Should I Start a New Music Ensemble?

Nouveau Classical Project headquarters

Nouveau Classical Project HQ

A new contemporary music ensemble is born every 5.6 seconds.* Conservatories have tuned into this trend; for example, Oberlin launched a Master of Contemporary Chamber Music degree, and Manhattan School of Music, University of Missouri’s Mizzou School of Music, New England Conservatory, and other schools have launched music entrepreneurship programs in recent years. I would have loved these programs to have existed when I was an undergrad so that I could have had more guidance with my career early on and been aware of what my other options were aside from the only one I was aware of at the time: become a professor, play concerts here and there. I probably would have started The Nouveau Classical Project sooner and with fewer growing pains.

These days, many musicians are acutely aware of how to start and run a chamber ensemble, at least when it comes to the basics: gather musicians, perform the works of young composers mixed in with established composers, and launch a Kickstarter campaign to cover costs. Due to our friends and our friends’ friends launching their own ensembles, a wealth of information has been passed around in the new music community.

Here in New York—which I must note is the only new music scene I really know about—there are a number of performance opportunities that are accessible to startup ensembles. Smaller venues, such as Spectrum, won’t hesitate to program young groups, and there are many other venues that are affordable to rent. And as noted above, even academia encourages more musicians to launch new ventures.

But I’m wondering if anyone is asking: should you start another new music ensemble?

I’m not trying to be cynical nor am I trying to discourage, but it’s a valid and important question to ask oneself. Google “things to consider before starting a business” or “should I become an entrepreneur,” and thousands of results pop up. I’m sure many of us are aware that establishing an ensemble is essentially like launching a business. However, I do believe that the question of whether or not to start one is not often reflected upon first. I’m curious about this issue because there are so many groups and oftentimes musicians within these groups not only play in multiple ensembles, but also begin their own, and the differences between groups don’t seem to extend much beyond instrumentation.

So should you start another new music ensemble? Consider that our industry is saturated, audiences are small, and funding is limited. It’s essential to think about how you’re going to fit into the world of new music. Can you answer these questions: What makes you different? Will your ensemble convey a specific identity to audiences? Can you get people other than close friends and colleagues to your concerts with what you’re doing? (Because if these are your usual attendees, you may end up with a sad turnout if they are at a mutual friend’s ensemble’s concert on the same evening.)

There are so many emerging groups out there that you may already fit into a preexisting one that could use your skills and talents. Perhaps it would be more worthwhile to seek an ensemble where you can share your ideas and join an already fully formed team instead of pursuing a similar venture from scratch. I know from personal experience and from talking to colleagues that many of us artistic directors love having a team of musicians who are proactively involved behind the scenes. I am extremely fortunate to have built this with NCP over the last two years.

If you do decide to start an ensemble, ask yourself the questions that you would ask if you were to create a business. Your answers will inform your decision and provide a clear direction for your work. Playing concerts is fun, yes, but the work that goes into producing concerts and running an organization can be grueling. If you see things going nowhere it will be difficult to be creative and the whole experience will become discouraging. A few suggestions:

1. Why am I doing this? A simple question but it can reveal so much. Maybe it’s a personal passion or just an interest in the business of new music. You have to get to a place of no return, where you can only imagine yourself creating and being in this ensemble. When you’re consistently staying up until 1 a.m. looking into venues and rentals, this question will definitely come up!

2. What is unique about my ensemble? How will you define your ensemble as being different than the many others? Is it your music, your style, your performance?  There needs to be something tangible that quickly provokes curiosity about your group.

3. Who is my target audience? This is difficult to answer but it’s extremely important. When I started NCP, I wanted an audience that had eclectic interests (makes for better post-concert conversation), so I aimed to target people who enjoyed culture, museums, fashion, and did not currently attend classical music concerts regularly (that is, until meeting NCP!). When I had entered the NYU Stern Business Plan Competition, one panelist noted that the way we were targeting our audience reminded him of the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne.  The book uses the metaphors of the red ocean and the blue ocean. The red ocean is where everyone is fighting for the same market share, turning the ocean bloody, while the blue ocean is the market space untainted by competition. Think hard about your target audience and how to get them!

