“Can I make a living as a musician? Yes, especially if you think like a music entrepreneur!” (Part 1)

Some of the best music schools, colleges, and conservatories in the United States are getting serious about training students as musical entrepreneurs. A few have been in this business for over a decade.

Career development and entrepreneurship for music majors and recent graduates is very important to me, and not just because my current job title is “Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Entrepreneurship.” So I am going to share some of my thoughts on the topic in a series of blog posts. Hopefully recent music graduates, current music majors, and young people considering becoming music majors when they enroll in college will find these valuable. (Parents are welcome to read, too!)

In this first post, I want to get started with some definitions. In future posts, I will summarize the changes in our economy and higher education that warrant thinking about musical entrepreneurship. I will also offer some very practical suggestions on how you can become an effective entrepreneurial musician.

So what do I mean by “musical entrepreneurship?” Based on my professional and artistic experiences, the conversations I have had with business and academic leaders, and my reading across several fields, here’s how I define musical entrepreneurship: “Taking the initiative (and necessary risks) to build a strong career by making intentional tactical and strategic decisions that create new possibilities for deeper and more rewarding investment in the musical life of a community.”

My definition of the entrepreneurial in music is not too far from David Cutler’s in The Savvy Musician (2010). To become a musician who pursues “vibrant and varied” work, achieves “personal satisfaction,” and “adds something of value to society” (p. 2), one must “create opportunities, think outside the box, get the ‘big picture,’ and not be afraid to question conventional wisdom.” (p. 10)

Nor are we far from the characteristics of musical entrepreneurship offered by Angela Myles Beeching in her book Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music (2010): “talent plus hard work; winning attitude; sales skills; support systems; strategy.” (p. 8)

I appreciate that both Cutler and Beeching (p. vii) focus on personal satisfaction and adding value to the community. Furthermore, they acknowledge that we’ll need to cultivate broader conceptions of “musical success” (Beeching, p. 6). In other words, musicians and those of us in the institutions that train them need to be open to many kinds of career paths as legitimate outcomes for the training in the ideas, repertories, and scholarly systems that we hold dear.

Often on college campuses, as discussions of “entrepreneurship” and its cousin “innovation” unfold, these two terms come to function merely as buzz words masking “product development” and “marketing.” Conversations may turn too rapidly toward anticipating the next new technology, creating “maker spaces,” or building business incubators before the broader world of entrepreneurship and innovation – including “social entrepreneurship” – is thoroughly considered. I’ve watched this happen on campuses were I have worked. (If you’d like additional anecdotes beyond mine, read Beth McMurtrie’s thoughtful article, “Inside Startup U: How Stanford Develops Entrepreneurial Students,” which was posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education website on October 25, 2015.)

But complexity and conflict around the idea of entrepreneurship should not discourage us as musicians from cultivating an entrepreneurial attitude.

In my next blog in this series, I’ll write about what’s happened to our economy and how musical entrepreneurship can help you to succeed in the new economy.