Being creative, learning to brand

I’ll be teaching a workshop in June, at an entrepreneurship retreat for musicians. This retreat is something new, created by Connie Frigo’s under her brand name Road of Creativity, Connie being a saxophonist, sax teacher at the University of Georgia, entrepreneur, and my friend. The dates are June 3 to 9, the place is the University of South Carolina’s School of Music, which is the host, and has its own entrepreneurship center, the Carolina Institute for Leadership and Engagement in Music. A cosponsor is the D’Addario musical instrument company, which will have people there leading workshops.

The cost — for tuition, room, and board —  is $900, or $950, depending on which housing option you choose. But there are early bird discounts for the first 75 people who register by April 15.

My workshop will be on branding yourself. What I’ll be doing is like what I’m doing in my Juilliard course this spring on the future of classical music. Though it was really Connie’s invitation to take part — along with some work I’ve done, to help create an entrepreneurship thread at a major music school — that got me thinking along these lines.

For a long time, in my course, I’ve asked students to make a brief presentation, just five minutes long, about a piece of music they love, typically something they themselves play. Or have written. I ask them not to talk (as program notes so often do) about the history of the piece, or about technical details of its musical structure. Instead I ask them to be personal, to speak from the heart, to tell us why they love the music they’ve chosen.

The results, over the years — both at Juilliard and at Eastman, where I’ve taught this course, too — have been spectacular. The students open themselves, and what they say has been both touching and memorable. From the French student who talked about growing up in the same town as Ravel, and going to Ravel’s church, to the violist who told us how playing the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op. 74 had brought feuding members of a string quartet  together…sometimes, in class, we all get goosebumps. (No exaggeration.)

So what would happen, I thought, if I took this further? What if the students could use what they said as a step on the way to forming a personal brand?

So that’s what we’ll do in the retreat. (And in my course.) Each participant will talk about how they make music. Out of what’s said, we’ll distill — working together — a phrase or two or three that embodies what matters most to each musician. We’ll try to craft those phrases so they can be used in press releases, ads, posters, flyers, on websites, Facebook, Twitter, wherever.

And each participant (each student, in my class) will search online and in print — in newspapers, magazines, wherever — for graphics that resonate with the words we’ve chosen. Graphics that could be the start of the images used in a personal brand, images that, once again, could be used in publicity, marketing, posters, flyers, websites, wherever. The idea, of course, isn’t to brand anyone cheaply, just to go for what we think might sell. Instead, it’s to find a way to express the essence of everyone’s work, the things that matter the most — so that others who like what the musician feels can respond. Or, to take a step back, can know that the musician feels and plays this way. And then might want to hear for themselves, to buy concert tickets, recordings, streams.

I’ll be joined at the retreat by others, conducting many other workshops. It’s quite a smorgasbord, a cornucopia. The early bird discounts are higher if you register quickly — so that might be what you’ll want to do. It’s a wonderful concept, a wonderful program. I hope it continues for many years.

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  1. MWnyc says

    Columbia, SC in June? Be warned, my friends – it’s going to be HOT. Humid, too, probably. Fortunately, pretty much everyplace has air conditioning.

  2. says

    There’s a fascinating study done by Artist Revenue Streams specifically about bands, branding, and revenue here.

    Their five key findings were:

    1. Income from merchandise and branding is only relevant for a small number of musicians.

    2. Artists have many other ways to make money off their brand, but widespread participation is difficult.

    3. Artists are increasingly strategic about their brand.

    4. For jazz and classical artists, brand engagement is evolving.

    5.Corporate sponsorship and fan funding is filling in where labels have dropped off.

    The Takeaways at the end, summarize:


    1. Not all musicians are able to leverage their brand. The common assumption that today’s musicians can or should just rely on playing shows and selling t-shirts in lieu of other forms of compensation ignores the fact that there’s an army of musicians – from composers, to salaried orchestra players, to session musicians – that have career structures that doesn’t make it possible to build a monetizable brand. This should in no way diminish their value or importance; we simply need to remember that the community of creators is large, diverse, and specialized, and does not lend itself to “one size fits all” solutions.

