When Entrepreneurship and Artistry Conflict
I don’t think that teaching some basic entrepreneurial skills is by itself a bad thing, but it’s not a 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.
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.
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 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:
- What is your goal/are core values as an artist?
- What is it that you have to offer an audience?
- How is it that colleagues and audiences perceive you?
- 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.
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), 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 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. 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.