On Teaching Entrepreneurship

When the New England Conservatory opened its Entrepreneurial Musicianship program in 2010, I was the first faculty member charged with building out the school’s required and elective entrepreneurship classes. This was after the 2008 financial crisis and just before flutist Claire Chaise got a Macarthur “genius” award not for being an extraordinary musician, but for being an arts entrepreneur.

The novel figure of the arts entrepreneur appealed to a classical music field forced to examine its mission in a changing social and economic landscape. Since the 1980s, spreading neoliberal policies—deregulation, privatization, and shrinking government influence—had steadily advanced market logic over things, like music, that make us human. Neoliberalism, simply put, is an ideology that suggests human well-being is best advanced by the fair actions of a “free market.” It casts inequity as a virtue: if the system is free and fair, then those who reap its rewards do so on the basis of their merits.

In a system like this, words and memory lose their meaning. Music becomes meaningless, too. In 2011, a string of symphony orchestras folded like a house of cards: Syracuse, New Mexico, Louisville, Utica. When the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy it was reported like a death knell. 

Enter entrepreneurship: both a symptom of neoliberalism and its solution. For school presidents, entrepreneurship presented an optimistic, pragmatic, and distinctly American solution to the problem of running a professional training program for a profession that might no longer exist. For parents of prospective students, entrepreneurship programs offered the reassurance that something was being done to resolve the split between “doing what you love” and the money that should—but doesn’t necessarily—follow.

It was the spirit of the times. Uber transformed private cars into taxi cabs and their drivers into owner-operators. Rapidly reproducing through higher education, entrepreneurship programs turned students into small businesses: profitable “leaders,” “innovators,” and “change-makers” with jaunty “portfolio careers”. “Classical music isn’t dying,” urged a passionate Claire Chaise in a 2013 convocation address, “it’s just now being born.” The message was clear: despite what you hear, there’s never been a better time to be a musician.

Even then, I looked at the word “entrepreneurship” with a jaundiced eye. But I was practical—it was a new course area that I could define as my own and make into a cornerstone of my annual contract. I relished the chance to build a space where I could throw all the tools I had at hand—as an artist as much as a psychologist, historian, activist, and organizer—in service of solving the vexing problem of how musicians could keep making music in a world that seemed determined to silence them.

I had skin in the game—as an artist, I was trying to figure it out myself, as I still am—and the course was where we could talk about the really interesting stuff. Who gets to be an artist, and who has to stop. Who gets to make a living, who doesn’t, and doesn’t have to worry about it. Which music makes money and which music loses money. Whose music is heard and whose is not. All of this has to do with economic arrangements. And when we’re talking about economics, we’re never just talking about money. We’re talking about power, politics, and morality.

There Are Always Alternatives

Some of the students in my first entrepreneurship class in 2010 wondered why they must be entrepreneurs. After all, the word puts a crack in the conservatory promise about artistic excellence. In 2023, though, my students accept it as a natural fact. To quote Margaret Thatcher, “There Is No Alternative.”

This is how we live now, at least this is how we live in the United States. We are all entrepreneurs, because opportunities for secure, paid employment kept shrinking and the cost of living kept rising, and the tech companies that promised artists the opportunity to “live off their art” have yet to deliver and so here we are. The global pandemic made plain what was already the case: the people who can continue to play are often the people who can afford to play.

I started to write a list of factors in the past decade or so that have accelerated us towards the present, pervasive state of futurelessness. I will leave the litany of griefs aside (how much we have lost, how serious the consequences) and note that this period has also produced stunning popular liberation movements that have seeded an awareness of alternatives. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Standing Rock, Stop Asian Hate, Idle No More, the Maidan protest movement: all of these movements remind us that there are always alternatives. They have seeded the truth widely. They show us the things have been different in the past, and that things can be different in the future. 

My students in 2023 have come of age in a state of permacrisis.  But many are telling me that they have chosen music not  in spite of this, but because of this. They are determined to play music because to play music is to tell the truth. They know what others have known before—that music is a method, a technique to connect past to future, a means to an end. It is to declare that a future exists. And because of that, they are interested to discuss the facts: what author Grace Paley called “the facts of money and blood”.

They enter with questions about the difficult trade-offs they’ll face—time and money, art and stability, how to protect their personal voice in a competitive field. Here are some of the questions they asked me in September: 

  • How do I reconcile the need to create and participate in art-making with the real need to earn enough to sustain myself and plan for the future / family?
  • How can I use social media to build my business when I hate social media?
  • What do I have to “sacrifice” to “make it” and what does making it even look like?
  • How do I balance needing to make money in non-music jobs against the time and resources I need to create music?
  • What is my relationship with the marketplace and how does that relate to an artist’s role in society?
  • How can I continue being a musician after school ends?

