Entrepreneurship is a term that’s become something of a buzzword in the 21st century. It seems everywhere you look, people are identifying themselves as entrepreneurs. But what is an entrepreneur? How might entrepreneurship be applied to a music career? Is it needed? I asked these very questions in my research on entrepreneurship instruction in college jazz programs and its impact on graduates’ careers. Here’s what I discovered.
The term entrepreneur originated in 1734 to “describe a person who bears the risk of profit or loss” (Moreland, 2006, p.4). More recently in 2003, the National Commission on Entrepreneurship (NCE) defined entrepreneurship as “the process of uncovering and developing an opportunity to create value through innovation” and noted that “we are living in an ‘Entrepreneurial Age’” (p. 4).
In NCE’s definition of entrepreneurship, innovation is a key term. For example, the late Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, is thought of as a classic entrepreneur, because of his technological innovations— iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc. Similarly, musical entrepreneurs may be defined by the innovative products they develop for the instrument marketplace. In this light, Rey Sanchez, the founder of the Music Entrepreneurship program at the University of Miami and one of my research participants, said, “We’re talking… the Hartley Peaveys or the Bob Taylors. People that have a vision create companies that do things beyond themselves and survive them. That’s actually a true entrepreneur.”
Entrepreneurship, however, as applied to developing a career in music can take on a slightly different meaning. Rey said this:
“[W]hen you talk about entrepreneurship, that’s almost the wrong word to use...I like something like ‘entrepreneurialism... for musicians.’ It's about the entrepreneur’s mindset, because in truth, an entrepreneur creates something bigger than themselves… In the case of musicians... that does happen sometimes, but it's really mostly a career that's built around what they do. That's
not actually entrepreneurship. That’s applying entrepreneurship principles to their own career development.”
But an entrepreneur does not create something out of nothing— new ideas do not materialize in a vacuum. Rather, they tend to evolve from existing ideas. In music, this can include products and services, for example, an innovative way a teacher organizes her private lesson studio or a team of educators creating a non-profit community music academy in an underprivileged area.
At the same time, the term “entrepreneurship” seems to be interchangeable with “business.” Yet the two terms are not necessarily synonymous. For instance, in my research, entrepreneurship was found to be more a subset of business: business may encompass the hard or tangible skills— emails, phone calls, accounting, and the like; whereas entrepreneurship may emphasize the soft or intangible skills— interpersonal communication, networking, image, and so on.
Entrepreneurship courses, programs, and degrees are springing up at colleges and universities across the country. Their general objective is to instruct students to conceive of themselves as a self-proprietorship and to acquire the corresponding skills. For instance, this statement on New England Conservatory's Entrepreneurial Musicianship program website sums up what entrepreneurship instruction is all about:
“[P]erformance excellence is the starting point. Musicians must be more than virtuosi; they must be their own businesses. Musical entrepreneurship can be seen as a set of valuable skills—creative and critical thinking, communication proficiency, financial management, programming, and marketing among others.”
Course descriptions from other institutions show similar patterns. Manhattan School of Music’s Practical Foundation (ME1500) course “explores how to make a living while pursuing your deepest artistic ambitions...and creating your own opportunities... [and] covers many practical aspects of career development and business practices.” University of Miami’s Entrepreneurship for Musicians (MM1530) course places emphasis “on the packaging of musical skills in the marketplace and on the financial management of a small proprietary music business.” Florida State University’s Survey of the Music Industry (MUS 332) offers an “Understanding [of] the world of commercial music and techniques in personal marketability.”
But beyond what, the question is why— why entrepreneurship? The answer lies in today’s job market climate, the result of several factors coming together: a sluggish economy, fewer places for musicians to perform, an influx of graduates coming out of college music programs, globalization, and technology. These factors create both positive and negative effects:
-Negative: a dwindling of jobs + an oversaturated market = difficulty finding work
-Positive: the internet + inexpensive home recording technology = musicians are able to create opportunities for themselves and engage with their audiences in new ways
Taken together, these effects suggest that musicians will need to learn to be their own businesses. In truth, this has been happening for decades, as musicians coming out of college degree programs have discovered the need to create opportunities for themselves and manage their own affairs. The aforementioned factors, however, have accelerated this process and resulted in a shift from on-the-job education to classroom instruction. The goal of this instruction is to make students aware *before* they graduate of what it’s going to take to build a sustainable career and then give them the tools and strategies to accomplish this. Nevertheless, it’s a double-edged sword, because wearing both musical and entrepreneurial hats can be time-consuming, and yet, technological advances allow musicians unprecedented control over their careers. Overall, then, it is a time of seemingly limitless possibilities. In a way, I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be a musician.
Of course, entrepreneurship instruction is not a perfect solution, as nothing would be. But it addresses a real need for music students to acquire the skills to be their own businesses, and it opens the door just a crack to give them a preview of what’s likely to come in their careers. In total, an entrepreneurial mindset can be valuable for anyone in any field, and in fact, other fields have been teaching entrepreneurship to their students for many years. Music is somewhat slow to catch up, but it has been gaining. My research findings suggest that at some point, perhaps within 5-10 years, most college music programs will offer— possibly even require — entrepreneurship instruction as a critical part of their degree programs.
Future posts will address what entrepreneurship instruction looks like and how it’s impacting musicians’ careers.