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Five ways entrepreneurship is essential to a classical music career

The other day, I posted something on my professional Facebook page about entrepreneurship and my compositional activities, and someone who I don’t know commented: “Forget entrepreneurship. Just compose.” (Well, they actually put it in somewhat more graphic terms, but in the interests of decorum…)

This sentiment is nothing new: resistance to “the e-word” continues; if anything it’s intensified in recent years as entrepreneurship has become an over-used buzzword. After all, when something becomes a buzzword it tends to be misappropriated (if not completely misunderstood), which in turn will inspire others to push back (sometimes, as with my commenter, quite bluntly).

Given this dynamic, clearing up common misunderstandings about the nature of entrepreneurship and how it can operate within our careers (as well as calling out those times when the term is too-casually thrown around) becomes all the more urgent for us arts entrepreneurship educators. In that spirit, I offer these five reasons why entrepreneurship is essential to a classical music career. I hope they might help you re-think “the e-word” and contemplate how it can empower your own career goals.

1. Entrepreneurship helps you identify opportunities

Entrepreneurship is all about problem-solving, about meeting needs in your community or within the marketplace you hope to reach. So a big part of adopting an entrepreneurial mindset is developing what I call “strategic observation.” That is, observing your field, area of interest, market, or community with an eye for musical opportunities. Oftentimes, these opportunities exist completely outside the arts and culture sector. For instance, is there a community event or milestone for which music could be used as part of the celebration? Is there a social need that could be addressed through music (engaging the homeless or the incarcerated)? Opportunities outside the traditional tracks of concert performance or studio teaching can have some considerable advantages, including the fact that nobody else is doing it (not to mention untapped funding sources to utilize). Once you begin to develop the habit of “strategic observation,” you’ll begin to realize that you’re surrounded by opportunities you hadn’t seen before!

2. Entrepreneurship requires creativity

Every year in my entrepreneurship class I pose this question to my students: Do you think that classical musicians get much chance to be creative in their careers? And the answer is always a resounding no. Why that’s the case is another essay altogether, but it begs the question: if traditional career paths in classical music do not afford a lot of opportunity for creativity, novelty, or innovation, then how else can we introduce creativity into our lives? One way is through entrepreneurship, because creativity goes hand-in-glove with the strategic observation we just talked about. Let’s say you’ve identified a big civic event in your community, but it’s not immediately clear how your string quartet might be a part of it. That’s where creative problem-solving comes into play: coming up with an idea for your group to perform, attract an audience, generate some press or social media buzz… and get paid! Once again, this might not be something you’re used to, but once you get in the habit of creative problem-solving, you’ll discover how fun it can be.

…if traditional career paths in classical music do not afford a lot of opportunity for creativity, novelty, or innovation, then how else can we introduce creativity into our lives?

3. Entrepreneurship allows flexibility

Another key entrepreneurial principle is that of flexibility and adaptability. Surely one of the constants in today’s society is that things are always changing. Moreover, that change is often driven by a complex web of factors, meaning our first stab at solving a problem or meeting a need in our community might miss the mark. When this happens, we can respond in one of two ways: we can just shrug our shoulders and try something else, or we can evaluate what went wrong and how we might fix it. By focusing on the needs and sensibilities or our audience (our market), entrepreneurship provides a rubric under which we can engage in evaluating and fixing that which is broken. Oftentimes, the core of our idea is strong, but there’s some aspect of the customer experience we’ve overlooked that prevents it from succeeding. By pointing us in the right direction, entrepreneurship can help us tweak our venture rather than just throw it out.

4. Entrepreneurship is about connecting with people

At the heart of entrepreneurial thinking is the notion that value for something is unlocked when the needs of the customer are met. For us in music, that means that value for our work is unlocked when we can make a meaningful connection with our market—whether that’s our audience, our students, or our community at large. As musicians, connecting with people ought to be at the center of why we’re in the field to begin with! In other words, entrepreneurship is a mechanism for us to achieve our core purpose: using music as a vehicle for making a positive difference in the world.

5. Entrepreneurship gives us options

There are any number of studies documenting the fact that the vast majority of folks end up pursuing more than one career path over the course of their working lives. I know that’s certainly true for me, and I’ve seen it in the musical careers of countless colleagues. For some, this prospect is a scary one: we went to school to study music, and we may feel we have few skills beyond those that have served us as performers, composers, or educators. This is where entrepreneurship can demonstrate its enduring value, because it is universal. Rather than having a specific outcome in mind (that is, always resulting in the same thing), entrepreneurship allows us to continually reinvent ourselves. That’s because entrepreneurial principles—things like opportunity recognition, focusing on customer needs, and being able to adapt to changing circumstances—can play out in an infinite number of ways. It can result in a brick-and-mortar business or an online marketplace; a not-for-profit social enterprise or an innovative piece of technology. And it can apply to how we conduct our individual careers as musicians. It’s truly one of the only skill sets I can think of that has no limits in terms of how it can be applied.

We know that the musical marketplace is fraught with challenges, is constantly changing, and contains a lot of competition. Embracing an entrepreneurial approach to these challenges not only increases our chances of success, it can also empower and even inspire our artistic lives. And that means it has a vital role to play in any musician’s career.

Featured image credit: “Untitled” by Jason Tong. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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