Tag: entrepreneurism

The View from the Bottom of the Heap

The logo for the July/August 1966 issue (Vol. 8 No. 6) of Music Today, the Newsletter of the American Music Center (the official United States Information Center for Music) listing its then address (2109 Broadway NYC)

[Ed. Note: This essay originally appeared in the July/August 1966 issue (Vol. 8 No. 6) of Music Today, the newsletter of the American Music Center. Since Charlie Morrow brought it up in our conversation almost 49 years after it was originally published and those AMC newsletters are in our archive, it seemed like the perfect time to revisit it.-FJO]

From the moment graduation ceremonies end, the composer faces a future more uncertain than that of anyone, except perhaps the poet. As a student, one can glibly evaluate the world of professional music. The detachment is glorious but only because one is on the outside. Criticism is easy, on the arm of one’s teacher, because what is happening seems so clear. The hypocrisy of expedient allegiances and performances is glaring, because there is no professional involvement. But school days come to an end and the composer mortality rate—not to mention that of their all too perishable idealism—is close to 100 per cent. I am one of the many in that uncertain middle ground trying to survive, pen in hand. While what I say may seem old-hat to those who have braved the storm for years, perhaps some of my problems are relevant to all composers.

Having no independent means but a modicum of public acceptance, I was not ready to throw in the towel and do something else in order to compose. So I set out. A number of people had asked for pieces. Step one was to ask expenses. Printing and copying costs had made composing not just a thankless task, but a luxury. Some said, “No one else charges.” But most responded to an explanation of the problem. An appeal grounded in professionalism looked feasible.

The next step was to ask for fees based on the time involved in order simply to break even in terms of food and rent. No musician plays for nothing; asking anyone to pay for the right to perform would be absurd. Do we only get performed as a favor? We charge for lecturing. All issues of commercialism aside, one must live. People pay for published pieces, instruments, concert tickets and rented parts, without corrupting one note of music. We ourselves buy paper, scores and printing services. We must always be writing for ourselves, certainly, but if the dubious title of professional is to have any meaning, we cannot give away our work—and at a loss—unless a performance really is just a favor. Grants for performing groups might improve the situation by including composer expense allotments.

Everyone knows these facts of life. But such issues are irrelevant if there is no demand for the music. The lack of an obvious market should not deter one from devoting the full time it requires to the profession. Composers as a group have been overly cautious and shortsighted in promoting themselves. Interest in the arts is supposed to be blossoming, yet most of the energy spent on reaching audience goes into little projects, with little or no advertising budgets. It seems unlikely at this time that our society is going to take care of its artists, even as it does its unemployed, sick and aged; and resident composerships are rare. All the money spent on building concert halls, aiding orchestras and the like, helps the composer only indirectly. Other solutions are needed.

Mass media offer an opportunity to reach the greatest number of people, (the commercial, not just the educational media), and all media do inform the public. At present, concert pieces have little hope of being filmed or televised. But the possibilities in theater music, film score, TV-score, advertising, and educational material are staggering. As a rule, “commercial” talent dominates these fields, but only because these people are looking for the work, and often come to be in decision-making posts. The serious professional composer understands sound and its possibilities—dramatic, expressive, constructional—better than any tunesmith. Yet when composers look for work, they change their style. How absurd, when what they are best equipped to write would do the job better!

While the major developments in much new music must be presented by professional specialists, much can be accomplished in commercial situations, and perhaps with a wider educational effect. Not to mention, of course, the wealth of theater and semi-improvised material that is both up to date and accessible to players ranging from grade school groups to adult amateurs. Projects like the Ford Foundation’s “Composer in the High School” are steps in the right direction, but the problem goes all the way down to the primary grades. This is where minds can be opened up. In dealing with this “market,” the publishing industry, if not our educators, are committing a grievous error by failing to use, let alone understand, the talents of our most gifted and imaginative composers. Children respond more readily to enthusiasm and creative spirit than to method.

Most of us are introverts, but there is no reason why there must be only a few channels for performance, most of them self-generated. These are good, but they are not enough; they can make our introversion incestuous (if they do not perform a broad spectrum of styles and a broad service). Building local contemporary ensembles and conning travelling groups into doing our pieces, the one time they play the job we book for them, is hardly good community relations. It may be fine for those who write very small amounts of music each year. However, the stylistic crisis arises anew with each piece for many of us, so that progress is often slow and the product difficult to perform. For this sort of individual, the university and its programs offer unique sanctuary. And even in the university, much more could be done. Workshops in theater, dance, and mixed media (music with lights, film, etc.) could support many composers on at least a part time basis.

But there is both a need and a place for the professional, unaffiliated composer, especially if he is prolific and willing to take risks. This goes far beyond having relatively apolitical people in the field, for we all have biases; there also is a need for self-esteem and social definition if not a community role. Society seems to have come full-circle, since the decline of patronage, to a point where its structure can again support high-class art. At present this possibility exists mainly in the area of functional art, but if the standards are raised there, the future might be very rich indeed. Clearly there is work to be done, and work that can bring at least a meager livelihood and perhaps some social change. If enough of us try, maybe something will happen.

A long-haired Charlie Morrow leaning at a table and surrounded by a lot of electronic equipment

Charlie Morrow at his NYC studio, circa 1969. Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.
(NOTE: This photo, taken three years after the article was originally published, did not appear in the original publication.)

Claire Chase and the Winner-Take-All Economy


Photo by Rich Brooks, via Flickr

In June of 2013, Claire Chase delivered a convocation address to graduates of the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. In this speech, she eloquently laid out her case for the exciting possibilities of, as well as the need for, entrepreneurship in music. As she said, “Whether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us. Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and for one another…. In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.” Anthony Tommasini wrote about the address for the New York Times. “In that convocation speech, which caused a stir on the Internet, and through her work, Ms. Chase, 35, has been making the most positive case I have heard for the new entrepreneurship.” It was also this speech that was the primary impetus for me to write these four essays.