    2. For musicians and bands who are in a position to leverage their brand, the key is for them to be flexible and open minded but, above all, strategic. Our interviewees not only knew that their brand is valuable, they also recognized that decisions about everything from merchandising deals to corporate support have an impact on their artistic reputation.

    Good music and top notch performances are what makes these artists desirable in the first place so artistic integrity must always take precedence, but faced with diminishing label support and less money from recorded music sales, the smart artists are figuring out ways to leverage their brands, broaden their fan bases, and earn money.

  3. Paul Lindemeyer says

    I’ve heard Dr. Frigo play – she is an amazing musician. It’s particularly appropriate that you, as an advocate for new approaches to classical music, should be collaborating with a saxophonist. As a community, we sax people have had to form our own new approaches, too, altho much of it consists of playing only at conferences for the “choir” of one another. It just has to be an exciting and fruitful conference.

  4. says

    Do you have to call it a retreat? Why not “boot camp” like they do in the tech industry? Musicians need to be made aware of the fact that they’re entering a highly competitive market, despite what style they might be playing in.

    Branding is all about story telling. Have one, live one, and tell it in such a way makes people care about what you do. Simple, but hard. But we gotta start somewhere.

  5. Paul Lindemeyer says

    Why not “boot camp”? Boot camp is all about growth thru negativity – you are not what you must be, come to us and we will make you someone of worth. This is about positivity – having pride in who you are and leveraging that to (as you say) tell a story people will care about.

    Musicians who are interested in entrepreneurship are already aware of the level competition – in fact probably live it, at least in terms of being the best “you” you can be.

    That said, unless you plan to be a pure executant musician with near zero creativity, you can’t possibly succeed living a story that’s not you.

  6. says

    I think classical music is plenty negative — you’re compared to an idealized musical idea written on score, and when you don’t meet those standards you’re told (by your teachers and peers) what a bad musician you are. Then you’re sent to solitary confinement (practice rooms) to ponder upon what you did wrong that day. That’s one reason why I turned to improv and have never returned since.

    And this is coming from someone whos family has a history serving in the military. The only difference, really, is that artists tend to be more careful with how they say things so they know how to make sound better than it actually is. But things can’t always be happy-fun-times because you sometimes have to hear the truth (not necessarily negative, just the truth), so that’s not really the problem here.

    The thing is, not only is there a lot of competition, but the competition is BRUTAL by any industry standard. Are you going to compete against 2-300 people for a single position in an orchestra? If you’re going to open a music store, you need to be better, cheaper, and more efficient than all of the others out there in your area, or you’re going to quickly go out of business or get into massive debt. I’ve seen it happen to some people and the results aren’t pretty.

    Maybe the use of “retreat” is a marketing tactic, but usually that’s a word business people never want to hear. Entrepreneurs want to win, and they have to win, just to stay alive. It’s not enough just to like something, because you have to be good at it (probably the best at it) and figure out a way how to make people care about what you’re doing. In tech startup camps they force their participants to justify what makes them think they can succeed, and if they can’t come up with anything they usually recommend you take another career path.

    It can be pretty harsh, but I do think that intensity pays off. It’s the only sector that continued to grow, even during these economic times.

    Anyway, best of luck. Just the fact that there’s an entrepreneurship class in classical music is amazing to me, because a couple years ago the idea itself would probably gotten dismissed or laughed out without a thought.

    • Paul Lindemeyer says

      Ryan: “It can be pretty harsh, but I do think that intensity pays off. It’s the only sector that continued to grow, even during these economic times.”

      Let’s not confuse intensity with harshness. One makes light, the other just makes heat. And is high tech still growing because of the intensity – or is it intense because it’s still growing?

      An issue I hope gets considered at Columbia: is entrepreneurship different in the arts than in tech or industry? For example: do musicians need to step it up and start pitching to venture capitalists?

      In high tech, there’s brutal competition for high stakes. In music, brutal competition for low stakes. What are the ramifications?

