Stenciled fist thrusting a trumpet in the air over a job board

Entrepreneurship and the Artist-Revolutionary

The term “arts entrepreneurship” seems to have flummoxed the music profession, with half believing it’s a merger of B-school and conservatory practices and the rest decrying “l’art pour l’art.” While at first glance, the artist and the entrepreneur may seem worlds apart, in fact they are remarkably similar. Artists, by definition, exude curiosity about the world we live in and help us see opportunities and ideas from a rare vantage point. Through creativity, they find new ways to usher beauty into the world and challenge popular assumptions. And who is more collaborative than members of a string quartet or a jazz trio or more tenacious than a musician who has faced difficulty or failure in the practice room or concert stage but pushed through anyway, striving for the unattainable?

What artists and entrepreneurs share is the ability to address complexity and thrive while playing in the messy, fertile space of uncertainty, ambiguity and promise.

By that same token, entrepreneurs begin by “problem finding.” They want to both identify the issues and opportunities that they are best equipped to address and then solve them with innovative solutions. They are driven by the question “what can be?” rather than “what is?” These pioneers understand that succeeding where others have failed is their defining task. Then they build collaborative teams to usher in new ways of conducting the world’s business.

What artists and entrepreneurs share is the ability to address complexity and thrive while playing in the messy, fertile space of uncertainty, ambiguity and promise. Arts entrepreneurship embodies this ethos of creativity and risk taking, and has gained a footing in university curricula and summer workshops. Institutions like the Eastman School’s Arts Leadership Program; University of South Carolina’s Spark Laboratory; and DePauw’s 21st Century Musician initiative are paving the way for a new model of learning that helps emerging musicians envision themselves as creative agents of change. Organizations like fresh inc, created by Fifth House ensemble’s Melissa Snoza, provide continuing education for musicians who have an entrepreneurial idea or initiative, offering workshops that live up to the company’s tagline “equal parts new music and new ideas.”

Promising young artist-ensembles that are emerging from organizations like the ACJW fellowship program, are being trained to create a unique identity rooted in artistic vision, built upon collective skill sets and fueled by a shared passion to make a difference. Decoda is one such ensemble. Their Performance + Community programs engage meaningfully with the homeless and hospitalized, the incarcerated and, through their Guerilla-style Street Studio workshops, the innocent bystanders who find themselves pulled into impromptu moments of joyful music making.

Decoda violist and founder of Musicambia, Nathan Schram, recently spoke at DePauw University about his organization’s commitment to developing conservatories in the prison systems, suggesting that inmates were in the perfect position to harness the full potential of an artistic journey. “How many of you would say that music has been life changing? And if we believe this to be true, then who more than those incarcerated in our prison systems are poised to take advantage of an opportunity to engage in the life-changing experience of making music?”

Our shared challenge is to build synergy across a unique set of local conditions and take on the ideas we are best equipped to address.

It is easy to discount our own ability, or even feel overwhelmed by the suggestion that we too must run out and launch a program similar to Musicambia. Even if that were possible, it would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the very essence and strength of the entrepreneurial mindset – the ability to look at a local problem, where many of these opportunities reside, and invent a unique solution that draws upon one’s skills, knowledge, passions and
resources. Our shared challenge is to build synergy across a unique set of local conditions and take on the ideas we are best equipped to address.

Musicians, by design, are built to be creative agents of change, yet, somehow we have fallen victim to a narrowly defined set of professional standards focused on memorizing and mastering set repertoire and a list of career options that hasn’t expanded much since the Middle Ages, particularly if you are a classical musician. Not only does this not align with the opportunities that exist in today’s marketplace, it does not align with what most people, especially today’s under-30 generation, want out of a career – a life of means, the ability to provide for those whom they love most, a life of meaning, doing good work and making an impact within their community and a chance to give back. Rather than fearing the trends of shrinking traditional career paths, we must embrace a willingness to invent our own most promising futures and craft an excitedly uncertain future for our music.

