You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur

You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur


On October 2, 2012, the MacArthur Foundation named Claire Chase, CEO and artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, a MacArthur Fellow. It was a half-million dollar[1] stamp on an increasingly prominent buzzword in new music: entrepreneurship.

Where 2011 MacArthur Fellow Francisco Núñez was simply described as a “Choral Conductor & Composer” and 2013 Fellow Jeremy Denk as “Pianist and Writer,” Chase was given the distinction of being an “Arts Entrepreneur.” The foundation recognized her in part for “forging a new model for the commissioning, recording, and live performance of contemporary classical music.” This was the future of music.

Since then, entrepreneurial programs in conservatories have earned a new degree of recognition and legitimacy, while the (increasingly few) schools without such programs seem to be behind the curve. What was once a possible alternative to the increasingly scarce “traditional” jobs for musicians has become the de facto model for conservatory graduates. “Can’t find a job? Make one!” is the new motto.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me say up front that a lot of the thinking and skills that are behind an entrepreneurial focus in music education are not all bad. I, after all, helped co-found a record label, have been designing websites since before WYSIWYG editors were the norm, and have made an enviable number of professional contacts through social media. Were I better looking, I might be considered a poster boy for entrepreneurship, or at least Mr. November.

Therein lies the problem. If I have achieved some success in music, it is all too easy to point to these things and say, “Aha! Entrepreneurship wins the day.” Let us not forget, however, that correlation does not equal causation. To describe me as an “arts entrepreneur” (or Chase, for that matter) is bad for everyone.[2] It seems to imply that business savvy is what defines me and ignores the plethora of other skills, artistic and practical, that have brought me to where I am. To focus on entrepreneurship is to get only a small fraction of the picture, which could in the end be leading the next generation of artists down a path toward greater frustration.

Over the course these four essays, I hope to address some of the problems I perceive with this entrepreneurial focus. In the remainder of today’s post, I’ll look at some of the reasons why this trend came into being as well as the empty promises it holds. In my second post, I’ll compare an artistic-oriented career approach to a business-oriented approach in greater detail. Third, I will analyze in detail the ideas Claire Chase presents in her 2013 Convocation Address at Northwestern University; the working title is “Why I Think Claire Chase is Wrong.” Finally, I will conclude on a more personal note, looking at how entrepreneurial skills have helped me over the years while at the same time demonstrating how they were neither necessary nor sufficient to get me to this point in my career.

How We Got Here

Let us begin our narrative by looking back on the dot-com bubble at the close of the 20th century, when it seemed that anyone with a modicum of technical skill could found a company and become a multimillionaire.[3] Buzzwords like “new economy” became the norm while the promises of connectivity, efficiency, growth, and scale blinded the masses to a fundamental lack of profits. Yet if the boom was all about starting a website to replace a brick-and-mortar company, the bust saw an incorporation of internet technology into extant businesses and organizations. The internet was becoming ubiquitous.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until a few years after the boom that some of the most important internet companies and services were launched.[4] (Think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the iTunes Store, etc.) Here was the promise of the dot-com boom fulfilled. New tools for building connections and creating content were rapidly increasing, while at the same time technology in general was becoming increasingly cheaper. Media as a whole was becoming democratized, and that was not lost on the arts.

And then there was the Great Recession. Millions of jobs were lost in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, and it took a heavy toll on less “essential” sectors of the economy such as the arts. It is little wonder, then, that in the face of staggering levels of long-term unemployment, entrepreneurship would become an increasingly viable option. [5]

This is, without a doubt, a ridiculously brief overview of the last 15+ years, and one that omits more than a few significant world events, but it should offer a glimpse as to how entrepreneurship became so entrenched in our thinking.

An entire generation has come of age during the worst economic crisis in living memory while also witnessing revolutionary technological innovations. It has seemingly never been easier to strike out on one’s own and the motivation to do so is staggeringly high. In our field, this effect is compounded. First, there is the problem of vanishing traditional jobs, such as tenure-track positions[6] and a society that increasingly wants music to be free[7]. Second, other income streams, such as finding gigs and private students, seem perfectly suited for leveraging technology and entrepreneurial skills.

The Promises of Entrepreneurship

The fundamental promise of entrepreneurship, which cannot be separated from the definition of the word, is that you can create your own job. The problem, however, is that while we may constantly strive for artistic innovation, that does not equate to entrepreneurial innovation. The tools, technology, and music itself may change radically, from an economic standpoint this is not new.

