How to Succeed in the New Music Business (You Will Need to Try)

How to Succeed in the New Music Business (You Will Need to Try)

In The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference, composer and pianist David Cutler collects strategies and success stories from 165 composers and musicians working in these musical arenas and sprinkles them throughout this slickly designed A-to-Z guide covering everything from building up a career to planning for retirement.

Written By

Molly Sheridan

The Savvy Musician
  • READ an excerpt from chapter 1 of The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference (made available here as a .pdf)Reprinted from The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference by David Cutler. Copyright © by David Cutler and published by Helius Press. Used by permission of the author.
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    Based on both anecdotal evidence and the recent spate of published research on the subject, we are all well acquainted with the idea that the American public’s engagement with the nation’s traditional performing arts outlets is on the wane. However, we also know that plenty of talented and passionate composers and musicians continue to pursue advanced degrees at universities and conservatories across the country. How will they build careers to support their artistry in the coming decades?

    It’s clear it’s going to take a lot more than upping time spent in the practice room, but the standard guidebooks to “success in the music business” don’t often look at the issues facing those seeking to take their graduate degrees and make a name for themselves in genres like new music and jazz. In The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference, composer and pianist David Cutler collects strategies and success stories from 165 composers and musicians working in these musical arenas and sprinkles them throughout this slickly designed A-to-Z guide covering everything from building up a career to planning for retirement.

    Cutler and I chatted about what musicians need beyond straight-up musical chops to succeed in 2010. You can read an excerpt from the book here and get your own (autographed!) copy here. And, as you might expect from a venture of this nature, there is also a companion website/blog to be found here.—MS

    Molly Sheridan: You’re a jazz and classical composer and pianist, but you’re also an educator teaching at Duquesne University, where your work includes serving as the Coordinator of Music Entrepreneurship Studies. Sounds like the perfect gig to lead to a book of this nature. Did you determine that this kind of “nuts and bolts” career builder tome of information was needed based on your work with students in that capacity?

    David Cutler
    Author David Cutler

    David Cutler: Actually, it happened the opposite way. I was hired to teach composition and musicianship, which put me in close contact with many students. While most were growing into outstanding musicians, few developed the kinds of philosophical and practical skills necessary for success as a professional (opportunity creation, branding, marketing, building audiences, networking, raising capital, business aptitudes, etc). It’s as if they were learning that high levels of talent and artistic accomplishment alone would somehow lead to a viable and fulfilling career. In reality, this is far from true.

    Having experienced a comparable culture in my own education, and witnessing similar phenomena elsewhere, I felt compelled to address these largely absent themes. It just seemed like the ethical thing to do. I initially began discussing these topics with students in one-on-one meetings, and then in class presentations. Eventually it grew into The Savvy Musician, which was written to help cultivate a more holistic breed of artist, offering the greatest chance of personal/professional success.

    My role as Coordinator of Music Entrepreneurship Studies, as well as involvement in many activities I never could have dreamed up, presented themselves as a result of my interest in this area. Which brings up an important point. Following your heart and doing something a little different than everyone else can open all kinds of unexpected doors.

    MS: One thing that really caught my eye about this book is that it addresses jazz and new music composers directly. Rather than adapt advice geared towards illuminating “Ten Ways to Make Your Rock Band Famous,” readers can instead access information about publishing concert works in today’s market environment and hear stories from composers like Jennifer Higdon and Stacy Garrop. Do their challenges differ significantly from artists working in other genres?

    DC: There are many books in print about the “music business.” Most have little or nothing to do with the kind of work done by my students, teachers, friends, colleagues, and yours truly. Several focus exclusively on legal issues for the recording industry, or tactics for becoming a mega-star rock band. One text asks whether or not you must be able to read music in order to “make it”—surely a fascinating inquiry for some, but (with a doctorate in music) it’s not my question! Another publication actually has a short summary about becoming a concert music composer, concluding that there’s no possible way to make a living through this path. Perfect…

    On one level, the process behind selling any product/service is similar, be it a computer, breakfast food, video game, rock band, chamber ensemble CD, or music lesson: Satisfy a need, fill a gap, market like crazy, and connect with your audience.