Whether you are talking to Peter Seymour, the innovative bassist and founder of Project Trio; self-proclaimed banjoist-instigator Jayme Stone of The Lomax Project; or academics studying the field of arts entrepreneurship, they all seem to agree that meaningful change begins by feeding your curiosity about the world around you and asking yourself what impact you hope to make.

To position ourselves as change agents, we must continue to foster our own creativity, build collaborative teams of like-minded artists who have a shared vision for what the future might hold and turn our imaginations toward establishing new connections – between the power of music and our desire to deepen our relationships with the communities we hope to impact.

Musicians of the golden age of music were composers, performers, improvisers and connectors. In a word: they were creatives.

In Schram’s remarks, he also said, “So many musicians fear we are living at a time when music is dying. But for me, we are living in the second golden age of music where anything is possible, everything is possible. Just by staying true to your art, your vision, you can create something that did not exist otherwise, something beautiful, joyful, powerful and draped in meaning.”

Musicians of the golden age of music were composers, performers, improvisers and connectors. In a word: they were creatives. This is precisely what characterizes the most impactful musicians of our day: they understand the power of music to do good in a world full of need.

Perhaps the second golden age of music is upon us, one that prepares a generation of artist-revolutionaries. I think of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the most beloved and respected artist of the 21st century, as a great example of the artist-revolutionary. Ma could have continued to play Bach Cello Suites for the remainder of his career and would have done just fine. But instead, we see a revolutionary spirit, in both performance and pedagogy, expanding the boundaries of classical music by embracing world influences (Silk Road Ensemble) and cross-genre exploration (Goat Rodeo Sessions and his recent appearance with ballerina Misty Copeland) as well as his work with emerging musicians through the Silkroad’s Global Musician Workshop and his launch of the Citizen Musician Initiative with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. And he’s not alone. From Gustavo Dudamel to pretty much every artist and organization on POP there is proof that something very special is happening.

So why not an artist revolution? Artists want more than a life chained to the same chair. Music is embraced throughout every culture without boundaries. An increasingly connected world provides influence and inspiration for opening our imagination to a world of music waiting to be created. Technology provides viral access to a global audience. And the entrepreneurial mindset being explored throughout the profession has unleashed the curious, creative, and collaborative energy of the artist-entrepreneur.

Some will say leave art for arts’ sake. I say, let the revolution begin.

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Mark Rabideau

Mark Rabideau is a cultural entrepreneur, busy re-imagining how we must prepare musicians to thrive within the shifting marketplace and cultural landscape of the contemporary moment. …more 

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24 Responses

  1. Hi Mark! Great exploration of the dilemmas and promise of being artists-in-interesting-times! I think it’s worth pointing out that success often depends on recognizing, accepting and working thru the paradoxes, particularly regarding arts and culture. It is impossible to resolve or unify paradoxes: rather we must understand how they actually complement and even define each other to the point that we appreciate these opposites as golden opportunities.

    The sky is blue; expect when it’s not, such as at night or when it’s cloudy. Classical music is the BEST music in the world; except when I feel like dancing or singing along to my favorite songs. Only professional artists can be deeply creative; except when a dabbler makes something everyone agrees is pretty darn neat or unusual. Resolving dilemmas often means accepting that they are better appreciated than resolved. A Buddhist would recognize them as unified all along.

    The main paradox for music students today is that they have to master the technical and artistic skills to become professional musicians with something to offer, but they must also retain the flexibility mind and openness to completely reinvent (overturn) what they mastered and then exploit it like an MBA graduate. To do all this well and before age 30 might be about the same odds as winning a full-time orchestra audition: I don’t really know. I DO know that it took me another 20 years to appreciate I needed to leave my full-time orchestra position to truly realize all that I had discovered creatively and spiritually. (another paradox)

    Does half a lifetime of experience count for anything today? Or is translating the value of the classical arts as random as whoever comes up with the latest crazy mashup? Stepping outside of the box is not necessarily easy. But proving why the box is actually pretty cool is the new art form in my book. To do that, we must return to the box, no matter how far out we venture. If we tear down walls, we must leave at least three so the roof doesn’t collapse.

