishing and entertainment law, launch successful activations with brands, and so much more. While we may not have all the information or resources our artists need at the moment, Agile allows us to quickly assess what our artists may need, figure out how to get it, then execute. We have put together an intro outlining how we use Agile at SYFR Projects and happily share it with artists and teams who reach out to us.
What common obstacles do you and creators you work with encounter within music publishing, and what ways have you found are best to overcome these?
We see and encounter a number of common obstacles within music publishing. Publishing can be technical and requires some legal and business IQ in order to understand and form agreements. In the simplest of scenarios, where you are the sole writer, producer, engineer, and publisher for your work, understanding that there is a composition, where/how to register it, and the types and percentages of royalties owed to you as a songwriter and/or publisher requires homework.
When there are multiple creators involved in a project, the biggest obstacle we see is a sensitive creative process. Publishing conversations that have to be had can easily cause tensions and prevent great music from being created or released. Solutions like attorney’s cost money. Managers do not always understand the complexities of publishing and the creative process. The best tools we have found to overcome these obstacles are books, open conversations, and partners. The textbook we refer to most on music publishing is “Music Publishing - The Complete Guide 1st Edition” by Steve Winogradsky.
We take whatever time is needed with our artists and the artists we collaborate with to make sure they are educated on publishing and understand why we structure contracts the way we do. When we make a mistake or learn something new, we circle back to old agreements and make revisions. Finally, we partner with companies like BMI and Songtrust who help us honor agreements once they’ve been signed. Having a friend or two in entertainment law is extremely helpful as well, especially if you are providing a service to others.
What are some of the important factors you look for in the publishers or publishing administrators you work with?
When it came to choosing a publishing administrator, there were a number of factors that are important to us. The most important is that the company we partner with does not take a percentage of our artists’ compositions. A small fee and short-term net royalty for collection services that we are unable to do ourselves are acceptable, as long as the % is reasonable, the payment is prompt, and the term is short. We are not looking to give away percentage points on a composition to an administrator at this time. The goal in operating this way is to avoid inviting an unwanted 3rd party into any future decisions/negotiations involving an artists’ composition. We believe ownership is of paramount importance at SYFR. We structure agreements to allow our independent artists to collaborate with outside producers and songwriters and retain 100% ownership of their compositions. If one of our artists were to consider a traditional publishing deal we would help them evaluate the rooms of writers that company would get our artist into, the success of their licensing department, their development resources, the upfront advance, and weigh the percentage take on compositions against the opportunity provided.
What changes do you hope to see within the music industry, especially for the newer generations of DIY creators?
Going back to our core value “we win by helping those around us win” and the common obstacles mentioned above, knowledge is gold in this industry. We are always working to learn and have at times spent months trying to learn something that we now explain to other artists in less than a minute. We’d like to see more quality and up to date music business information being shared with this newer generation of DIY creators who more often than not have to build a business around their craft to succeed.
What positive changes have you seen during your time working with creators in the music industry?
We are seeing more and more creatives take time to learn about publishing. We see more creatives thinking about their craft as a business and how their business will make money, secure partnerships, and last. We think this is pretty cool.
How did you hear about us and why did you choose to work with Songtrust? What has made your relationship with us so successful?
We were introduced to Songtrust by Alex, an A&R at Songtrust, who we were introduced to by Jacqueline, a team member at Downtown Music Publishing. Jacqueline knew we were studying music publishing and administration companies. We evaluated a number of companies before being introduced to Alex. At that time, we were going to let royalties go uncollected and deal with finding a solution around a two-year mark where the risk of not being able to retroactively collect publishing royalties exists. We choose to work with Songtrust because they take 0% of our artists’ compositions, have a short-term agreement, and are trusted by Downtown Music Publishing for administration. Songtrust also had the best customer educational resources and customer service by far.
If you could give any advice to up-and-coming creators, what would you say?
Be patient and do the work. While you work, think about what you can do to help the people around you win. Also, make sure that every person who takes the time to lend a hand or listen to your music is shown appreciation. You can best do this by making the most of their help.
What are the goals for SYFR Projects in the upcoming year?
Our goals this year are to break our artist WONDR, scale new and existing partnerships in music, entertainment, and fashion, grow our management team, and sign 1-2 new super talented artists. Looking for a badass female artist in particular!
Lastly, what is your go-to playlist/song right now?
As I answer these questions, I am listening to The Classical Takeover - Sheku Kanneh-Mason on Spotify. This is my go-to playlist while I work. I spend the rest of my time listening to the music our artists WONDR, Liion, and AJ are working on. I listen to a lot of music outside friends are working on too.