If you’re a fan of classical music, heavy metal, video games, or movies, chances are you’ve heard the musical stylings of Tina Guo. This Grammy- and Brit-nominated musician, composer, and entrepreneur is one of the most recorded solo cellists of all time. Her work with the acoustic and electric cello spans genres and can be heard in hundreds of blockbuster films, including Inception, Wonder Woman 1984, Dunkirk, and 2019’s The Lion King.

Guo has also performed with The Foo Fighters, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, and Cirque du Soleil. She’s a powerhouse who’s quick to tell you not to be fooled by her seemingly overnight success.

“I’ve been clawing my way up slowly, piece by piece,” Guo says. “I think sometimes people see that I’m very lucky to have built the career I have so far, and they assume something must’ve happened overnight. But no; it was like torture, day after day, trying. I’ve had seven or eight failed band projects. I tried so many times. The trick is not giving up and trying to learn.”

Guo is a one-woman show when it comes to performing, creating music videos, running her business, and negotiating contracts. She puts equal emphasis on the hard work and relationships that have helped her build her career into what it is today.

Here’s a look into how Guo chased her dream of a financially stable music career and used her knowledge from a Harvard Business School Online course to build relationships and succeed in the music business.

A Foundation in Music

Guo was born in Shanghai, China, and moved to Los Angeles, California, when she was five years old. Her parents—one a professional violinist and the other a cellist—were eager to start her on an instrument right away. After trying the piano and the violin with no luck, they found their daughter had a knack for the cello at age seven and a half.

“It’s good to explore different things to see what you don’t even realize you have a gift in that you can harness and develop,” Guo says. “I’ve been very lucky; I was lucky that my parents forced me to practice.”

Tina Guo with electric cello

Transitioning from Musician to Artist

Guo attended college at the University of Southern California (USC) and majored in cello performance. She credits that time as her introduction to the array of musical genres beyond classical music. It’s also when she first got a taste of playing metal and industrial music on the electric cello.

“I had been training since I was seven, but as far as being an artist—a musician with something to express—that didn’t start until I was 18,” Guo says.

Guo’s studies at USC consisted mainly of music theory, traditional repertoire, and extensive technique practice. She has a reverent appreciation for the classical instruction she received but, at the time, was deeply concerned about how she’d stand out in a sea of peers with the same degree and make a living.

“For me, it’s always been in the back of my mind,” she says. “I love music and want to express myself, but how do I make a living out of it? Those two are not the same thing at all. Especially in the music field where everything’s changing so quickly with technology, streaming, all that stuff. I’ve always been very curious about learning more about business, but there were no courses available for that. It’s not part of the classical performance curriculum.”

Taking Business Education Into Her Own Hands

Upon graduating, Guo began gigging and playing in various band projects, all in service of making it as an electric cellist. During her first band project, she didn’t realize that she wasn’t fairly represented in the contract until it was too late. That was the moment she decided to take her business education into her own hands.

“That’s when I started researching, reading books, going online, and trying to understand how to do this,” Guo says. “Of course, nobody was interested in managing me at the time because I had no career and no income—nobody wants to jump on a bandwagon until it’s already rushing down the hill.”

Four years out of college, Guo was barely scraping by with income from her gigs. Resigning herself to the fact that she’d need to leave behind her dream in favor of a financially stable orchestra position, she decided to take her life’s savings and put it into what she assumed would be her “last hurrah with the electric cello.”

She decided to produce a music video for her original song, “Queen Bee.” Opening with the intricate, frantic buzz of “Flight of the Bumblebee” on electric cello, Guo’s “last hurrah” caught the attention of viewers worldwide and launched her career.

One person who saw the video was renowned film score composer Hans Zimmer, who reached out and asked her to collaborate on the score for the upcoming movie Sherlock Holmes. This call from Zimmer kicked off a decade-long relationship that Guo credits with helping her grow both her skills and brand.

Cirque du Soleil organizers also saw Guo’s music video and invited her to perform with them. She joined the entertainment company’s “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” during which time she saved money, limited her spending, paid off her loans, and started taking online investment courses to learn how to maximize income and build residual wealth.

Although Guo credits that tour with providing her first stable income as an artist and getting her out of debt, she soon itched for creative freedom.

“After two and a half years, I started feeling it again; I really needed to feel creative,” she says. “Even traveling around the world with a circus is all planned and synced. The lights, the hips, my hair flips, twirls—all completely synced. I started feeling like I needed to do something else.”