4. Am I prepared to spend the time and money I need to get this done? Ya gotta spend money to make money. And I’m sure we’re all aware, this stuff takes time!

5. Am I willing to do this for the next ten years? It’s a long game. It’s going to be a while before you draw a salary. (Any day now!)

These are the questions I’ve found to be relevant to my experience with NCP over the past six years. It’s true that you don’t know until you try, but some thoughtful questions like these might provide a clearer direction for your artistic endeavor.


*This is not true because I made it up. But doesn’t it feel like it sometimes?

11 thoughts on “Should I Start a New Music Ensemble?

  1. Pingback: symphony | Thomas Larcher: What Becomes; A Padmore Cycle review beautifully tailored bespoke songs + MORE | Stars & Catz

  2. brighton

    “Consider that our industry is saturated, audiences are small, and funding is limited.”
    (1) Thank you for the view from NYC, but there are many many cities in the US who lack even one decent new music ensemble. I think its impossible to saturate the world with art, although its certainly worth a try. And please don’t lower yourself and me to the point of calling our essential artistic community with its rich and heroic legacy an ‘industry.’ These constant market analogies are so 1985.
    (2) Audiences for new classical music are supposed to be small. Small, exceptional and elite. We gravely err trying to broaden its appeal.
    (3) Funding is not limited; fundraisers are lazy. There is an unprecedented amount of cash out there in the hands of private individuals, companies, and foundations. *Government* funding might be limited, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
    I get your point, that you hate to see new ensembles fail for lack of planning or for not finding a niche in the new music world; however, many of us are delighted by the surfeit of groups. Remember, some 70-80% of all new businesses fail – that’s the way it works (not to add another odious business analogy). People fail, learn, get better. Circle of life.

    Reply
    1. Sugar Vendil Post author

      Hi David, re: failure. I’m all about learning from failures. I’ve failed SO many times throughout NCP’s short (and recent history) and I continue to do so. On a daily basis. But I think we’re still going because we have a clear vision. And that vision formed from exploration, and yes, failure, and thinking really hard about it. Sorry to disappoint, there was no immaculate conception. Maybe that makes me less ‘heroic?’

      Maybe the post can also be thought of in this way: ‘What should I think about once I’ve started my ensemble?’ I’m not guaranteeing a lack of failure when answering some of these questions. ‘Answering,’ not ‘once answered.’ Because some of the answers will change throughout the course of your growth. But knowing from the start ‘why am I doing this?’ and ‘am I willing to do this for a LONG TIME’ may help someone have the clarity and strength to get up after failing…and in some cases, know when to move on to something else.

      Reply
  3. william osborne

    I’m glad David Brighton mentioned the use of for-profit language to describe non-profit activity. This is part of the neoliberal view the younger generation is subjected to – the idea that the marketplace should be the ultimate arbiter of almost all human endeavor. An essential purpose is to invalidate the practice followed in all other developed countries of publicly funding the arts.

    NMBx follows this neoliberal agenda with countless articles repeated year after year stressing entrepreneurship while largely ignoring the problems created by America’s unique, dysfunctional, and isolated system of funding the arts through donations by the wealthy. In the process, the major limitations of entrepreneurial concepts applied to new music are often glossed over.

    I remember several years ago, after Rob Deemer and I had a long discussion about public arts funding and its use in Canada, the entire discussion was deleted from NMBx because the AMC Director (I don’t know her exact title) deemed the conversation too political after some crank made complaints.

    Why would the AMC (now NMA) be so sensitive to discussion about public arts funding? This is also correlated to the editorial policy of embracing commercial music such as pop and cross-over while blurring the important and problematic distinctions it has with non-commercial music.

