Due to graduate later this year, Barry van Zyl is not your typical MBA student.
He’s a professional musician, who has spent the past 19 years as Johnny Clegg’s drummer,
having first acquired a diploma in marketing management at Wits back in the 80s to have a traditional business qualification to fall back on if his musical career failed. Van Zyl then spent a year in London studying music, followed by two years at the Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, California, where he graduated with an honours degree in performance, after which he received a scholarship from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
He returned to South Africa just after the watershed 1994 elections and by 1999 had landed a seat as Clegg’s resident drummer where he remains today. Over the last 30 years, he’s worked with a range of international music stars in his down time, all household names, as well as branching out into movies, scoring for films, and producing music.
“I became more and more interested in the business of music, producing music, rather than playing it, to create residual income, I didn’t want to end up as musician playing in pubs at the end of my career,” he says.
The problem was, he didn’t know how.
“I was never taken seriously when it came to business, I didn’t feel confident, I was totally out of my depth.”
It was during a project on creativity that he was involved in with fellow musician Freshly Ground’s Josh Hawks that he met Henley Business School Africa dean Jon Foster-Pedley.
“I’d heard of the traditional MBA degree before, but that was totally out of my orbit, then I met Jon and he told me about the music and creative MBA that Henley had just launched.
“I sat in on an open day with the inaugural Creative MBA class and I was hooked.”
Henley’s Creative and Music is based on its standard MBA with extra days added to each module.
Foster-Pedley describes the rationale behind the degree as follows “The creative and music industries are critical to the growth of our economies as we seek to build and manage new forms of value and competitiveness. The degree provides a fantastic opportunity to grow skills and knowledge in the sector with Henley”.
Van Zyl concedes that his journey wasn’t easy. He almost quit after his first three months.
“It was touch and go. The jargon, the language of business can alienate you entirely. It’s a closed group and people can tell if you don’t know what you’re talking about. I felt like I’d landed on Mars”
The turning point was the finance module.
“I took to it like a duck to water, I passed with a distinction – after failing maths at high school. I realised then that I could do it.”
While he is pursuing his musical career and exploring the business side of it, but now he’s found himself working for Henley too, helping expand the business school into West and East Africa.
“The doors that have been opening have been astounding, the MBA alumni network incredible and the outcomes for me, from personal development to self-awareness, incredibly powerful.” he says.
“On a recent consultancy trip to assess market demand I met with a whole range of C-suite business people. I was going to downplay my musical background but I found that it was a real icebreaker, they’d done their research and we started off speaking about music and then seamlessly into business.
The world economy, says Van Zyl, is moving from the manufacture of things to the manufacture of ideas – which is where the music and creative MBA fits.
“Most valuable companies these days are based on ideas. Business leaders are saying ‘how do we achieve this? Maybe it’s time to go the crazy creatives.’
“There’s a convergence, it’s a bottom line driver.”
(Published in Business Day, MBA Feature, 29 August 2018)