Entrepreneurialism for Musicians

man face with musical hair and gearsWith its announcement of a new center for entrepreneurialism, Juilliard joins the ranks of other elite conservatories empowering their students as the arts leaders of tomorrow. These efforts will be important to performers of all types, as declining arts participation, business mismanagement and shifting cultural focus continue to shrink their opportunities along the traditional audition-and-competition path. 

This focus on entrepreneurialism is not peculiar to conservatories. In 2015, everyone is an entrepreneur. From TaskRabbit to Uber to Fivrr, the gig economy is growing as full-time employment becomes harder to find. Moreover, music students must be entrepreneurs whether they like it or not: the career is never linear, and each performer must find the best application of her talents. While being your own boss is not without pitfalls, empowering students to create their own performance opportunities holds the promise for the holy grail of classical music: some of these musical entrepreneurs may yet create the artistically meaningful, sustainable paradigm that we all seek.

As conservatories develop their curricula to match the new ways of leading a career in music, here are three factors that all entrepreneurs should consider at the outset, or will eventually wish they had. Continue reading

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Want it, need it, wish it were better

The wonderful Brooklyn Arts Exchange has announced the application for their space grant for parenting artists with kids under 4. Two lucky winners – one choreographer, one theater/performance artist – will receive 50 hours of rehearsal space at BAX HQ as well as $300 toward childcare. The caregiver can even bring the tot to the BAX PlaySpace, free of charge. 50 hours is a lot of hours to develop a work, and depending on the space, might have a four-figure value.

This, of course, is wonderful, but it doesn’t go far enough. Here are the issues:

  1. $300 is better than no hundred dollars, especially if it’s for the early part of the artistic process that is rarely compensated. But at $15 an hour for a nanny (the rate I’m most frequently quoted), the grant only pays for 20 hours of childcare. Recipients would be on their own for the rest, in addition to travel time.
  2. Like most grants, it is for creative artists, not interpretive artists. This has long been the case, even as interpretive artists routinely create their own opportunities. Any singer or instrumentalist who wishes to present an existing work will quickly find that grants to individual artists are largely intended for the creation of new work. Of course, new work is important to all the performing arts, but for musicians who want to perform non-commissioned work – even if they have a neat idea for a concert or two – funding is harder to come by.
  3. With limited space and financial resources, this grant has to be limited in scope. But still, if only two additional artists could receive this kind of grant, they in turn could hire even more artists, thereby broadening the scope.
  4. Maybe it’s different in dance and theater, but to me, 50 hours is enough for several productions. To put it another way, I couldn’t pay musicians enough to rehearse 50 hours for one program. But that amount of time is not unusual for the administrative work that goes into it: scheduling rehearsal time, planning and designing a communications campaign, press outreach, logistics, and fundraising, which requires as much work as all these responsibilities combined. Perhaps most helpful to a parenting artist would be a staff person to take on just a few of these tasks. In some ways, that’s the impossible stuff to fit in. My kid could potentially watch me rehearse, but she would get mighty bored watching me format photos for MailChimp. 

This is not an attack on BAX – I would move to Park Slope just to be close to it – but, respectfully, a wake up call to funders. If musicians are to respond to the call for performer-led initiatives, they will need the supportive infrastructure to do so.  

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Bostridge’s Winter Journey

Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! So sayeth the marquee above the shadow box stage in Butterworth Hall at 92Y. But there was no singing in the hall on Superbowl Sunday evening. Jeremy Denk was there to talk to Ian Bostridge about his new book on Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, and audience members would have to do their music listening at home.

Still, the quiet focus in the room made me wonder if everyone was steeped in Winterreise-induced wistfulness. The piece – perhaps the world’s gloomiest – tends to do that to you. ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession’ is Bostridge’s exploration of Winterreise, one essay for each of the 24 songs in the 75-minute masterpiece. Bostridge’s observations are not simply interesting on their own terms, but put into words what makes Winterreise such an emotional standout. Here are some comments from the evening that made me want to read the book: Continue reading

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On Talking to the Audience

Don’t do it. Or at least, don’t do it the way we’ve been doing it.

That was my thought as I watched Alan Gilbert sweat through another awkward attempt at “audience engagement” last Thursday night at the Phil. Talking to the audience before a concert is supposed to be how we break the ice from the standard concert format, the rituals of which must surely baffle newcomers. The Entrance of the Concertmaster. The Smattering of Applause. The Playing of a Single Note. The Entrance of the Conductor to Great Applause. The Nod. The Turn of the Back. The Music Begins.

For those of us trying to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who hasn’t been to many concerts, we keep thinking that they surely would like some explanation of what’s to come (in case it wasn’t enough to have read the publicity that got them to buy a ticket to begin with, the program notes, and possibly listening to the whole thing online). Or perhaps that our newbie – and maybe even some longtime subscribers – would feel personally touched if maestro humanized himself by saying a few words, instead of simply presenting his fanny in silence.

So what we get is the spectacle of the poor schlub in tails, fumbling with a mike and scrawled notes, trying to illuminate a masterwork in 40 words or less. It turns out, talking about music is about as easy as writing about it.

The resulting comments tend to fall into the following categories, all of which were painfully demonstrated at the concert:

News Peg Continue reading

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Observations from my first family concert

Two weeks ago, my little company faced its toughest audience yet: early music connoisseurs plus a pile of kids. It was an experiment and a risk. Would toddlers enjoy German Baroque oratorio? Would discerning listeners mind some wiggling and whispering in the pews? Can you really call it a family concert if it’s nothing more than a regular concert, just with an invitation to wiggle and whisper?

It was my first real journey into sacred music. I cribbed most of the rep from the René Jakobs/Concerto Vocale recording, which has the Christmas Story (Weihnachtshistorie, SWV 435) by Heinrich Schütz as its centerpiece. In our performance, we began with a Gabrieli instrumental, then the annunciation duet (SWV 333), surprising our Mary, who was seated in the audience. The trio Joseph, Du Sohn David (SWV 323) showed us the inner life of our production’s other protagonist, and Rorate coeli (SWV 322) sealed the deal before we launched into the Christmas Story. We ended with a double choir Praetorius setting of In dulci jubilo (AKA Good Christian Men Rejoice). It was a high point for me artistically, and we are hopeful the production and the children’s component have a future. Continue reading

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Funny, I don’t feel innovative

In October I was thrilled to learn that my collaborator and I, Liza Malamut, received a grant to support our upcoming production of the Schütz Christmas Oratorio, from the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research, a branch of polyphonic.org that rewards “creative, artist-centered enterprises that reflect new models of artistic innovation, organizational relationships, and operational sustainability.”

We were among 10 ensembles/individuals to receive the reward, out of 60 applicants. 100% of the gift will support our performing artists, who already are being generous with their time and talent. The funds are much needed – complementing our ongoing campaign, The Schütz Bucket Challenge – and it’s surely an honor to have our efforts recognized. But I might disappoint the Judy Center when it comes to those new models of innovation, relationships and sustainability.

My goal with Musica Nuova reflects similar to the goals of the grantmaker: offer a variety of ways to engage with the audience, seek out new listeners, possibly in unique venues, and be flexible in forces to present the most intimate of lute songs to a full scale opera.

But I stand on the shoulders of giants when it comes to artistic innovation. I learned Italian Baroque singing and how to turn a bunch of songs into a show from Grant Herreid, and I’ve just put it together on my own since then. This partnership with Liza is a welcome new relationship for me, but a better businesswoman would have forged more alliances early on. And operational sustainability. Right. Considering that I will spend in childcare about what I need to fundraise, you could say I don’t have the most sustainable model in town. Continue reading

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Why Opera Companies Charge Audition Fees and Why You Should Pay Them

$50 for opera.

Opera Candy launched a petition against the application fees that opera companies and competitions charge singers, fees that apply even if applicants are rejected without having an audition. An old baritone colleague noted that he has already spent $600 this year for about 12 applications, and would like to apply for more but is running short of discretionary cash.

As someone who self-produces shows, I have to say I am 100% pro-audition fees. Fees come under the category of earned income in a non-profit, which includes other fees for service, such as income from tickets or workshop tuition. The other way that non-profits make money is through contributed revenue or charitable donations, which takes a lot more effort to bring in.

To get a single $50 donation can take months or years of engagement: marketing and publicity to get an individual involved, mailings and internet campaigns to get them interested in giving, the development and promotion of a membership program with competitive perks for donors, special events to build community etc….

By contrast, even a lesser-known company can haul in dozens of $50 application fees – let’s call them gifts – with one ad on YAP Tracker.

If you had to meet payroll each month, which path would you pick?

Audition fees fill a critical hole in any company’s budget. Not only do they help defray the costs of processing the applications – which are not inconsiderable for companies that fly people to New York for auditions each year – but they add up to a healthy source of cash for other purposes. Rebecca Greenstein of Opera Moderne mentioned to me one year that she would hear 300 auditions that season (80% of whom, she estimated, were sopranos).

300 x the $20 audition fee = the full budget for one of my chamber productions.

(For the record, I haven’t charged fees when I’ve held auditions. I don’t think people would pay to audition for my relatively small enterprise. Instead, I’ve cast singers by recommendations from others, which has proved to be enormously inefficient and a cost burden for me. But that’s another story.)

Ever notice that some companies extend their application deadlines? I saw this a lot after the 2008 financial crisis. It’s not because they just couldn’t find the right Mimì. It’s because they can harvest more cash from another crop of singers and they don’t want to leave money on the table.

But application fees exploit artists! Some will say. They exploit women! They’re charging people to apply for jobs! How about not charging if you don’t get an audition, or don’t show up on the day of? If all of us singers joined together and refused to pay, we’d have them over a barrel!

Art has always been supported by other artists, one way or another. These fees are small compared to the expense of putting on a full season of opera. The overrepresentation of women in the performing arts is a factor beyond the control of opera companies, and if they capped the number of female applicants, that would really be discriminatory. Job application fees are not illegal, and a young artist program or a competition is not a job, even if you receive a stipend. My guess is that tiered pricing would add a level of complexity to processing applications that would require too much staff time and logistics (Credit cards swiped and then refunded? Extra postage to mail back checks?). And right, singers all over the world will join together and agree that not one single person will pay an application fee. Because opera singers are known for their solidarity and compassion.

This exploitation of opera singers is hardly the worst kind of exploitation there is. With very few exceptions, we all come from a background privileged enough to afford the expensive training that opera demands, and one more $50 application fee won’t send my baritone pal or anyone else to the poorhouse.

Opera companies are non-profits with an educational mandate – educating the public about opera through high quality productions, curricula for young people, and opportunities for young artists. If you would like to take advantage of one of these programs you must pay a fee. A young artist program is an educational program, not a job. Just as ticket sales don’t cover the costs of productions and youth education programs need school fees and charitable support to operate, young artist programs must rely on a variety of income streams to stay afloat.

So consider your application fees as your contribution to your chosen art form. You might not get to perform with the company you are supporting, you might not even get to audition for them. But somebody will, and in order for that to happen, and for opera to thrive, we all have to share the costs.

If you are very good and very lucky, you will not be paying application fees for long. You will be a professional, and pay fees instead to a manager and a publicist.

If your applications are not successful, at a certain point you may want to reevaluate how you are choosing to support opera, since you are not getting much out of it yourself. For example, for just over $600 you could see every single opera at the Met this season. You could pay a pianist well to put on a recital. You could make an outright donation to a performing arts company.

If all of us performers did this – even in part – no one would question the future of the Met, the future of opera, or the future of classical music.

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