For the rest of the world, to be an entrepreneur means to develop a new product/service or to fundamentally improve on an existing product/service in such a way as to disrupt the marketplace. How can we do that in music?

To teach, perform, compose, commission, start ensembles, or start a concert series is nothing new. We are not creating new industries or products, nor are we objectively improving on the past. As Aaron Gervais succinctly put it, “Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design. Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design.” We are not creating jobs for ourselves so much as finding economic opportunities that have been in existence for at least as long as the so-called “traditional” jobs. Perhaps in lieu of the word “traditional” we should use “stable” instead.

Then there is producing. Another great promise of entrepreneurship in the 21st century is that technology allows everyone to be a content producer while the cost of distribution has been essentially reduced to zero. What is omitted from this glorious promise is that the when anyone can produce and distribute content for free, it becomes difficult to convince anyone to pay for it. Moreover, as the field of competition grows unimaginably huge and the market becomes flooded, the perceived value of music likewise diminishes. To quote Bob Shingleton (On An Overgrown Path), “The problem is obvious – there is too much classical music…. Indisputable data shows that audiences for classical music are shrinking, yet, equally indisputably, the supply of music is increasing exponentially. You do not have to be a so-called industry expert to see that this is a disaster waiting to happen.”

In the end, we talk a good talk about creating one’s own career, but fail to recognize that the marketplace isn’t beholden to us. We remain reliant on big donors and grants to support the arts and yet still think that a spiffy website and self-produced album alone are going to magically turn into a sustainable income. Don’t get me wrong; an injection of business savvy into the arts is not inherently a bad thing. The problem is that, in pursuit of the empty promises of entrepreneurship, we seem to have forgotten who we are.


1. The award amount was increased the following year to $625,000.

2. Or as Aaron Gervais argues, calling Chase an entrepreneur is simply inaccurate.

3. Some decent venture capital connections didn’t hurt, either.

4. Other luminaries such as Google and Amazon are survivors of the dot-com bust.

5. There is some contention among economists as to the effect the Great Recession has had on entrepreneurship. The Kauffman Foundation, which tracks “people reporting entry into entrepreneurial activity,” noted that entrepreneurship was at a higher level in 2009 than at any point in the previous fourteen years, with a considerable uptick beginning in 2007. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland notably contested this conclusion, noting that “the Great Recession had a negative impact on U.S. entrepreneurship” and that “the largest effect came from a decline in new business formation.” I’ll let the economists fight that one out.

6. I’m not even going to cite anything here; just google “rise of adjunct faculty.”

7. Aaron Gervais, “No Seriously, There’s No Such Thing as Arts Entrepreneurship.”


R. Andrew Lee walking among trees

R. Andrew Lee

R. Andrew Lee has dedicated himself to the performance and recording of new music. He has premiered or released the premiere recording of compositions by many composers whose work lie on the boundaries of minimal music, including Ann Southam, Paul Epstein, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, William Susman, Dennis Johnson, Scott Unrein, and Ryan Oldham. Upcoming projects include a recording of previously unreleased piano music by William Duckworth, and the premiere of a work by Scott Unrein meant to last from sunset until sunrise. Lee currently teaches at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, and was most recently Artist-in- Residence at Avila University.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

19 thoughts on “You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur

  1. Pingback: Scherzo TV | You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur

  2. Glenn Stallcop

    Tough times often become the mother of invention. I remember when growing up in Seattle when nearly 100,000 (including many engineers) were laid off from Boeing when the SST was flushed. The next few years saw the blossoming of such entrepreneurial ventures as Starbucks, Nordstroms, and Microsoft! Seattle was no longer a one horse town.

    Composers used to be represented by publishers, but an entrepreneurial venture called Xerox ended all that! The 70s and 80s saw the rise of self-publishing, composer service organizations, and composer led ensembles. It was the success of Phillip Glass as a musician that turned everybody’s head. This applied even to film composers. Henry Mancini was the first to take his music on the road, and it is no coincidence that his original piano player was John Williams. Computers and the internet are the recording industry’s Xerox, we are all on our own now. Sure, that we all teach, compose, start ensembles, etc. is now new. It’s just that now it is essential, because it is essentially all that is available.