Before diving into her speech a bit, let me first say that I do not begrudge Claire Chase any of her success. She is a phenomenal musician and an astute businesswoman; the more I’ve read about her and learned about the International Contemporary Ensemble, the more impressed I’ve become. I have an enormous amount of respect for Chase. I just don’t share her perspective.
In her convocation address, Chase outlines several points on arts entrepreneurship. If you’ll forgive a long quote:

The capacity that we have today in this room, with the number of people calling themselves composers and musicians in the year 2013, with the technology that can potentially connect us…the capacity that we have to produce our own and one another’s work is staggering. The traditional classical music and arts management structures have dissolved. The traditional record label structures have crumbled. You now don’t need a producer to make a record. You don’t need a promoter to find fans. You don’t need a presenter to present your work. So what happens when the line between the artist and the producer has disappeared altogether? When the artist needs no outside entity to legitimize or stamp approval on her work, but when she can simply give it to the world based on her own impulses. What happens to the work that we will produce? What will it sound like? What will it look like? What of it will withstand the test of time? Well, this is our era. This is your stage. And anything is possible.

The Hope of the Long Tail

It is in this that we again see the hopeful promises of technology. When you can make music much more cheaply than in the past, when you can distribute it around the world for free, then we can all find a fan base to support our art. This thinking represents the “long tail” theory of economics.

In general, this means that relatively few artists and organizations dominate the market while a large number of others jockey over a small percentage of market share. The good news is that because the cost of production and distribution has gotten so low, it is possible for a greater number of goods to become economically viable. Moreover, because technology also allows for considerable connectivity, niche products/producers are able to find niche audiences, and both sides win.

This does happen sometimes, with one example being Erstwhile Records. I’d actually be surprised if many regular NewMusicBox readers were familiar with this imprint. Yet this label, which focuses heavily on electroacoustic improvisation, has been around since 1999 and has released nearly 100 albums. They have managed to build a devoted following to sustain their limited operation despite not being widely known outside a specific audience.

Unfortunately, such stories are not usually the case. Instead, the promises of the long tail are not often met, and if anything, the long tail is only getting shorter and more crowded.[1] Robert H. Frank, professor of economics at Cornell, speculates as to why that may be the case. “One possibility is that today’s tighter schedules have made people more reluctant to sift through the growing avalanche of options confronting them. Many consumers sidestep this unpleasantness by focusing on only the most popular entries.”[2]

He goes on to write that our connectedness enhances our perception of popularity. Alan B. Krueger, professor of economics at Princeton and chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, discusses the popularity problem in the context of the music industry. He cites an interesting experiment in which a control group is given true information about the popularity of certain songs and an experimental group has that data reversed.

In the alternative world that began with the true rankings reversed, the least popular song did surprisingly well, and, in fact, held onto its artificially bestowed top ranking. The most popular song rose in the rankings, so fundamental quality did have some effect. But, overall…the final ranking from the experiment that began with the reversed popularity ordering bore absolutely no relationship to the final ranking from the experiment that began with the true ordering. This demonstrates that the belief that a song is popular has a profound effect on its popularity, even if it wasn’t truly popular to start with.[3]

I would hope, and I think audience demographics bear this out, that those interested in new music or classical music in general tend to be more educated on the subject, but I do not think our community is immune to such psychological effects. When artists become more popular, whether organically or through some notable press, we tend to view them as better even without having heard a note of their music. And when a listener has a nearly unlimited amount of music at his or her fingertips, it takes a real effort to look beyond those at the top.

Winners Take All

An alternative to the long tail theory is the winner-take-all model. While both perspectives acknowledge that the market is dominated by a few, the winner-take-all model suggests that things will only get worse for those on the other end of the graph.
Scalability is an important concept in this line of thinking. Consider the touring career of Paganini. Despite his enormous popularity in Europe, he could only perform for a limited number of people, especially given the speed of travel. But with the rise of recorded music, an artist’s potential reach grew exponentially, allowing those at the top to dominate a much larger share of the overall market.

But surely this applies to only recording revenue and the like, yes? Live performances are not nearly as scalable as digital media. Yet when competing to get the attention of presenters, an artist still has to face the dominance of bigger names in the market. When looking for grants to fund entrepreneurial endeavors, new organizations are competing against that same name recognition, and while kickstarting projects has become an increasingly viable option, you still have to convince your donors that your project is just as worthy as the three other big-name projects they’ve helped with in the last few months.
Sam Reising, in a thorough and well-written article for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine, takes issue with the winner-take-all model. He writes, “Proponents of this theory forget that there is an active aspect in forging a career in the arts. They seem to believe that if you are a great composer or performer, people will come flocking to you with commissions and performance opportunities…. There must be an entrepreneurial middle step.”[4]

I agree, at least in part. I don’t believe that the cream will inevitably rise to the top given current market situations, and obviously there was a point in time when virtually no one knew who Claire Chase was. My contention is that even if the step between becoming good and becoming known is somewhat based on entrepreneurship, we must recognize that the same tools that allowed Chase to succeed are making it increasingly difficult for others.[5]

And it isn’t just entrepreneurship that fills in that middle step.

The New Gatekeepers

The internet is not nearly as democratic as we tend to believe it is. While almost anyone in the world can see what you produce, that doesn’t mean that anyone actually will.
Duncan Watts, a mathematical sociologist and principal researcher at Microsoft Research summarizes the problem:

We may be seeing the replacement of one hierarchy with another hierarchy. We may be seeing the replacement of one set of gatekeepers with another set of gatekeepers…. But we’re certainly not seeing an egalitarian world where everything has the same chance to become known or accessible. [6]

Claire Chase is incorrect when she says that “the artist needs no outside entity to legitimize or stamp approval on her work.” True, an artist needs no permission to produce her own work, but to disseminate that work today absolutely requires help from cultural gatekeepers. A New York Times review is no longer a prerequisite for notability (even if those who can still put quotes from The Grey Lady in the first paragraph of their bio), but there are still important bloggers, reviewers, and even Twitter users who can greatly raise the profile of an artist. Grassroots viral growth, while it exists, is exceedingly rare.

