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What’s the Beef with “Arts Entrepreneurship?”

1 Stephen Danyew

Arts entrepreneurship is a hot topic.  Many music schools and conservatories are exploring the idea of entrepreneurship and what it may mean for musicians via courses, workshops, institutes, departments, and more.  To be clear, not every musician needs to be an entrepreneur.  Not every musician wants to be an entrepreneur.  And not every musician should be an entrepreneur.  But, if musicians are interested in developing a creative and individual career on their own terms, we need to find a way to talk about it.

This post is, in many ways, a reaction to a blog by composer Aaron Gervais, who recently penned a piece titled “No seriously, there’s no such thing as arts entrepreneurship.”  It is a well written and thoughtfully constructed post by someone who has clearly thought a lot about these issues.  And while I agree with some of the points that Gervais makes, in the end (like some who have commented on his post), I found his definition and view of arts entrepreneurship to be too narrow.

Gervais claims that everything we generally include within “arts entrepreneurship” is actually just hustling and networking, good business sense, use of technology, etc.  I don’t think his point is necessarily way off base, but I think that the arts world has come to find entrepreneurship as a valuable way of expressing the growing independent nature of arts careers today.  Yes, there have always been freelancers, but it seems like more freelancers are starting their own ensembles, or community music schools, or concert series, etc.  So in the case of many independent musicians today, it is more than just waiting for the phone to ring and taking that next gig.  It’s creating that next gig.

So what do we call this?  Why not entrepreneurship? They are creating something that has value.  They are coming up with solutions to problems that exist around them. Entrepreneurship in the arts doesn’t have to exactly match the meaning of entrepreneurship in the business world, I think.  To me, this is a crucial point. If you do some reading about entrepreneurship, you will see that there are many definitions, and various sectors and fields have found ways to apply the term to the conditions of their field.

Music schools have realized that part of educating musicians for the 21st century world is offering them the knowledge and tools that can help musicians create their own opportunities, and in turn, their own unique careers.  Of course, musical excellence is still the number one most important aspect of their education.  For me, musicianship comes first, and all of this comes second.  But entrepreneurship in the arts is not a waste of time or a misguided concept.  Learning and thinking about entrepreneurship doesn’t need to take away from an individual’s focus on their craft; rather, this knowledge can inspire musicians to see new possibilities and paths, and help them to make those exciting new directions a reality.

I think it’s important to restate that not every musician wants to be an entrepreneur, and not every musician needs to be.  But here is the reality: in many ways, the musical field is changing dramatically (and has been for some time).  Many traditional large ensembles and organizations are struggling with rising fixed costs, lower ticket sales, lower contributions, etc.   Traditional record label models are fading and the consumption of recorded music is a very challenging issue for the music industry.  Many small music venues are hurting or closing.  Musicians see these issues, and they still want to find ways to share their music with the world and make a living doing it.  Some musicians see these problems and find creative solutions that afford themselves opportunities to create/offer a valuable product or service.  To me, that is arts entrepreneurship.  And I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.

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