    1. Alex Shapiro

      Linda, your relatively succinct reply on Creative Infrastructure to the Gervais post is excellent, and I’m glad that you linked it here for others to read in the context of this NMBx essay. Thanks!

  3. Raffi Minasian

    The origin entrepreneur is French and it is linked directly to MUSIC as an enterprise – early 19th century (denoting the director of a musical institution): from French, from entreprendre ‘undertake’

    Besides that, any ensemble is an enterprise. Any leaders within the ensemble are entrepreneurs. You cannot separate a basic human behavior (older than commercial enterprise) from the word that has long been associated with it. Making entrepreneurship semantically about business is just recent thinking.

  4. Phil Fried

    The very nature of decentralization of the arts in America leads to entrepreneurship. I think the problem is that we continue to privilege presenters over artists and presentation over the art itself. The artist is not seen as a leader but the administrator is. If one wears both hats its the administration that seems newsworthy. Anyway No one should have a problem with those who create opportunities for others unless there is censorship.

  5. Leo Schwartz

    My career is based solely on my ability to create a market for my compositions. I am not associated with an institution, thereby I do not benefit from a salary teaching music theory while I compose. I am not guaranteed an in-house performance environment. If it were not for my marketing, promotional, networking skills, and talent, I would have floundered years ago. I write for people, not prosperity. The artistic challenge is to stay true to myself while writing music that others are excited by. On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked why I do not write symphonies or operas. I always respond, “I have enough things to dust.” But I’m sure that were I to be commissioned, I would write the best one I know how. Like Ives, I am a salesman and those skills have been instrumental in me getting my career off the ground….literally…ground floor. So…I am an entrepreneur.

  6. Julie Harting

    I find it refreshing that the idea of the artist as entrepreneur is being questioned.
    How can music-making be supported? How can musicians make enough money to eat, pay housing costs, buy essentials, take care of their children, make recordings, publish their music, have performances, go on vacation?
    As it is used today, the word entrepreneurship means that there is no other means of support – there is no grant money, there is little state sponsorship of the arts, there is no social structure that supports music-making, there are fewer non-adjunct academic jobs, etc. and so you are on your own.
    In the business world, an entrepreneur is someone who develops a service or product that, if put into practice, will generate a lot of money for some people. The entrepreneur is able to get venture capitalists to give her money to promote her business because they expect huge returns on their money. There are no venture capitalists for new music because there are no huge financial returns to be made.
    So what is entrepreneurship in new music? How much money is being made in all this entrepreneurship? I would like to see some real figures of composers (and other musicians) supporting themselves through entrepreneurship. I suspect that very little money is being made.
    I don’t think the injunction to be an entrepreneur is a successful strategy in helping composers earn enough money to support themselves. I think we need to disown the concept of entrepreneurship and come up with some alternative strategies.

    1. Linda Essig

      Julie: What if the end goal of entrepreneurship in the arts is *not* to generate lots of money, but rather to generate lots of creative opportunities to make more art and to make artists lives sustainable? What if artists don’t adOpt a definition of entpreneurship from the world of venture capitalism but instead adApt that definition to meet the needs of artists? Thus, arts entrepreneurship can be considered to be the deployment of entrepreneurial techniques and strategies in the service of art. Read more at

    2. Raffi Minasian

      You don’t make money with music.

      You make money distributing it.

      The future of commerce for musicians is totally dependent upon their ability to leverage distribution channels to maximize cash return. The more you know about the distribution, the more you can use it to your advantage. Same thing for nearly all businesses. Not saying this is what it SHOULD be for all music, especially if you just want to play the music and don’t care who pays or hears it.

  7. Nicole Warner

    “For the rest of the world, to be an entrepreneur means to develop a new product/service or to fundamentally improve on an existing product/service in such a way as to disrupt the marketplace. How can we do that in music?”

    No, actually, to be an entrepreneur means to work for yourself or you own your own company. If it’s really just you, you can also be called a “solopreneur,” a solo-entrepreneur. There is no need to disrupt the marketplace, because if you want to be an entrepreneurial accountant/underwater basket weaver/software engineer, the only difference is you don’t work on someone else’s payroll, you work for your own, and the market probably doesn’t even notice.

    Entrepreneur is the _definition of the job/career_, a label. The arts is the _industry_ in which, in this case, an entrepreneur works.

