AEI Music’s Diluk Dias talks learning: ‘If you don’t do it, you very quickly face irrelevancy’

Diluk Dias has been building communities, events and content around electronic music since 1996, when he co-founded the Drum&BassArena website. That evolved into AEI Music, which has developed labels, brands and artists alike.

The company also recently launched AEI Ventures to invest in founders and startups in the music and hospitality sectors, particularly people from historically excluded or marginalised backgrounds.

‘Everything we learned, we learned by doing’

It’s all been less by design and more by accident! We have had to evolve as a business in different areas, which required me to evolve and learn new skills.

Our watchword is that we are absolute industry outsiders. Everything we learned, we learned by doing: by approaching things with a beginner’s mind.

That’s how innovation occurs. It happens largely through doing. Generally speaking, success tends to gravitate towards people that do, and take action, rather than those who pontificate!

You need a little bit of confidence, because you have to push through the discomfort and fear of getting things wrong. Eventually you come out the other side, having developed a new capability, which then gives you the confidence to do other things.

‘We lost about a million pounds in the first year!’

If anyone tells you there hasn’t been fear and discomfort involved in their success, it’s a complete lie! Nobody is immune to it. But you keep going until you get some kind of result.

One example for us was that we were hosting lots of stages at other people’s festivals: taking a fee, curating a lineup, doing a little bit of marketing. And one day I woke up and thought: how difficult would it be to put on a festival ourselves? Why don’t we have a go?

It was a big learning curve, and a very expensive learning curve. We lost about a million pounds in the first year! It was costly, but we came out the other side with the ability to curate, stage and put on our own festivals.

If we have a company philosophy, it’s a view that if you’re smart and tenacious, you can put your mind to most things. Learn the basics, get traction and success, then bring some experts in to build on that.

‘What are YOU going to do about your personal development?!’

Since I left university, I’ve been studying and learning harder than at any other time during my life. Staying relevant in this business is really hard, especially when we’re dealing with new technologies.

Learning is your responsibility. Sometimes people have said to me ‘what are you going to do about my personal development?’ What do you mean what am I going to do? That implies personal development is something that happens to you. What are YOU going to do about your personal development?!

Are you reading all the trade journals and newsletters like Music Ally? Are you reading the latest books on marketing or whatever your specialist field is? There’s no shortage of books out there: we have a book allowance for all our employees.

We see people who take that responsibility into their own hands, and combine that with learning by doing, because it’s not sufficient just to study. You have to translate it into everyday stuff.

You won’t learn if you don’t put the effort in. It’s lifelong. if you don’t do it, you very quickly face irrelevancy and redundancy.

‘Community is critical to learning’

I learn a lot from going to conferences and networking events, watching panels and listening to people’s perspectives. Community is critical to learning: interacting with other people.

It’s not just the official sessions either: it’s everything around them. If you’re talking about music trends at 4am in a bar at ADE [Amsterdam’s annual electronic-music conference] you’ll learn something. That’s probably as important as reading all the trade journals!

Community is also why I’m strongly in favour of in-person working, even though I know some people are resistant to coming into the office now.

It’s about passing on that soft knowledge, which we’ve seen when trying to run festivals. Who was that supplier of the toilets? You can ask someone in the room, but it’s not quite as easy to shout over Zoom.

‘It’s useful to find peers in other companies’

Something that’s very specific to me is that it’s quite lonely at the top, as they say! I do have smart people around me: a great leadership team.

But it’s useful to find peers in other companies – CEOs of other independent companies of a similar size to us – and just share our perspectives regularly.

The format that works best is we tend to do a quarterly lunch, or we’ll walk and talk. I’ll talk about what’s on my mind, and we’ll kinda coach each other.

AEI Ventures has also been really helpful. One of the main motivations for me personally in investing in other companies is to interact with the founders. I want to talk to that next generation of entrepreneurs. I’m learning as much from them as they are from me! Probably more, actually…

‘The entrepreneur mentality sees mistakes as learning and data’

Within the company, when people have leadership talent, we’ve supported it through nurturing and learning and coaching, and letting them make mistakes.

The attitude towards mistakes is one difference between an employee mentality and an entrepreneur mentality. The entrepreneur mentality sees mistakes as learning and data.

In the music business you need to try things out. Some things will work, some things won’t work. Everything is an experiment, and anything that comes back is data, even if it doesn’t work.

There isn’t enough of that mindset in music though. Once people have a certain level of business success, there can be a little bit of a fearful mindset: of wanting to preserve what you’ve got, and not mess with it. But if you don’t evolve, the decline happens.

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