Interviews

Opera star turned classical music entrepreneur says you can teach an old industry new tricks

13 min read

15 May 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Successful opera singer turned tech entrepreneur Sune Hjerrild is proof that you can bring a traditional industry kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century if you're passionate enough about it. Truelinked is a new digital platform that connects the best of classical music talent to relevant stakeholders to ensure the industry's survival in the future.

Does the onward march of digital business mean that the ‘more traditional’ industries are doomed to fall by the wayside? The world of classical music, some may argue, is one example of a sector that could be at risk.

However, Danish opera tenor turned tech leader, Sune Hjerrild is on a mission to bring the industry into the digital age to ensure its survival in the long-term. Say hello to Truelinked, a platform that connects classical music artists with stakeholders…

Truelinked: Fast facts

  • Raised £3.6m in funding 
  • Hosts 94,000 artist profiles
  • Provides a 70% time-saving for casting processes 
  • 473,392 performances documented
  • 1500+ arts organisations profiled 
  • 500+ managers profiled
  • 13,000+ hours worth of site visits

How did you make the journey from operatic tenor to tech entrepreneur?

Sune Hjerrild sees Truelinked as a ‘Linkedin’ for classical music professionals. Source: Thestage

I started out as an operatic tenor travelling the world and singing my way from one role and one concert to the next.

Not long into my career, my French agent got a job as artistic director and closed down her agency. I was forced to quickly find another manager as work totally dried up in France. I learned how vulnerable an artist’s career is without a strong personal network as a foundation for further development.

Then came the social media revolution and all my colleagues and I flocked there to see if this could be a new channel of work and connections for us. However, alas it was still too generic and there was no good validation or relevant data for our particular industry in these generic platforms.

When did you realise that you were the person to devise the solution to the innovation problem in the classical music sector?

It was on a short flight in Denmark that I would say a defining moment burst forth. I struck up a conversation with a stranger sat next to me, who turned out to be a tech entrepreneur.

He listened and then at the story’s end, looked me in the eye and said simply: “Well, why aren’t you doing it?” And, of course, I thought, well yes, why aren’t I? But it took a complete stranger asking me that question to really light a fire under the idea.

The idea had crystallised, and it was time to move on it. My co-founder Jan Pilgaard Carlsen and I started building a basic prototype with the financial help of friends and family in 2011. Two years later, I officially founded Truelinked as a company.

When did you first gain investment? What’s life been like since then?

When Jan (finally) quit his day job in 2015, we received the first big investment from a group of investment angels and the Danish Growth Fund to build the Truelinked platform.

That’s when our sweet little start-up went from being a one-man band to a collective of minds that share the vision for a technological transformation of the classical music industry.

Today, we are an operation of around 20 people, all striving to take Truelinked into the world where it can help make beautiful music…and beyond.

As far as I see, there are infinite possibilities for this platform and my personal mission is for Truelinked to show how technology and data can improve the lives of thousands of professionals in performing arts and connect them to an ever-growing audience.

Were there any other social media networking sites that inspired you?

Yes! A lot of my colleagues and I used Facebook and LinkedIn a lot to communicate and share information.

But we always knew it was not helpful as a direct connection to artistic directors and other people we really needed to network with to move our careers forward. We needed something more industry-specific and specialised. Hence why Truelinked was born.

What will the platform look like when it’s fully implemented?

This is how it will work for each stakeholder when the Truelinked platform for classical music and opera is fully implemented:

Agents: In a place where hundreds of Artist Organisations are looking daily, agents get the best channel of bookings, talent discovery, career insight data, and visibility for their roster.

Arts Organisations: Via Operabase data and the new casting tools, artistic directors and casters get a full view of the talent pool, valid performance data, and a network to support their decisions in a seamless workflow empowering their processes.

Artists: In a place where hundreds of casters are looking daily, artists get visibility to gain job opportunities, data to validate their choices and a network to endorse their talent.

Audience: In the one place where the audience can connect with thousands of art houses, performances, and artists, they get the best content, community, and overview to experience the music, those artists and art houses they love to follow, to support, or be a fan of.

Is the world of classical music resistant to digital transformation?

I think it’s a bit like the old story of Nokia mobile users before the iPhone came out.

They constantly asked their users if they like touch screen interfaces and every time the results were that they loved their phone and the physical buttons. We all know what happened from there.

No matter what, the pervasive fact remains that the rest of the world is moving on, technologically speaking, and many of the performing arts industries are being left behind and there is no way to ignore that.

What makes Truelinked stand out in the market?

The difference is that Truelinked is building a platform for all the stakeholders in the industry. Furthermore, we have acquired the leading performance database in the world called Operabase to support the casting process and improve this data with connectivity and seamless workflows. So, we have a very special position in the market.

What’s your core mission? Is it to preserve and upscale the classical music industry? Is there a fear it could become extinct if it refuses to go digital?

That is my mission. And that is my fear, also.

I don’t think the art form is going to die out tomorrow if we don’t embrace technology but yes, I do think it will dwindle.

My mission, as a former opera singer and lover of opera and classical music has always been, as we say at Truelinked now, to ‘make more of that beautiful music’.

It is why I knew that Operabase (the industry’s go-to platform for documentation of all productions, artists and professionals) would be a perfect partner for Truelinked from the beginning of my foray into this world – for preservation.

Operabase has over 20 years of precious information from all over the globe that is now a central offering of the Truelinked platform.

The new Truelinked platform includes Operabase data and is built on two principles:​ reliable data and seamless connectivity between the four stakeholders. The Arts Organisations, the Agents, the Artists, and the Audience. It’s an industry built on trust.

Imagine you’re pitching the business to a panel of investors today; how would you convince the judges that your platform is truly disruptive and innovative in your space?

Well, I don’t have to imagine actually… as a start-up, this is a regular real-life scenario. We already raised more than £3.6 million in private venture funding.

The nice thing for us about Truelinked is that, as soon as you explain how the concept works, people can immediately understand just how disruptive and innovative the idea is for the performing arts space.

But…if I had to say it in a few lines, this is it: Truelinked is a platform that aims to integrate elements of popular technology and social platforms such as Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook to connect the four stakeholders, or communities, that make up the functioning industry of opera and classical music and one day, the wider performing arts vertical.

Our platform will facilitate connections in a way that has never been possible before between the four As: Artists, Arts Organisations, Agents and maybe, most importantly and excitingly, Audience.

This connection will foster communication that will see growth in the industry as a whole and also more diversity in the range of talent being hired and performing, as well as fostering new talent by giving them visibility.

To lead a business, do you think it requires a certain kind of mindset and character? Do you have it?

For starters, it takes a decent amount of tenacity.

When you are leading a business and certainly a model where you are trying to disrupt, to change the way people are used to doing things, you need some steel about you to be able to take those knocks. Because there will be knocks! And likely quite often.

In a start-up, you’re also required to be all things at once. I need to be constantly keeping the bigger picture in mind, while getting ‘down and dirty’, so to speak, in the trenches of the battlefield. Involved in the minutiae with my team, making sure there is support and that things are moving in the right direction.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way: I feel incredibly strongly about what we are trying to achieve here at Truelinked and that it is for the greater good and that keeps me enthused every day.