Why entrepreneurship?

As I said in my last post, I’m stressing entrepreneurship this semester, in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music.

And, of course, entrepreneurship is a major buzzword at music schools right now.

But why? What’s the purpose of this?

Well, here’s one useful explanation, which surfaced, very helpfully, in a working group I’m part of, in which we’re helping to shape an entrepreneurship curriculum at a particular music school. Entrepreneurship, said one of our members, will help students shape their careers in a variety of ways. The idea being not to confront anyone at the school with the need to shape careers differently, but simply to say that, these days, many kinds of careers are possible.

What I told my students when my course started last week was a little more forceful. Not to say anything’s wrong with the first version, but I wanted to be a little stronger.

So here’s what I said:

In the old days, before the classical music crisis, we had an ecosystem that functioned very well. If you were a classical musician, you could make a career as a soloist or as a member of a chamber ensemble, without having to think in any special way about way you did.

You played the standard repertoire. And, in the world around you, there were many people who wanted to hear musicians do that. To serve these people, there were concert series, on which musicians played the music people wanted to hear. If you were good enough, you’d attract attention inside the business, and you’d be booked to play on these concerts. That’s how you’d make your career. (A simplified story, of course.)

But now things are different. There’s a smaller audience, and fewer concerts. So the ecosystem that supported careers now is smaller. It supports fewer musicians.

And so you, the musician making your way in the world, may want to make your career in a different way.

And that requires something new. Back in the old days, you didn’t have to differentiate yourself much from other musicians. There was room for many musicians like you. And the audience, pretty much, would come to hear anyone the people who presented concerts would book.

Now it’s different. To make a career on your own, without any audience guaranteed, you have to give people reasons to care about you. That’s where entrepreneurship comes in, along with branding and marketing. Yes, you’re good, and yes, you play music by great composers, lynchpins (if you like) of our culture.

But other musicians do that, too. So why should we want to hear you? It’s your job — as a musical entrepreneur — to answer that question, and build your career in your own way.


Thinking this way will help you get booked on an established concert series, too. The people who book these concerts are under pressure to sell tickets. The established audience is shrinking. Many years ago, presenters who’d only presented classical concerts began to diversify, programming jazz and world music, so that they’d sell more tickets.

But they still present classical music. And have to sell their classical concerts however they can. So if you have your own audience — which you’ve built on your own — these presenters will love that. It’s a win for them. They’ll sell tickets!

So your entrepreneurship helps you in two ways. You can build your own audience, and produce your own concerts.

And you’ll be more enticing to other concert producers.

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  1. says

    I think another trend for getting bookings, and one that seems to work well in communities/industries outside of the traditional performing arts is project based bookings. Rena Shagan discussed this in her Booking and Tour Management for the Performing Arts book (she also discusses the rising number of ethnic arts/world music bookings by presenters) and David Cutler hints at it in his Why YOU Need a Powerhouse Topic blog post and I discuss a bit regarding residencies.

    As I quoted from Shagan in my blog:

    Today, presenters and their audiences want an artist’s time in their community to be more than fleeting, and artists are tired of running from engagement to engagement, hardly able to remember where they performed last week. Groups of presenters increasingly are working collaboratively to accomplish mutual goals. In addition, this new emphasis on project-based touring is being fueled by the monies that a variety of public and private agencies have invested in long-term residencies and commissioning as a better means to develop audiences.

    Whatever the confluence of factors, the marketplace has become more project-oriented.

    Cutler opens his post with:

    As a musician, you certainly already have one or two specialties: playing the violin, bebop improvisation, recording chamber ensembles. But no matter how skilled you are in these types of areas, you are likely just a small fish in a large ocean competing to be noticed. For those desiring more work and opportunity, imagine how your career might be transformed if you had a powerhouse topic.

    A powerhouse topic is a subject on which you become known as a local, national, or international expert. This is accomplished through blogging, writing books, offering presentations, releasing videos, consulting, becoming a media expert, or other activities that clearly establish you as an authority.

    You’re absolutely right that performing well just isn’t going to cut it anymore (and really, it never was a way to cut it no matter how much we romanticize performance in the past). Bringing something to a potential booking other than a generic (albeit, outstanding) performance program just isn’t enough these days. It’s really an old economic principle: Product Differentiation (first described by Edward Chamberlain in “The Theory of Monopolistic Competition” 1933).

    What better way to differentiate yourself than by taking some aspect of the music you really enjoy and are passionate about and developing ways outside of simply performing it to present and, more importantly, share with audiences? And, as David Cutler implies, it doesn’t have to be something specifically related to the music performance/presentations you give and it may lead to bookings specifically for the non-performance project which could only be tangentially related to the particular performance it just happens to be paired with for a residency.

