Last year, after three decades in the entertainment industry, John Loken reached a career crossroads.
The 52-year-old entertainment industry veteran — who once marketed such artists as Madonna, Prince and Stevie Wonder — had a dream job as an senior executive with global giant Endeavor, formerly WME-IMG. He represented such events as Bear Grylls Survival Challenge, Tough Mudder and King Tut: Treasures Of The Golden Pharaoh.
Loken had to decide whether to continue being an “intrapreneur” — creating new ventures and generating business for another company — or whether to venture out on his own.
“You reach this point where you want to take everything you’ve learned, all the people you’ve met, and put it to work to do something meaningful,” says Loken. “And you finally have the experience and the confidence to make an impact.”
In September, he left Endeavor to start a production company to tap into the growing appetite for unique live events. The yet-to-be-named company is in talks with a range of creative, technology and financial partners, with a goal to launch what he calls “the next generation of mass live experiences” later this year.
“Imagine if you combined Coachella with a TED Talk, or maybe a spin class and a dance music festival,” he says. “We want to produce events that combine entertainment with edification, stimulating the heart, the body, and the mind. If the company can change how people feel, or stimulate a new way of thinking about how we live, then we will have done our job.”
Loken joins a growing number of people who by choice — or necessity — launch their own ventures later in life. For many of us, it’s a chance to pursue a lifelong passion or capitalize on experience and skills to be our own boss.
The average age of the most successful entrepreneurs is 45, according to a 2018 study conducted by Benjamin Jones of the Kellogg School, Javier Miranda of the US Census Bureau and MIT’s Pierre Azoulay and J. Daniel Kim. The study finds that a given 50-year-old entrepreneur is nearly twice as likely to have a runaway success as a 30-year-old.
“I don’t want any regrets about what I didn’t do,” Loken says. “It seems like an awful way to go.”
“I’ve Never Felt So Alive”
Loken is well positioned to take the leap, having spent the past 30 years innovating, adapting and honing his skills.
“I’m scared shitless, but also edge-of-my seat thrilled,” Loken says. “If I succeed or fail, it’s all on me. There’s something very exciting about that. I’ve never felt so alive. I’ve never felt so much energy coursing through my veins. It’s daunting.”
Before things get too busy, Loken is “taking a pause” in his life. On the day we met, the tanned, lean cyclist was dressed in a tangerine jersey and striped cycling shorts for a ride out toward Pasadena. He was getting ready to embark on a car trip from New Orleans back to his home in Los Angeles. He planned to zigzag across the Southwest, with stops planned in Austin, Marfa, Carlsbad Caverns and Santa Fe and a goal of seeing as many monuments as possible.
A Record Industry Weenie
Growing up in Saratoga in Northern California, Loken couldn’t have imagined the path his career would take. The son of an IBMer with an aptitude for math, he started out at UC Berkeley studying civil engineering. “It was too much math and science,” he says.
So he changed his tune. An accomplished pianist, he transferred to the University of the Pacific, where he focused on the business of music to become, as David Letterman called it, “a record industry weenie.”
After graduating in 1988, he packed up his U-Haul and moved to Los Angeles, fortuitously during the CD boom. He got his start working for an independent folk label. By luck, he got a job doing international marketing at Warner Bros Records where he learned the ins and outs of the business.
His career path led him through a series of global marketing and operations roles with such labels as Motown/PolyGram International, Fearless Records and Ultimatum Music, the William Morris Agency’s alternative rock label. He oversaw product marketing for artists such as Madonna, Prince and Stevie Wonder and helped launch the careers of the Plain White T’s and Portugal the Man.
“The Music Industry Left Me”
“Every year, the industry grew and grew and the numbers got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he says. “Until it didn’t.”
Technology — the ability to share music online for free and the advent of the iPhone — changed everything, transforming the way people listen to music.
“People ask, ‘Why did you leave the music business?'” he says. “I didn’t leave the music business. The music business left me.”
Loken says he doesn’t recall a single industry staff meeting in which trends or strategy were discussed. “There was no strategy,” he says. “We were always focused on finding the next Madonna, the next R.E.M., the next Paul Simon. No wonder we got broadsided by technologists.”
He decided to go back to school, getting his MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management. He called it “boot camp for the brain.”
“If I had known, when I was in the record industry, half the things I learned in business school, I may have raised my hand and said ‘Maybe we should be doing things differently,’ ” he says. “Business school forced me to become more disciplined in how I think about competitive strategy and value creation.”
