Founder and chief executive of independent music company UNIFIED Jaddan Comerford was surrounded by an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age, and with a passion for music but no desire to perform himself, he began a small record label fresh out of high school in 2004.
Fast-forward to seven years later, Comerford changed the name of his business and set out with a clean slate and a vision to help build careers. Today UNIFIED runs independent record labels, offers artist management and has divisions dedicated to merchandising and music publishing. The business employs 38 people, has annual revenue of more than $7 million, and is looking to build a “serious presence” all over the world.
Thirty-three-year-old Comerford spoke to SmartCompany about his journey in the often tumultuous music industry, and how some strong business decisions built UNIFIED into the independent powerhouse it is today.
I started UNIFIED as it’s currently known in 2011, but the business has existed as an earlier incarnation since 2004.
Back then I was 20 years old and with very little business experience. I finished high school and started a record label called Boomtown Records, whilst also studying a business degree at Victoria University.
I loved music and I played in bands at school, but I didn’t have the passion to do it professionally. My family is full of businesspeople, from plumbers to factory owners, so the entrepreneurial spirit was there from the beginning.
I knew I wanted to do something and music was my passion, so I went with that.
I was able to start a business at such a young age thanks to my parents and grandparents being big on shares. I mentioned to them I didn’t want to be a performer, so when I was 10 I sold my clarinet and bought shares in NAB.
My grandfather also bought all the grandkids 10 shares each when we were quite young. He told us they would go towards our first mortgage.
Well, mine went towards starting my business. Those shares helped out massively early on when I found myself short on capital with a bill to pay, I would just go sell some shares.
It used to kill me at the time, but I’m glad I invested in myself now.
After running Boomtown Records for a while, I realised I wanted to start with a clean slate and execute the vision I had for my business. I was obsessed with the concept of building something.
It wasn’t until recently that I nailed in my own mind what that ‘something’ was — it’s the idea of building and growing careers.
I have people who have been working with me for 12 years now, and whether it’s for the staff or for our clients, I’m in the business of building people’s careers. That’s really struck a chord with me.
It’s not all about making money. It’s that concept of feeling like you’re contributing to someone’s career, and that’s something satisfying.
We struggled early on with cashflow and funding, and it’s really hard to understand it as an early stage entrepreneur.
I look at our cashflow now and if I see we’re going to be down in August, I just move some things around to deal with it. Back when we started, I used to just think we were screwed.
I didn’t have the maturity to know that every company has cashflow issues — it’s a reality of business. Something like knowing what to do when you are challenged with cashflow issues or anything else is all about experience.
I still don’t know everything, I’m far from it, but that experience has given me enough to have a bit of an idea.
I like to think I’m pretty level-headed, but I’m also quite passionate. There have been times when we’ve hired the wrong person and I’ve struggled.
You can really feel it when you haven’t got the right people in place in your business.
The business today has a strong structure, where I’m the chief executive and I have four main general managers who report to me. Those managers also have their own people reporting up to them.
I’m all about investing in people who can be autonomous in their roles. It can’t be you making all the decisions.
People ask me how it’s possible to lead and grow a business while dealing with things like HR and hiring, and I tell them I just don’t deal with it. It just wouldn’t be possible.
I personally manage artists like Amy Shark and Vance Joy. I couldn’t manage them and deal with all the aspects of the business, so that’s why it’s structured like it is.
We try to use the word UNIFIED as much as possible, and my name as least as possible. People get looked after, and people know the person I am. I’m not just some guy at the top getting rich.
When I started Boomtown Records in 2004, iTunes was just launching and Napster had pretty much destroyed the music business. I didn’t know that; I used Napster and I had a CD burner, and I didn’t understand the impact it had.
So when I started the record label, I was in the new world of the music industry. I had to learn to run and build a business in a time when it was really rough, which definitely helped me build UNIFIED today.
Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have come through and completely revolutionised the industry. We’re seeing businesses coming back to a place of prosperity, and some being bought and sold for hundreds of millions of dollars like back in the early 1990s.
We invest in some businesses ourselves, and I want to launch our own investment fund to build the careers of young entrepreneurs in the same way we build the careers of artists.
Signing Vance Joy was a game changer for the business. When we signed him no one knew who he was, we just thought he was amazing. He had never done a live show at that time.
It allowed me and my wife to relocate to the US and really focus on building the business. One of my main focuses is on globally expanding the business, and we now have offices in London and LA.
We’re here and we’re building the business. Replicating a company on a global scale is not an easy thing to do.
The best thing I ever did in the early days was just get into it and start doing things. Be okay with making mistakes because that’s the only way you’re going to learn.
As much as I look back and regret some things, I’m thankful I know how it feels to be almost bankrupt and to lose millions on a deal — but I also know what it’s like to be on the flip side of that.
We’re a global company and we want to have a serious presence across Europe, America, and Australia. I want to stay true to my vision and keep building careers while contributing something positive to the world.