In the seven or so years I’ve been teaching arts entrepreneurship courses, I’ve also been researching and speaking with colleagues, students, and entrepreneurs about the topic, with the goal of blending experience and theory to create modules that better prepare students for their futures. Based on my anecdotal findings, it appears much of the focus in the discipline is on helping artists (in any arts medium) understand how they can make a living delivering their art to the world. Certainly there are variances, but that’s the common theme. While it’s a solid approach, it doesn’t account for, nor contextualize, the variety of opportunities available to students throughout the arts ecosystem.
For centuries, art of all kind has been controlled to varying degrees by “gatekeepers”—those who have the power to determine which art is created or accessible, or both. There are plenty of examples: from artists who have benefitted from the largess of royalty or the Church; to gallery owners and powerbrokers in the visual arts; to publishing houses; to movie studios, and even in the recent past when some governments around the world only permitted art they approved.
As technology has developed, so too have the mediums for the exchange of ideas, and those ideas are spreading faster and farther than ever before. The result is that the gatekeepers are being marginalized, repositioned, and in some cases replaced. An example in the arts is desktop publishing, which has allowed musicians, poets, and other artists to self-publish and reap more margins. It also lessened the dependency on established publishers. Those publishers have felt the pinch in the past few years through the loss of business from self-publishing, and the ease for new and nimble publishing houses to be formed. The prevalence of home studio software caused a similar arc in the recording industry over the past 10-15 years. It’s easy for bands to produce their own music, and it’s common for musicians to record tracks in their home studios and send them to producers instead of traveling to record in a studio. We’ve also interviewed visual artists on our podcast who have vibrant websites, through which they sell much of their art.
Arts Entrepreneurship classes have grown in popularity over the years, and for the past 5-10 years, universities, conservatories, and art schools have been adding them on a regular basis. It’s the same for minors, certificates, and majors. That’s a good thing because institutions should provide students with tools and methods they can use to apply their art, and make them aware of the variety of opportunities throughout the arts economy.
That said, if you speak with college students, their parents, or even those who teach the subject, a question that often comes up is, “What’s arts entrepreneurship and how does it vary from regular entrepreneurship? It’s a good question, and the answer depends on the entrepreneurial experiences of the person you ask.
Over the past 15 months, we’ve interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs from throughout the arts economy. In the 60+ podcast episodes we’ve released, themes are beginning to appear—and so far, those themes are occurring across all arts disciplines and around the world. The theme we’ll address in this post is the encouragement to take that first step on your journey as an arts entrepreneur. Or to paraphrase the many responses we’ve received, “Just start!”
What holds people back from starting? Here are some reasons I’ve been told in conversations with students and entrepreneurs, and my counterpoint:
According to Merriam-Webster.com (link below), a snob is “One who blatantly imitates, fawningly admires, or vulgarly seeks association with those regarded as social superiors.” While snobs are rarely like the exaggerated characters portrayed in films, they do share common traits in varying degrees that make them easily recognizable: it could be their desire to own exclusive or expensive items, or the need to demonstrate their refined tastes, or to share esoteric facts they know about a particular subject, and so on.
Because there are snobs, marketers have long known that snob appeal works for a customer segment that values some combination of scarcity, uniqueness, or a high price relative to similar items in the market. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many arts entrepreneurs and can personally attest that snob appeal is effective in carving out market share and generating additional revenue. It doesn’t matter if a portion of a venture’s offerings, or the entire catalogue, is positioned for exclusivity as long as the story they are telling about their offering is compelling. It can be contagious too, because many consumers have a fear of missing out, and that fear is amplified when scarcity is in the mix.
Drawing Courtesy Emily Petrella
In the last 10 minutes of part 2 of our interview with Susan and Nick of The Concert Truck (episode #147), I recalled a conversation I had many years ago with a friend in the US Navy Band in Washington, DC. He was on the team responsible for overseeing the logistics of their annual US tour, and told me there were places they’d visited where they were the only live “classical music” some people have ever heard. When I asked Susan and Nick how it makes them feel that they could be the only live classical music some will ever hear, they said it was a powerful thought and makes them feel uneasy because it puts a lot of pressure on them as performers. We didn’t discuss why they felt pressure, but I assumed that as conscientious musicians they were focusing mainly on the pressure to perform their best, especially if they would be the only live classical music some in the audience would ever experience.
Happy New Year! Those of you following the podcast are aware that my wife and I accepted positions at Kent State University last year. Since May, we’ve moved, renovated most of a house, learned new gigs, etc., which is why the blog posts have slowed—but one of my New Year’s resolutions is to consistently contribute to the blog. Another resolution is to be more effective with my time, so I thought I would begin the year by sharing some content I created for a career mentorship site when asked about the most important skills for recent arts graduates to have and highlight in their resumes:
A few days ago Andy and I were interviewing Nathan Daughtrey, a musician and owner of a music publishing company. He gave a lot of great entrepreneurial advice, but one statement resonated with me. Nathan said he strives to learn as much as he can about his art. I strongly agree, because to truly know an art, one should investigate every aspect of it. This is especially important for arts entrepreneurs because each new piece of information can sharpen our thinking and refine our methods.
Artists tend to focus on the act of creating art, and I’m suggesting we broaden our scope to take a 360° view and examine the many ways art is created, distributed, marketed, sold, etc. To highlight this approach, I’ll present a series of blog posts to take a deeper dive into some of these activities.
Photo Courtesy José Faus
Two business terms came up in a conversation I had with a musician friend who is considering a different career path, and maybe even leaving the field altogether: Sunk Cost and Opportunity Cost. Sunk Costs are resources that were spent and can’t be recovered. They could be for items used in the production and distribution of art, money paid in tuition, or the human capital of thousands of hours spent honing your craft in practice rooms, art studios, or other creative spaces. An Opportunity Cost is the possible return on the spent capital had it been invested in other ways.
Why is it that some people enjoy being questioned on their decisions or positions on a topic, while others feel challenged, sometimes to the point of feeling threatened? While the latter can occur in any environment, I’ve observed it more when there’s a hierarchy between people, e.g. management/employee, teacher/student etc. Whatever the reason, these interactions frequently stifle innovation and creativity, and can affect the bottom line. Over the years I’ve watched this play out numerous times in both industry and academia.
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