“Can I make a living as a musician? Yes: Cultivate these Entrepreneurial Strategies that work!” (Part 3)

In my previous posts in this series, I’ve highlighted why we musicians must become more entrepreneurial to achieve greater success. In this final post in the series, I want to highlight three practical recommendations that can become winning strategies for you.

No. 1 Use Computers and the Internet

MIT economists McAfee and Brynjolfsson have focused on the economic impact of developments in computers since the 1960s. In 1965, Gordon Moore predicted that computer processor speed would double every 18 months. He has been proven essentially correct, and as computer processing speeds increase, computers are able to mimic more and more human cognitive abilities. This is cutting ever more deeply into markets for mid-level, non-physical skilled labor.

McAfee and Brynjolfsson predict that as processing speed continues to increase, each of us will need to find ways to use technology to enhance our abilities to perform our professional tasks (pp. 17ff). They describe this as “racing with machines”—learning to use machines as partners to create new combinations and re-combinations of applications, products, and distribution networks (p. 59).

Here’s the complication: McAfee and Brynjolfson acknowledge that the internet enables “superstars” to outperform everyone else and bypass local talent in the marketplace (pp. 39ff). At the same time, in The Savvy Musician, David Cutler argues that the internet frees musicians from central control by record labels and other vested economic and entertainment interests. So the internet can help us musicians break free of institutional control of markets and distribution channels, yet it can also richly reward a handful of individuals anywhere in the world whose success then drowns out our more local voices.

What should you and I do? Well, if we do not at least try to break into the digital marketplace, we may no chance to compete successfully. Every musician should strive to became (increasingly) savvy using computer-based technology and the internet to extend their reach, market themselves beyond their local, physical landscape, and expand their audiences. Indeed, using technology to eliminate distances between ourselves and potential audiences may be the most important thing we can do. Furthermore, to “race with machines” means developing efficiencies in daily professional operations; this can free up time to reinvest in our performing, teaching, or scholars activities.

No. 2 Cultivate Your Soft Skills and Customer Service Approach

The American economy has been shifting toward a service-dominated economy for several decades. If economic predictions are correct, it will not be enough to be professionally competent.

McAfee and Brynjolfsonn argue “the best therapists, managers, and salespeople excel at interacting and communicating with others” (p. 23). Those are critical “soft skills” that can help us improve our performance in the marketplace and our role in the community.

Likewise, on July 15, 2014, the PBS NewsHour featured a report by Paul Solomon about the importance of the emerging “artisanal” economy among many recent liberal arts graduates. The service-based start-ups he explored consistently focus on the experience and delight of customers within niche markets.

Furthermore, Cowen argues that we have to go beyond making “marginal improvements” to existing products, practices, and services (pp. 66-67). Therefore, Cutler may be absolutely right that successful musicians will have to focus on creating new musical experiences, and lots of new music. Re-interpreting, re-performing, and re-recording established repertories will probably become less central to music making and music careers as we move further into the 21st century.

For all of these reasons, performers, composers, and ensemble conductors should strive to develop the soft skills necessary to create live musical experiences that are “high touch,” customer-oriented, and “delightful,” and that clearly add value to all who participate.

No. 3 Cultivate your Distinctives … and then Market Them

On March 4, 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article, “The Employment Mismatch,” that summarized survey data from employers regarding the characteristics they are most looking for in employees. These included effective communication, adaptability, and the ability to think, solve problems, and make decisions.

Good musicians possess those characteristics! The good musician “problem solves” her way through a tough score, figuring out how to master difficult passages for performance; she makes decision about repertory to include on programs, which role to pursue in an audition, whether to practice an additional hour or study for a test. The very notion of analysis, whether in a formal music history or music theory project, one’s own work in the practice room, or one’s analytical discussions during lessons, embodies these kinds of fundamental questions: “Has this musical event or pattern happened before? What was different then and now?” Those kinds of questions about patterns within information or situations are at the heart of workplace success generally.

For the musician who may need to supplement his or her income while pursuing his or her core dream, being able to “translate” real skills into the workplace is essential. Musicians should build a vocabulary for explaining how their strengths translate across the marketplace, whether or not the particular opportunity they are pursuing at that moment is music related or not. If you are a good communicator, become even better – and market this skill. Are you a great problem solver? Do the same.

Here is another list of real-life workplace skills and characteristics that are essential for career success. I have culled them from a number of sources and have been pleased to hear them echoed in conversations among panelists I have hosted on campus regarding workplace readiness:

  1. Be able to foresee and manage change.
  2. Possess quantitative literacy and be able to engage in analysis.
  3. Be able to use primary sources. (Music majors, you know how to do this; you took music history classes!)
  4. Be able to organize information into a “work of art”: create composites that unite facts with a “story that people understand.”
  5. Be gifted at writing for a variety of media and communicating to varied audiences!
  6. Be able to articulate a vision and “enlist others to the cause.”
  7. Develop greater understanding of human nature and
  8. Develop greater understanding of organizational dynamics and management.
  9. Be collaborative and be able to manage projects. (This should be easy for music majors trained in conducting and nurtured as ensemble performers!)
  10. Be intellectually confident by engaging in life-long-learning; this will enable you to rapidly mastery new material and to “pivot” between or to new subjects. (1)

Mastering even just a few of these skills will strengthen your career no matter its particular shape, its balance between teaching, performing, or other activities, or whether it is more freelance or institutionally bound. Mastering even just a few will help you to stand out when you apply, audition, or interview for jobs, gigs, grants, or other forms of support. Mastering even just a few will improve your workplace interactions. These kinds of skills open doors and create additional opportunities.

Remember, professional competencies are no longer enough! Being a great singer, instrumentalist, composer, music teacher—these are table stakes. More is needed to “close the deal.” Entrepreneurship… excellence… leadership… these are keys to building a vibrant, meaningful career that adds value to the community.


(1) Chris McNickel, “A Historian in the World of Investments: How Historical Thinking Resonates in Business,” Perspectives on History (March 2014): 34–35; Clifford Adelman, “The Edges of History,” Perspectives on History (September 2014): 40-41; Emily Swafford, “Career Diversity for Historians,” Perspectives on History (November 2014): 18-19; Jack Cumming, “History as Preparation for a Career in Business,” Perspectives on History (November 2014): 32-33.

Live music making will be key… and new music at that.