      • says

        I’ve been around a lot of tech people as of the late — my brother is a programmer, but I have my own vested interested in participating in the startup community which is about to flourish in the Los Angeles area. (Tech VCs are looking to get into the media/entertainment industry right now, which has a lot of potential to improve the standard of living for a lot of musicians out there.) Tech entrepreneurs are surprisingly tolerant of mistakes and failures (which are inevitable) but have very little patience for people who’re not honest with themselves and the people around them. My experience with classical music has been the exact opposite — people are intolerant of mistakes but tend to shield themselves from the realities of market competition, which I got tired of dealing with in my own works. (Did someone argue somewhere on here that bankruptcy is a good thing? Yikes.)

        I’ve started my own fledging business and learned the hard way how difficult it really is to keep things afloat. Having a good idea is only the beginning of your problems since you have to worry about hiring/firing personnel, liabilities and legalities, how to structure/direct things, networking, negotiations, and so on. And of course, you have to make at least some profit if you want to keep things going, otherwise you’ll have a black hole that will suck all of your life savings away. I didn’t get any of this in my music education courses and I found myself vastly unprepared.

        You can’t look at entrepeneurship as a “retreat”, because when you get down to it’s like going into battle, and there’s thousands and thousands of people out there who want the same thing as you. Talking about what you like about your work is a start, but the “intensity” part kicks in when you have to start justifying why anybody should care about that enough to give you their hard-earned money. Some people might interpret this as being “harsh”, but it’s really just how the world works. We make those judgments against others all the time, but it doesn’t quite hit you until you’re put into that situation yourself.

        Even if you’re not looking for investors (I found out that I don’t need any at this point, thankfully), the process of pitching I’ve found to be immensely helpful, if only because it forces you to justify what you’re doing. It’s not always pleasant, but it does get you closer to the truth and you can grow as a result. And it can be carried into other areas of life, like earning a promotion, asking for donations, talking to committee members, and so on. So I’m hoping the Greg’s course has something where people can acquire these types of experiences because that’s where entrepreneurship’s value lies for most of the musicians out there.

        • says

          That’s exactly what I was going to do in my course. Unfortunately, the retreat has been cancelled, because not enough people enrolled in it. There could be many reasons for that, which I think might not include the inherent appeal of the idea.

          But that’s a good point about not using the word retreat! I hadn’t thought of that, and you’re making a very, very good point. I’ll pass it on to the organizers.

  7. Paul Lindemeyer says

    Damn. Sorry to hear it won’t be happening. As to the appeal of the idea – it’s undeniable, but maybe the implications are scary for some artists.

    For example…Ryan repeatedly touches back to reality. He means a reality governed by markets. This is something arts people need to understand, and yet question.

    Why? Because reality is not just the market. It’s a waste to try to negotiate with reality (as 12-steppers are fond of saying). But you have to negotiate with the market or it will cheapen your wares, and finally, your integrity. You have to hold up your end. The honesty cuts two ways – honest with the market’s reality, and honest with what you create.

    You have to wonder – would Ryan’s hypothetical arts venture capitalist say “you need a new business plan,” or “you need new, or old, or different music”?

    • says

      Not necessarily just the market, but these ideas can be applied to non-profits and other types of projects as well. What entrepreneurship is, really, is a means of validating your ideas in relation to other people. If classical music survives based on people’s donorship, then you need to figure out how to pitch your ideas to them, rather than VCs.

      Some of the “snobbery” that Greg talks about is real. I find it really juvenile, but some classical musicians get literally offended when you suggest the idea that their music needs to actually appeal to someone outside of themselves. They’ve built a pedestal around themselves so high, that they can’t seem to work their way down, even while they continue to starve up there. This isn’t everyone, of course, but I know that this mentality is lingering on because I remember being taught in this way while I was still in school.

      Entrepreneurship can also help to figure out if what you’re doing is a hobby or is it a living. There’s nothing wrong with doing art without any intentions of making money (which is how we all started out, I think), but if making a living is part of the goal, then you have to be very realistic about how to go about doing it. Regardless of which you decide to do, I think it’s an important distinction to make because you have to be honest with yourself, I think, with how you spend your time and efforts.

      Sorry the thing won’t be happening. I think it’s ways away before this becomes mainstream in the medium, but a start is always good.