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Ways We Work

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Zack Leighton

Executive Director of the Canadian Independent Recording Artists' Association

Zack is the Executive Director of the Canadian Independent Recording Artists’ Association or CIRAA. A national non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to providing thousands of these artists across the country with music industry education, career opportunities and professional support.

What do you do?

My work focuses on Canada’s artist entrepreneurs – professional, independent musicians that lead active careers in the Canadian music industry, autonomous of support from music businesses.

As Executive Director I work closely with our board of directors to further our mandate and vision for the organization. With a small support staff, I make sure that our programming is properly administered and that we are actively engaging our current and prospective members with desirable offerings. I am also responsible for funding and sponsorship initiatives, partnerships and industry engagement and along with our board president, I lead our advocacy initiatives in Ottawa. I am also a music industry advisor to the Ontario Media Development Corporation.

Outside of CIRAA, I operate an emerging company called Bandbox that specializes in development and alternative funding for artists, labels and festivals primarily. We help these individuals and companies reach their own goals through strategic planning, grant writing, networking and representation. Sort of like a hired gun or a music industry “utility knife.” Bandbox has a management team as well under the name ORE.

What do you find most rewarding about your role? Most challenging?

Canadian artist entrepreneurs are an underserved population of professional artist. Many of us know local artists that are touring 100+ dates every year, creating music, selling albums and merchandise, receiving radio play, placing their music in film and television and so on. There are an astounding number of artists that are not successfully making a living making music yet because they have carved out a unique career path that may not fit into a traditional music industry model. Often they are neglected by various organizations and funding bodies in our country. They exist in an industry that is at times quite volatile and disenchanting when support is clearly not available.

CIRAA is providing small opportunities for these artists where they do not exist and we are furthering their collective voice among policy makers, public servants, politicians and the like. Our programs are becoming more and more coveted, our membership is expanding and we’ve established a strong voice among government at a provincial and federal level. It’s incredibly rewarding to make a difference in the careers of over 12,000+ artists nationwide – big or small. CIRAA is doing just that and in 2015, we believe our initiatives will have an even larger impact. 

Bandbox gives me the opportunity to work in a more one-on-one role with many established and emerging Canadian acts. If CIRAA is the macro, Bandbox is the micro – I get to provide insight and support to some of Canada’s best acts. Being a part of their team without having to fill the role of manager or label, etc is incredibly rewarding. I guess you can sort of think of it like an advisor to a king?

How do you stay up to date with trends in your industry/field?

The music industry in Canada is relatively small. I suspect you’d like me to mention some sort of news feed here. Yes, I do read Lefsetz Letter, I follow FYI Music, Hype, CBC, Exclaim, Godin, etc. Really, I find that the best way to stay up to date is to stay in touch and be present. Attending events, going out to shows, meeting with colleagues for the sake of a conversation – it all goes a long way. Keeping your ear to the ground and the phone line open has served me very well. I believe that involves building the right relationships and going out of your way to keep in touch.

What are your top five applications or programs?

, Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Illustrator/Photoshop

Bonus: The Democracy Now App (does that count?)

Best way to stay on top of email?

Manage your notifications at their source. The back end of our website could potentially send me a notification every time someone uploads a photo or changes their password. I’ve made a point to make sure that I’m only receiving the information I need – no fluff. That goes for everything I’m connected with. Not to sound like a jerk but “Unsubscribe” is a beautiful word. Also, learn how to use the “Create Rules” function. Will change your life. 

Otherwise, check often, stay on top of clearing your inbox and take the time to answer as soon as possible… although, I must say that as I answer this question, I’m sure my Outlook may say otherwise. Busy week back from holidays.

What is your best time-saving trick?

Make lists and learn to delegate responsibilities to your team.

One non-tech thing you can’t live without?


Structure of your typical day, how do you divide your time?

Get out of bed. Wake up half way to work.

The beginning of the CIRAA day is spent answering emails, deciding what music is going to be played in the office that day and prioritizing what needs to get done. I check in with our board president (probably more than I should), talk about what we’re currently working on. Most of my day is spent on evolving projects – advocacy, funding, program development. I will also spend some time checking in on the more static/administrative side of things however our Director of Member Services is an all-star and does an incredible job. I never schedule phone calls earlier than noon but the afternoon will often have 2 or 3 calls or meetings. 

At night I work on Bandbox and ORE related projects. Grant writing, checking in with artists, strategy development, website development – whatever is on the table. About three nights of the week I am out at an event, show, showcase, etc.

What is the greatest piece of career advice/wisdom you've ever received?

I’m going to cheat and give two answers here because they’ve been equally as important to me at this point in my career.

 The first speaks to obsession. It’s a word that traditionally has a negative connotation but I certainly believe it can be seen in a new light. If you become obsessed with what you do – passionate, interested, actively pushing yourself to become more and more immersed - you will become a master. Make that masterful obsession known to those around you and you will be an authority. I’m fairly sure I heard that from Gregg Terrence, president of Indie Pool.

The second speaks to personal benefit through helping others achieve their own goals. By providing independent artists with the tools and support they need to increase their own music business literacy, to develop their own audiences, to connect their music to professionals, media outlets and digital platforms, etc, we are setting a foundation conducive to a strong talent supply chain. By the time these artist entrepreneurs are ready to further expand their audiences by working with more commercial music businesses, they will have a well-rounded career and will be ready to maximize their potential. Canada will benefit from global artist ambassadors with robust business skills and innovative, competitive music. I strongly believe that we must co-create the conditions for people to transform themselves and I think that can be applied to any industry.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

I’d love to see an artist entrepreneur on here. DCF/Prince Caspian, Nick Ferrio, Donovan Woods? Lisa Humber is pretty incredible – she’s carved an amazing career as one of Toronto’s premier stage managers for theatre. She also runs aBabe Music… if you’re from Toronto, that’s definitely a need to know. Sean Ramesbottom over at Pirate's Blend could offer some awesome answers to this too I think.

I love what you’re doing. Keep doing this.