While countless companies in the entertainment space continue to wrestle with the aftermath of the novel coronavirus, Lillian Glanton, founder of the Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival and Muscle Shoals Song Rooms, and Justin Zebell, CEO of Streamline Event Agency and JoinIn, pivoted to create brand new businesses that are both thriving in quarantine. Glanton, who opened the doors to Muscle Shoals Song Rooms in January only to be forced to close in March, embraced an online songwriting platform while Zebell and his team launched a new virtual meeting platform.
Glanton, 20, formed Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival in 2019 while attending the University of North Alabama. The songwriter and music business major fell in love with music at the age of eight after discovering Taylor Swift. After auditioning for American Idol at 15 and making it to Hollywood, Glanton returned home and hit the ground running. She formed a band and played shows on the weekend until attending UNA, where she began to dive into the business side of the music industry and became fascinated with songwriters. After playing several songwriters festivals, she was surprised to learn that Muscle Shoals didn’t have its own festival.
“This is The Hit Recording Capital of the World and we don’t have a songwriters festival,” Glanton tells me. “That’s what inspired the Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival. I was 18 and I got an LLC, and took it step by step. In 2019, we had our first festival and we had over 100 performers and 1,000 attendees. I was so grateful for that experience because I learned so much.”
Along the way, Glanton met countless songwriters in the Shoals community and soon realized there was no designated space for writers to gather and pen songs. She then dreamed up and executed Muscle Shoals Song Rooms, which is a writing facility, performance venue and now, during Covid-19, an educational platform for songwriters.
In June 2019, Glanton was in search for a building that could be the writing home to music creatives in the area. After securing a space for rent on North Jackson Highway, two blocks from the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, she was able to negotiate a deal with the owner. With the help of winning two local competitions and prize money for her business plan, Glanton was able to afford the materials to create three writing rooms and an event space.
“I went from being a broke college student to being able to pay for the building and to get it the way I wanted it to be for these songwriters,” she says. “We opened the Muscle Shoals Song Rooms January of this year.”
By March, the event space wasn’t able to host live shows and songwriters stopped utilizing the writing rooms. Many songwriters turned online to Zoom co-writes and Glanton quickly realized she had to make a major change and embraced a virtual platform.
“I wanted to take my network and my connections and bring all of those music business professionals to the table. We launched the Song Rooms’ Virtual Membership and it’s absolutely amazing,” she says of the decision to go online in June. “We’ve got Song Room members from Canada and Texas and Europe and it’s been a blast … It’s jam-packed with valuable information to really help songwriters take their journey to the next level.”
A monthly virtual membership costs $20 and allows songwriters access to online seminars, pitch to publisher sessions, virtual co-writes, a private members only forum and song feedback. While 2020 has provided its hurdles for Glanton, including the postponement of the 2020 Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival to Nov. 4-6, 2021, she remains optimistic.
“[Covid-19] has really hurt a lot of people. Emotionally, it’s taken a toll on creatives, but it’s made me even more grateful for the tools that we have. We’re able to connect, to reach people from all over the world through our cell phone. I’ve reached out to songwriters one by one on Instagram to say, ‘If you’re looking for a community that inspires you and lifts you up and if you’re looking for a place where you can be yourself and then also learn about the music business, this community would be the perfect place for you.’
“I truly believe that songwriters are a gift from God. I’m just happy to be such a small part of the music business,” she continues. “I hope that I can carry the torch for the Muscle Shoals music history and keep leading it on.”
Much like Glanton, Zebell knew early on that he and his team had to pivot in order for the live event agency to survive Covid-19. Streamline Event Agency, based in Franklin, Tennessee, celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2020. In January, the company was projected to have its best year and double its revenue growth of 2019, but that all came to a halt by March.
“We left our staff retreat in January really excited about the possibilities of the things that we thought we were going to be able to create,” Zebell says. “In February, the world started to hear more about Covid [and] when it became clear that this was going to be an issue I went back to our development partner and I said, ‘I think we need to start on a virtual platform. I think we’re going to need to have something to show clients pretty soon.’”
By March, Zebell estimates that Streamline Event Agency lost 60% of its business. In the following weeks more events were canceled. “We just watched everything plummet,” he says. “The hardest part about it was there was nothing we did wrong.”
Instead of sitting around and waiting until things returned to normal, Zebell and his team decided to look for ways to reinvent their business. They paired off and for two weeks brainstormed possible alternatives to in-person events and came up with a new virtual platform, JoinIn, where companies could come together and host conferences and events as they had pre-pandemic. Development for JoinIn began mid-April and it was launched by the first week of July.
“Everybody was on board because I think everybody realized this was an opportunity to be creative. This was an opportunity to put out a product that would help keep businesses like ours afloat as well as be able to help our clients,” he adds.
Zebell says there is more of a human element to JoinIn as it was designed by an events company and by people who know how events work. The platform doesn’t feel digital and instead looks familiar by recreating recognizable environments on screen including registration and a virtual exhibit hall. “We’re all in this pandemic together, so let’s join in, let’s do this together,” he says. “That was the genesis behind the name: How do we remove some of the technology barriers and make it feel a little more human for interaction?”
Since JoinIn’s launch in July, the platform has been hosting events on a weekly basis. With the ability to cater a virtual event of any size, the platform has hosted a wide range of events from a 150-person sales meeting to 20,000 viewers for a global conference where 107 countries were represented. HIPAA compliant, healthcare companies have also embraced the platform and Zebell says JoinIn has the ability to assist in telemedicine and the live music space.
Zebell estimates that as of October, JoinIn has surpassed Streamline Event Agency’s 2019 revenue and could still grow 20% through the end of the year. His advice to other companies looking to adapt through a pandemic is “speed trumps perfection.”
“As a leader you have to have a very good balance of good decisions versus perfect decisions. There are times that you can make perfect decisions. There are times that making those perfect decisions will simply paralyze you,” he says. “When you lead in crisis and you’re dealing with something like a pandemic, you have to take a different approach … If we were still sitting back waiting for live events to come back we would have had the cut most of our staff. I refused for us to be that part of the story.
“This pandemic has forced us all to change the way we work, change the way we school, change the way we office. It has even changed the way we see doctors and healthcare providers,” he continues. “As an entrepreneur and as a leader of great teams, I think the story for both of these companies is still being written.”