    We have entered an age of extreme cultural fragmentation: little is exotic anymore. Music has been ground down into the sand under our feet. The question then becomes: How can we fuse sand back into beautiful glass? (Btw, sandsculptures are cool too, but temporary.) So when we talk about revolutionary artistry, I hope it is one where the past MEETS (fuses with) the future, rather than a wholesale dissing of the past. Because if we look at the bigger picture, what is HERE and NOW must include the whole world and perhaps the entire ERA of humanity on Earth so far, not just 2015 in the Midwest. We have neither really evolved, nor left our environment.

  2. Loralee Swanson says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thank you for the thought-provoking read! When it comes to the revolution, I’m all in! I personally feel like the artist as entrepreneur is actually a calling to a higher “being,” rather than a degradation of an artist. As Mr. Robinson points out, how difficult is it to both master the mechanics of an instrument, the language of music, and then develop an effective approach to reaching the people you intend to reach? It is both a challenge and an invitation to an open door full of possibilities! I believe the growth of an entrepreneur takes time, though, and that is why many of us just start to grasp the idea as we reach our thirties or later because before this time we were very focused on honing our “craft” in the traditional way. So, in my opinion if we are to expect a new generation of musician entrepreneurs to be ready to face the world after college (rather than after a career in an orchestra or similar), they need to be cultivated as entrepreneurs from a very early age. I think this idea needs to not just permeate colleges, but needs to start from the day kids choose their instrument. I am sure the music education gurus could figure out just how to approach these ideas appropriately for young kids.

    These high ideals aside, I also realize that any venture in life takes time and more importantly, takes time away from other ventures. Do you think this demand on being business-savvy and entrepreneurial will effectively degrade mastery of instruments? Is technical prowess a concern or is there a bigger picture here where expression and audience interaction outweigh the concern for high art? I have heard people talk about the disappearance of the professional musician, with a trend towards amateurism in the future of music. As we shift towards a connection based model are we effectively also shifting towards amateurism? I’m hoping (and working) for the best but wondering these questions.

    Thank you again!

    • Loralee,

      What I love about your response is that you raise such profound questions. To be clear, all arts entrepreneurial efforts begin with profound artistry. That for me is always a given. What I hope to share in my approach to arts entrepreneurship is not to layer B-School practices to what is already a heavy lift to prepare your artistry, but rather to find synergy between the characteristics inherent within the artist-musician.

      For other readers, Loralee is a stunning musician and trombonist (no, those are not paradoxical), as well as a deep thinker and compassionate connector of the arts.

      30-somethings in search of answers is much of what 21CM.org is all about. Think of yourself, Loralee as ahead of the curve.

      Best,

      Mark

  3. Jim Hart says:

    Great and timely article, Mark!

    Indeed, let the revolution AND evolution begin. Arts Entrepreneurship is the missing puzzle piece in traditional “all arts technique” artistic training.

    I wrote something that speaks a bit on the similarities between artists and entrepreneurs, a blog post titled “Simpatico: Artists and Entrepreneurs” http://bit.ly/ArtistsAsEntrepreneurs.

    I’ll be sharing your article with my students. Thank you,

    Jim Hart
    Director of Arts Entrepreneurship, SMU

    • Great to connect, Jim. Dear friend and thought-leader Gary Beckman speaks your praises.

      Great article. Thanks for linking it here with our readership.

      Please let me know your students responses. I would love to connect with them directly, via Skype. Let me know if this serves your mission.

      Best,

      Mark (email: Director@21CM.org)

  4. “Artists, by definition, exude curiosity about the world we live in and help us see opportunities and ideas from a rare vantage point. Through creativity, they find new ways to usher beauty into the world and challenge popular assumptions. And who is more collaborative than members of a string quartet or a jazz trio or more tenacious than a musician who has faced difficulty or failure in the practice room or concert stage but pushed through anyway, striving for the unattainable?”

