Lorenzo Brewer on founding nkoda, working with music legends, and revolutionising the industry

Creative Industries | Growth | International | Interview | National | Start-up | Technology
Lorenzo Brewer
Photo by Anna Swords

Lorenzo Brewer skipped university to cofound nkoda at the age of 20. The sheet music streaming service works with over 90 publishers and has more than 110,000 titles available. It has been featured by Apple in over 100 countries, garnered £6.5m in funding, and counts a former Dragon and famous drummer amongst its shareholders. Music legends like Ludovico Einaudi have partnered with the platform.

Here, Lorenzo talks to BLM about starting a business so young, the fast-changing music industry, and his advice for aspiring creative entrepreneurs.

What was your background before founding nkoda? Had you studied business or started a company before?

When I left school in 2013 I was going to do a music degree, but decided against university altogether. I come from a very academic family. My parents taught and studied all over the world and I grew up in that environment. University never had any romance for me – looking back, I think in some ways I was really naive.

I wanted to do something, which I did not think could be satisfied by studying. I was hoping to fulfil a need I saw, so I founded nkoda.

I wrote and published a book, “How to write an IB History essay,” so I had a little bit of grounding in business, but I would say I entered into entrepreneurship pretty green.

What was the inspiration for nkoda?

I think my first conception of nkoda came in a dream, which sounds romantic, but the concept itself isn’t revolutionary. There are plenty of services with a similar philosophy – Netflix, Apple Music and Spotify.

The practical limitations of accessing physical and digital music scores made me want to build the app with Sundar Venkitachalam, our Co-founder and CTO.

What features does nkoda offer beyond traditional sheet music?

With nkoda, you can markup scores, create and share playlists, and save music to play offline. The main benefit beyond paper sheet music, though, is access to over 110,000 scores in one place. Paper is a technology which isn’t scalable, because of its physical nature.

The advent of the internet has given us scalability, in the same way that the printing press did in the 16th century. This change, I think, is the key to revolutionizing how musicians discover and interact with sheet music.

What are the key milestones you have hit with nkoda and how have you found the experience of building a business?

nkoda launched on 8th June 2018, so it’s our one-year anniversary this month. We’ve had over 110,000 downloads in 199 countries. Being featured by Apple, and having them write an article about the company was a big moment for us.

Building a business makes you feel your incompetence every day. As the scale of what we’re doing grows, you feel your limitations constantly. It’s so important to have people around you with different skills, backgrounds and experiences to talk through and fix the problems, and build the next stage of the business.

Did you struggle to bring people on board at first, as a young entrepreneur?

I think I have the ability to persuade people to do things they might not normally do – I hope by communicating my commitment. For me, I’ve always approached conversations with an invitation to build a shared vision.

I have also found that the archetype of young, male, ambitious entrepreneur is well enough established that people are comfortable with my age. This is an element of privilege not all entrepreneurs experience and something I think needs to be discussed more openly, particularly in the start-up community.

nkoda is associated with several famous musicians. What do those partnerships entail?

It’s really exciting to work with some of music’s most iconic artists. Ludovico Einaudi, the world’s most streamed classical artist, published the sheet music variations for his latest project, Seven Days Walking, on nkoda. Joyce DiDonato, for me the greatest mezzo-soprano alive, has been using nkoda to prepare for her performances of Schubert’s Winterreise, using our annotation tools. It is a constant source of inspiration to work with such visionaries.

How would you like to see nkoda change the music industry?

Fundamentally, I hope nkoda allows people to access more sheet music. I also want nkoda to drive the creation of a better ecosystem for music to be produced, distributed, played and listened to. I hope in turn this will benefit everyone at all stages of the process.

I think there’s a feeling that, because of the success of subscription, the music industry is growing, and we want to be part of that growth. That can be through all kinds of opportunities like commissioning new repertoire, for example.

What features or developments would you like to add to nkoda in the future?

Our revamped annotation tools and print feature, launching in the coming weeks, will hopefully set a new standard. Of course, we have bold plans for future features, but speaking more broadly, I want to get to a point where our users tell us what it is they need from nkoda, because user experience is at the centre of everything we do.

What are some of the most exciting things happening in the music industry at the moment?

In all parts of the music industry, growth is back on the agenda. Artists are no longer being boxed into a single genre. For example, Jess Gillam, one of the artists we work with, is a classical saxophonist whose debut album has all different genres of music on it. It is streaming, and particularly playlisting, that has largely enabled this blurring of stylistic boundaries.

What advice would you give to aspiring creative entrepreneurs?

First, to be relentlessly honest with yourself about the demand for your idea. If you are not absolutely convinced that people will want to buy what you are selling, don’t do it – you’re wasting your time.

Second, the small tasks should always align with the bigger picture. Be disciplined and avoid going down tangents that don’t move the business forward.

Third, and most importantly, find people with much more experience than you who can help. It is hard to explain how naive I was four years ago, with no real background in business. The connections I made with Sundar, along with our Director John Sanderson, and now our MD Enrique and our Director of Music Peter – these are the relationships that made nkoda possible.

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