Musician Accountants Become Accountant Musicians: KEN Mode’s Matthewson Brothers Interviewed About Their New Artist-Focused Business Venture

The Jekyll and Hyde story of KEN mode’s Matthewson brothers – Jesse on guitar/vocals, Shane on drums – slogging it out on the noise rock/metal hit parade and tour circuit despite their backgrounds in business and accounting is one that has been talked about ad nauseam since the band dove head first into full-time status back around the time of their Venerable album in 2011. However, most people – including the band themselves – accept that it’s become an ongoing point of discussion because the situation is a unique one; schooled professionals making the conscious choice to go the way of the dirtbag, but also bringing a sense of smarts and professional decorum to living by the skin of one’s teeth. Recently, the Matthewsons have decided to take a step back from being full-time road dogs and focus on their new venture, MKM Management services, which combines their desk job skill set with their rock and roll lifestyle experiences. Not only does MKM put the brothers back in front of spreadsheets, tables and number crunching (not that those activities were ever erased from the ledger), but also swings the pendulum of discussion in the opposite direction, away from a focus on musicians with specialized professional skills and towards professionals who know what it’s like to eat shit in the name of artistic expression. Although, it should be noted that despite what you see and hear here, the AmRep and Descendants shirts are not being permanently replaced for business wear as KM is also partnering with Decibel to blur the lines even more and premiere their ironically-titled latest video, “Failing at Fun Since 1981,” which you can watch below. We caught up with Jesse and Shane (who were probably ensconced in the penthouse offices of one of downtown Winnipeg’s gleaming glass sky-scraping office towers. Or not.) to have them explain just what the hell it is they’re doing these days.

All right gentlemen, can you explain to us what the hell it is you’re doing these days?

Shane: We’re basically trying to find a service opportunity in the mid-point of the Venn diagram we seem to occupy.

Jesse: We’re trying to make money [laughs].

Shane: Before, right out of university, we got regular jobs working in accounting firms. We would always take time off work to tour and then when we decided we wanted to do proper pushes for albums, we just took leaves. I took an extended leave of absence from my job; we basically quit the regular jobs and just did music. So now, we were in the position where we decided we didn’t want to tour full time anymore, so what do you do? Do you go back and get a regular job again or do you try and create a regular job for yourself?  That’s what we’re doing now. We’re looking to use our skills that we used in our wildly “successful” days to assist other bands, artists and people in the entertainment business to help make their dreams come true [laughs].

Jesse: Specifically speaking, we’re trying to fill the niche that’s more known in the industry as a business manager. Classically, when you say manager at most regular businesses, they know what that means, but in the music industry it kind of means something else. It’s almost akin to the agent in Hollywood who is a career manager, who helps provide opportunities and they take a gross percentage of everything you bring in, but they don’t really do any real business management. They’ll do aspects of it; sometimes they’ll handle marketing management and few operational type things, but they really don’t know anything about accounting or running a proper business and that’s where we come in. That’s the area in which our actual business training is in and what we’ve been doing with our own band. We’re kind of using the accounting foot in the door right now because that’s generally the most intimidating thing for most artists; anything numbers makes them nervous. They know if you fuck that up, you can get into a lot of trouble and potentially get into a bunch of debt that nobody can really afford.

Shane: Even a band’s manager, no one does taxes or accounting. The bands that are bigger, the managers will farm out the book keeping and taxes to other people at the end of the year. That’s definitely something where we’re an anomaly because you don’t find a lot of people who know the business and have the type of accounting background we do.

Jesse: Typically, when managers and artists are farming out that stuff, a lot of the people doing it aren’t artists themselves. So, that’s an area we can particularly provide a lot of value. We know the ins-and-outs, we’ve slept on floors, we can provide advice that can legitimately impact artists lives because we’ve been there and done that and we get it, the ways to save money and keep things organised so you’re not losing your ass at the end of the year.

How many years were you away from accounting work while you were doing KEN mode full-time?

Shane: I think it was 2011. I went back for six months in 2012, but it’s kind of weird because the stuff we were doing for our own band was still in the same world because I was doing all the accounting for KEN mode and doing it to a degree that might not necessarily make sense for smaller bands, but because I cared about the details and having all the information super-organised, our books are perfect. I’m patting myself on the back right now [laughs]. Since then, it’s been a constant process of improvement with the KEN mode books.

Considering the period of time you were on the road full-time, did you have to take recent refresher courses to play catch up and did you find yourself missing stuff about the ways of the world in that industry?