When he got out, Loken focused on digital marketing and ecommerce. He held positions as director of partner marketing at Goldstar.com and cofounded BPM|brands+music, a digital agency that pioneered music-as-a-service solutions. Loken served as Live Nation Concerts’ first senior vice president of tour marketing and led the consumer marketing group at Live Nation Entertainment’s Ticketmaster unit.
In 2015, he joined Endeavor, formerly WME-IMG, the world’s leading talent agency and a producer of sports, entertainment and fashion events. Loken enjoyed his time at Endeavor, where he says “everyone is a complete over achiever. It’s all alpha all the time.”
Loken is excited about the next chapter, both personally and professionally. He says it “feels like a culmination, or a graduation from my corporate career.”
He’s at a point in life where he is identifying those things that no longer serve him, whether that be relationships, his home or his job. Recently divorced after 23 years of marriage, he moved from Santa Monica into a loft in the arts district of L.A.’s downtown. He has immersed himself in his new neighborhood, discovering new a craft cocktail lounge, attending gallery openings and exploring all of the other facets that make it vibrant and exciting.
He’s enjoying his two children — 20-year-old Lucy, an actress; and 23-year-old Jack, who is in a band called Cat Heaven.
“For years, when I went to shows or listened to albums, I was always thinking about it from a business perspective: ‘Does he or she have the charisma to sell well?’ Now, I think about how it affects me on a visceral level. I enjoy it in a different way.”
The “Experience Economy”
He’s excited about launching his new venture, which came together after observing the converging trends in art, music and culture that were creating unique and exciting experiences. This type of experiential marketing is the fastest-growing segment of the marketing mix, with companies clamoring to sponsor branded experiences, he says.
“[These events] are a powerful counterpoint to social media,” he says. “It’s a real-world thing. You can feel it. You can smell it.”
Harvard Business Review coined the term “experience economy” in the late 1990s, but the concept took hold only recently, Bloomberg reported in an August article about the Museum of Ice Cream, an interactive pop-up attraction. “Both new and existing companies are increasingly incorporating heavy experiential components into their business,” Warren Teichner, a McKinsey & Co senior partner, told Bloomberg.
In 2019, Loken plans to take three to four unique concepts, launch them and scale them into multiple markets. He is also working to turn a best-selling nonfiction book into an experience, although he isn’t ready to disclose the name.
Don’t Fit any Cookie-Cutter Mold
“These aren’t ideas that would make any sense on paper,” says Loken. “These are nonlinear ideas. They don’t fit any cookie-cutter mold.”
He hopes to emulate the innovation and excitement of such events as Daybreaker, a three-hour substance-free event held in 25 cities around the world. Thousands of people gather for the Daybreaker events, which start with yoga, transition into a dance party and end with a mass-meditation intention-setting ceremony. And that’s all before 8:30 am.
Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather for Burning Man, a nine-day event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, to create a temporary metropolis dedicated to art, music, self-expression and self-reliance.
And then there’s the Museum of Ice Cream, an experiential installation inspired by ice cream. In the summer of 2016, Maryellis Bunn opened her first 45-day pop-up Museum of Ice Cream in New York, featuring art installations, an ice-cream sandwich swing and a pool of multicolored plastic sprinkles. The concept has expanded to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami.
Finding Strength Within
One of the things Loken loves best about these concepts is that they attract people of all ages. He loves seeing teenagers dancing alongside 70-somethings. “I know I was not the oldest person at Day Breakers,” he says.
We’ve entered a different, new era where people are “more aware of adjacent things.” Our interests have expanded and we don’t follow any societal rules for what we should do or be at any certain age.
“We used to put a lot of people into neat demographic segments in the marketing world. ‘If you’re a female between 24 and 35, then that equals this,’ ” he says. “All of those notions have been exploded.”
At this point in his life, he says, “I feel ageless.”
And increasingly, he says he enjoys his own company, finding strength and solace in solitary endeavors such as reading and writing. He uses long bike rides to reflect, strategize and dream. Sometimes, he’ll check into a hotel by himself. He also enjoys sitting down at the piano to play for his own enjoyment.
“We spend a lot of our lives looking for strength and sanctuary outside of ourselves,” he says. “As we get older, we have to find those reservoirs within.”
Wondering how to reinvent your career? Learn more from career coach John Tarnoff.