Jeremy Sirota

CEO of Merlin Network

Jeremy Sirota, Merlin’s CEO, began his career in New York City in 1999. He pursued and landed a job as a brand designer at a tech company despite no experience in either branding or design. From an early age his personal North Star has been; how to put himself in positions where he’s continually challenged to learn and grow?

Jeremy spent his childhood tinkering with his father, a civil engineer who has a similar calling in “figure-it-out-itis.” During high school, Jeremy was a coder, a gamer, and an early adopter of Bulletin Board systems (web1) and then the World Wide Web (web2), and BMX bike riding (web0/IRL). Jeremy’s interest in technology was always coupled with his passion for music that has intersected throughout his career – first at Warner Music Group then as an early hire on Facebook’s music team, and now in his current position at Merlin.

While Merlin isn’t a household name, its influence in the music world is tremendous. Merlin is the independent’s digital music licensing partner, striking premium deals with platforms such as Apple, Meta, Peloton, Snap, TikTok, and YouTube. Its members collectively represent more than 15% of the total music market, including tens of thousands of labels, hundreds of thousands of artists, and millions of songs from every genre and country in the world.

Independent labels and distributors need to be increasingly nimble and employ an entrepreneurial mindset to thrive in this hyper-competitive industry. Merlin employs this same mentality fifteen years after it was founded.

“We have built an organization that is adaptive, resilient, and structurally organized to pivot quicker into new paradigms,” said Sirota. “This mindset flows through our approach because we are imbued by the same goals as our members – our success is defined solely by their success.”

Sirota is a graduate of UC Berkeley and UC Hastings College of Law. He was a lawyer at a top tech firm, Morrison & Forster, before running two Business & Legal Affairs departments for Warner Music’s iconic Warner Elektra-Alliance (WEA) division and its independent label services arm, Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA). Sirota has been recognized four times by Billboard Magazine: Indie Power Player (2020, 2021), International Power Player (2021), and the Power List (2022).

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Where did the idea for Merlin Network come from?

In the 2000s, digital music services prioritized their music licensing efforts on the major record companies -– Universal, Sony, Warner, and EMI. Independent labels needed to create space for their artists in this new digital space. At the 2007 MIDEM conference (Marché International du Disque et de L’Edition Musicale), Merlin was unveiled as a vision of how to address this digital imbalance. Merlin’s mission was to negotiate licensing deals with digital music services by leveraging the collective value of the leading independents to achieve premium terms.

Today, Merlin represents 15% of the global market share. Merlin has deals with leading digital services such as Apple, Meta, Peloton, Snap, Spotify, TikTok, Twitch, YouTube Music, and dozens more. Merlin’s membership consists of independent labels, distributors, and other rights-holders, representing tens of thousands of labels and hundreds of thousands of artists from every country in the world. Merlin then works collaboratively with its digital partners, delivers value back to those digital partners, and seeks to drive other incremental benefits to our members.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My day starts with helping my 10-year daughter get dressed, fed, packed, and out the door to school on time. From there, a typical day consists of a series of calls with my team leads, Board Members, Members, and Digital Partners. This is interlaced with strategic planning for the future—long term resourcing, company needs, branding and signaling, etc. I also try to have at least one 1-on-1 per week across my global team of nearly 40.

One of my key productivity tips is to carve out time each week for intentional planning. That means answering two questions: (1) How do I ensure my time this week is spent most effectively?; and (2) How do I ensure that I drive impact this week? This planning happens on Sunday evening when I review my schedule for the next two weeks, acknowledge my company’s goals, review my personal goals, seek out key opportunities, and try to anticipate blockers.