Arts management and music label structures have indeed undergone a seismic shift in the last decade, but their replacements are not necessarily better or more egalitarian. Without the support of the new cultural gatekeepers, to say nothing of the still powerful old-media giants, it remains exceedingly difficult to separate oneself from the background noise.

The Failures

“Popular perception has not caught up with the emerging research,” writes John Wihbey, managing editor of Journalist’s Resource, based at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “We often judge the Internet based on the relatively few stories of success—where democratization seems to operate—rather than the millions of failures. Viral is the exception, big broadcasts—and lonely voices whistling in the digital hurricane—are the norm.”[7]

I think that Claire Chase has in some ways been blinded by her own success, and the rest of us along with her. It is natural to see the success of entrepreneurial organizations such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and declare them the new path forward. But we know little of the myriad failures that have come in its wake.

Still, we cannot easily erase the realities of our situation. There is a narrow path to success in this model, and even perhaps some room for the long tail, but the more we speak of entrepreneurship as our great hope or even our calling, the more we reinforce a system that benefits only a few. We are subsuming a mindset that places little value in our work and then wondering why no one cares about what we do.

If a touch of entrepreneurship is how we survive our present situation, so be it. But I do not believe entrepreneurship holds great promise for our future.


1. Anita Elberse, Blockbusters, 2013, p. 161

2. “Winners Take All, but Can’t We Still Dream?”, New York Times, Feb 22, 2014

3. “Land of Hope and Dreams: Rock and Roll, Economics and Rebuilding the Middle Class.” Remarks prepared for delivery on June 12, 2013.

4. “The Failure of Music Education,” Issue 8, August/September 2014. I regret that I did not have time to read this before my previous post was due. He goes into considerably more detail about the entrepreneurship programs that universities offer than I did and argues strongly for greater adoption of such programs. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a contributing editor for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, and Reising is on staff at New Music USA.

5. There are other avenues of revenue that help insulate classical musicians from the winner-take-all economy. Private teaching, for example, is not scalable. Even when the possibility of Skype lessons is factored in, one teacher still has a limited number of hours for teaching.

6. John Wihbey, “Rethinking Viral: Why the Digital World is Not as Democratic as We Think.” Pacific Standard, June 9, 2014.

7. Ibid.

When Entrepreneurship and Artistry Conflict

Open for Business
First, I need to thank Alex Shapiro for her response to my first post in this series. It was my hope to spark discussion around this topic, and if the comment section of her post is any indication, that seems to have happened. I debated to what extent I should respond directly to Shapiro, but since I am still laying out my argument, I will touch on only a couple of points directly while covering others more broadly. I really enjoy a good debate, so I will respond to comments as much as I am able.
Following my previous post, “You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur,” I had a number of discussions online and in person about the role of entrepreneurship in new music. Among the different points brought to my attention, two kept cropping up over and over again.

The first was that, despite what I or others might think about the increased focus on entrepreneurship, it’s become a necessity. I talked with Peter Witte, dean of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance (my alma mater), about this, and he made some important points. “We surveyed our alums, all of them,” he explained.  “Over and again, across the decades, was a refrain: I graduated not knowing how to start my career…. Teaching students, even if just a two [credit hour] elective, about how to start, that seems almost an ethical issue for me.”

I agree. To reiterate, I don’t think that teaching some basic entrepreneurial skills is by itself a bad thing. The issue I see is that some discuss entrepreneurship as though it is the cure-all for the difficulties musicians face financially. Perhaps even more troubling, though, is that in promoting certain business practices there doesn’t seem to be a discussion about how they may conflict with artistic pursuits.

The second point concerns the definition of the word entrepreneur in and of itself. I happily concede that the word at one time specifically meant a music promoter, but most all contemporary definitions directly reference business, and that is the context in which I will be using the word.[1]

I am aware, of course, that meanings change; there are many examples of the word entrepreneur being used in new contexts today, such as “social entrepreneur.” However, if we are to discuss being an “arts entrepreneur” as a way to create your own job or to advance your career, we are using the word in a business-oriented context. Moreover, that is the context that universities seem to be using as they implement entrepreneurial education. A quick survey of institutions[2] shows that many partner with the business department, use a more specific arts management approach, or include concepts in course descriptions such as market analysis, branding, networking, etc.

What I hope to do in this essay is address some of these business practices and elucidate potential conflicts with the arts. At the risk of repeating myself (something I do a fair bit in my performing), I am not saying that any of the following practices are inherently wrong or completely incompatible with the arts. Instead, I want to get us thinking about some of the pitfalls of an entrepreneurial mindset before we rush headlong down that path.


The concept of branding is ubiquitous. In virtually every organization or project that I have been a part of, someone has brought up the topic of branding. Perhaps that is because, at its core, branding can be an extremely effective tool to communicate quickly and effectively who you are as an artist to those who may not know much about you.
For a quick primer on the process of branding, Entrepreneur magazine has a succinct article, “The Basics of Branding.” As they describe it, the process of branding involves “self-discovery,” something that is a big part of growing as an artist. Moreover, there is nothing particularly wrong with the questions one might need to ask while developing a brand strategy. Here are examples from the article that I have translated a bit for artists:

  1. What is your goal/are core values as an artist?
  2. What is it that you have to offer an audience?
  3. How is it that colleagues and audiences perceive you?
  4. What qualities do you want them to associate with you as an artist?

Not bad at all. In fact, we should all have some sort of artistic vision that we are striving toward. It’s in the implementation that things start to get a bit trickier.

For a brand to be effective, it must be consistent and integrated into every aspect of your “business.” There are good aspects to this, such as having visual consistency on everything the public sees. Other communication becomes more difficult. The voice of your brand might be well suited to your website, but it would also need to be considered in tweets and pictures posted to Instagram.