Shane: Not really. To keep my designation, I had to do professional development every year which I kept up on. So, that was a good way of keeping fresh and last January I took a couple extra courses for things I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything on, but for the most part for the designation of accountant I am, I had to maintain a level of professional competence. There was nothing that changed dramatically or was a surprise. At the same time, I know so many fucking accountants that when stuff changes, like in the fall when the new Liberal government introduced the tax changes, I heard about it. Both our parents are accountants, all the dudes back at the firm I used to work for…you hear stuff through the grapevine and by maintaining your professional development hours. That was no problem.

Jesse: What we’re offering now is the things we’ve been doing for our own band for five years. They are business activities that, if done properly and regularly, can significantly help bands or any entertainment business, really. That’s one of the things that we’re not limiting ourselves to is just musicians because it’s the same kind of blanket principles that apply to any type of entertainment artist or small business, for that matter.

Shane: The reason we decided to do this is because we legitimately feel that we can add value to these people’s businesses and add money into their pockets. If I wanted to get rich as an accountant, I’d go work for a bank. You don’t decide to do accounting and tax and management stuff for bands if you want to get rich; if you want to get rich, go work in the financial services industry. We really do feel that the combination of our experience and skill will actually help people. What we’ve already seen with the stuff we’re doing so far, now that’s it’s tax crunch time, that a lot of people who have been referred to us are people who have had accountants do their taxes in the past and you look at their stuff and it’s all fucked up. The reason is they don’t know the questions to ask musicians and don’t know when something is missing. If a musician is giving you a bunch of receipts and they’re like, “Well, this is what they gave me, I don’t know what else there should be.” But it’s like, “Where’s all your gear? How come you’re not putting your gear through your tax return?” “Oh, you can do that?” “Yeah!” It takes very little for us to add value for a lot of these people. You feel bad that they weren’t doing it before, but going forward this is what we have to do. This is the most efficient way of keeping track of things and getting tax back, especially in Canada as it’s important for grants. It’s making little adjustments that end up accumulating over time and having big time benefits.

How does what you’re offering differ to a Canadian band/performer/individual and someone from south of the border?

Shane: The biggest thing is that right now, because we’re Canadian accountants, we just do Canadian taxes. We’re feeling people out now to partner with a CPA in the states to have them as our resource where, if we have US clients, we’d refer them for all the tax stuff. It’s one of those things you don’t want to fake your way through and go, “Oh, I didn’t know about that because I’m a Canadian CPA.” You want to have them getting the best tax advice possible. Right now our services are more beneficial to Canadians because we can do Canadian tax and especially grant stuff because we know how that stuff works, how organised you have to be to get grants and how you treat that stuff on your taxes. It really comes down to because it feeds into our own experience with our own band, it’s a no-brainer and really easy for us to consult Canadian bands on some pretty significant issues, but the same principles and keeping the accounting tight applies to any band.

Jesse: We’re specifically only pitching the tax side more to Canadians, but like all the other music business management areas we like to focus on, that’s really open season for any band in the world because the principles are the same country to country. The subtleties in the tax are why we can’t handle the tax side for different countries, but in terms of managing a band properly and the actual business, we’re open to clients from anywhere.

Shane: It’s about getting people organised. For Canadian tax returns, Jesse’s developed a template that if people use it and keep inputting their expenses in it, it makes it a slam dunk for filing at the end of the year where everything is organised exactly in the way a T-1 personal tax return is organised and it makes life easier for the accountant, whether it’s us or someone else. It will save bands money because it saves the accountant’s time and if you can’t do it yourself, you’re going to be paying someone else to do it. The same types of spreadsheets and schedules that we’ve developed can be altered to fit the template of any countries’ tax return.

Jesse: Even if it’s just something to keep tour expenses and general band expenses for the year organised, they can utilise the template system I’m constructing. I’m hoping that idea can spread because it’s an easy way for bands to keep themselves organised so people like us can come in and make sure everything is on the up and up and just blast it out to whoever is doing the tax.

