(Originally posted in three parts at ARTSBlog: I / II / II. Thispost is part 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.)
In the past half century, there are some things that haven’t much changed in classical music. Big, well-established orchestras (several high-profile recession-induced bankruptcies and closures notwithstanding) continue to attract the lion’s share of dollars from funders, individual donors, and ticket-buying patrons alike. Prestigious conservatories such as Juilliard and Curtis continue to pump out soloists who are snapped up by artist management companies and shopped to those same orchestras, increasingly hungry for top talent. In the background, however, the rest of the classical music field is rapidly evolving in new directions.
Despite a long-term general stagnation in ticket-buying classical music audiences, more and more young people are taking a shine to the 400-year-old art form and wanting, nay, expecting to make a career out of it. Americans for the Arts’s National Arts Index reports a 61% increase in the number of visual and performing arts degrees awarded between 1998 and 2009, far outpacing population growth during that period. Empowered and ambitious, this new crop of conservatory graduates has emerged professionally during a time of extraordinary operational and technological change in the field. In just one generation, the young classical musicians of today have seen public funding for the arts drop precipitously in real terms; the democratization of music production and distribution through technologies such as notation software, ProTools, digital file-sharing, and Kickstarter; and the decimation of arts education programs across the country. Perhaps most importantly, the current generation of classical musicians in their 20s and 30s is the first to have grown up with genre-bending as a given – that trail having been blazed, in part, by the Minimalists and Bang on a Can crowd in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
It’s not hard to see why this combination of factors may have contributed to an increased sense of entrepreneurship in the field. Classical musicians throw themselves into creation and performance with a ferocity many of us may find hard to imagine – a deep, sustained, and personal engagement with an art form predating just about everything else they encounter in their lives besides the earth itself. And yet the language they speak is not shared by more than a tiny fraction of the people around them. Unless they have virtually no contact with the outside world, they are likely to have friends, family members, and colleagues who listen to no classical music at all and have no desire to do so. Faced with this dichotomy, one can only imagine how frustrating it must be to know that the sincere joy and fulfillment they get from their art is not being communicated to people they care about.
Not only that, but today’s conservatory graduates are less likely than ever to have illusions about the world that awaits them upon graduation. They know that the dream of a soloist career is out of reach for most. They know that steady orchestra gigs are getting harder and harder to come by, and that the ones that do exist are getting less comfortable. And they know that if they are the ones calling the shots, they can pursue their highest artistic vision without interference from directors, boards, or teachers.
Not surprisingly, then, the phenomenon of classical musicians starting their own enterprises or organizations has become commonplace. Much of the time, these projects are mere extensions of the individual artist’s identity, and may travel only as far as the founder’s fame can carry them. But others reflect long-term, strategic thinking in their design and execution, and a few offer real innovations in the way that classical music is conceived, presented, and supported.
What happens when you blow up the idea of an orchestra and start all over? Alarm Will Sound, a large ensemble performing repertoire from Nancarrow to Frank Zappa to the music of its own members, may provide the answer. In the mid-1990s, composer Gavin Chuck and conductor Alan Pierson were among the co-founders of a student new music group at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester called Ossia that solicits ideas from audience members for musical programs. Upon graduation in 2001, the two formed Alarm Will Sound in order to continue making music with the same group of musicians.
Eschewing many of classical’s linguistic trappings, Alarm Will Sound calls itself a “20-member band” performing “today’s music” on its website. Often bringing in multimedia and theatrical elements to its performances, AWS revels in conceiving unexpected and ambitious presentations, executed with amazing technical precision. “In Ossia, we had seen how responsive audiences were not only to good music, but to good musical ideas presented in interesting ways beyond the conventional concert,” explains Chuck. Among some of AWS’s more adventurous ideas have been acoustic transcriptions of electronic music (an entire album of Aphex Twin covers, plus the Beatles’ avant-garde classic “Revolution #9”) and stage directions that involve dispersal across the concert hall.
For Judd Greenstein, founder of New Amsterdam Records, explorations across genre aren’t just about bringing popular music into a classical context. Greenstein and his NewAm co-directors, Sara Kirkland Snider and William Brittelle, have classical pedigree a-plenty—they’ve done time at the graduate music programs of Yale, Princeton, and CUNY—but see their work as part of a mission to launch the music that they and their colleagues write into the same stratosphere with other forms of indie music.
“One of the points of NewAm is to move around and beyond the historicism of the classical community and the self-reflection that pervades it,” Greenstein says. He points to the label’s appearance on top 10 lists and charts from multiple musical worlds (such as the NPR and New York Times Classical lists, the iTunes jazz chart, and the College Music Journal 200) as evidence of its success at positioning music that comes (at least in part) from the classical tradition as something that people who don’t think of themselves as classical lovers can enjoy.
Now, the for-profit New Amsterdam Records has become a subsidiary of a new nonprofit organization: New Amsterdam Presents. “We had always wanted the record company to be a nonprofit, but after two years of wrangling with the IRS, we realized we couldn’t do it,” says Greenstein. Ironically, the label’s pro-artist revenue-sharing agreement – posted for the world to see on the web – was the sticking point. The presenting organization helps NewAm in other ways, however – by expanding the roster of artists that it can represent, and providing an infrastructure for year-round rather than project-based fundraising.
Unlike Alarm Will Sound and New Amsterdam, Charith Premawardhana’s Classical Revolution shies away from neither the term “classical” itself nor the music it typically represents. Premawardhana started Classical Revolution as a weekly chamber music salon series at Revolution Cafe in San Francisco. An alumnus of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Premawardhana was frustrated with what he calls the “corporate” nature of the traditional symphony orchestra world, and longed to reach a wider and more diverse audience with his playing.
Five years and 500 performances later, Classical Revolution has performed in a dizzying array of venues around the Bay Area, “from cafes and bars to backyards and living rooms to museums and concert halls,” according to Premawardhana. Recent and upcoming programming has included tangoes, an indie rock band, and a tribute to the Velvet Underground, as well as works by contemporary composers. CR has even inspired a far-flung network of 16 like-minded chapters in places from Cincinnati to Melbourne, with six more on the way. While Classical Revolution currently receives fiscal sponsorship through San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, Premawardhana talks of acquiring independent 501(c)(3) status so that CR can provide fiscal sponsorship itself to its various chapters around the country. Up until now, Premawardhana has not been paying himself due to lack of funding; he reports that almost all income goes to pay for musicians and space rental.
The three enterprises discussed above 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.