Moreover, branding applies to products, or in our case, artistic output. My brand might be as a minimalist pianist, but what happens when I start venturing outside those boundaries a bit? That would necessarily diminish my brand value. Yes, I can choose to update or refresh my brand, but I’m not sure I want to do that every time I pull out something new. Art doesn’t always want to fit nicely into a brand message.

There is one other aspect of branding that I find to be a bit frightening, and that is how branding connects with others. Again, to quote the article, “The added value intrinsic to brand equity frequently comes in the form of perceived quality or emotional attachment.” Perceived quality doesn’t sound so bad, but in branding it has nothing to do with actual quality. Effective branding means that even if my artistic output is not better than most of what’s out there, that’s O.K. because you perceive the “R. Andrew Lee” brand as better. Worse is the emotional attachment. I want people to experience an emotional connection to my art, not my brand.

Again, not all branding is evil, and the larger the artistic organization the more important branding becomes. But where branding is designed to draw the attention of a wide audience, art is more intimate. Branding distills all aspects of an organization into a few simple ideas; art is more complex. By all means, use the strategies of branding to get your name out there, but realize that the best practices of branding may not always be suitable for what you want to convey as an artist.

Social Media

I love social media. I’ve been on Facebook since the days when you needed a university email address to sign up, and I’ve been hooked on Twitter ever since my wife convinced me to join. Social media has also been good for my career. I’ve also gotten several gigs (including my NYC premiere) through Twitter, and I even found a co-producer for an album. By most accounts, I’m doing this quite well.

Likewise, social media is one particular area of 21st-century entrepreneurship that seemingly holds great promise. The ease of building your network and promoting yourself (again, all at virtually no cost[3]), means considerably more opportunities to further your career. And success is certainly possible, I can’t deny that, but business practices have perverted our concept of how that should happen.

What is the motivation for a business to become active in social media? To put the question another way, how does a business use a social medium to increase sales? First, there needs to be some enticement for a potential consumer to “follow” or “like,” which may be in the form of discounts/special offers, pithy posts, interesting links, or eye-catching pictures, consistent with brand messaging of course. Typically, a business isn’t interested in connecting with customers in any meaningful way so much as increasing its reach. That in turn raises brand awareness. Yes, it’s valuable to have customers who know about new offerings, and particularly nice to have followers promote those to their network, but at least as important is keeping the business in the forefront of the customer’s mind. That way, when it comes time to make a purchasing decision, the odds increase that they will turn to you.

Sort of dark when you spell it out that way, isn’t it? Let’s put it in an artistic context. Increase followers through incentives/clever posts, post often and consistently within your artistic brand, increase awareness of your work and get people excited to promote what you do, and then enjoy the CD sales when your new album drops.

I’m not going to say that this doesn’t always work; any organization worth its salt has someone overseeing social media. The problem is that I’m not sure that’s the best way for an artist to approach social media.

People connect to other people. Actually, people desperately need to connect with other people. That is how you should use social media. Start following a bunch of people on Twitter[4] and then take an interest in them. Start conversations. Listen to other people’s music. Post about things that are meaningful. Post about trivial and ridiculous things. Just try to be human (and meet these people in real life when the opportunity presents itself). When people connect with you as a human being they become far more likely to take an interest in you as an artist. There are enough people trying to build a network of important people to promote themselves; don’t be that person.


You don’t want customers. You just don’t. A customer is someone who is willing to purchase something because it has an equal or greater perceived value than the price. That’s a battle being lost by the music industry on all fronts. We can and should do what we can to increase the perceived monetary value of what we do, but that is a difficult fight, especially for someone struggling to build a career.

Instead of customers, you should have supporters. Where a customer makes a value calculation for a product before a purchase, a supporter willingly parts with money to help sustain your work. Obviously this is a big part of running nonprofit organizations, which rely on donors to continue operating, but it can be extended to any transaction.

Instead of selling tickets to a performance, tell people about how selling tickets sustains your ability to keep performing in the first place. Instead of hawking CDs, explain how sales determine whether you can make any albums in the future, which in turn helps make your music available around the world. Don’t sell a product; ask for support.

Plus, the supporter/artist model is far more significant than a producer/consumer model. A consumer typically has no interest in whether a business thrives or collapses; they simply want value for their money.[5] A customer is also someone to be catered to, someone whose needs must bet met by your products/services. A supporter, however, has a vested interest in seeing future success. They are not only loyal but will often work to help you attain success. They also are less concerned with having their needs met and more concerned that you are fulfilling your artistic vision. We should be creating something of value for those who help pay the rent, but treating them like customers is bad for everyone involved.

Paying the Rent

At the end of the day, though, for all this discussion, money is still a necessity. And for all your ability to hustle, there will still be opportunities to play/compose music that isn’t artistically satisfying but that will satisfy creditors. And here is the fundamental disagreement between Alex Shapiro and me. As she writes, “But seriously: no authentic, talented artist—you included, Andrew—is ever going to forget the importance of the quality of the art that they create just because they wish to earn a living from it.” I disagree.

I think the pressures to survive monetarily can be overwhelming and unrelenting. I think that artistic integrity and a paycheck are all too often at odds with one another. I think that there are many, many people who have seriously contemplated walking away from the arts entirely because it was too financially difficult, myself included.

Yes, we have an obligation to give the next generation of artists all the tools we can to help them build their careers, but we also have an obligation to make sure those tools don’t stunt their artistic development. An amazing entrepreneur will earn a living. The same cannot be said of amazing artists, and that’s what scares me.


1. Even within a business context there is disagreement about the word. An article from The Economist, “What exactly is an entrepreneur?”, summarizes the problem. The definition Aaron Gervais and I seem to be using aligns with Joseph Schumpeter’s view that true entrepreneurs are innovators. The more common definition being anyone who is self-employed or runs a small business.

