On music & entrepreneurship (2012)

Composer, conductor, singer, pianist and university educator Dawn Sonntag offers her views on the topic.

Musicians— whether “classical” or “pop”— have always had to be entrepreneurial, especially women, who have always tended to be stereotyped as being qualified for only certain roles in the music world. Music entrepreneurs have to work with the conditions that are immediately available to them and move outward from there.

The less "privileged" a musician’s beginnings, the more entrepreneurial skill is required to achieve one’s goals. But I don’t know a practicing musician anywhere who does not practice entrepreneurship to some degree. Music opportunities do not fall from the sky. But along with creative ideas and good networking skills must come much study of one’s craft, which often requires a great investment of time and money, and practice, practice, and more practice.

The public has always liked the idea of the "natural genius" whose musical abilities come straight from heaven, without any real effort on the part of the musician. (Practice and training seems so pedantic and unromantic to non-musicians, although I always say that if you don’t love to practice, you should choose a different career— I would rather practice than do anything.) So even back in the 17th and 18th centuries, musicians used the media of those times— visual artists— to help create a public image that would foster an image of "natural" or "God-given" genius.

We musicians tend to forget how important the visual arts are to our success, but without visual marketing, our work remains completely invisible. Even if we make a recording, we are very much dependent on a good CD cover to help market that CD. Visual artists— and these days that includes web designers— are very important in transmitting to the public a sense of our personality and style, and letting people know how much they might enjoy what we do.

One thing I have pointed out to my students is that sometimes "success" is thought to be measurable in terms of very large dollar amounts— as in thousands, millions, or billions; but the definition of success for a musician is very individual. It really means creating a life that gives one time and opportunities to create and perform music. We all need enough income to have a stable life and reasonable security. But many of us musicians could easily be engaged in much more lucrative careers— careers which would not allow us time or thought necessary to be artists.

On the other hand, our work is valuable, and we deserve to be making a decent living for what we do. We train for more years than do others in most careers, and by the time one enters graduate school, one is already expected to have accrued professional experience. The expectation that musicians can or even should do what they do for free because it is "a gift" makes it very difficult for musicians to make a living. If one has to work a "day job" to pay the bills because one must give away one’s craft, then that valuable practice time is gone, and practicing is something that must continue throughout life.

Without proper support, musicians simply cannot make music. But just as music opportunities don’t fall from the sky, neither does support. Entrepreneurial skills are also necessary for educating the public regarding the value of what we do. And half the battle in that is just getting people to listen to what we do. That’s really the key to making a life in music.

In addition to being a musician, Dawn Sonntag is also an Assistant Professor of Music at Hiram College in the US state of Ohio, southeast of Cleveland, and she teaches a course in music entrepreneurship. The college’s Center for Integrated Entrepreneurship actively encourages entrepreneurship across the curriculum. Click to learn more about Dawn Sonntag.