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Mitchell Robins with son Sean
  Mitchell Robins with son Sean.
 

On the Record with Mitchell Robins, BBA '77

8/10/2009 --

Ross alum launches independent music label to honor his son.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Accountant Mitchell Robins, BBA '77, never intended to pursue a career in the music business. That was his son's goal. But when Sean Robins was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare pediatric bone cancer, his music career was put on hold. His father's, however, was just beginning.

By the time Sean fell ill, Mitchell Robins already had established the successful CPA firm Robins & Associates in La Jolla, Calif. He also owned a medical laser company, Lumedics Ltd. But as his son's health declined, Robins shifted gears.

"My wife, Amy Green Robins, and I spent most of our time learning about Sean's illness and how to treat it," he says. In 2006, Sean lost his seven-year battle with cancer, and Robins set off on a new course. He sold the rights to the Lumedics lasers and used the money he earned from royalties, as well as income from Robins & Associates, to establish the nonprofit Seany Foundation in 2007. The charity is dedicated to improving the lives of children with Ewing's sarcoma and other childhood cancers. In two years, the Seany Foundation has raised almost $400,000 to fund cancer research and other initiatives.

One of the foundation's current goals is to raise $2 million to establish an endowed research chair at the Moores Cancer Center of the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center. The foundation also is raising money to build the first teen activity room in the oncology wing of Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, where Sean spent much of his time while ill. The Seany Foundation regularly puts on fundraising events celebrating Sean's interests, like the Seany Lew Poker Tournament or the Hairless Potter Movie Night, held at the theater where Sean used to work.

But Robins also is keeping Sean's memory alive in another way. In 2008, he launched Seany Records, a Los Angeles-based record label that donates 50 percent of its profits to the Seany Foundation.

"I told my friend at EMI, Harlan Lansky, about what we were trying to do with the Seany Foundation," says Robins. "He called me one day and said that Sean had come to him in a dream saying we should start a record label."

Founding a label seemed to be the ideal way to honor his son's passion for music. Robins financed the independent imprint, took on the role of CEO, and appointed Lansky president.

Seany Records is a label with heart on multiple levels. Artists who sign with Seany are fully aware and supportive of its mission to find a cure for cancer. A substantial share of the company's profits support the Seany Foundation.

"We always look for artists who are the right fit for us," says Robins. "They have to have a good heart and want to give back."

In return, artists are given more of a say in the creative process and, just as important, how promotional money is spent. It's a more artist-friendly arrangement than the traditional business model. As a rule, record labels expend funds on an act's behalf and then require the talent to pick up the tab upon making a profit. Seany Records also gives bands a generous 75/25 split of profits, a ratio unheard of in the music industry.

Since launching last year, Seany Records has signed the country-rock band Or, the Whale, and plans to sign two more bands by the end of 2009.

The music business has changed drastically with the explosion in distribution of digital media over the Internet. Robins sees the trend as a positive one that levels the playing field between the majors and the independents.

"It's a whole different world now, but you adapt or you die," he says. "You hear stories now about a guy in his garage who built a huge following online. That's where the music is."

And while fans can sit at their computer and download as much music from the Internet as they want, they still are most enthusiastic about a live concert experience, Robins says. So tour support comprises a huge aspect of Seany's business.

"The bands just want to play music, so we handle the rest," he says. "We can make money off of 500 or 1,000 people coming to a venue. That's where the money is."

Many indie imprints also make money when they reach critical mass and become attractive buy-out candidates for bigger labels. In fact, most labels are formed with that type of exit strategy in mind. Seany Records, on the other hand, will always be Seany Records. Robins made that clear in the label's charter. But he also hopes to one day expand Seany Records into Seany Entertainment, a full-service media firm, all in the name of funding the foundation and keeping Sean's memory alive.

As a CPA, former CEO of Lumedics Ltd., founder of the Seany Foundation, and CEO of Seany Records, Robins is getting used to thinking of himself as an entrepreneur.

"It's kind of like playing craps in Vegas," he says. "I like the fact that there are a hundred different bets on the table."

But Robins ensures every bet he places is on behalf of Sean. The Seany Foundation and Seany Records are clearly dedicated to his son, and Robins makes sure his CPA firm remains profitable in part to guarantee those ventures never lack funding.

"It all goes back to Sean. All these businesses keep Sean front and center in my life," Robins says. "He never quit, so we will never quit either."

—Leah Sipher-Mann



For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu