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.

If the old model of success was the lonely road of practice and auditions, the new model relies on collaboration. Claire Chase may have won the MacArthur genius grant for founding International Contemporary Ensemble, but she doesn’t run it in a vacuum. She’s in the trenches with close colleagues and artists she’s worked with for years. Boston Opera Collaborative started as just that, newly-graduated singers coming together to share the work of putting on operas.

Conservatory is one of the few times in a young musician’s life when he will live and work in a like-minded community. Friends who meet during this time will become business partners after graduation. Creating even the smallest performance opportunity requires myriad administrative, marketing, publicity, fundraising, and logistical boots on the ground, and no one should go into it by themselves. ‘Don’t compete, collaborate’ should be the mantra of every conservatory student today.

Personal Goals
Each endeavor should have its own clear artistic limits and functions. A string quartet focusing on contemporary repertoire. A concert series that makes use of a certain space. An a cappella women’s ensemble. The most successful artist-led ensembles do not try to be all things to all people. 

But beyond the artistic goals of the endeavor, the project must serve a purpose for each musician involved. I started a company when I wanted to create and perform my own pastiches of Baroque songs. When I no longer wish to perform this music, it is a valid choice to step away from the project. Whether a musician wishes to add some opera roles to her resume or learn what it’s like to manage a season’s worth of marketing, the personal payoff of the project should be clear.

Project Lifespan
Similar to the exercise of writing your own obituary, it is useful to think about how the project will end – even as it’s just beginning. Musicians should set a timeline from the start, maybe call it a pop-up project to see how it goes. Give it a season. Plan that season a full season in advance. Without an endgame, musicians can easily feel pressure to keep going, just for the sake of keeping going, even if the collaboration is faltering or the founders’ goals are no longer being met.

Musicians should remember that even artistically acclaimed groups have trouble paying themselves for administrative work, and that artist-led endeavors are rarely remunerative at the beginning. Producing some concerts for a year or two just for exposure and experience should be encouraged, instead of viewing the project as an indefinite obligation.


I am hopeful that this new generation of entrepreneurial education will indeed produce the new business models that the lively arts are looking for. By putting tools in the hands of practitioners, performers – and the art they practice – stand a good chance of success.

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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