    In reality, the neoliberal agenda of “entrepreneurship” and blurring the distinctions between commercial and non-commercial music is just as political as public arts funding, but entrepreneurship is a central platform of NMBx. The political bias is inescapable, and yet it is not acknowledged.

    Why does NMBx so strongly and consistently promote the neoliberal concept of “entrepreneurship” even though the philosophy has major limitations and is very likely held at a distance by the majority of New Music America’s members? It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that we are being subjected to a system of indoctrination.

    This also relates to David’s comment about NYC not being a norm for the rest of the country. When the arts are funded by the wealthy, they are concentrated in large financial centers like NYC where the wealthy live, while the rest of the country remains neglected. In Europe, funding is distributed more democratically because it is public, so that even moderately sized cities often have healthy new music communities. This also leads to a flourishing of regional culture, as we discussed in Andy Costello’s recent blog “Music and Place.” See:

    http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/music-and-place/

    Please forgive me for these comments. I do not want to be a trouble maker, especially during this period of celebrating the webzine’s 15th birthday, but the topic concerns me and I think many others. Perhaps one way forward for the next 15 years would be to embrace a broader political and aesthetic perspective that more often examines and challenges the neoliberal philosophy of the USA. Neoliberalism has a profound effect upon our cultural lives. It should thus be a topic of the sort of sustained and intelligent discussion NMBx promotes.

    Reply
    1. Sugar Vendil Post author

      Hi Willam,

      Thanks for commenting. I’m not saying that ‘ the marketplace should be the ultimate arbiter of almost all human endeavor.’ If I believed that, I wouldn’t be a dreamer or a musician, both of which I am. And who is the ultimate arbiter? Grantmakers? There is no ultimate arbiter, all I know is that I don’t like to perform in an empty room. I also happen to enjoy building my ensemble, which doesn’t just entail slapping some music on a program and calling it a day.

      When you’re both an artist and an artistic leader, you’re going have to engage in a split personality of sorts, the side where you’re practicing 4 hours a day (can’t get my 8 in like when I was in school, because….rent) and the other side where you’re figuring out how to make this a viable living.

      It’s true that my scope is limited to NYC. But I still think that these are good questions to ask. Doesn’t part of an artist’s self-exploration involve questions? Even before I launched an organization and I wanted to be a solo pianist, I asked myself, ‘Why? How am I making an impact? Am I making any impact?’

      The notion that there is no practical side to art is a romantic fallacy. I love music and I love NCP (my ensemble) so much that it’s not enough for me for my work to simply become a hobby. That is already romantic enough. I haven’t sacrificed my artistic integrity for considering the business (gasp!) of music. I didn’t even start NCP to address the issue of declining audiences, I just wanted to do it. It was meant to be one night, but I really enjoyed it and kept going.

      I also happen to find the exploration of the organizational side of things to be creative. There is also a lot of creativity needed for questions 2 and 3 above. And sometimes, delusion, for question 1 and 5.

      And you are not a troublemaker! I enjoy discussing this topic and I appreciate you reading. I might not have addressed all your points. Haven’t finished my coffee and I told myself to limit answering comments to 10 minutes because I’ve got to get back to pondering question 5…and figuring out how to sell tickets for our upcoming ballet ;)

      Thanks again for reading and engaging!

      Reply
      1. william osborne

        Hello Sugar,

        I didn’t mean to say you follow neoliberal ideologies but that it has become a pervasive influence on young musicians because they have been subjected to a good deal of indoctrination about it. This has led to inflated language where business terminology is used that doesn’t really apply to our largely non-commercial field.

        Like you, I have my own group (made of my wife and myself.) We’ve performed in over 150 cities so I spend a lot of time with business too. Good business practices in running a group and one’s career are essential. They key is to avoid philosophies that define artistic endeavor as primarily financial because they become too reductive.