    • says

      All very true, Jon. I’ve talked to bookers who wanted something more than just a performance. If musicians could do something in the community, that was a big plus.

      And, this said, I can’t help noticing that none of the bookers I talked to about this mentioned having anything special in the performance itself. They seemed to take performance quality/interest for granted, figuring many people were good, and could offer something compelling. But I think there are miles to go in that, too.

  2. Eric L says

    Hey Greg,

    This is great. To add to all of this (not that I have that much to add) I think the entire economy is going to have to shift to a more entrepreneurial model anyway–the arts are simply going to be part of the larger trend. In part, it’s because it’s actually magnitudes EASIER to be an entrepreneur than before. So in a way, yes, the larger economic and cultural trends are pushing (forcing?) more artists to be self-sufficient and less dependent on the institutions. But on the flip side, it’s shouldn’t be because you have no other choice–but rather you should see being an entrepreneur as a chance to reshape how the arts engage in the wider society…something that entrenched institutions will have difficulty in doing simply because of inertia.

    I think one thing for young artists to keep in mind–esp those who are coming out of a tradition-bound (and perhaps preconception-bound) institution such as conservatories–is that always question everything, including your core products and beliefs. There’s nothing more dangerous than thinking entrepreneurship is simply about different marketing of the same product. It’s not just about slapping together a FB event page but then doing the same thing you were doing before [same pieces, same presentation format etc.] at the actual event. It’s a fallacy that you can superficially engage with the web and expect everything to just fall in place.

    Finally, I do think there’s something about entrepreneurship that might fundamentally clash with some of the core habits and preconceptions in the arts and especially classical music. I think we’re all too familiar with the element of ‘perfectionism’ in classical musicians…or at least the Platonic ideal of perfectionism. There’s this fundamental fear of imperfection in classical music…even though perfection is a myth in the first place anyway. At least, musicians always think that mistakes should only happen in the practice room or during rehearsal, and when you’re presenting to the public, it needs to be perfect.

    If you talk to people in the startup world however, that’s completely the opposite of how they think. Entrepreneurship is fundamentally about failure. It’s about actively making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. New online startups regularly launch beta projects which are far from complete. They then figure out what about their project or service works based on what users like and use, and what doesn’t work because it was clumsily designed or poorly conceived and so on. Essentially, it takes on a natural selection-like process. What ‘works’ is then kept and what doesn’t work is discarded.

    That’s a spirit that really, really needs to be encouraged…and that may be difficult in a perfection-based world.

    In any case, worth encouraging no matter what.

  3. says

    There’s still plenty of market out there, and more people than ever love classical music. Our job as performers is to make live performance something profoundly different than what listeners can experience at home in front of the stereo. I agree, the future of classical music is going to be handed over to those who can make something new out of it.

  4. says

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for the update here — I agree with what everyone has said here so far, and I’m glad that the music world is becoming interested in the correlations. Like people said, I think that in today’s economy and business environment this approach is pretty much going to be a necessity at this point.

    If people are looking for the “how-tos” of these kinds of things, “The Lean Startup” book by Eric Ries is probably the best thing to read right now. It’s clear, concise, and illuminates how people have/are doing it in the tech sector right now. I’ve just started doing it, but I wrote a bit about it here in my own experiences:

    How to Apply “Lean Startup” Principals to Music — Minimum Viable Product

    (There’s 3 parts to it so far, I’m working on expanding it further. I was fortunately able to get some interest from the startup community with these articles.)

    What I’ve been finding is that the teaching of improvisation will be necessary in correlating these ideas musically. Why? Because entrepreneurship requires the same level of tolerance, or even enjoyment that comes with being in situations of high uncertainty. Traditionally trained classical musicians will have great trouble adapting to the new environment if they’re not prepared to do this.

    For a long time, my goal was to turn my improvisations into a living — with the way things are going now, looks like I wasn’t too far off the mark.

    • says

      Thanks, Ryan. I’m loving the thoughts/resources you and others are bringing here. Learning a lot from you all.

      Re improvisation: yes! This touches on something I’m going to get after, which is a hidden component of musical entrepreneurship. We often talk as if entrepreneurship is all in the branding and marketing. But really it starts, or should start, much earlier, with what you play and how you play it. In the old model, you played the standard repertoire really well, but maybe not in any really striking way, and you found an audience. Now there has to be something distinctive in your music-making. In other words, you need _musical_ creativity, not just creativity in promotion. Musical creativity is where the whole thing starts. We need to talk about this a lot more!

