Interviews: Brian Mazzaferri, Dylan Russell, Andrew Nielsen (aka MC Lars)

In this post, you will find three interviews with three entrepreneurs. They were created to reflect on the possible parallel between entrepreneurship and the mythic structure of the journey of the hero, as articulated by Joseph Campbell. These interviews were conducted as part of the Arts Entrepreneurship program. 

Interview with Brian Mazzaferri smu arts entrepreneurship meadows school of the arts

By Sterling Gavinski

S: In your process of entrepreneurship, can you describe three significant obstacles you faced and how you overcame them?

B: The first and largest obstacle in our journey was obscurity. Nobody knew who we were when we started, which is obviously a big problem for a band. I’d say we solved that by hustling with a capital H. Everything we could think to do, we tried and there was no opportunity too small to pursue.  Eventually, people started showing up and doors started opening. The next obstacle was the stereotypical record label. In some ways, our victory became our obstacle, as once we had signed a major label deal, we found ourselves in a really tough spot. They wanted a “no brainer smash hit song” and we couldn’t for the life of us write one.  In the end, we stuck by our guns and got to make an album we loved. In my own personal charting of IFD’s hero’s journey, I’ve often referred to “KABOOM!” as the elixir that we grabbed and escaped the label’s clutches to bring it to the world. I’d say the third obstacle would be lack of money, once we were off the label. We escaped with our freedom, but we didn’t own any of our music. We solved that obstacle by using Kickstarter, and people rallied to the cause.

S: Were there any moments of your entrepreneurial process when you considered giving up? Or were there moments when there “seemed to be no light?”

B: Does “all the time” count as a moment?  I’d say we ran into adversity at almost every stop of the way, and it has been a constant struggle, but that has also been why it’s been so rewarding. We had to decide from there whether to keep fighting or just throw in the towel, and I’m happy to say that we chose to keep fighting.

S: What role has change played in your process, if any? Have you changed?

B: Oh man, in many ways I feel like each of our albums has been its own mini Hero’s Journey. From naive local band, “Cool Is Just A Number” took us out of our comfort zone and onto the national stage, touring the US with MC Chris and signing our label deal.  “KABOOM!” was a metamorphic journey like no other as I wrote song after song after song and the label didn’t like a single one, but we still pushed through and learned and grew and emerged with a heck of an album.

S: What key takeaway or knowledge have you gained as a result of your experience?

B: The key element is just to keep battling through, and the secret isn’t so much avoiding getting knocked down as it is continuing to get back up every time, no matter how painful it gets.

Brian Mazzaferri Hero Journey Analysis

Brian Mazzaferri’s story is very parallel to that of the Hero’s Journey. Along the way to what seemed to be a victory, Brian’s band, I Fight Dragons, named rightly so, fought a lot of dragons. Brian and I Fight Dragons’ Hero’s Journey seems to be defined by a multitude of obstacles and their ability to overcome them, due to perseverance. Brian utilizes terms such as “hustle” (with a capital H) and “pushing through” as key elements to fighting and slaying/ overcoming the multitude of dragons that are sure to approach you.

Brian describes the Ordinary World as “obscurity,” a place where all people on entrepreneurial journey’s must begin. I found it interesting that Brian was the only of my three interviewees who described life before and after the Ordeal in great detail. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Brian and I Fight Dragon’s Ordeal is perhaps the greatest of the three.

I imagine that Brian and his band originally viewed the composition of the “no brainer smash hit song” to be the Ordeal/ dragon to be slayed. However, it is clear that the true dragon was the record label itself. This entity appeared to keep a dark cloud floating above the head of our heroes, making it hard to proceed and even succeed despite the apparent intentions of the record label. The record label plays the part of the shape shifter, as it appeared to be a helpful Ally and maybe even a Mentor, but reveals itself to be a Dragon instead. Although the band originally viewed their record deal to be the elixir, they quickly realized that the Journey was far from over and their goal still out of reach.

Brian mentions the idea of change as an enormous aspect of the band’s Journey, stating that each of the band’s albums had “its own mini Hero’s Journey.” While the band was able to transform from “naïve local band” to national touring act, the journey itself involved many little metamorphoses. Brian refers to the band’s album “KABOOM!” as the true elixir, the prize worth of all the trouble, and a gift to the people. This entire process seems to be defined by hard work and the ability to keep your head high especially in tough times. Brain mentions his constant feeling of defeat and encounters with adversity throughout the entire journey. Despite this overwhelming feeling of defeat, Mazzaferri has learned that the only way to slay the dragon and obtain the elixir is to get up every time you get knocked down. Clearly, through his responses, you can infer that despite the years of struggling, the final result is incredibly rewarding.