    Seriously? Artists, and in particular musicians, are one of the most conservative groups I have ever met. They seek to distinguish themselves by being better at “sameness” than the other guy, and live in fear of being truly different or innovative. It sounds good, but as they say in Texas, “that dawg don’t hunt.”

    I’m still waiting for the revolution to begin.

    • Michael-the-Contrarian, I love your honesty and always out-of-the-box perspective. No one else speaks from your unique vantage point on the subject of educational reform in the arts. I hope your fire never fades.

      Although I want to respond to your provocative message, I think I already have within the article. So let’s both keep banter ideas around and fighting the good fight.

      And come back to the fold. We miss you and your voice is needed.

  5. Gary Beckman says:

    Mark –

    Fantastic article! Your articulation of what the emerging field of arts entrepreneurship and collegiate music training can become is not only inspirational, but provides a trajectory for educators, students and decision makers. I especially liked your construct of “…creative agents of change…”. This could be quite helpful for music students and recent music graduates—perhaps as a recognition of a lost ‘virtue’ musicians (and all artists) possess. That is, the rediscovery of our creative power to manifest not only change, but new human experiences through music.

    Great article, great topic and keep ‘em coming, Mark!

    Gary Beckman
    Director: Entrepreneurial Studies in the Arts
    North Carolina State University

    • Gary you are as modest as you are enthusiastic. Your work has laid the foundation for arts entrepreneurship within educational settings and will prove valuable for decades to come as institutions strive to catch-up with your creative mind.

  6. Doug Kadansky says:

    Excellent article Mark. The challenge is not that artist are “agents of change”, but that the market has so monetized our creative product that it is difficult to earn a living as an artist. Consider the L.A. Musician’s Union. There are 30,000+ members. Of that number roughly less than 10% earn a living as full time musicians. That is not to decry our profession, rather it highlights how prosaic music has become as a medium that it may be concentrated in so few. Our challenge is continued diversification.

    • Thanks, Doug. It may simply be that we need to reinvent the concept of the modern union and the role it plays in musicians’ lives. As musicians become more flexible in the ways in which they create a life in the arts, so must our institutions. Your knowledge and expertise could prove invaluable in this conversation.

  7. Steve Wiest says:

    My revolutionary friend Mark Rabideau! I am with you 100% on this. What a wonderful article. And what an exciting thought to consider that we are on the threshold of a new renaissance in the arts! To me, you nail it with this statement:

    “Rather than fearing the trends of shrinking traditional career paths, we must embrace a willingness to invent our own most promising futures and craft an excitedly uncertain future for our music.”

    A-men to THAT! With the playing field being so even with viral potentialities, and affordable technologies, I also subscribe to what my friend Stockton Helbing says: “If you are an unemployed musician, you are a lazy musician.”. (check out more about Stockton here: http://www.stocktonhelbing.com/) There is simply no reason in these exciting days that we can’t all “Survive” and “Thrive” as artists that take care of our bank accounts as well as our artistic souls.

    As the boundaries and “silos” begin to melt, merge and morph, the landscape becomes more fertile I believe. I love what Yo Yo Ma calls “The Edge Effect” and how if fits into this new paradigm in the arts. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoGUdPsOM2M) VERY exciting stuff man.

    Thanks so much for this article Mark and all of the wonderful artists that you list. It’s a great scene out there if we let be 🙂

    • Steve proves to be as energetic in prose as he does on the bandstand. And thanks for citing Yo-Yo, truly one of the great minds of our day. Hope our paths cross soon. How lucky the Rockies are to have you on their team.

  8. Jeaneri Mara Gasparotto Brilha. says:

    Realmente creio que o amor de Deus e a esperança, que podem ser ministrados através da música, pode transformar a vida das pessoas, tenho visto isso, através de anos de trabalho, com minha banda, cantando em vários lugares, até mesmo inclusive em presídio e pude ver homens chorando e se quebrantado com as palavras ministradas pela canção, a música realmente tem o poder de trazer mudança , na vida da pessoa , tanto para o bem quanto parz o mal depende do que é ministrado através dela.