2. I based my survey on a market analysis prepared for Clarion University. I also looked at a few other institutions not listed in this document.

3. The issue of cost was one point of contention between Shapiro and me. I know that to be active on social media requires equipment and an internet connection, all of which cost money. That said, these are not costs I had to incur specifically because of social media involvement. I already had the phone and connection, as do the majority of Americans. So the cost exists, but they are general costs most people have already incurred. Digging further a bit, concerning her points on recording costs. 1) Costs of lessons and instruments are costs of being an artist, not specifically of producing a CD. 2) The cost to produce recorded music can be almost zero. A cheap recording will still sound that way, but most people don’t realize how expensive it can be to produce an album. We need to do a better job of educating the public on that. 3) Finally, I had argued that distribution costs were virtually zero. The cost to produce a recording notwithstanding, once I have a digital file I can get that to anywhere in the world (that has an internet connection) through any number of free services. (And for all the talk about Spotify, it seems that YouTube is where teenagers go the most to listen to music.)

4. One mistake I see with social media is trying to be active everywhere and at all times. For an individual or new organization, it makes much more sense to discover what particular service is the best fit. I adapted quickly to the particular etiquette of Twitter, but there are a number of services that still seem foreign to me. Each service has a different etiquette and connects users in different ways, so just like in your art, don’t try to be all things to all people.

5. A common exception would be when a consumer wants to support a local business over a large company. They are willing to pay higher prices for the value they see a local business adding to the community. In that case, I’d argue that they are no longer consumers but instead supporters.

In Response: You’re an Artist AND an Entrepreneur

Since my How to Procrastinate Like a Pro manual tells me that it’s more fun to volley back to R. Andrew Lee’s essay “You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur” rather than do any of the work looming in front of me, I’m responding in what I hope will be read as a good-natured manner.

The dictionary graphic at the head of his post informs that an entrepreneur is “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, esp. a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.” I’d say these words precisely sum up any artist attempting to create income from their art.

The final sentence of Andrew’s essay states,

The problem is that, in pursuit of the empty promises of entrepreneurship, we seem to have forgotten who we are.

Alex, getting advice from the field.

Alex, getting advice from the field.

Uh-oh, you mean it’s either/or, and no one told me? Thanks to my driver’s license, the label on all those stupid catalogs stuffing my mailbox, and a cheap bathroom mirror I check daily, I have yet to forget who I am (though as age advances, I’m sure that day will be upon me soon). Even the IRS loves to remind me that they know who I am. How thoughtful of them.

But seriously: no authentic, talented artist—you included, Andrew—is ever going to forget the importance of the quality of the art that they create just because they wish to earn a living from it. A fine chef who opens a restaurant wouldn’t be accused of losing focus and creating lesser dishes. Indeed, knowing that the cuisine will be consumed by a paying public might inspire the chef to offer an even more sophisticated menu.

If I have achieved some success in music, it is all too easy to point to these things and say, “Aha! Entrepreneurship wins the day.” Let us not forget, however, that correlation does not equal causation. To describe me as an “arts entrepreneur” (or Chase, for that matter) is bad for everyone.[2] It seems to imply that business savvy is what defines me and ignores the plethora of other skills, artistic and practical, that have brought me to where I am.

I don’t know anyone would who chalk up your, or any able artist’s success merely to business savvy. (Sure, we all occassionally make snide remarks about a few “emperors without clothes,” but that’s to be expected and keeps us entertained.) Talent, and offering something that others want to experience, is the first and most essential part of the equation. Only once an artist has wrangled those ingredients can they attempt to monetize them. Should you, or Ms. Chase, or any other artist also be defined as an arts entrepreneur, that’s simply a nod to your capabilities. The E-Word is not a four-letter profanity, I promise!

We are not creating new industries or products, nor are we objectively improving on the past.

Google Glass, and the uses of wearable tech like MIDI gloves that control artistic outcome, are two of many examples of something new. Another is one of my own many income streams: webhearsals, in which a composer is Skyped into rehearsals and concerts all over the world to coach and speak about her or his music. That’s a new industry, using a new (as of maybe five years ago) product. One could argue that the ability to work with and inspire musicians around the world, in real time, “objectively improves on the past.”

Screenshot from a recent Skypehearsal

Screenshot from a recent Skypehearsal

As Aaron Gervais succinctly put it, “Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design…

It makes me particularly sad when a talented musician chooses to think that what he does is not useful. Art is not “useless.” Now, some artists like me may be useless before our first cup of coffee, but at least we can enjoy knowing that our music is being used, in lots of wonderful ways.

If music didn’t serve an important purpose, there wouldn’t be thousands of years worth of the stuff. On a human level, music is exceedingly useful in keeping our collective mental health in check; just ask any teenager who can’t live without their mp3 stream of love and breakup songs, or any adult reliant on the radio to get them through the travails of drive-time rush hour. We rely on art to improve our lives. Humans do, indeed, need music—maybe not as immediately as water, food, and shelter, but then again, all the other things that might be placed into the “useful” category like a grocery cart, a shoe repair shop, and an excellent chocolate mousse recipe, don’t rank high up there with survival, either. And yet, they are considered useful. (Personally, I rank the mousse right up there with survival.)

As Anne Midgette reported in her recent article for The Washington Post, the U.S. government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on its military bands—which means paying for conductors, instrumentalists, and…composers! I guarantee you that if the government didn’t think music was useful, it would just continue to waste its money on $600 hammers instead (a 1980’s reference) and not on symphonies, fanfares, tone poems, and elegies that make people feel something emotionally.
To continue from the same Gervais quote,

…Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design.”

I certainly don’t adhere to the belief that it’s scarcity-based. Like many of my colleagues, I take the opposite approach, and do my best to share whatever information I come across if I think it’ll be helpful to my peers. This only seems to brighten my own career, not threaten it. And, entrepreneurship is not necessarily “pragmatic by design.” In fact, a very keen entrepreneur uses his or her creative mind to a tremendous degree in order to resist thinking pragmatically, and instead, to be able to be visionary and gaze far beyond the practical.


