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North Shore Mom with a Rocker’s Heart

Val Haller was always the cool kid on the block.  Literally.  With four young boys and a backyard ice rink, Val’s house was where kids and adults congregated, like a giant tailgate party.  Twenty years later, Val’s house is still the place to be, but for altogether different reasons.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

Our family lived down the street and moved away from Chicago after one short year. During our “survival” years of mothering (4 kids each), managing hectic households with traveling husbands and work commitments of our own, Val and I lost touch.  Thanks to a mutual friend and Facebook, we eventually connected back up.  The hard mothering years were mostly behind us.  We were surfing through our fierce 50’s, and it was clear that Val was already well into her next act, gathering and re-directing her powers like a beautiful cyclone.

Today, Val is both a trendsetter and powerful brand in the music industry. And it all started with a simple idea.  Combining her passion for music with her entrepreneurial spirit, she created, a popular and highly regarded music website aimed at baby boomers like me.  She calls it a “playlist for busy adults.”

So, who listens to  Turns out it’s a much broader demographic than she set out to target.  Valslist users are busy people of all ages, who have lost track of music and need help keeping up. It’s the person who wants great music at their party, on the run, working out, but doesn’t have time (or interest) to do all the research. So, Valslist does it for you. Val listens, discovers, and hand-picks the best new emerging artists and curates playlists of all kinds for her website (and new mobile app ValslistRadio.)

“We’re drowning in a tsunami of music without a drop to drink,” says Val.  “All of the music discovery platforms have left people, especially boomers, paralyzed.  There are too many choices for those of us working and raising kids.  Our children try to help navigate, but we often don’t like the same kinds of music.”  Boy, can I relate.

Val creates the connection between artist and fan.  She doesn’t align with a label, isn’t a critic and is not paid by any promoters.  “The music industry is broken,” explains Val.  “It’s easy for artists to get their music on the Internet, but so hard to be discovered and then to make a living.  Back in the day, bands would tour to promote and sell their new album. Today, they give their music away for free when people stream and share it.”

As a girl, Val was always setting the household stage with music.  She recalls hauling out the holiday tunes right after Thanksgiving and playing DJ.  She was the Mom who made all the pre-game mix tapes for her sons’ sports teams.  You know the one.  But it took her some time to recognize in herself what had always been instinctive, staying on top of new music, delighting in the discovery of an emerging band.

Slowly, she began to realize that her love of music was more than a passion.  None of her friends were experiencing music the way she was, and they were all coming to her for playlist advice.  Val was the ultimate insider.

And so began her professional quest to uncover and share the new bands and emerging, elusive artists who weren’t getting airplay.  Valslist was established in 2007.  As an iTunes affiliate, the ability to hook her music onto that platform and sell her playlists gave the business some serious lift.  The idea began to take off.

After a great shout out by a famed music critic, Val’s in-box was suddenly filled with every band and music label who wanted in on her website.  Oprah did a feature on Val, the NYT asked her to write a weekly music column in their “Boomer” section where she bridged the generation gap by pairing a vintage artist and a new artist who had a similar vibe “Music Match”:  If you like Bob Dylan, then try Jake Bugg…

From her popular playlists, Val created a mobile app (ValslistRadio) and then started hosting house concerts, capitalizing on people’s love of live, intimate music, with a chance to meet the band.  Seating up to 140 people, these nights make Val’s place still the hottest ticket in town (even though the concerts are free, tips for the band encouraged!)  Folks travel out of Chicago and to her North Shore home to attend.  The Hallers often put the bands up for the night, and the artists are thrilled to walk away from the gig with a wad of tips and CD sales.

“The music industry still caters to the 18-23 year olds, but the truth is, they aren’t the demographic who’s buying music.  Adults are an important, lucrative audience with disposable income, a bit more free time, and we’re dying to be relevant,” she points out with frustration. “We love live music, but heading downtown for a late show is intimidating sometimes.”

Recently, Val brought the house concert format to some Chicago-area country clubs that were eager for an in-flux of new patrons and programming ideas.  The concept has “gone gangbusters” and is allowing her to grow her audience and monetize the business.

So what’s next?  This is an interesting time for this Fierce 50 music industry insider.  She’s at a crossroads where it’s time to think bigger, perhaps expand the live music experience nationally, generate greater monetization and roll out the brand to busy adults everywhere.  Is a Valslist music festival on the horizon?  Like each of the women in the Fierce 50 campaign, don’t count her out.

Val recently crossed off a bucket list item when she attended the Grammys in LA, as a gift from her husband Mark (who often wears his “Plus One” T-shirt at music events.)

“Honestly?  My biggest challenge was what to wear,” says Val.  “I’m a cowboy boots and jeans kind of girl, but I hit every consignment shop around to find the perfect amount of hot-edgy for me. My vision was to play out my hippie chick alter ego.”  And she rocked it.  Catherine Grace, creator of the Fierce 50 Campaign, captured the moment in a photo shoot on the weekend and you can see it here.  Val looks fabulous, fierce and freaking sexy.

Who was she most excited about seeing at the Grammys?  Beyoncé? Gaga?  Keith Urban?  Nah.  Her heart went aflutter for her favorite newcomers, The Record Company, Lukas Graham, and Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper. “I was so proud of them,” she gushes.  “This is the biggest night in the music industry and it was such a high to see all that talent in one place.  I’m not easily star struck — but I was that night!”

What advice does Val have for the rest of us 50-somethings looking for our next chapter, business idea or reinvention?  “My entire career is an accident in a way. I had an idea I believed in and I kept going. Certain things have fallen in my path and the key is what you decide to do with them.  You can trip over them if you aren’t paying attention or you can grab them and make something happen.  That’s what I chose to do,” she says, proud of her age and position in the industry.  “Being in my 50s means I’m not afraid to speak up. I like being a grown-up in a young, frenetic, ever-changing field.”

For Val and so many of us, regardless of age, music and its deep connection to our lives is the great neutralizer.   “No matter who you are or what you do, music touches you,” she says. “We need more adults at live music, people willing to put down their phones and their selfies and just listen to the music.” Amen, sister.

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