Interview with Dylan Russell Dylan Russell arts entrepreneurship smu, meadows school of the arts

S: In your process of entrepreneurship, can you describe three significant obstacles you faced and how you overcame them?

D: I would say a big one is fear. Many people want to start earning income in a non-traditional way, but are either too afraid or too lazy to really get rolling on it. Time is another big one, when you try to hold down your normal job, as well as your “fun” jobs, things can get a little messy. Lastly, I’d say that money is a huge obstacle to anyone looking to start their own business. Most people go for a few years before making a profit, or even breaking even. That’s why I’ve decided to do my own business “on the side” so that there is less financial risk involved.

S: Were there any moments of your entrepreneurial process when you considered giving up? Or were there moments when there “seemed to be no light?”

D: Well, I went a full year only earning income by running a home studio. I was excited about the idea of committing to it for one full year, and seeing how much I could earn. I earned less than $10,000 that year, and it was a really good thing I had some “just in case” money saved up. There were many moments during that time when I considered giving up on the studio entirely, but I stuck it out. After that was when I really started looking at ways to do what I wanted to do alongside what I needed to do in order to support myself. 

S: What role has change played in your process, if any? Have you changed?

D: Change has played a huge role in everything I get into. If you aren’t open to change, especially in starting your own business, it will be hard to make it very far. Being open to others’ input, and knowing how to apply it successfully, is a huge part of being in charge of your own thing. Not saying you should change your business model every time someone complains, but try to look at that feedback objectively.

S: What key takeaway or knowledge have you gained as a result of your experience?

D: I have learned a great deal about talking to and dealing with people from my time running a home studio, as well as my time as a content creator. From learning how to be comfortable asking for money, to learning the importance of transparency, I feel that I have grown greatly in that area. Also, organization was something I used to (and still do) struggle with. I would have been greatly served by writing or typing down ideas as they came to me.

Dylan Russell Hero Journey Analysis

Dylan Russell’s Hero’s Journey contains many of the elements that are prevalent in typical stories of the same structure. Dylan discusses three huge constraints, (fear, time, and money) starting with the idea of fear as a limiter of success. Fear is typically what causes the hero to deny the Call to Adventure and, of course, miss out on an opportunity or lose something greater. He discusses time as an obstacle, considering the fact that often, entrepreneurs will have to take part in a “normal job” in order to pursue their alternative occupations. Time is often a prevalent factor in a Hero’s journey, particularly in the sense that the Call to Adventure will often lead to an Ordeal with a time constraint or countdown. The third obstacle he lists is money. Money, in my own observational opinion, could be considered a Test or even a means of success bestowed upon the Hero at his Meeting with the Mentor. Dylan re examines the idea of “normal job” again here, claiming his own business is “‘on the side.’”

At a point in his entrepreneurial journey, Dylan found himself at the end of a year with an earning of only $10,000. This point could be one of two things: I see it as either a Call to Adventure or an Approach to the Inmost Cave. It could be considered a Call to Adventure in the sense that Dylan received somewhat of a wake-up call and realized how he needed to fix the way he was living and working in order to improve his life, the rest of his life being the Journey itself. It could be an Approach in the sense that Dylan’s financial and occupational inadequacy could be considered a Dragon. The Ordeal is figuring out how to change his life and work towards a better future for himself and others by determining a way to balance his endeavors. Dylan notes that afterwards he “started looking at ways to do what [he] wanted to do alongside what [he] needed to do in order to support [himself].”

While I think Dylan manifests several archetypes typical to the Hero’s Journey, his answer to the question about change strikes me as that of a Ruler. He claims that an essential skill needed to be a successful entrepreneur is the ability to accept change and, more importantly, knowing when and how to apply the advice and input of others. His idea of observing feedback objectively allows him to find the most effective aspects of his peers and utilize them for the final project, whatever it may be. Through his Journey as an entrepreneur, Dylan has learned many valuable techniques necessary to the success of an independently run recording studio. He lists organization and personality as two very important factors. I think that these two ideas span much farther than the music industry and allow the self-improvement of any individual to come with ease.

Interview with MC Lars smu arts entrepreneurship

S: In your process of entrepreneurship, can you describe three significant obstacles you faced and how you overcame them?