These are not trivial questions. They are aware. The students who ask them know they are embarking on a perilous journey, that there is something important to defend, and that much is at stake.

I don’t say this in the way the people say “the kids are alright”; the way that places all the hope for the future on younger generations. I wish everyone would stop doing that. It’s not fair. We are deeply intertwined in the present circumstances, and the youngest among us are the least responsible. I say it because the kids are right, and we are all not alright. I say it because their choice to be in my classroom calls me to a higher level of responsibility in how I teach, how I participate in my professional community, and how my work might help to grow a more ethical, respectful and impactful set of professional training practices.

Ending With More Questions

I’m uneasy with the ways “music” and “entrepreneurship” are juxtaposed in my job title. For way it installs free market ideology into what has always been my moral choice: to keep music and the defense of all life at the center of my work. For how it suggests that a good musician is a profitable musician. For how it advances myths of individualism, exceptionalism and bootstrapping that conceal how it’s never been a level playing field, and no one ever gets anywhere all by themselves. For how it transforms musicians—some of my favorite people—into miniature companies duking it out in a winner-take-all world. 

All the same, I’ve come to appreciate the potential of my job title. If entrepreneurship is both the wound and the medicine, then what better place than entrepreneurship class to tell the truth, and to tell it well? What better place to define and defend music?

I long for deeper conversations about this. In part, it’s why I keep writing this newsletter. Few conversations in my field seem to acknowledge the severity of the crisis, or that there is a crisis at all. Like me, they came of age at the end of the Cold War, when democracy, capitalism and progress promised to dance together in an endlessly upward line. They want to talk about the power of music to change the world without changing a thing; to build a better future while preserving the system that plunged us into futurelessness; to hold onto careerist, meritocratic conceptions that might have worked for other people, but didn’t work that well for me, and certainly won’t work for many of my students and the world that’s to come.

I always tell students that if we end with more questions than we began with, it’s a good sign. So I’ll end with a few questions of my own.

  • How might we define the skills—beyond artistic excellence—that musicians need to survive and thrive?
  • Can we come up with a name other than entrepreneurship to describe this?
  • How can we describe these skills in ways that redress, rather than reproduce, structures of discrimination?
  • What kinds of culturalist assumptions guide professional development work in professional musical training sites? How can we dismantle imperialism while advocating for the value of the professional musician?
  • How can we change how musicians are taught on a systems-wide level? Where can research help?
  • How can research arm leaders and funders with evidence to support new initiatives? What kinds of metrics are needed?
  • How can we get detailed, accurate data that describes professional outcomes for graduates of our programs? How can we qualify and quantify the value of immersing oneself in musical practice?
  • Program assessments look at the short-term, not the long-term. But as an educator, I know that many seeds are planted that won’t germinate when I’m around to see them. How can we look back to understand the factors that contribute to long-term resilience and sustainability?
  • No one does anything alone. The individuals in institutional “success stories” all received skills, tips, and legs-up before they came into any program. Often these lessons came from places that lay out-of-sight. Can we name these lessons, find these places, and lift up that wisdom so it’s available to others?
  • How can we better support faculty and program staff with up-to-date, evidence-based, pedagogically sound curricula? Entrepreneurship courses are taught my musicians with no lived experience as entrepreneurs. Or they’re taught by musicians who have experience, or a knack for “doing their own thing” but are insulated by the marketplace by generation, by job title, or by inherited or partner wealth. Or they’re taught by junior faculty, or part-time faculty who are under-compensated and under-supported by administration in meeting the extraordinarily learning needs of diverse student populations. We need better instructional materials, especially ones that are written with a keen perspective for culturalist assumptions and are accessible to English Language Learners.
  • Where can survival skills best be taught? If we seek to change the system, might it be better to teach and learn outside of the system?
  • We need to explore all of this in a global context. How do musicians’ futures look in other economies, and other cultures? Inside and outside of classical music?
  • We need to explore all of this across musicians’ lifespans—much earlier and much later than college. How might we build generationally-inclusive, intergenerational, or generally non-ageist learning communities?

What questions are you asking? Please add them in the comments.

*This post originally appeared in The Rest, Tanya Kalmanovitch’s newsletter. Free and paid subscriptions are available at therest.substack.com.