A new contemporary music ensemble is born every 5.6 seconds.* Conservatories have tuned into this trend; for example, Oberlin launched a Master of Contemporary Chamber Music degree, and Manhattan School of Music, University of Missouri’s Mizzou School of Music, New England Conservatory, and other schools have launched music entrepreneurship programs in recent years. I would have loved these programs to have existed when I was an undergrad so that I could have had more guidance with my career early on and been aware of what my other options were aside from the only one I was aware of at the time: become a professor, play concerts here and there. I probably would have started The Nouveau Classical Project sooner and with fewer growing pains.
These days, many musicians are acutely aware of how to start and run a chamber ensemble, at least when it comes to the basics: gather musicians, perform the works of young composers mixed in with established composers, and launch a Kickstarter campaign to cover costs. Due to our friends and our friends’ friends launching their own ensembles, a wealth of information has been passed around in the new music community.
Here in New York—which I must note is the only new music scene I really know about—there are a number of performance opportunities that are accessible to startup ensembles. Smaller venues, such as Spectrum, won’t hesitate to program young groups, and there are many other venues that are affordable to rent. And as noted above, even academia encourages more musicians to launch new ventures.
But I’m wondering if anyone is asking: should you start another new music ensemble?
I’m not trying to be cynical nor am I trying to discourage, but it’s a valid and important question to ask oneself. Google “things to consider before starting a business” or “should I become an entrepreneur,” and thousands of results pop up. I’m sure many of us are aware that establishing an ensemble is essentially like launching a business. However, I do believe that the question of whether or not to start one is not often reflected upon first. I’m curious about this issue because there are so many groups and oftentimes musicians within these groups not only play in multiple ensembles, but also begin their own, and the differences between groups don’t seem to extend much beyond instrumentation.
So should you start another new music ensemble? Consider that our industry is saturated, audiences are small, and funding is limited. It’s essential to think about how you’re going to fit into the world of new music. Can you answer these questions: What makes you different? Will your ensemble convey a specific identity to audiences? Can you get people other than close friends and colleagues to your concerts with what you’re doing? (Because if these are your usual attendees, you may end up with a sad turnout if they are at a mutual friend’s ensemble’s concert on the same evening.)
There are so many emerging groups out there that you may already fit into a preexisting one that could use your skills and talents. Perhaps it would be more worthwhile to seek an ensemble where you can share your ideas and join an already fully formed team instead of pursuing a similar venture from scratch. I know from personal experience and from talking to colleagues that many of us artistic directors love having a team of musicians who are proactively involved behind the scenes. I am extremely fortunate to have built this with NCP over the last two years.
If you do decide to start an ensemble, ask yourself the questions that you would ask if you were to create a business. Your answers will inform your decision and provide a clear direction for your work. Playing concerts is fun, yes, but the work that goes into producing concerts and running an organization can be grueling. If you see things going nowhere it will be difficult to be creative and the whole experience will become discouraging. A few suggestions:
1. Why am I doing this? A simple question but it can reveal so much. Maybe it’s a personal passion or just an interest in the business of new music. You have to get to a place of no return, where you can only imagine yourself creating and being in this ensemble. When you’re consistently staying up until 1 a.m. looking into venues and rentals, this question will definitely come up!
2. What is unique about my ensemble? How will you define your ensemble as being different than the many others? Is it your music, your style, your performance? There needs to be something tangible that quickly provokes curiosity about your group.
3. Who is my target audience? This is difficult to answer but it’s extremely important. When I started NCP, I wanted an audience that had eclectic interests (makes for better post-concert conversation), so I aimed to target people who enjoyed culture, museums, fashion, and did not currently attend classical music concerts regularly (that is, until meeting NCP!). When I had entered the NYU Stern Business Plan Competition, one panelist noted that the way we were targeting our audience reminded him of the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. The book uses the metaphors of the red ocean and the blue ocean. The red ocean is where everyone is fighting for the same market share, turning the ocean bloody, while the blue ocean is the market space untainted by competition. Think hard about your target audience and how to get them!
4. Am I prepared to spend the time and money I need to get this done? Ya gotta spend money to make money. And I’m sure we’re all aware, this stuff takes time!
5. Am I willing to do this for the next ten years? It’s a long game. It’s going to be a while before you draw a salary. (Any day now!)
These are the questions I’ve found to be relevant to my experience with NCP over the past six years. It’s true that you don’t know until you try, but some thoughtful questions like these might provide a clearer direction for your artistic endeavor.
*This is not true because I made it up. But doesn’t it feel like it sometimes?