No Longer a Starving Artist: Entrepreneurship Takes Off in the Conservatory

From The Oberlin Review:

Additional Reporting by Julian Ring

It’s a question every student studying music has likely faced. This query is especially common today with the recession and the all-too-common news stories of troubled music institutions. In the first week of October alone, the New York City Opera filed for bankruptcy, the music director of Minnesota Orchestra resigned after a continuing yearlong salary dispute between musicians and management and Carnegie Hall cancelled its open-ing concert because of a strike by stagehands. Amidst such doomsaying, it’s understand-able for Conservatory students to be concerned about their futures.

Yet there is still hope for the musician. According to a study by arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and culture sector in America creates $135 billion annually in economic activity, and that collective activity supports 4.1 million full-time jobs.

“There is a place for musicians in today’s world. It’s not a fizzling economic prospect,” said Tim Weiss, Professor of Conducting and director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble. Weiss is a mentor to such successful alumni groups as eighth blackbird and the International Contemporary Ensemble.

But to be successful as a musician today, one has to be willing to create a career that fits into the realities of contemporary life, and that means being well-versed in self-promotion and entrepreneurship. eighth blackbird is a good model — an Oberlin group that has developed its own brand and become one of today’s foremost contemporary chamber ensembles, with three Grammy awards to its name. Paul Cox, interim director of professional development for the Conservatory and a mentor to eighth blackbird, said that part of the reason for that group’s success was that they made themselves unique. “[They] did one thing that no one else was doing, and that was playing from memory with move-ment [around stage],” he said.

To help students acquire the skills, experience and funding necessary to begin a career in music, the Conservatory and the Creativity and Leadership project, which facilitates entrepreneurship at Oberlin, offer a variety of resources. Alumni like eighth black-bird are brought in to speak about their professional lives and give advice, acting as a potential model for students who wish to form their own chamber groups. Students are also able to form useful connections with alumni. “Connecting with people who have more experience is invaluable,” said Kate Chase, acting director of the Creativity and Leadership project. Masters in Music Teaching student Max Mellman, who is developing “enhanced recorded music playback software” called Maestro, said in an email that through Creativity and Leadership he has been able to meet alumni entrepreneurs who “are both inspiring and have awesome business advice.”

In a lecture about careers at the Conservatory on Oct. 2, eighth blackbird members themselves stressed the importance of acquiring entrepreneurship and business skills as musicians. As the ensemble members mentioned in their talk, it is important to “always use your Oberlin connections.” Oberlin can help kickstart a career through its extensive network. Student groups can then receive coaching. “We even played for Michael Maccaferri [the clarinetist in eighth blackbird],” oboist and Conservatory junior Tim Daniels said of his wind trio, Third Rail, in an email to The Reviewdan.

Students can tap into faculty networks as well. Daniels said in an email that Weiss helped Third Rail get selected as the Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings’s Young Ensemble-in-Residence.

To fully utilize those connections, students must have solid entrepreneurial skills. As such, the Creativity and Leadership project offers a number of classes. In the Conservatory’s entrepreneurship department, there are courses that cover basic entrepreneurship, finances, business models and promotional video production. The Conservatory also offers a course called “Touring for Musicians,” which covers practical skills such as budg-eting, marketing and fundraising.

“If I could help students to learn just the basics before they graduate, it will put them so far ahead of their peers from other schools,” said Conservatory Associate Dean for Artistic Programming and Operations Gloria Kim, who teaches the class.

Kim, along with Cox, Chase, Conservatory Associate Dean for Student Academic Affairs Mary Kay Gray and Acting Dean of the Conservatory Andrea Kalyn, act as professional mentors for students. “Any one of us here are eager to help,” said Kim.

Artist Diploma student Nick King, who founded Art of Giving Back, an organization committed to supporting young classical musicians and giving back to the community. As King said in an email, “Paul Cox, Gloria Kim and numerous other members of the Oberlin Administration have been very supportive and resourceful in the development of my organization. Each person I’ve spoken with is incredibly knowledgeable and eager to help.”

That guidance ranges from aid in putting together websites, biographies and record-ings to refining ideas and careers.

“I listen a lot, and I listen carefully, and then I give advice as to what they could do to hone their project, maximize a tour for example, think of ideas that they may have missed,” Cox said.

Their advice also extends to funding. “Whenever I had a question about a grant application, Kate Chase from the Creativity and Leadership department provided all of the answers that I needed,” King said.

Oberlin has a variety of grants available to provide that funding. The Ignition Fund supports students with entrepreneurial projects in the early stages of development. Con-servatory Initiative Grants Supporting Imagination and Excellence are awarded to Con-servatory students with “imaginative artistic projects” to be implemented over Winter Term. Creativity and Leadership also offers fellowships to graduating seniors who are pursuing “business, artistic or social ventures.”

Since hands-on experience in the professional world is impossible to underestimate, Oberlin also offers grants to students completing summer internships. And for funding combined with mentoring, there is the LaunchU Winter Term, an “intensive venture boot camp and incubator designed to launch Oberlin entrepreneurs,” according to its website, that allows students to pitch business models in competition for investors.

“I don’t know of any other conservatory that has such a comprehensive entrepreneur-ship program,” King said. This is backed up by statistics from “Fostering Sustainable Arts Careers,” a study of arts entrepreneurship education which found that “74% of student respondents said that they would like to see more Arts Entrepreneurship programs offered on their campus.”

“Take full advantage of everything Oberlin has to offer. I never realized how good I had it,” a member of eighth blackbird advised in their talk.

So are you going to make money? There is no way to tell for sure, but the resources Oberlin offers for music entrepreneurship are a way for students to hopefully do just that.

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