A second tip is to get out of the apartment/office. That’s clearly not feasible for everyone. But, if you can, I find a lot of value in the walk-and-talk, whether in-person or by phone. Or I use the time to let my mind wander. It helps me creatively think of new ways to solve challenges.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Building a culture of shared ownership. For a tech company, this might take the form of cross-functional teams. At Merlin, I took the concept of cross-functional teams and broke it down into its core components: prioritize communication; engender collaboration; and ensure fluidity. I repackaged these concepts into our company’s language. We call them “strategic pods.” It feels more welcoming. More alive. More music. We now spin up strategic pods for a single brainstorming session, for an entire deal cycle, or to address ongoing issues.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Music and tech are my passions—their intersection forms my professional North Star. But, at a societal level, I’m inspired by this next generation of entrepreneurs. They are focused on building successful businesses and playing a part in positive change such as addressing climate change, better reproductive health, sustainability, and microlending, to name a few. For myself, I achieve change by running Merlin and supporting our members and their artists—we are a member-owned, member-led organization that operates like a not for profit.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’ve slowed down the pace at the planning stage when I have a new initiative. I now take a methodical approach to first “paint the picture” for the team. Before setting sail, you need everyone on-board, know where we’re heading, and the path it’ll take to get there. It’s the classic axiom: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I am now deliberative about setting the stage before I’m off to the races. I’ve recognized the thrash caused by talking about v2 before we’ve even finished setting the goals.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t be so hard on yourself. After that, I would have recommended investing more time in people. I was mostly an introvert until college. I was heads down in a book, playing Atari, coding or logging into a BBS. That meant I gained less experience, at an early age, in learning to manage different personalities. I now appreciate that taking an early interest in people is like investing early in a 401k—it pays out greater dividends over time. However, it only works if you have a genuine interest in other people. The good news: There’s always something interesting about a person. Then you realize that it doesn’t matter whether you like (or even respect) the person you’re interacting with. By recognizing that each person is unique, you have the prism to become genuinely interested in anyone.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

There’s no such thing as problems, only challenges.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

The first step is to develop a common language to use internally and externally—a way of talking about your company, your values, and your goals that is true to your culture. Then it’s repetition, repetition, repetition. This consistency helps your team better reach its North Star by continually showcasing a belief in your vision, ensuring alignment, and building commonality.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Finding better ways to identify outdated assumptions and unlock the team from old paradigms. It’s my responsibility to clear the hurdles that prevent the team from doing their best and to ensure they’re supported in instituting change (which, invariably, entails risk). This mindset can help avoid tasks that employ excessive resources (without an appropriate ROI) and reinterpret how to best support your clients in the future.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Coming in hot! I wanted to conquer the world when I started at Merlin. I was under the (mistaken) belief that I had a clear view of what needed to be accomplished because I had put a lot of thought into the role. Instead, I needed to slow down, spend time with the team, and learn the nuances of the operations. By slowing down, I was able to recalibrate and change my approach; principally, I spent more time listening to people and probing into the corners of the room.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’ll give up three ideas. Two are slightly ridiculous and one is serious. You can decide which is which:
1. Contact lenses with night vision capability.
2. “Send Later” text messages. Or what about “Silent Send” (i.e., the sender’s version of “turn notifications off”). Or “Priority Send” to move text messages to the top of the queue.
3. Coffee that hydrates.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I paid for my 10-year old daughter’s fencing lesson and class. My daughter started fencing at 6 years old with her coach, Irene Gershon. Since then, I’ve joined the Board of Directors at the Fencers Club, a 501(c)(3), attended dozens of fencing competitions, and recorded hundreds of fencing bouts for my daughter to watch how she performed. I couldn’t think of a better way to deploy my capital.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Calendly has been a life-changing tool. When I first started as CEO, I elected not to hire an Executive Assistant or Engagement Manager. Instead, I’ve leveraged Calendly to control my schedule, but to also ensure my availability. Most importantly, I can set the times I want to make myself available—whether earlier in the morning or later into the evening—and the amount of time I’m willing to invest (15, 30, 45 or 60 minutes).

After that, the “Snooze” feature for emails is a great way to keep the inbox clean, not overload my lists, and push items to the right time in the future.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I benefited immensely from reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. We all know the challenges we face from the firehose of information, devices, and demands on our time. The pace of our lives is intense. Unfortunately, I’m not someone who’s taken to meditation or yoga. Instead, I have incorporated many of the lessons from Cal’s book to help control the daily deluge. (I’ve also recently started reading Mind Gym by Gary Mack. It was recommended by my daughter’s fencing coach to help me better understand the challenges she confronts; however, it’s an excellent read for anyone who views themselves as a high performer.)

What is your favorite quote?

“Silence’s importance is increasing as I’m getting older…we need it for balance, to get our brains empty. Just eating information makes you unable to move.” – Ryuichi Sakamoto [Thanks to]

Key Learnings:

  • Surround yourself with people who will support you, guide you, and inspire you with their positivity.
  • An empowered and inspired team is a productive team.
  • Treat your time as your most precious commodity. Avoid the time sucks and maximize your throughput with tools and processes.