    “Don’t get me wrong; an injection of business savvy into the arts is not inherently a bad thing. The problem is that, in pursuit of the empty promises of entrepreneurship, we seem to have forgotten who we are.”

    It is, in fact, a very good thing, injecting business savvy into the arts–it is what makes it more viable. Especially when we rely on grants and sponsorships to create our products & services; those are our received investments. And who said entrepreneurship holds any empty promises? If it does, I have some amazing swamp land in Florida for you. ;-)

    Most of the people who start their own businesses, use their biz savvy, and succeed, are indeed quite happy and many have changed the world in ways that benefit millions. But most entrepreneurs you will never hear about, because they own their own business and you don’t hear about it. But you do buy at their stores.

    It seems the point of the questions you raise is “Who are we to be artists and to still want to make money?” Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive and are, in fact, two parts of the ‘starving artist’ archetype, which our society doesn’t want to let go of. Nor do a lot of people. It takes a lot of insight , ingenuity, and inspiration to move beyond that idea, so anyone who has biz savvy and accepts the opportunities to make it happen is indeed innovative. And to be commended for it. So be an entrepreneur in any industry you like, if it’s music/the arts, great!

  8. Nicholas F Chase

    The issue is greatly confused in the United States where our icons aren’t Baudelaire, Debussy or Monet, or their contemporary equivalents (Boulez! Terminarias!), but Donald Trump and Paris Hilton. Shapiro, Lee et al miss the very important point that “successful” entrepreneurship (i.e. quantifiable return on capital venture) in contemporary business terms means 1) identifying a market and 2) developing a product that market will consume. What’s missing from the discourse on music is “who is your market?” which then can logically be followed by “how can I reach this market?” and “what original offering do I have for this market?”

    It’s an important question to face because the Cultural Climate pervading the US and emanating from Washington DC is that artists have no market. (See my blogpost about the pandemic here

    Meanwhile, as contemporary classical, or avant-garde music artists we are competing in real time, in real space, with the popular music industry which has an identified market and is able to pour loads of cash into the promotion of its product. Anecdotally I’ll share this to make my point: recently I was asked by a rock concert promoter (with some inflected derision) “what USE does your music have?”the implication being, “I make money promoting rock music. What do you gain from what you do?”

    For me the bottom line is that, through a kind of social attrition the perceived low-value of what I do has necessitated that I become an entrepreneur – rather MORE entrepreneurial in my endeavors, which means I am playing dual, triple, quadruple roles in my field. I am the composer, often the commisioner, the producer, recently the performer, and on top of that, yes, I have to run a good “business” in whatever form that may take. Add to that full-time—yes *full-time*—promoter. What I’m saying is that, I think we’ve seen a transformation of the artist-as-entrepreneur throughout history, but the issue we are facing today is the effectiveness of that model as it requires more and more and more attention from us as artists. It seems that the idea has become a convenient scapegoat for the handlers of Culture in the greater United States – it’s not essential for us to identify the evolution of Culture in this country: it’s an entrepreneurial endeavor that will succeed—or fail—on its own.

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  11. Jerry Fernandez

    This is an interesting conversation topic. As a musician with a little bit of choral, band, and folk music experience, I’ve observed in my colleagues a stronger artistic focus versus the business side of things. I’ve always felt that the business side of music should be taught (not as a separate focus, but as a part of a music curriculum. I know there are “music business” degrees, but I feel that every musician should have a basic understanding of business as it relates to artists. The Small Business Administration just released an updated online course, Young Entrepreneurs, which introduces young entrepreneurs to the basics of creating and financing a successful business (ENGLISH: and SPANISH: I find that it’s useful for anyone new to entrepreneurship, and its free!
    I look forward to this important discussion!

  12. Pingback: Artistic Entrepreneurship « JAY DERDERIAN, composer

  13. Rachel Farina

    I really appreciated this. I’m working at a startup, and I’m just lost. I resorted to content writing to earn a paycheck, but it just kinda destroyed me. Yes, artists can market themselves to survive off their art, sure, but that comes second to the creation of the art, and the creation of the art should pay no heed to what the market wants. That’s irrelevant. This is a defining difference. But it’s so hip to be an entrepreneur these days, and the young kids — I don’t know if they can distinguish between true art and just content.

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