Guo negotiated her way out of the three-year contract without paying a penalty fee and moved back to Los Angeles, where she started self-producing albums. She couldn’t afford to hire professionals and learned how to do every part of the process herself. After self-releasing nine albums, Guo signed a record deal with Sony Masterworks.

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Mastering Negotiation

As her own agent and manager, Guo has been building and honing her negotiation skills for nearly a decade.

“I’ve negotiated almost all of my own contracts, even my record deal with Sony,” she says. “I read a lot of music business books, law books online, just trying to figure out and learn.”

Representing herself as an entrepreneur, musician, and woman has been challenging at times. Early in her career, Guo faced people who didn’t take her seriously or responded to her proposals with condescension.

“In negotiation, sometimes the way that we speak as women, we can say the same thing and do the same thing a man does, and it’s not quite taken the same way,” she says. “I think I’ve, over the years, tried to figure out how I can negotiate for myself as an artist and businessperson. There’s such a fine line between being someone who can be respected and going overboard.”

When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit in March 2020, Guo decided to capitalize on her free time by honing her skills. After watching the trailer for HBS Online’s Negotiation Mastery course, she was interested in learning how to use relationship-building and other tactics to close deals and decided to enroll.

“I’ve always been trying to learn how to ride this line where you can build a friendship and really connect with them, really find a middle ground where everybody wins,” she says. “All the stuff they talked about in the course.”

Guo admits to feeling in over her head at points during the course, but says, “That feeling was amazing. I like to feel challenged. I’m always in the back of my mind thinking of other ways to expand.”

The skills Guo picked up in Negotiation Mastery recently helped her negotiate the terms of a soundtrack contract.

“The budget limitations were there and I thought, ‘Oh! Harvard Business School Online negotiation course! What did I learn? OK, what are the things I could possibly ask for that might even be worth more than money to me?’” she recalls. “I thought of some things that I feel like are priceless, like credits. I was able to talk to the team about this, and they gave me exactly what I wanted. They were happy with it, too.”

Guo emphasizes the importance of building real, lasting relationships with business partners and keeping everyone’s best interests in mind when negotiating.

“I always, when I negotiate, think about, ‘If I were on their side, what would I want?’” she says. “I think it’s really important to understand your partner in the situation.”

Related: The Impact of Emotions in Negotiation

The Entrepreneurial Artist

“Entrepreneurship is an art,” Guo asserts. “It’s just like music.”

Guo, now a self-made millionaire, has excelled as an entrepreneurial artist, pushing herself not only in music, but in negotiation, marketing and branding, and financial management.

“I wanted to express myself as an artist and, at the same time, it would be nice to have some kind of stability, especially as a musician,” she says of her mindset at the start of her career. “So that’s where the passion came from. Now, to me, it’s all a game. I like looking at my spreadsheets, at my stocks; it’s like a little video game situation for me. I genuinely love this stuff.”

To anyone who aspires to turn their creative passion into a business, Guo offers three pieces of advice:

  1. Understand you can’t have everything at once.
  2. Be a nice person and don’t burn bridges.
  3. Remain open and always say yes to opportunities.

“I always say, ‘the music business’ has the word ‘business’ in it, and it’s even longer than the word ‘music,’” Guo says. “Music is a business. If you want to just play music in your basement or garage—which is great, you can do it for fun—but you can’t just do that and expect magically for a fiscally viable career to suddenly grow out of it. Those are two separate things. You need to be able to bring them together.”

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Looking Forward

This May, Guo will perform at HBS Online’s virtual Connext conference and take some time to talk about her career and experience taking Negotiation Mastery.

“I’m very excited to be a part of Connext,” she says.

Aside from that, her most recent projects include working on soundtracks for the upcoming films Dune and Top Gun: Maverick and videogames CyberPunk 2077 and Of Bird and Cage. She’ll also be touring with the “Hans Zimmer Live” tour in 2022.

In addition, Guo’s second album through Sony Masterworks is finished, and she’s in the process of creating music videos for three singles.

Guo’s prolific music career serves as a reminder that if you work hard at your craft, build strong relationships, and take your business education into your own hands, incredible things are possible. All that’s left to do is, in Guo’s words, “throw yourself into the fire and just go for it.”

Excited to see Tina Guo at Connext 2021? Learn more about this year’s virtual conference for the HBS Online global Community.

Catherine Cote

About the Author

Catherine Cote is a marketing coordinator at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at an early-stage SaaS startup where she found her passion for writing content, and at a digital consulting agency, where she specialized in SEO. Catherine holds a B.A. from Holy Cross, where she studied psychology, education, and Mandarin Chinese. When not at work, you can find her hiking, performing or watching theatre, or hunting for the best burger in Boston.