    But each industry also has unique considerations. Earning a living as a jazz or concert music composer is not the same as working with a rock band (though I hope our work becomes just as popular!). We have different constituents, skill sets, functions, and opportunities. There are also common myths that need to be debunked, such as “jazz/concert music composers have just three career options: 1) film scoring, 2) college teaching, and 3) lawn care.”

    The Savvy Musician includes case studies of musicians with a similar background to many of your readers, illustrating a vast array of possibilities while sharing often innovative success strategies. And being a composer myself, I know exactly the kinds of challenges my colleagues are facing. No need for analogies. Let’s look at what successful jazz and classical musicians actually do.

    MS: You’ve built a companion website for The Savvy Musician, where you continue to push at issues from the book and gather feedback. How has this added to the traditional experience of publishing a how-to, career-help book?

    DC: Some kinds of content are better presented in a book, while others are more effective through the Internet. A website provides unlimited space, the opportunity to update regularly, and a forum to continue the exploration interactively.

    The tag line for is “Home Base for Music Careers & Entrepreneurship,” and I hope you find it to be just that. In addition to book information, the site hosts:

    • Blog. Expands on themes related to the book, exploring categories such as mindset, career, marketing, money, and education.
    • A Resource Center. Over 1000 links to valuable sites: funding sources, summer camps, magazines, music blogs, free resources, and more. Access is free!
    • Videos. Issue Videos showcase inspirational and informative talks by leaders both in and outside the music world. Music Videos feature creations by savvy musicians that are high quality AND unusual, innovative, humorous, or otherwise “purple.”
    • An opportunity to interact. Visitors are encouraged to leave blog comments, submit questions, and offer suggestions.

    MS: Speaking of videos, I love the Zoe Keating clip posted on your blog in which she de-romanticizes quitting your day job to become a professional touring musician. And we’ve all been reading the studies from the NEA and others about the decline in audience participation in live classical and jazz music performance. But that kind of news doesn’t seem to be stopping people from pursuing these careers, often including expensive postgraduate educations. After interviewing all the artists you include anecdotally in your book, do you sense a more positive future for musicians than these studies might indicate, or are many of us just destined for careers at Wal-Mart?

    DC: Great and important question! In the book’s introduction, I ask if there are too many professional musicians entering the workforce. The unfortunate reality is, yes, too many people are competing for “traditional opportunities.” In these oversaturated work environments, there simply aren’t enough positions to accommodate all qualified applicants.

    But for savvy musicians, there is unprecedented potential. For the first time, it’s possible for even an independent artist to compete against major corporations on equal footing, thanks to the Internet. And in our current era, the arts and the creative capital offered by artists is more valuable than it has been in a long time.

    However, for musicians to benefit optimally from these conditions, four attributes are necessary. It doesn’t matter how many diplomas hang from your wall if all areas aren’t present to some degree.

    1. musical skills
    2. communication skills
    3. business skills
    4. an entrepreneurial mindset

    So here’s my answer: There are not too many professional musicians. There are, however, too many of the wrong kind of musician, and not nearly enough well-rounded and innovative thinkers taking full advantage of the current circumstances facing our communities.

    From the book:

    ATTENTION: We Need Leaders!!!

    The music world is in need of creative artists who understand current realities and are brave enough to experiment with new solutions. There are opportunities waiting to be discovered by performers who bring great music to new settings, educators who instill its transcendent and spiritual values to students, and administrators who foster new audiences while insisting that artistic integrity remain high. There is a shortage of music leaders unveiling new models for success, and artist-citizens leading the crusade to keep meaningful musical experiences vibrant.

    Incidentally, it was delightful to hear many of The Savvy Musician interviewees declare that this is a great time to be a musician. I couldn’t agree more. At least if you’re savvy.

    MS: Say I’m already pretty savvy. What are a couple of questions I might ask myself if I’m wondering if this book would be a good resource to help me reach my music goals?

    DC: The Savvy Musician is not just a primer on basic business skills. It is a treatise exploring ways for high-quality musicians to—as individuals and a community—get more work, attract new audiences, improve financial standing, increase impact, and leave lasting legacies. Whether hoping to augment income, stand out from a competitive field, add variety to activities, or erect an empire, this comprehensive resource delivers the tools and entrepreneurial mindset necessary for increased success.

    I guarantee this book will fill you with ideas and strategies. I’m savvy too, but learned a ton through working on this project and talking with some of the most creative musical voices today.