L: It costs money to create any content. I overcame that by doing things cheaply: producing on my laptop, doing videos for reasonable budgets and using sites like Kickstarter. The second obstacle is having people care. Everyone is so inundated with media so anytime you create something there’s the obstacle of the apathy of the populous. I overcame that by using samples people recognized, talking about pop culture in a funny way and talking about Literature, a timeless theme. And third, you need a place to perform. I have been fortunate enough to be friendly and to be good at networking which has allowed me to get on things like the Warped Tour and opening for Snoop Dogg, even meeting people like Weird Al. The key is being confident, reaching out and having a good live show.

S: Were there any moments of your entrepreneurial process when you considered giving up? Or were there moments when there “seemed to be no light?”

L: I think the recession that hit in 08-09 put my career in a weird place because I had a great manager with a big company who left because of the recession and it was just a hard time for the music industry. So I had to really dig deep into myself to keep going. I had a friend who was young and he had committed suicide. I wrote a song about him and I teamed up with the American foundation for Suicide prevention and was able to keep his memory going by finding something outside of the music that helped me get past the recession when people weren’t investing money in music. 08 09 was a big game changer for people who had been doing it before and I survived, so I’m thankful.

S: What role has change played in your process, if any? Have you changed?

L: At this point I’ve realized that I’m never going to be a pop act because what I do is niche and different. But I have come to the point where I don’t see my self worth in how much money I make because as long as I’m sustained and I keep doing the art I believe in, I’m happy. The main change was realizing that my happiness comes from the art and not being invested in the outcomes.

S: What key takeaway or knowledge have you gained as a result of your experience?

I’ve really realized that the power of believing in yourself and manifesting success really works. If I didn’t have people in my life who were encouraging, I wouldn’t have passed out my demos and put this stuff out because when you’re at the bottom of the mountain and you see how big the mountain is, it can be daunting. The biggest thing I’ve taken away is that if you really believe in yourself, you can accomplish so much.

MC Lars Analysis Hero Journey Analysis 

Through my observations and gathering of data, I can definitely recognize a shared pattern between my interviewee MC Lars and the Hero’s Journey. Andrew Nielsen (aka MC Lars) began his journey at Stanford University, the Ordinary World of his journey and a place defined by “tradition.” Here, his plans to attain a degree were uprooted, non-violently however, by what Lars refers to as a “happy accident.” His passion for literature and an unsuspecting love for hip-hop music overcame him and he was called to adventure. Lars went on quite an adventure before he encountered his mentor, someone who properly equipped him for the long-term commitment that is a career in music in the 2000s. He was able to book his own tours, work with various independent record labels, and record music in his dorm room where he also attempted to balance school and his suddenly flourishing rap career. Lars graduated from college and his career took off as well. Everything seemed to be going great. In the financial crisis of 2008, Lars’ current manager, a very successful producer and agent lost his job and retired from the industry, leaving Lars questioning his finances and the future of his career. On top of that, a close and young friend from Stanford ended his life shortly after. These events took a toll on Lars, causing him to consider completely changing the course of his life. During the pre-production stages of his 2009 LP “This Gigantic Robot Kills,” Lars enlisted two people to perform on the record who ended up changing his life: Brendan B. Brown of the band Wheatus and Weird Al Yankovic. The two acted as mentors to Lars. Brown gave him financial and business expertise while Yankovic taught him to be humble and respectful. Clearly Lars’ journey is very similar to the template presented by “the Hero’s Journey,” but it is not identical as many major events share multiple representations. Encountering Brown and Yankovic acts as both sort of “meeting with the mentor” and a “return with the elixir.” While both people acted as mentors, it appears to me as though they also serve as a reward of sorts for Lars’ ability to transcend the inner most cave of his journey thus far. Weird Al (as Lars’ childhood hero) was able to present Lars with powerful information to be used to make it through the future- This is clearly representative of the meeting with the mentor. However, due to the sporadic order of Lars’ journey (and the fact that it is far from over) it is unjust to declare his life as a direct parallel to the hero’s Journey. While many similar events occur and archetypical characters appear throughout, Lars’ journey is complex and must be studied as a separate entity.

These interviews and analyses were conducted by student Sterling Gavinski for the Arts Entrepreneurship program at Meadows School of the Arts, SMU. They were created for the class Entrepreneurship and the Hero Adventure and are part of a blog series called Heroes Among Us.

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