'Music Is Fundamentally An Entrepreneurial Endeavor', Some Conservatories Are Changing Course To Reflect The Times

One of my most enduring memories of music school: Panic.There I am, waiting anxiously outside the vaulted wooden doors of John C. Borden Auditorium at Manhattan School of Music (MSM), listening to the strains of piano music coming from within. It's jury time-the single most important moment of the term-when you're required to perform before a jury of teachers. It was New York, the late '80s, and for conservatory students everywhere, performance was all that mattered. Little did we know that chops and soulfulness only get you so far. That business acumen and marketing savvy matter. Things that no one bothered to teach.

But today, many traditional music schools around the country are adapting their curriculum to better prepare their performance students for the reality of the marketplace. "I've been running music schools in various places for a quarter of a century, and in the last five to 10 years there's been a sea change in the worldview of the students," MSM president Robert Sirota says. "Up against that is the model of the music conservatory, which hasn't changed significantly in 200 years." Until now.

Sirota launched last fall the Center for Music Entrepreneurship. The curriculum was developed by a think tank of musicians and music industry insiders. Edward Klorman-a Juilliard-trained violist who founded the Canandaigua LakeMusic Festival and helped establish Classical Blue Jeans, an interactive concert series-was hired to run it. "There's a lot of stuff you never learn in music school," Klorman says. "My goal is to open up people's minds to a wide range of possibilities and give them the tools to make that happen. Be your own manager. Rent your hall. Invite your own critics. That's how Lady Gaga started. That's the entrepreneurial spirit." It sounds so basic that it begs the question: Why wasn't it done sooner?

Changing curriculum at a university level is often a monumental task that involves multiple bureaucracies. Many schools offer music management or recording industry majors but are often distinct from the performance majors, and performance students aren't required to take those classes. At a smaller conservatory like MSM-which has 900 students-a president like Sirota can move things along quickly. Similarly this past fall, the University of Miami's Frost School of Music launched the Experiential Music Curriculum, which requires all music majors, including performance majors, to take core music business classes like Entrepreneurship for Musicians and Music Business Essentials.

"The idea is not to create arts managers, but artists who can manage their own careers and the careers of their colleagues," Sirota says. "This is a broader charge than anything done before, and it responds to the fact that young musicians are doing these things anyway."

"There are many people interested in incorporating these concepts," says Christopher Sampson, founding director/associate dean of the Popular Music program at USC's Thornton School of Music. "It's just that no one knows exactly how to do it." The 130-year-old university has long had its music conservatory, and when it launched its music industry degree in the 1990s, it was distinct from the performance side. Sampson designed a new degree, in Popular Music, two years ago. "It requires," he says, "that someone going into this profession is aware of the business landscape as well as the technical landscape." Applications to the program have risen by 90% since its inception.

The bottom line is that quality of performance shouldn't be compromised. But, Sampson says, "being a fantastic player is not enough. It's almost a given. And you have to have a number of other skill sets in place to have a fighting chance-communication skills, organizational skills. I keep reminding my students . . . that a career in music is fundamentally an entrepreneurial endeavor."

Unlike at MSM, at USC classical majors still aren't required to take music industry or entrepreneurship courses.

"The difficult thing with 'entrepreneurship' is it sounds too commercial," Klorman says. "And also, there are only so many hours of the day, and every hour the student spends writing a grant application is an hour you don't practice. But the culture is changing . . . because you're seeing people who have risen as a result of their entrepreneurship." He cites alumni like conductor Alondra de La Parra, who founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas and has a recording deal with Sony, and David Handler and Justin Kantor, who founded New York's Le Poisson Rouge, an "art cabaret" that seats 250 and presents everything from classical to alternative music.

"Conservatories for too long have asked the question, 'How good are you?' " Klorman says. "And the question should be, 'How are you good?' That's what success is."