Emerging Ideas: Classical Music’s New Entrepreneurs (Part 3)

Posted by Ian David Moss, Oct 27, 2011 0 comments

Ian David Moss

(This three-part post is the first of a series on emerging trends and notable lessons from the field, as reported by members of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council.)

The three enterprises discussed in Parts 1 and 2 are hardly the only examples of conservatory musicians or classically-aligned individuals shaking up the classical world with innovative ideas.

Here are a few other notable instances of classical music entrepreneurship that I’ve come across:

•    The Wordless Music Series burst on to the scene in New York five years ago, presenting a head-spinning mix of programs combining first-rate classical ensembles with esoteric indie rock bands on the same bill. Founded and curated by a former Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center staffer, Ronen Givony, Wordless Music bills have included Godspeed You! Black Emperor, composer Nico Muhly, and the United States premiere of a string orchestra piece by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. In many cases the events happen at unusual venues, such as churches, that are totally alien to the participants from the popular music realm.

•    The International Contemporary Ensemble has pioneered a remarkable hybrid structure that combines elements of performance group, presenter, and producer across multiple venues and even cities. More centralized than the grassroots chapter network of Classical Revolution, ICE is ostensibly based in Chicago and New York, but its network of ensemble members is spread out across the country. Founder Claire Chase, as well as many of the musicians, graduated from Oberlin Conservatory.

•    The Sphinx Organization, based in Detroit, has adopted as its mission increasing the proportion of African Americans and Latinos in classical music. Sphinx’s “emerging” status is perhaps dubious at this point, with founder Greg Dworkin having been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2005. Yet its example is remarkable as an ambitious attempt to address the extreme lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity among classical music practitioners and audiences alike.

•    Conservatories themselves are starting to catch on to the entrepreneurial trend among their students. Ten years ago, Eastman dean James Undercofler spearheaded the formation of the Institute for Music Leadership. Much more recently, the Manhattan School of Music opened a Center for Music Entrepreneurship headed up by Angela Myles Beeching, former director of the Career Services Center for New England Conservatory. And the Yale School of Music offers a new alumniVentures program aimed at providing seed funding for recent graduates’ projects.

What lessons can we derive from these models for classical music entrepreneurship? While each of the projects is unique, I see several clear trends and commonalities among them.

•    Seeking a genuine, integrative relationship with the anti-commercial wing of the commercial music industry. Blurring boundaries between classical music and “intelligent” pop (such as electronic, indie rock, and other genres) is not only an honest expression of these musicians’ diverse aesthetic interests and influences, it has come to be seen as the key to unlocking a wider (and younger!) audience.

•    Not being locked into a single venue – or even city. Today’s entrepreneurial classical organizations exist all over the place. Boasting flexible ensembles that can be reshuffled for virtually any occasion, they are equally at home in a bar or concert hall. Some, including ICE and Classical Revolution, have even found ways to exist in multiple locations at once.

•    Welcoming a larger artistic community under a common umbrella. Most of the organizations profiled here are remarkably generous when it comes to sharing the spotlight. They purposefully and promiscuously seek out collaborations, often with artists outside of their group, their genre, their city, even their discipline.

Equally notable, perhaps, is what I don’t see.

For the most part, these groups have innovated tremendously around programming, somewhat around business models, and hardly at all with legal forms. Most of them have either stuck with traditional nonprofit status, or (in the case of New Amsterdam and Classical Revolution) are moving towards it after trying out something different. For all the talk of the 501(c)(3) being “dead” or a thing of the past, perhaps the real problem has been with the institutional structures around the legal form rather than the legal form itself.

Furthermore, for all the exciting energy surrounding the programming innovations that these groups have undertaken, they haven’t yet solved the underlying economic difficulties facing classical music as a whole. All of the groups interviewed mentioned obtaining and sustaining funding as a major, if not primary, challenge. Despite boasting leaner cost structures, these groups operate without the pedigree or institutional advantages of major orchestras, and thus revenue generation is no small task.

As Judd Greenstein put it, “Being successful in a small corner of the music industry doesn't get you a free pass in the industry as a whole…you're still left with the same challenges that others face in an extremely competitive market that is very bad at monetizing success.”

What these groups unquestionably are doing, though, is blazing an alternate path–however uncertain–for new conservatory graduates who for whatever reason do not fit into the shrinking traditional classical establishment. Besides the literal opportunities created by these enterprises, slowly but surely, they are opening up new markets for a new kind of engagement with a very, very old art form.

*Editor’s Note: You can read Part 1 of Ian's posts here and Part 2 here.

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