Another great promise of entrepreneurship in the 21st century is that technology allows everyone to be a content producer while the cost of distribution has been essentially reduced to zero.

Ooh, gotta be careful here, because this is a misleading statement. Let’s remember that there are many costs associated with creating content that is to be distributed, even if a cat can accomplish the act of slamming his paw on the UPLOAD key. (Um, yup, that’s actually happened to me.) In fact, we all know that it’s the false sense of “hey, music on the net should be free since it’s only in the air and doesn’t cost anything” that’s gotten our art into a pickle.

Whether it’s the undefinable cost of the creative time from the artist’s life, plus the cost of the instruments and computer gear needed to create and post the resulting music, or if it’s the more notable hard costs of all that, plus recording studio time, musician fees, music preparation, and printing services, there are potentially thousands and thousands of dollars worth of costs associated with getting our work out to the public. As I mentioned earlier, hey, just ask the IRS. Even if the artist is merely uploading a well-intoned post-IPA burp into their iPhone, there are still costs: the phone, the cell service, and of course, the beer [beellllch!].

So I would alter the following sentence,

…when anyone can produce and distribute content for free, it becomes difficult to convince anyone to pay for it.

To the even more damaging truth:

Despite how much money we invest in distributing our art to the public, it becomes difficult to convince anyone to pay for it.
And this is where entrepreneurship comes in: when we step outside of our private writing spaces and make ourselves relevant to audiences in any of a hundred different ways, that’s how we build an affinity that will be more successful at encouraging people to pay for what we create.

You’re absolutely right, Andrew: the marketplace isn’t beholden to artists, just as it’s not beholden to anyone else on any other career path. If we seek remuneration for our work (and it’s fine if we don’t), then each of us has to make an effort to reach the hearts and wallets—usually in that order—of those with whom we wish to connect. There’s no need for the doom-and-gloom thinking of “there’s too much classical music.” Like chocolate mousse for those who love dessert, there really can’t be enough of it. Our task is to find and cultivate the supportive gourmands around the world who’d love to try our recipe, if only they knew it existed. Bon appétit!


Alex Shapiro
Composer Alex Shapiro aligns note after note with the hope that at least a few of them might actually sound good next to each other. Her persistence at this activity, as well as at non-fiction writing, public speaking, wildlife photography, and the shameless instigation of insufferable puns on Facebook, has led to a happy life. Created from a broad musical palette that defies genre, Alex’s acoustic and electroacoustic works are performed and broadcast daily across the U.S. and internationally. Ms. Shapiro’s pieces are published by Activist Music, and can be found on over twenty commercially released recordings from around the world. She is the Symphonic and Concert writer representative on the ASCAP Board of Directors.

You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur

On October 2, 2012, the MacArthur Foundation named Claire Chase, CEO and artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, a MacArthur Fellow. It was a half-million dollar[1] stamp on an increasingly prominent buzzword in new music: entrepreneurship.

Where 2011 MacArthur Fellow Francisco Núñez was simply described as a “Choral Conductor & Composer” and 2013 Fellow Jeremy Denk as “Pianist and Writer,” Chase was given the distinction of being an “Arts Entrepreneur.” The foundation recognized her in part for “forging a new model for the commissioning, recording, and live performance of contemporary classical music.” This was the future of music.

Since then, entrepreneurial programs in conservatories have earned a new degree of recognition and legitimacy, while the (increasingly few) schools without such programs seem to be behind the curve. What was once a possible alternative to the increasingly scarce “traditional” jobs for musicians has become the de facto model for conservatory graduates. “Can’t find a job? Make one!” is the new motto.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me say up front that a lot of the thinking and skills that are behind an entrepreneurial focus in music education are not all bad. I, after all, helped co-found a record label, have been designing websites since before WYSIWYG editors were the norm, and have made an enviable number of professional contacts through social media. Were I better looking, I might be considered a poster boy for entrepreneurship, or at least Mr. November.

Therein lies the problem. If I have achieved some success in music, it is all too easy to point to these things and say, “Aha! Entrepreneurship wins the day.” Let us not forget, however, that correlation does not equal causation. To describe me as an “arts entrepreneur” (or Chase, for that matter) is bad for everyone.[2] It seems to imply that business savvy is what defines me and ignores the plethora of other skills, artistic and practical, that have brought me to where I am. To focus on entrepreneurship is to get only a small fraction of the picture, which could in the end be leading the next generation of artists down a path toward greater frustration.

Over the course these four essays, I hope to address some of the problems I perceive with this entrepreneurial focus. In the remainder of today’s post, I’ll look at some of the reasons why this trend came into being as well as the empty promises it holds. In my second post, I’ll compare an artistic-oriented career approach to a business-oriented approach in greater detail. Third, I will analyze in detail the ideas Claire Chase presents in her 2013 Convocation Address at Northwestern University; the working title is “Why I Think Claire Chase is Wrong.” Finally, I will conclude on a more personal note, looking at how entrepreneurial skills have helped me over the years while at the same time demonstrating how they were neither necessary nor sufficient to get me to this point in my career.

How We Got Here

Let us begin our narrative by looking back on the dot-com bubble at the close of the 20th century, when it seemed that anyone with a modicum of technical skill could found a company and become a multimillionaire.[3] Buzzwords like “new economy” became the norm while the promises of connectivity, efficiency, growth, and scale blinded the masses to a fundamental lack of profits. Yet if the boom was all about starting a website to replace a brick-and-mortar company, the bust saw an inc

orporation of internet technology into extant businesses and organizations. The internet was becoming ubiquitous.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until a few years after the boom that some of the most important internet companies and services were launched.[4] (Think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the iTunes Store, etc.) Here was the promise of the dot-com boom fulfilled. New tools for building connections and creating content were rapidly increasing, while at the same time technology in general was becoming increasingly cheaper. Media as a whole was becoming democratized, and that was not lost on the arts.

