The Musician as Entrepreneur
It's very hard to carve a career as a musician, never more so in today's fast-paced, highly
competitive and image-driven world. The changes in the industry are unparalleled in history and
therefore so are our roles. Today it's not enough to aspire to be a virtuoso - it's almost impossible
to build a career out of simply playing concertos by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. Now classical
musicians need to be prepared to turn their hand to a variety of activities within the profession -
performing, teaching, collaborating, promotion and more.
"Portfolio career" is an over-used term, but if you have imagination and passion, there's plenty of
scope to pursue a multi-layered career within the profession. Of course, it can be hard to know how
to develop these skills when one's specialist training focuses on performance to the exclusion -
almost - of anything else. Some conservatoires are beginning to offer courses in entrepreneurship,
which include aspects such as promotion and branding, building a website and using social media,
but largely the narrow focus remains on the pursuit of excellence in performance at the expense of
experimenting and developing skills relevant to today's society. Thus, musicians may leave
conservatoire or university ill-equipped to deal with the exigencies of modern life, with little practical
knowledge on how to launch a career. Today's musicians need to leave the ivory tower behind and
enter the real world armed with talent, entrepreneurial instincts, a willingness to work hard, and a
very thick skin.
As highly-trained individuals, musicians have skills and expertise which are easily transferable and
which bring artistic, educational, social and economic value to society. Unfortunately, the prevailing
attitude outside the profession (and occasionally within it), is that such people do not bring real,
quantifiable (i.e. economic) value to society (a view which is regularly refuted by academics and
economists): as a result their work is often classified as "not a proper job". This means that
musicians have to work harder than ever to earn respect, recognition, acceptable remuneration
The concept of "entrepreneur" may seem at odds to the life of the musician, but in fact to the two
roles are very alike and there are strong historical precedents: composers like Bach, Haydn and
Mozart were actively engaged in organising and promoting their own concerts, running and
developing their own businesses. Beethoven complained that the need to be "half a businessman"
encroached on the practice of his art.
Unless you are extraordinarily talented and have, preferably, won several prestigious international
competitions, or are bankrolled by a generous patron, you are not likely to be picked up by one of
the big artist agencies or promoters. Because the industry is so competitive, it is not acceptable to
sit back and wait for the promoters to seek you out. You need to get out there, preferably before
you leave college, and you need to adopt a flexible and open-minded attitude to work. Teaching,
for example, should not be seen as a "second- or third- best" option if you are not getting as many
performing engagements as you'd hoped for. (In fact, a teacher who is also a performer can bring
unique insights to their teaching - something I have covered in an
for the Hello Stage
Today, your success is largely in your own hands (unless you are being "managed" by someone
else), and many musicians choose to take responsibility themselves to retain control over their
career and as a way of remaining flexible and open to opportunities as they present themselves. In
addition, the notion that the business side of a career in music has to be handled by an agent or
manager does not apply to musicians today.
Instead, musicians are creating opportunities for themselves and colleagues which engage a wide
range of skills from planning and budgeting to collaboration with other musicians, writers, artists.....
It's important to find ways to explore your artistry outside of conventional contexts. Use contacts
made at college and beyond and get into the habit of networking whenever the opportunity arises.
Keep a notebook with you at all times and follow up on potential leads: work doesn't come your
way if you spend all your days in your practise room. Surround yourself with people who can help
and support you, and be prepared to learn new skills such as simple graphic design to produce
publicity material or how to use social media effectively. Be willing to delegate and don't be shy
about asking for help. And if you think a "big name" artist will attract a bigger audience, don't be
afraid to approach that person - often, such people are keen to support younger artists. Have a
flexible attitude to work and be prepared to try new things or take risks. Be imaginative and
professional in the way you approach everything from programming to involving audience to
fundraising, from checking that concert flyers and listings are accurate to dealing courteously with
venue managers or press contacts.
Allow yourself plenty of time for planning, and accept feedback after the event, learn from your
mistakes and move on, armed with additional knowledge. Don't undervalue yourself and maintain
your artistic and professional integrity by refusing to take on "just anything".
Above all, love what you do - your passion and commitment will carry you through.
Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher,
concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as
The Cross-Eyed Pianist.
She is a reviewer for international concert and
opera listings and review site Bachtrack.com, and
contributes art and exhibition reviews to US-based culture and art site
She writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for
‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content,
and contributes guest articles to a number of classical
music and music education websites around the world,
including Clavier Companion and The Sampler,
the blog of SoundandMusic.org,
the UK charity for new music.
Frances is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series,
an innovative concert concept which gives talented amateur
musicians the opportunity to perform alongside young and
emerging professional and semi-professional artists in the
same formal concert setting