        We also share a lot in common because I too am trying to expand concepts of instrumental performance. I also appreciate your ideas as a musical fashionista because I feel they bring gendered and feminine concepts to new music that it really needs (in fact, like water in a desert.) I really hope you continue to have success.

        To answer your question, the “ultimate arbiter” in neoliberalism is the marketplace – the idea that our cultural lives should be defined solely by supply and demand. In a secondary position are the wealthy and the foundations that represent them, an entitlement the wealthy are granted by success in the marketplace. I prefer the mixed economies of Europe’s social democracies where comprehensive systems of public funding are used to relieve the excesses of an unmitigated capitalism. (I’ve lived in Europe for the last 35 years.)

        There is another definition of “marketplace” which is a sphere in which intangible values compete for acceptance. This is a very legitimate form of competition in the arts as long as the playing field is reasonably level. That’s why I like NMBx best when it is presenting a lot of different ideas and allowing them to compete in the area of artistic expression and debate (like the mind-bending idea of bringing fashion into the rather masculinity world of new music.)
        Thanks for the interesting article and comments. I look forward to your continuing and unique contributions to NMBx.

        Reply
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  5. william osborne

    Sugar’s article was linked on ArtsJournal.com which led me to read it again. This passage struck me:

    “Am I prepared to spend the time and money I need to get this done? Ya gotta spend money to make money. And I’m sure we’re all aware, this stuff takes time!”

    Sugar also notes it will take a long time before you “draw a salary.”

    To substantiate the entrepreneurial arguments, it would be useful to document which new music groups make a profit. And which are offering salaries? Are there any at all? If so, are they common enough to be used as a norm? If not, shouldn’t the limitations of the entrepreneurial philosophy be clearly defined?

    Information about income, even if not profitable, might also help delineate the arguments. Arguments about entrepreneurship that aren’t substantiated by demonstrated profitability are fraught with ironies. Ideology replaces reality.

    Reply
    1. Brighton

      In Atlanta, a fabulously wealthy city, I fundraise for two pro new music ensembles. We have 3 other volunteer new music ensembles. Our musicians make $3-400 per show, 4-5 times a year per ensemble. Obviously, they have other gigs teaching and performing. Neither group pays staff. Nobody in the other amateur groups makes any money off of new music. I recently spoke with a staff person for Eighth Blackbird. They have been in existence for 12 years, have 4-5 grammies, and they make more money off of residencies at colleges than from performances. I was told they make no money off of recorded music sales. I can’t think of a more popular / successful new music ensemble than 8bb.
      I invite others to share income information as Mr. Osborne suggests so we can have a real look at the face of new music entrepreneurship in America.
      “Non-profit entrepreneur” is somewhat of a non-sequitur. I appreciate Sugar’s enthusiasm for new music, and applaud her success as a performer and promoter. I must agree heartily with Mr. Osborne, however, that it is counterproductive for NMB to be cheerleaders for young 20-something musicians as they are enjoying initial success, and then ignore them as they are having to leave their calling because of failed neoliberal economic policies. Let’s be clear: market forces and entrepreneurship have failed to support a viable classical music community in the United States. The US is a terrible place to be a composer unless you have family money.

      Reply
  6. william osborne

    Like 8bb, the only money my wife and I bring in with our music theater performances is through residencies at universities. We fly from Europe and travel from 4 to 6 weeks to various schools. We can offer fairly low prices because we line the schools up one after the other in one region of the country. We do little more than break even. If all the costs were calculated, like depreciation on our van and equipment, then we would register losses.

    If entrepreneurship is defined as making a profit or salary we fail. It it means widely performing our work without losing a lot of money, we are fairly successful. In the context of these discussions, entrepreneurship needs to be better defined. It might be best to let confusing and politically charged language like “entrepreneurship” go all together — or at least give equal time to the other sides of the argument. Milton Friedman hasn’t done a lot for the arts.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Why haven’t you started your own music group? | Mae Mai

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