Shane: The thing that we acknowledge and feel very strongly about is the community of musicians we came from. For a long time everything was DIY because you can’t afford to pay someone to do this and that. As people get older they lose a bit of that mentality but they’re not acknowledging that when you’re not doing it yourself, you’re paying someone else to do it. Especially for bands from the underground, it’s unreasonable to say, “You should file you own taxes” because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to end up screwing something up. But if we can get them to do the legwork, come in a review it, ask the key questions to help maximize what deductions they’re taking, make sure everything is right, it’s not going to cost a lot of money and their stuff is going to be organised and correct. Our experience in the music industry is with people who try and sell you on something and say stuff like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it. I got it.” But they end up doing stuff and providing services that don’t make any sense for who their client is. Like, it doesn’t make any sense for us to spend a ton of time and charge way too much to do someone’s taxes when they don’t make any money. What we’re saying is that here’s the system we’ll set you up on, you do the legwork and we’ll come in at the end, make sure everything’s cool and file it. If when you’re making more money than you know what to do with and you don’t want to worry about keeping track of your expenses yourself, then, by all means, pay whoever to worry about it. But when you don’t have the money to blow on that, you have to keep track of it yourself and that’s what we’re preaching to bands as we get this going.

Just recently the new Liberal federal government announced a massive injection of money into the arts. Did you suddenly have second thoughts about how this might impact the world of ken mode and your new business? Sort of like, “Shit, there’s more grant money available for us to do the band at a higher level just as this is getting off the ground.”

Jesse: I see it as a potential for me to do a whole bunch of grant writing for other artists now.

Shane: It’s a good thing for the arts, for sure, but we really feel that the decision to stay on the road and stay touring shouldn’t be driven by whether or not we can get grants. The Canadian arts community has done an awesome job in providing all sorts of funds for bands and to hold them around the waist as they take those first few steps. But ultimately if you’re staying a subsided business forever and can’t take off, it almost feels like a waste of money. Someone else who’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed should have access to those funds. It definitely doesn’t change our decision on what we want to do. We’ll never stop doing music and we’ll always have tours we want to do and one of the reasons we’ve decided to go into business for ourselves is that it’ll give us the flexibility to be able to do stuff like that.

Jesse: And those younger bands should come and talk to us because we can get them set up in the first place so they’re not fucking around and wasting resources from the beginning.

Shane: That was one thing I was thinking. I was also thinking, “Boy, I hope Canada doesn’t go bankrupt.” There’s a $30 million deficit and when that’s the budget, we all know how actual results actually fare against budgets.

How do you plan on marketing yourselves?

Jesse: We’ve been fortunate enough that in doing something like this while being in a band like ours we’ve been able to garner some national attention through the Juno nomination and getting a decent number of hits that way. But we’ve been dealing with some of the music industry associations in Manitoba and are planning on expanding out westward through Saskatchewan and Alberta and maybe BC, trying to get involved with the industry itself there to try and get trickle-down effect.  The more people we can network with, the more it will spread.

Shane: In the music community, that’s the best way of getting around. With me being a CPA who offers traditional accounting and tax type services, you can’t even really advertise. They’ve got rules in the book of professional conduct that prohibit direct advertising. So far we’ve done nothing except getting the name out there and people asking us about our unique combination of experiences. It’s interesting, especially when you throw in the CPA restrictions; there’s a reason you don’t see a ton of advertising. There was a marketing campaign in Canada promoting the new unified profession, meaning when all the types of accounting merging into one, but that was more advertising for the profession as opposed to individual firms. They’ve got pretty strict rules about what you’re allowed to do, but a lot of things we’re branching out into aren’t prototypical accounting services.

Anything you feel needs to be added?

Shane: I guess the one thing I can add when we were talking about bands and managers and all these people who work in the music industry, one of the reasons we decided to get into this is because of our skill set and because the way we see a lot of this stuff run for smaller and mid-level bands we don’t agree with. I understand why it’s done that way when financial managers take a cut off the top, but they promise a lot and don’t do a lot of what they’re actually supposed to do. Coming from the school of Albini, who we recorded our last record with, his mantra was that you get played like a plumber. He records bands and if your album becomes the biggest thing in the history of the world and you make it rich, that’s your success. He’s there to do a job and the work should speak for itself. That’s something we think doing on the business and finance side is the way to go, especially for smaller bands. So, outside of us agreeing on a fee or hourly rate for the work we do, we think that if you’re able to reach the stars because of improvements we made to your stuff, that’s your success and you’re brilliant for picking us, but otherwise we don’t agree with the way the regular model works.

So you’re not taking points is what you’re trying to say?

Shane: That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. The more you hear about how as bands get bigger and bigger, that’s how everyone operates, I just don’t get that, fundamentally.

Jesse: Also, I want to include that in addition we offer marketing management, grant writing, inventory planning and management. The accounting and taxes are the big foot in the door, but there’s a whole she-bang we offer on how to run a small business.

Photo by Mike Latschislaw

 Video by David Hall, with live footage by Dylan Baillie

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