Vivek Tiwary, W’95 Tiwary Entertainment Group
16 September, 2014
Vivek J. Tiwary, W’95, shared his insights to an overflow WCNY Speaker Series crowd, on The Business of The Beatles, Broadway, and Beyond, based on his experience producing musicals like, The Addams Family. He also spoke about the lessons learned on his journey to write The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, the New York Times #1 Best-Selling graphic novel. He recently completed the screenplay for the film adaptation and secured music rights. Vivek has taken a nontraditional path from Wharton, producing Broadway shows and entertainment, through his company, Tiwary Entertainment Group. In this follow-up interview, Vivek spoke enthusiastically about that path, the economics of Broadway, his family, and on his nationwide charity — Musicians On Call!
What did you first do when you came out of Wharton?
While at Wharton, I began working for Sony music distribution as a marketing rep in the Philadelphia area. After I graduated Wharton, I moved back to New York City and started working at Mercury Records as the head of alternative marketing, overseeing a staff of 15 alternative marketing reps scattered across the country.
How did you start on Broadway?
When I started my career in theater production, financing was something I was good at, so it was a place to start. I had come out of Wharton, so I understood business, and I knew how to explain that a Broadway theater investment was a wise alternative investment not connected to the financial markets. The first project that I worked on in theater production was Mel Brooks’ The Producers. They were convincing Mel to do it, and it was prior to casting when I came on board. I was a junior producer on the show, kept my ears open and my mouth shut — and I earned
my place at the table. I did raise money for the show, and put my own money in the show, which is Business 101 from Wharton — you need to have some skin in the game. A lot of producers don’t have a business background. The traditional investor at that time was a wealthy individual who loved the arts, and could use it as a tax write-off. Those were never the folks I talked to. My investors enjoy coming to opening night, but they expect to make money.
What I enjoy the most is the creative work — putting the elements together, finding the director, finding the cast, thinking about choreography, stage design. These days, I don’t get involved in a project where I just put financing together and I’m not involved creatively. The days when I did do that was because I wasn’t experienced enough. As soon as I had enough experience, I would consider myself more of a general producer than a financier. When you’re a general producer, financing is part of the responsibility.
How do you make money on Broadway?
While my personal tastes run more downtown, where I grew up, I do work exclusively on Broadway, and exclusively on musicals. So if you want to make money on Broadway, you need the following:
1. You make money when the show runs for many years, and only musicals run for many years.
2. The project must have some underlying marketability. For example, the Addams Family, a great TV brand; Green Day, which has multiple platinum albums; A Raisin in the Sun, a classic piece of literature; Spiderman — everyone around the world knows Spiderman.
3. Celebrity participation in the actor, director and composer — hopefully, all of the above.
4. I like musicals that have production costs of $12 million to $16 million, with running costs of half a million. American Idiot costs $12 million. Why so low? There were no major stars — the music was the star — and there were no crazy stage changes, no fancy costumes. The Addams Family production cost $16.5 million, on the higher end. We had Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth and a number of stage sets, and a huge squid came up from the basement and did a duet with one of the characters. Spiderman, at $80 million, isn’t even in the ballpark!
If you run these four criteria as a litmus test, thinking of yourself as an investor, then you will rule out 95% of the shows, and for the ones you’re left with, it’s difficult not to make money.
Regarding Brian Epstein, when he saw the Beatles, he saw a great band that had a great message of love to share, and he wanted to share it. In this area, in contrast to my historical mentor, I follow my business acumen, learned at Wharton.
What is your secret to success?
Passion and persistence. To have dreams and to follow them passionately, whatever they are. You might be told over and over again that, whatever it is you’re passionate about is foolish, isn’t lucrative or can’t be done. So you also need to be persistent.
When you boil down passion and persistence, you get discipline. If you are passionate about something and you’re sticking with it you have to be disciplined. What is it exactly that you’re passionate about? Is it a certain kind of music? Performing? Or being behind the scenes? Don’t give up until you figure it out, and then chase it. The discipline and the persistence part is being able to deal with and plow through heartbreak. I don’t think there is a passionate person in this world who hasn’t faced heartbreak.
What are you passionate about at this time?
My current passions, outside of spending time with my lovely family, remain focused on The Fifth Beatle as we go into production for the feature film — for which I’ve written the screenplay and am a producer. And I’m still happily continuing to speak about the book and champion the legacy of Brian Epstein at every chance I get!
Your grandfather helped build up the economy of Guyana. What did you learn from him?
The two main things my grandfather taught me were: (1) you need to work for yourself; and (2) you need to do what you love. His family came to Guyana from India, when he was an infant, to seek a better life. My grandfather started his career in fruits and vegetables, because his father was a farmer. At a young age, he began exporting mangos and pomegranates to the rest of the world, which led him to importing things that Guyana needed. He wound up becoming the minister of agriculture for the country. Soon thereafter he realized that he didn’t like the politics of politics, and decided that he could make a bigger difference in the private sector, where he found “the sky is the limit.”
