Think Like An Entrepreneur

This article, by Louise Lee, was published in Strings Magazine in the August 2009 edition.

It’s a common dilemma. You’ve had excellent musical training. Your playing sounds great. But you’re still figuring out how to start, or jump-start, a career. The answer, says David Cutler—author of the book The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a Difference—lies in learning to think like an entrepreneur.

Sure, all players know and recognize the standard opportunities of competitions, teaching jobs at established schools, auditions for orchestra slots, and advertised gigs. Each of those paths may attract many applicants, sometimes dozens or even hundreds.

But thinking like an entrepreneur means that instead of chasing only those conventional routes, you’re also considering opportunities that don’t even exist yet and that you create through your own energy, imagination, and initiative.

After all, when you come up with your own project and present it with a new and interesting spin, or otherwise pursue a different path, you’ve got far less competition.

Stand Out from the Crowd

Targeted at classical and jazz musicians, The Savvy Musician aims to help players learn “how to effect positive change that’s relevant and how to survive doing it and not live off food stamps,” says Cutler, associate professor of musicianship and composition and director of music entrepreneurship at Duquesne University.

One of the overarching messages of the book is that players should learn to think in terms most often associated not with music, but with business and commerce: branding, product development, marketing, supply and demand. Accepting the commercial aspects of a music career may initially be a downer for the artistic-minded individual, but it only reflects the reality of the music industry. After all, the number of qualified players far exceeds the number of existing jobs, so those who take initiative and create their own opportunities will stand out.

“Entrepreneurs have an edge on those who have simply done ‘the normal thing,’” says Cutler, who adds that music entrepreneurs can pack a concert hall, garner media attention, attract students, and make a decent living all at once. “You can’t be just another cellist.”

Identify What You Stand For

Cutler’s book came about after the author realized his own formal education didn’t include advice on financial survival. “Entrepreneur was a word I never heard at school,” says Cutler, adding that he was “good at school,” winning awards and gaining plenty of recognition during his studies at Indiana University and the Eastman School of Music. “Then as graduation approached, I realized that I’d have to work.

“It was a hard moment for me.”

The Savvy Musician includes hefty doses of practical nuts-and-bolts information. The book offers advice on topics ranging from planning publicity (send announcements to media critics two to three months prior to the event; distribute posters three to four months prior) to writing your artist bio (even if you studied at a top school, don’t open with your educational pedigree; do use quotes or comments from reviewers or other respected sources).

Of greater value are the book’s dozens of case studies, many of which concern string players, that Cutler includes to demonstrate the many ways in which real working musicians are packaging themselves and their artistry to cut their own paths. Each of Cutler’s vignettes illustrates a single issue that entrepreneurial players need to tackle.

Here’s a sampling:

• Just as companies spend millions communicating the ideas and values their brand names represent, you should identify what you stand for. New York violinist and violist Caleb Burhans, for instance, bases his professional image on versatility. His biography notes that besides performing orchestral and chamber works on viola and violin, Burhans composes, sings, and improvises.

• Everyone in business, including musicians, needs to seek out new customers continually. Wanting to engage listeners with little or no background in classical music, violist Edward Klorman, co-artistic director of the Canandaigua LakeMusic Festival in Canandaigua, New York, created the concert series Classical Blue Jeans. Her concerts occur in familiar local venues, and audience members are encouraged to wear jeans. The event opens with a barbecue dinner and continues with a presentation in which listeners are invited to coach the musicians, compose melodies, or otherwise participate.

• Successful entrepreneurs identify unmet needs in their individual communities. Cellist Deborah Davis started MADCAP Music Camps in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for local teenage string players and other instrumentalists. Students pay tuition to attend the camp, which over time has expanded to include a jazz program. The camp fills a need in Davis’ local area and generates income for her and a teaching staff.

• Becoming an authority on an unusual area sets you apart. Researching the role of art and music at the Terezin concentration camp, Boston violist Mark Ludwig traveled to the Czech Republic, interviewed Holocaust survivors, and located scores. Ludwig founded the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation, which honors the memory of composers who died in World War II and sponsors commissions of new chamber works. Ludwig has also created a classroom curriculum about Terezin musicians and written essays and taught college-level classes on the topic.

Write a Business Plan

Whether you’re planning a single event or an ongoing enterprise, Cutler advises readers that the first step is to sit down and write out what amounts to a business plan, just like you’d do if you were launching a company. Writing out a plan forces you to articulate details and get beyond vague notions. Ask yourself the hard questions: What is the prevailing goal? What specifically do you hope to accomplish? What service are you offering, and to precisely what audiences? How will you promote your effort?

Remember that, ultimately, you’re an artist seeking the best opportunities to promote your art and serve your community.

“Being savvy doesn’t mean you’re selling out your integrity or what’s important to you,” Cutler says.

To order The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a Difference, visit

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