30 September 2017
Kirk Cornelius
From Nashville to NYC, Portland to Kalispell, we go on a journey with digital music consultant Kirk Cornelius to find what matters.

Grovemade customer since 2014.
We arrived exhausted in Kalispell, Montana, 1500 miles into our road trip from Portland, Oregon. First stop, Moose’s Saloon. We were scheduled to meet up with an old roommate who had offered us her basement for the night—we ducked inside to see if she had arrived. In the darkness you could just make out that the floors were covered in peanut shells. Children running everywhere made a surreal juxtaposition with the obligatory taxidermy on the walls and complete absence of windows. As we stood there awkwardly waiting, clearly uncomfortable in our body language, some friendly locals took pity and offered us a stool at their table. Just like that, the tension was gone.

“Ah you went to Moose’s” Kirk said with a laugh “You got the real local experience.” Kirk had recently left his steady job in Portland and moved to Kalispell with his wife Annete and newborn daughter Stella to start a digital music consulting business. Before he left, he had extended an invitation to come visit him.

“I had never met anyone so intentional about the objects around them.”

Kirk and I had met a few years back. He was working at Ziba Designs in Portland, and had come to our workshop for a tour. It turned out he was a customer of ours going back to 2014. We discovered we had similar experiences working music festivals in the past, and connected instantly.

In Kalispell now, he’d moved into a home designed and built by Oystein Boveng. Oystein had been a prominent architect in the region, and he’d worked on a range of projects, including the Glacier National Park visitors center at Logan Pass. I wasn’t expecting architectural masterpieces in Kalispell, Montana, yet here I was, inside his impeccably designed and crafted mid-century home.

I arrived thinking I would be there a couple hours at most. Eight hours later, Kirk and I were still chatting. Their home is a wonderfully curated museum, containing a wide range of meaningful objects. He showed me a photograph his grandfather had taken in India 75 years ago, and kitchen wares he had bought at an estate sale. Gorgeous prints from artists I’d never heard of adorned the walls. He had an amazing collection of mid-century furniture, each piece with a compelling story of time, place, and circumstance.

I had never met anyone that was so intentional about the objects surrounding them, so thoughtful about space and light. We sat down to talk about his life—how he got here and what matters to him.

Thanks for sharing Kirk, it was a pleasure!

- Ken Tomita CEO & Co-founder
Kirk: My dad came to the United States from Norway when he was 15. His family moved over to... Well, they came in through New York, but ended up in Minnetonka, Minnesota. When people would ask me what I wanted to be, when I was like six years old, I said I wanted to be an architect. Downtown Minneapolis looks like a very futuristic city because it's all connected by skyways. Because the winters are so harsh. They have this retro feel but it's kind of like this very futuristic retro feel. So when I would draw cities, all my cities had these little tunnels and skyways, I just thought it was normal. I didn't know that other cities didn't have that.

During high school we moved to suburban Virginia Beach. Within biking distance from my house were two brothers from London that opened a record store called Birdland Music. And I would go in there for hours and they would turn me on to all this great music. It was kind of a weird way for me to discover all this music from Manchester and from London, but they'd just say “You gotta hear this. You gotta hear this.” And it's really where I started... [I] just got immersed in music. So I shifted my interest from visual art to like, “I've gotta do that.”
As I went through college, I kept playing more and more music. I graduated with a pre-med degree—I thought of maybe going on to further education. But [after graduation], I moved to Nashville with my brother and a band that I was in, to pursue playing music for a while.

I finally got this opportunity to play guitar for a band [where] I would be making money. And they were going on tour and they asked me to play. And I didn't like the music. And that was when I decided, I love music too much to play music that I don't love. Even though the dream was to do it for a profession and this felt like the opportunity, I couldn't do it in a way where I wasn't absolutely in love with the music I was playing. That was transformative... it opened up a lot of things. I actually allowed myself to pursue other things that I really felt passionate about.
“I love music too much to play music that I don't love.”
Ken: So, how did you get into tour managing?

Kirk: It was a band from England doing their first US tour and I was the only person they knew here. “Hey, we're doing a three month tour and we'd like you to come out and handle our merchandise.” I'm like, “Okay. Well, I don't really do that...” And they said, “Well no, we want you to do it.”

It was insane. You touch every part of the music industry in real time. You plan a tour and on day one, everything changes. So your little booklets, anything that you have is like basically useless after day one. I think critical thinking is the biggest skill that I developed from that, because you just are constantly having to solve problems. You're constantly having to deal with people that are not always great people to deal with. You know, you have two sides. You have business and then you have art. So you have this balancing act of what's best for the creativity and why you're out on the road.
Ken: I know you lived in New York City for a while, how did you end up there?