And then there was the Great Recession. Millions of jobs were lost in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, and it took a heavy toll on less “essential” sectors of the economy such as the arts. It is little wonder, then, that in the face of staggering levels of long-term unemployment, entrepreneurship would become an increasingly viable option. [5]

This is, without a doubt, a ridiculously brief overview of the last 15+ years, and one that omits more than a few significant world events, but it should offer a glimpse as to how entrepreneurship became so entrenched in our thinking.
An entire generation has come of age during the worst economic crisis in living memory while also witnessing revolutionary technological innovations. It has seemingly never been easier to strike out on one’s own and the motivation to do so is staggeringly high. In our field, this effect is compounded. First, there is the problem of vanishing traditional jobs, such as tenure-track positions[6] and a society that increasingly wants music to be free[7]. Second, other income streams, such as finding gigs and private students, seem perfectly suited for leveraging technology and entrepreneurial skills.

The Promises of Entrepreneurship

The fundamental promise of entrepreneurship, which cannot be separated from the definition of the word, is that you can create your own job. The problem, however, is that while we may constantly strive for artistic innovation, that does not equate to entrepreneurial innovation. The tools, technology, and music itself may change radically, from an economic standpoint this is not new.

For the rest of the world, to be an entrepreneur means to develop a new product/service or to fundamentally improve on an existing product/service in such a way as to disrupt the marketplace. How can we do that in music?

To teach, perform, compose, commission, start ensembles, or start a concert series is nothing new. We are not creating new industries or products, nor are we objectively improving on the past. As Aaron Gervais succinctly put it, “Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design. Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design.” We are not creating jobs for ourselves so much as finding economic opportunities that have been in existence for at least as long as the so-called “traditional” jobs. Perhaps in lieu of the word “traditional” we should use “stable” instead.

Then there is producing. Another great promise of entrepreneurship in the 21st century is that technology allows everyone to be a content producer while the cost of distribution has been essentially reduced to zero. What is omitted from this glorious promise is that the when anyone can produce and distribute content for free, it becomes difficult to convince anyone to pay for it. Moreover, as the field of competition grows unimaginably huge and the market becomes flooded, the perceived value of music likewise diminishes. To quote Bob Shingleton (On An Overgrown Path), “The problem is obvious – there is too much classical music…. Indisputable data shows that audiences for classical music are shrinking, yet, equally indisputably, the supply of music is increasing exponentially. You do not have to be a so-called industry expert to see that this is a disaster waiting to happen.”
In the end, we talk a good talk about creating one’s own career, but fail to recognize that the marketplace isn’t beholden to us. We remain reliant on big donors and grants to support the arts and yet still think that a spiffy website and self-produced album alone are going to magically turn into a sustainable income. Don’t get me wrong; an injection of business savvy into the arts is not inherently a bad thing. The problem is that, in pursuit of the empty promises of entrepreneurship, we seem to have forgotten who we are.


1. The award amount was increased the following year to $625,000.
2. Or as Aaron Gervais argues, calling Chase an entrepreneur is simply inaccurate.
3. Some decent venture capital connections didn’t hurt, either.
4. Other luminaries such as Google and Amazon are survivors of the dot-com bust.
5. There is some contention among economists as to the effect the Great Recession has had on entrepreneurship. The Kauffman Foundation, which tracks “people reporting entry into entrepreneurial activity,” noted that entrepreneurship was at a higher level in 2009 than at any point in the previous fourteen years, with a considerable uptick beginning in 2007. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland notably contested this conclusion, noting that “the Great Recession had a negative impact on U.S. entrepreneurship” and that “the largest effect came from a decline in new business formation.” I’ll let the economists fight that one out.
6. I’m not even going to cite anything here; just google “rise of adjunct faculty.”
7. Aaron Gervais, “No Seriously, There’s No Such Thing as Arts Entrepreneurship.”


R. Andrew Lee walking among trees

R. Andrew Lee

R. Andrew Lee has dedicated himself to the performance and recording of new music. He has premiered or released the premiere recording of compositions by many composers whose work lie on the boundaries of minimal music, including Ann Southam, Paul Epstein, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, William Susman, Dennis Johnson, Scott Unrein, and Ryan Oldham. Upcoming projects include a recording of previously unreleased piano music by William Duckworth, and the premiere of a work by Scott Unrein meant to last from sunset until sunrise. Lee currently teaches at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, and was most recently Artist-in- Residence at Avila University.

So You Want To Start An Opera Company…

So to recap, let’s say you were all excited that you and your librettist had the most awesome idea for a miniature chamber opera about the housing bubble, and you had hoped a big opera house might potentially fund a workshop of said opera, and you were then rejected from this amazing opportunity. It happens.

And you realize that maybe you should stop waiting around for a big opera company to produce your opera, and so you take fate into your own hands, curating your own future as a composer. Because, dangit, you are going to write the bloody opera, and if you want the opera to be performed, you are going to have to produce the dang opera yourself.

Opera Rehearsal

NANOWorks rehearsal, May 2013. With Stacey Erin Sands, Liz Remizowski, Tyler Catlin, and Adrienne Sereta.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

You and your librettist (and co-collaborator for most artistic things in your life) decide that the way around the non-performances and non-workshops of your work is to create a small opera company. This totally can be done, you think. You got this.