His first businesses were in manufacturing candy, then Indian spices and then pasta, which didn’t exist in Guyana but was a very inexpensive food that Guyanese people could afford. The insurance and the banking sectors in Guyana were disreputable, so he opened a marine, life and fire insurance company, then a merchant bank and a commercial bank. He saw a need for more eco-friendly cars, so he opened a Toyota dealership. He helped the country launch the Guyana Stock Exchange. All this stuff might sound diverse to the point of being random, but the common thread was they were things that the country needed. For my grandfather, yes, it was about working for himself and doing what he loved, but it was also about ethical businesses that supported his community and extended family, whoever that may entail. If that meant the entire country, then that’s what it meant. So I learned a great many things from my grandfather, not just business lessons.
Have you accomplished what you set out to, when you entered Wharton?
I entered the Wharton School in 1991, and at the time, I fancied myself a bit of a rebel. One side of my head was shaved; on the other side, my hair was long and green. Walking around the halls of Steinberg and Dietrich, I got a few looks wondering whether a West Philly punk rock squatter had wandered in. But the truth was I showed up to all my classes on time; I worked my ass off; and I usually finished the semester in the top four or five of the class. I like telling that story, because I think an integral part of who I am is this desire to defy expectations. Also, I am of Indian origin — and young people of my ethnicity were encouraged to enter fields like medicine or engineering. On top of that, I come from a family with a network of many successful businesses who do nothing in the arts and entertainment. At the time, I felt like I was this rebellious person and turning my back on my education, culture and family.
One of the great things about speaking to your alma mater is it forces you to look back on where you came from, where you are today and where you are going. I can happily say that I am the person who I want to be, and perhaps to the great disappointment of that rebel, I am a product of my family, my background and my education. I took their best elements and pursued my dreams, and I have done so to my personal and professional success.
How does it feel to get your book published?
It’s been a great joy. I’ve worked on it, literally, for a decade. It’s hard to talk to your friends for years about a project and not have anything to show for it. So, it was gratifying to be able to say, “Look, see — here it is! I wasn’t kidding for all those years.” Now, I am also applying it into another medium, film. For me, that’s the main reason I will talk to anyone for as long as they want to talk. It’s awesome! I also recognize in media and entertainment that you never know how the tides of pop culture may change, so I need to do as much as I can, when people are interested, so I am going to — travel, talk, and be at every conference and festival. It’s both fun and the smart business thing to do.
You are involved in several nonprofit activities. Can you speak about one particularly close to your heart?
Musicians On Call is a non-profit organization that I co-founded 15 years ago. Its mission is to use music and entertainment to complement the healing process. Being more specific, we bring live music to the bedsides of patients. I will quickly tell you the founder’s story. I lost my mom to cancer at a young age. I wanted to do something that would make some good come out of that, apply my experience in the arts and entertainment, and give back.
My co-founder in Musicians On Call, Michael Solomon, came from a similar place. He lost a loved one when he was 21, a girlfriend who may have been on her way to being his fiancée. We set out to do something constructive with our experience, and while we were trying to come up with our big idea, we were bringing musicians into Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where we had a number of contacts, and we had them performing in those rec centers.
One night, we had a musician, Kenli Mattus, playing, and afterwards, a nurse came up to us and said, “You know, that was wonderful, but it’s a shame. There are a number of patients on this floor who love music and couldn’t be here, because they were having a treatment, eating dinner, or whatever the reason. Michael Solomon and I said, “If you’ll have us, why don’t we bring the musician to them?”
You could feel the atmosphere lighten in those rooms. It had such a profound impact on everyone involved. There were patients in their beds who we were later told hadn’t smiled in a week who, all of a sudden, started smiling and clapping their hands. I saw young people, as I had been once, whose relatives were sick in bed. These young people not knowing how to act around their sick relatives would connect over the music. They would say, “Hey, mom, the music. Wasn’t that great?” They would all of a sudden have something to talk about and connect over.
I saw nurses who were working these insane shifts who were tired, all of a sudden, start laughing, smiling and singing. Doctors — who are often not the most gregarious or lighthearted, nor should they be on a cancer floor with a serious job to attend to — all of a sudden, would be poking their heads around the corner and smiling, laughing, dancing and singing. It was a remarkable experience. To top it off, when we walked out of the hospital that night, Kenli said that was the most rewarding musical experience he ever had. We knew that night, this is the organization we need to start. Neither of us had reached any major success in our fields. Michael and I would joke that we started our non-profit when we didn’t have our two pennies to rub together. Fast-forward 15 years, and Musicians On Call is in Miami, Nashville, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, and other cities. We’ve been supported by musicians as varied as Bruce Springsteen and Britney Spears. Today, I’m still an active board member.
What’s your advice to college graduates seeking to find a job in this economy?
My advice is to stop trying to get a job and create one. Figure out what your passion is, and chase it with persistence. If you want to work at a record label, and no record label will hire you, then go start a record label. Or publishing, another industry in big trouble right now. You love books, you love literature, and are dying to work at a major publishing company but can’t get a job there. OK, maybe you should start a publishing company. Publish one of your friends’ books and get it out there. Start somewhere. Find a non-profit organization that supports publishers in some way, and do pro bono work as a way in the door.
For those who are determined to be team players, and want a job, then my advice would be to just stick with it. You are coming out of Wharton, which means, right off the bat, you are educated. You will find a job. It just might take a minute, so stick with it. Although my first line of attack would be, if you can’t find a job, then shift your thinking. Who needs a job? I’ll make my own job!