Musicians don’t usually view themselves as entrepreneurs, even though they are the quintessential “multi-preneurs.” Musicians regularly launch new ensembles, start their own teaching studios, create record labels, and publish their own works. A satisfying work life for the successful musician may include concurrent start-up ventures. This is just one benefit to being a musician: the diversity of ways you can contribute to society.
Musicians create their own start-up projects for a variety of reasons. They may catch the entrepreneurial bug because of frustration with limited traditional opportunities or because they seek the satisfaction of being in charge of their own project. Perhaps they want additional income or the opportunity to perform certain repertoire with particular colleagues. Sometimes entrepreneurship begins with a musician identifying a specific community need and a way to use their musicianship skills to meet that need.
Boston-based pianist Sarah Bob had always been interested in the connections between contemporary visual art and music. In 2000, she founded the New Gallery Concert Series to present the two arts in dialogue. Each concert is presented in collaboration with a corresponding visual art exhibition at the Community Music Center of Boston, where Sarah is on faculty. She selects the visual artwork and commissions composers to write musical responses to it. As of 2008, the series had hosted 26 concerts with over 123 musical compositions, 30 premieres and hundreds of works by over two dozen visual artists from around the world. The series includes works that span the spectrum from classical-contemporary, improvisation, electronic, jazz, and avant-garde music, paired with sculpture, painting, indoor installations, photography, and film.
Another music entrepreneur is oboist Jennifer Montbach. She started Radius Ensemble—a mixed chamber group with its own concert series—so that she could program the music she wanted and experiment with reaching a broader audience.
While she was a grad student, Jennifer gained valuable arts administration experience helping in the start-up of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and later took on a job working in the publicity department for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Through this work, she acquired the necessary skills and professional contacts to launch Radius.
Within its first two seasons, Radius had already received great reviews, created an impressive website and fan list, and was playing to full houses. In addition to all the practice and rehearsals, the work involved forming a non-profit organization, fundraising, writing program notes and press releases. The payoff for Jennifer was seeing her vision realized.
Toni Sikes is the founder of “the Guild,” a company that markets and sells online original artwork by thousands of artists. In a workshop presentation at the University of Wisconsin Madison, she had this to say about being an entrepreneur, “It’s not a job title: it’s a state of mind.” And in terms of what’s necessary to move forward as an entrepreneur, Toni says you need to be adept at:
1. Dreaming; do you have a vision? In business schools budding entrepreneurs are asked, “What’s your ‘BHAG’? The acronym stands for your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. 2. Bootstrapping: can you take your vision and break it down into manageable pieces, start small and work long and hard to bring your idea to life? 3. Networking; you need to get out and meet people, to gather ideas and suggestions for your work. Toni says, “Schmoozing is a contact sport: you need to rub up against others.” 4. The Art of Pitching: you need to be able to communicate an engaging and concise “pitch” of what you have to offer others. 5. The Art of Doing: entrepreneurs have a bias towards action; it’s not good having great ideas if you don’t act on them. Toni says, “The hardest thing about starting is starting.”
Project-based Career Advancement
Through advising over the years, I have found that musicians often have an idea in the back of their minds for a special project, something they’ve always wanted to do, create, or help make happen. (What I mean by “project” here is a music career-related venture that is concrete and specific. This is not a project: “to become the best jazz ukulele player in the Southwest”! That may be a goal, but it’s not a project.) Projects are focused on doing as opposed to being: they have timelines and are task-oriented. Projects can be anything from researching and applying for grants to study abroad, to starting a reed-making business, writing a methods book, launching a concert series, or raising money to buy an instrument. Music career projects demand a range of musical and non-musical skills and they can be tremendously satisfying to work on and complete.
Unfortunately, musicians often keep their project ideas to themselves. Worse, they often talk themselves out of pursing projects, thinking they’re too ambitious or too time-consuming. The usual reasons given for not pursuing a project are a lack of time, collaborators, and/or funding. This is a shame, because it is these creative project ideas that can lead musicians to rewarding and satisfying career paths.
In fact, most music careers are project-driven. A musician’s contacts and interests generally lead to a series of interrelated professional collaborations; these are, in effect, short- or longer-term projects in which musicians participate. These projects, in turn, make up the fabric of most musicians’ artistic careers, much more than any particular “job.” So learning to manage a project is a great way to learn to manage one’s career.
To get started, seek out advice and feedback on any project you have imagined. If you don’t talk about your project, ask questions, and explore, you’ll never have the satisfaction of knowing whether it was actually possible. Ask current or former teachers, alumni, or your music school’s career development staff. Ask friends and family if they know anyone who has done something similar. People realize their dreams by talking about them with others, and sharing their enthusiasm—which often leads to more ideas, collaborators, plans, and action. Do not underestimate the importance of other people: projects always need teams.
Music career exploration typically takes the form of projects, from various recording projects, to forming or joining different ensembles, launching concert series or festivals, commissioning works, or starting a private teaching studio. Musicians’ careers are often a series of such projects, one leading to the next, through collaborations and freelance work. These projects may last days or years, overlap or conflict, but they are sustained by the interest and enthusiasm of the musician. From month to month it can seem—to both the musician and others—that there’s no big plan or career direction with these projects. It’s usually only in hindsight that a musician can look at a series of projects and trace a path and a progression. The connecting threads of interests and skills that run from one project to the next are a kind of through line, a sustaining passion. The accumulation of talent, skills, experience, and contacts help musicians advance in their projects, from these build satisfying “portfolio” careers, which are made up of multiple strands of jobs and projects. There’s an amazing variety in the ways musicians combine freelance work, with teaching, entrepreneurial projects, and various day jobs. This diverse work package can tap into a musician’s full range of talents and abilities and make for a satisfying, full life.