And then you do it. Mostly. In an amazing, inspirational, haphazard way that makes you wonder how on earth this new opera company didn’t kill you first.
I want to say I am quite thankful for the many conversations I had with my librettist (over delicious Reuben sandwiches and quite possibly later over Cincinnati chili) since it helped us deal with brutal rejection and heal our artistic wounds. We discussed the lack of opportunities for libretto readings and for workshopping new operas, and ultimately that inspired us to found an opera company. (If there is one piece of advice I can bequeath to you delightful readers, it’s that yes, risks are scary, but you have to be a bit foolhardy to make your art happen.)
The new opera company (North American New Opera Workshop, or NANOWorks) has been going decently so far. Our first teaser season in 2012–2013 had four performances, which included a performance at the Classical Revolution Cincinnati Constella Festival (thank you, thank you, Laura Sabo) and a stint at the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, a world premiere of my rejected opera…

Fringe performance

Christopher Brandon Morales and Karen Wissel Shiota performing THE BUBBLE at the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

…and holy cow, an article about us in Opera News. For our next performance, we are producing a world premiere of Eric Knechtges’s opera Last Call, an opera loosely based on the gay bar scene in Cincinnati, and Marie Incontrera’s At the Other Side of the Earth, a dystopian punk lesbian coming of age opera. (If we align our ducks right, it will be performed at Below Zero Lounge in downtown Cincinnati preceding the drag show, which would be quite awesome in its own right.) And guess what folks, we now officially have our first call for scores, so you have until June 1 to submit something for our 2014–2015 season. Ironically—and this I dread—I may have to dole out rejection letters. Because of this, I’m sorry in advance. (This turn of events will possibly be discussed in a future blog post.)

Considering my opera company has barely existed for more than a year, we are obviously not doing so badly. However, I must admit, running this opera company has been the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Why?
I don’t have enough money to independently fund my own opera company.
I’m what financial guru Suze Orman calls “young, fabulous, and broke.” Sure, I’m young and fabulous, but I would love to pay my singers. And my music director. And my wonderful piano maven. And maybe also pay for some costumes and sets, or quite possibly a venue. And, here’s a thought—maybe I should pay my composers. That would be lovely.

NANOWorks Opera Rehearsal 2

NANOWorks rehearsal wiith Melissa Harvey and Adrienne Sereta.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

Without funding, I have to pay for venues and licensing fees completely out-of-pocket. I rely on eager singers who are happy to create new operatic roles, but they may have to suddenly drop out because a better-paying gig was offered to them. (Did I mention we had to double cast our Fringe show because Cincinnati Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier took out all the good baritones in town?) I have to rely on free or cheap rehearsal space, and sometimes that means I have to hold rehearsals at my house and hope my singers aren’t allergic to my cats. Did I mention I don’t have a real piano at my place? Did I also mention that I only have so much space for “staging” at my house? Ultimately without funding, I have to forgo certain props, venues, or talent that I would love to work with to create a good production. And I pride myself in producing good work.

At this point, you are probably asking why I decided to start my own opera company, especially because it continues to be a money loser for me and my co-founder. However, I tell my students (and possibly because I need to believe this myself) that it’s important to invest in yourself and nurture your art. And I see NANOWorks as a vehicle for which I will sacrifice profitability and sleep to enjoy the notoriety the company provides, to create the possibility of future commissions, and to be able to produce my own art. Hopefully this makes up for the cost.

Will this strategy work for everyone? I honestly can’t guarantee that, and I am still waiting to find out what happens myself. However, I know there are better things to do than to sit around all dressed up with no place to go, waiting for a grand opera company to call.

The “E” Word

For the past few weeks I’ve been musing about composition education at the college level, working through some suggestions as to how the pedagogy and curriculum of teaching composers might be reexamined. In addition to integrating a composition curriculum with that of an institution’s music education area and expanding that curriculum to include a composition pedagogy course, my third and final suggestion is in the realm of entrepreneurism. As I mentioned before, feasibility, relevancy, and sustainability will continue to raise their ugly heads as the three primary concepts that are endemic in composition education today, and all three point to the necessity of emphasizing entrepreneurial skills throughout a student’s time in school.

Most examples of undergraduate composition education I’ve come across tend to hew towards the models of either a) basic music major + composition lessons or, if they’re lucky, b) private lessons + skills-based courses (orchestration, counterpoint, analysis). Graduate programs often will more likely resemble the latter of these two models—lessons + required theory/musicology courses + skills-based courses—with additional elective seminars, usually in theory or electroacoustic subject areas. These models, while adequate for increasing the students’ objective knowledge and hopefully giving them subjective opportunities for artistic growth, usually do very little to address career-based needs. To put it another way, most composition programs are built along the business model of South Park’s underpants gnomes [collect underpants + ? = profit].

While there is obviously no one solution when it comes to incorporating entrepreneurism into the educational experience, a curriculum could be improved by both course-based and project-based opportunities for composition students. While many universities offer a basic music business class, composers could be asked to take courses in business, marketing, graphic design, or even copyright law, either as electives or as specific requirements. A composer today is a small business owner to some degree and the coursework they take might need to reflect that new reality.

As valuable as these courses might be, their potential worth would only be fully realized if combined with experiential projects that require composers to create their own entrepreneurial goals and follow them through. Whether these projects are collaborative in nature or lean solely on the wits and wherewithal of the individual, they will, in effect, drop the student “into the deep end” and force them to fend for themselves in ways that no classroom project or assignment could. A good resource for projects like this is David Cutler’s The Savvy Musician; both David’s blog and his book by the same name are full of examples, ideas, and questions that any burgeoning musician can find useful.

This brings up an important question: should a composition curriculum be concerned with career issues at all? Some might argue that the composers need to be focused like a laser beam on becoming world-class practitioners of their art. I can see their point—some composers have done very well by simply putting their blinders on, focusing on their artistic output, and winning over performers, conductors, and publishers through the sheer brilliance of their work. But more often than not, composers today who have become successful have done so because they have been able to teach themselves how to collaborate, how to network, and how to look at their own skills and talents objectively and recognize how they can fit within the greater musical community.

Examples of this new entrepreneurial mindset abound, from multi-layered composer-run organizations like Bang on a Can and New Amsterdam to self-publishing mavens like Jennifer Higdon and John Mackey, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone who intends on having a career in composition will be successful, but by incorporating these ideas into composition training, chances for success should be strengthened.