  9. Person Posting says:

    In my recent graduate school experience, the fusing of entrepreneurship and music education was disastrous. It became very clear that rigorous artistry was dismissed in favor of a lasse-faire approach to music-making. Technical ability, especially for composers, has rapidly degraded. And, yes, I do believe this phenomenon transcended aesthetic preference.

    Quite simply and poignantly, the value of expressive eloquence and sophistication was lost in that program. I simply think that music is fundamentally an expression of personal identity and therefore, should not be for sale. It is simply too antithetical for the creative/expressive spirit to allow economics such a dominant role in the creative process. To those reading out there, seek truth and honesty in your art first! That is the only way your voice will be authentically your own.

    • You are correct: artistry in the last 200 years became anti-thetical to the commercial music we have today. These opposites actually DEFINE each other and music that is not pop will inherently be un-popular; so why not just play for each other, who appreciate our work the most?

      Unfortunately, we’re in an interesting time where the economic bottom might drop out at any moment for our largest institutions. Compromises to maintain the industry would seem in order, rather than going down like Valhalla on our principles. Fortunately, the very tension between musical styles also creates a vacuum of curiosity to feed into. Answer the riddles of classical music and your audience may be loyal.

      I agree that a high level of performance can be the saving grace of the industry, but good musicianship is not dependent on the highest technical facility. Strong phrasing/shaping is a more compelling hook than clean Mozart, and much easier to teach too! Yet too many ensembles play flat and uninspiring. What a waste! We need to emphasize singing, dancing and animating through our instruments, and as three of the most salient points for the audience.

      Achieving a balance in music schools between mastering the instrument and learning to create your own music business is to walk a very fine line. Few undergrads will be cut out for this. But keep in mind that this is new and will need time to find a balanced network in and out of schools.

      • Person Posting says:

        I think we should go Valhalla (Mad Max reference?) on our principles. Why does music education have to account for the culture industries that shamelessly exploit authentic personal expression? We should be encouraging the next generation to inspire us with new ideas, not conform to some notion of a marketing campaign.

        We should also be honest, however, and let students know up front that there is no longer a music ‘career.’ One must find another way to pay bills, while staying true to oneself. Time usually sorts through these things and history remembers those who do not compromise their values. Hopefully, educators still value the virtues of integrity, honesty, and curiosity. Do they still? It’s difficult to tell in my experience.

        So let’s strive to create an educational environment where students are informed about realities, but also feel energized by the prospect of finding something new within themselves–no matter how fantastical.

        • No, Valhalla was the mighty fortress of the Gods in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the building and payment of which was the Gods’ end.
          Unfortunately, there are no new ideas, only recycled ones or ones borrowed from another industry. And as for compromise, it’s called collaboration now and is a way for more people to survive by working together. I agree the realities look bleak from your perspective. So I will not adopt your perspective.

          • Person Posting says:

            And, therefore, you will also not inspire anyone to push themselves to new artistic heights. ‘Collaboration’ should not be defined by commercial success. ‘New ideas,’ are the re-synthesis of old materials, yes, but I think it is quite fatalistic and uninspired to say that there is no use in seeking more.

            Your perspective is one of survivalism and pragmatism taken to the extreme. Why not encourage students to accrue ‘marketable’ skills and pursue their musical craft on the side? Why is this not a viable option?

            Why do we always try to combine practicality with artistry? None of the composers who have inspired me throughout my studies operated this way. How many composers that we remember were first and foremost practical within their art? Not very many.

  10. 21CM.org is about encouraging meaningful dialogue, even (and possibly, especially) when competing opinions are shared. Rick your insights learned in the academy, in the field, and in the trenches are deeply appreciated. For the record, you inspire me every day. “Person Posting” your perspectives are invaluable to this conversation. Thanks for jumping in. I encourage you to stand behind your passionate statements by posting under your own name. Although we may disagree on any one topic, what we surely can agree upon is the value of standing tall for our shared belief that the arts matter today as much as any other time in history. Hope to see continued dialogue on 21CM.org.