Kirk: It was a buddy of mine from Nashville who had started ... a digital music start up in New York and called me and offered me a job. And digital music was, I mean, it's 2007 so it was kind of early days.

People thought we were nuts to sell our house and move into a 400ft2 apartment in Queens. They're like, you don't do that. Like that's not the chronological order. Once you get a house, you get that bigger house ... they thought we were going backwards. But Annette and I both share this belief that you are happiest when you are doing things that you love.

After a few years there I looked at what seemed to be a logical next step and I started looking at media companies versus just music companies as well. And that's where the shift into digital advertising specifically came. I interviewed with quite a few media companies there [before] I met with the CEO of this start up, it was a company called Vindico. It was the first ad serving platform, video ad serving platform more specifically. But he actually was a huge music fan. We were going through my resume and I kind of left some of the music stuff off, like tour managing.

He's like, “Really? Let's talk about that.” [I]t's kind of a small world. One of his favorite artists was from Nashville and he's a decent friend of mine. And I had played some on his record, like a record that he owned and loved and he was just like, “Wow.” He's like, “If you can do that, you can do anything here.”
“Annette and I both share this belief that you are happiest when you are doing things you love.”
Ken: That's awesome. So on paper you didn't have experience, but this guy gave you a job in advertising because of your band managing experience of all things... Crazy.

Kirk: He knew how much critical thinking you have to do in real time in tour managing bands. When you're promoting bands, which is what you're doing when you're on the road and when you're working for an artist, it's marketing. You know, so you're doing it in so many different ways... Everything that a band is trying to do is basically get their story out and say, “This is what we stand for and this is what we're all about.”

Ken: And how did you end up in Portland?

Kirk: We had been in New York for four years when we, both my wife and I did not want to live in New York anymore. As you get older, how you define quality of life, it changes. And for us, we were constantly thinking about what is best? You know, trying to see what the next thing is and what makes the most sense for us and what we love.
It was a quality of life move. We wanted to do the things that we dreamt about and thought about, like the outdoor stuff. Along with just the culture in Portland. People are really nice, slower pace. Really, really creative city. Very European feeling city, I think. Fairly liberal city as well. All of those things, it made sense for me.

I was basically an internal consultant for the company I was working for, helping advertising agencies figure out advertising campaigns or what the best strategy would be for their digital ad campaigns.

I traveled 100% of the time in that job, so Monday through Friday I would be gone, be in Portland on the weekends and did that for four years. We had rules around being apart. Like we had a two week rule, that no matter where either of us were, if we hadn't seen each other for two weeks, we'd fly in, get together and see each other and spend time together.
“I think when you're having a child, and this was our first child. I just didn't... I wanted to be home.”
On a personal side too, my wife and I were pregnant so I was thinking of that, too. Like, I don't wanna be gone five days a week. I think when you're having a child, and this was our first child, I just didn't... I wanted to be home. So then your values start shifting. Your new currency kind of becomes time over money. And there's this thought of, “Maybe I put in enough time on the road to where now I can do something more localized.”

Ken: Is this when you started working at Ziba?

Kirk: Yes, Ziba's a great firm... a multidisciplinary firm where you are touching so many different categories.

I was going back to the balance of art and commerce too. I was in a business development role there. Having an understanding of designers and creative professionals, and what's important to them versus how you actually parlay that into business. It’s something I felt really comfortable with. And I again really like that part of it.
Ken: And today we’re sitting in your living room in Kalispell, Montana. What brought you here?

Kirk: I got really excited about music again and wanting to work in it. I had reconnected with an old friend of mine from Nashville, who had been doing some really cool things at Berklee College of Music, basically focusing on the future of music experiences and the business [of music] and what that means. A think tank, an academic think tank, to really focus on pushing music forward.

And, going all the way back to where I started, where I wanted to play music full time and was so passionate about that. I still felt that way.

I felt like with a young child, I was a bit more risk averse than I normally would've been. I wanted to provide some kind of secure environment or financially secure environment when, in reality I think the best thing is what we're doing now. Me pursuing something that I'm really excited about, that we figured out how to get enough time to be able to build something and work on something from here.

If time is kind of the new currency and how I want to spend my time is important, it's important that I'm fulfilled, so that I'm a good family member. I'm good for my daughter, I'm fulfilled in what I'm doing. [And then] I got a call from my brother-in-law, going, “Hey, I don't know what you guys are planning to do, but we have this house here, the house I grew up in and we're looking for someone to rent it.”

Annette, my wife 100% wanted me to do it. No hesitation. In fact, she just wants me to slow down a bit in life. She knows what my passions are and her response was, “Why don't you just play music for a year?” And I was like. “I love you. That's amazing. I'm so glad you said that.”
To learn more about Kirk’s current work, check out Thought5 and SnowGhost Music.

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