  5. says

    I graduated from Eastman in 2003 and they were just starting to get on this…when I started there, it was assumed that any classical player wanted to be a soloist or a member of a symphony orchestra. When I left, the Arts Leadership Program was starting and emphasized other ways to be successful in music.

    As the program director of JACK Quartet, a fairly young, 501(c)(3) full-time string quartet dedicated to contemporary music, I am constantly thinking and rethinking strategies for how to ensure success in future years. I speak often with peers and also with much more established ensembles to get advice and bounce ideas off of them.

    But in the end, I really believe JACK’s modest success is a combination of luck and a commitment from each player to the quartet and the music that they believe in. The quartet is the priority of each member of the group to an almost comical degree, which I won’t go into here. They rehearse 4 days per week for 5 hours per day. This is on top of about 55 performances per year in which (usually) not a single program is repeated.

    As for the music, everyone said not playing Mozart or Beethoven was a liability–it turned out to be a strength. It’s tough to distinguish yourself playing Beethoven. I believe one of the biggest components to JACK’s success has been our relationship with composers–young and established. JACK’s first break was playing the music of Helmut Lachenmann, who has since been very helpful to the quartet.

    Finally, that little bit of luck…not sure how you can recreate that. But it doesn’t matter how lucky you are if you aren’t prepared to take advantage of it when it comes along.

    I am interested in the content of a class on entrepreneurship in classical music. I think that as a student, I would have benefited from asking questions to people who were in the thick of it. slightly older than me. Perhaps as a project, these students could interview people in groups like So Percussion, Brooklyn Rider, Eighth Blackbird, Alarm Will Sound etc and figure out what really goes on in a successful chamber music group.

    • says

      I agree, James. JACK is a terrific example. Among much else, I love their photos. An exercise in branding, all by themselves. Especially the one where they’re spelling out the name.

      If/when Juilliard goes down the entrepreneurship track, I’ve suggested that they bring in precisely the kind of groups you’ve mentioned. Who better to inspire and teach the students?

    • says

      JACK is a terrific example, James. Thanks for sharing this.

      (Versions of this comment might show up twice. I thought I’d posted it, but now I can’t see it. So trying again… )

      Likewise the other ensembles you mention. If/when Juilliard goes down the entrepreneurship track, I’ve suggested they bring in precisely the kind of groups you’re talking about. Who better to inspire/teach the students?

      • richard says

        Julliard should get on the ball. I believe the school doesn’t offer a bachelors in sax performance, and sax degrees are awarded through the jazz department. Also, they are required to double. This is a good thing (as long as they develop strong “classical” sax chops). The problem is that clar. players just major in clar.
        At the very least, they should minor in sax., if they have to freelance (which is almost a certainty for most) they’ll have more options.

  6. says

    Thanks, Greg, for kicking off such a great discussion! I teach a music entrepreneurship course at the Yale School of Music called Creating Sustainable Careers in the Arts. My students all understand that they have to learn how to put themselves “out there” and create their own opportunities in order to make their way as musicians. They are a talented, wonderful group with a dedication to making careers as musicians and a certain degree of apprehension around how to make that happen.

    One students posed an interesting question that goes to the heart of why teaching entrepreneurship is so essential when he had no intention of creating something new but rather join an existing performing.arts organization and make that his career. The answer is that status quo is no longer an option. Instead, no mater what your career goal, it is essential to adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur, to wit, believe in yourself and your unique gifts, have a vision and go after the opportunities to make that vision a reality and be fueled by your passions. For more on what it takes to be an entrepreneurial musician, here’s my blog post:


    For me, it is a privilege to help these talented young people make their way in the world. While there are no guarantees, I feel that musicians who learn the entrepreneurial mindset and skillset are the ones who will keep the music flowing.

  7. says

    So glad this subject is getting more exposure!

    I studied trombone and it wasn’t until my last semester that a visiting professor took it upon himself to have some sort of “music business” lecture series – really just the bare bones of running your own business. Needless to say, I had no idea about taxes, booking, teaching, networking, etc….so I went to grad school.

    On the flip side, when my husband told his parents that he wanted to be a musician, his father, a self-employeed businessman, set him down and worked through “how to run a business”. And he’s been a self-employed free-lance musician ever since – since even before graduating into the “real word.”

    Pop/rock/folk musicians/artists/writers and pretty much every creative field acknowledges that it’s a difficult row to hoe and support multiple ventures all at once. With classical players there’s so much time spent in the shed with the same thirty excerpts (and if you stay in school, in the library) with the focused goal of winning an audition it seems like doing anything else is a waste of time. And yet, exploring other options is the only way to make innovations to a field that is narrowing its range of vision and withdrawing from cultural recency.