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“Entrepreneurship Porn” is now moving into the arts

Because I delight in irony, I thought I’d post this blog on Valentine’s Day and in conjunction with the premiere weekend of the much-hyped “50 Shades of Grey” (a movie I don’t plan on seeing, by the way). I recently came across an article (now about a year old) entitled “The Dangerous Rise of Entrepreneurship Porn.” (As is often the case, thanks go to my colleague and friend Angela Beeching for sharing it!) In this article, from the Harvard Business Journal, author Morra Aarons-Mele notes how the popular media has begun to glorify the independence and self-actualized nature of entrepreneurship – at the expense of noting its challenges and the fact that it may not be for everyone. This “airbrushed reality” convinces many young people that a job in any sort of institutionalized setting is a grind, oppressive, and destined to result in a lack of fulfillment; only entrepreneurship can bring them true happiness. This in turn runs the risk of steering a generation of workers away from companies, a) that are always in need of new blood, and, b) where those workers might in fact be happier if they only had a more realistic view of the pros and cons of both the corporate path and the entrepreneurial one. So, just as with porn, such media coverage portrays an idealized, unrealistic fantasy as a substitute for reality.

Aarons-Mele is speaking about for-profit venture creation vs. careers in the corporate world, and is making a significantly different point than I will be making here. Still, I liked the metaphor and decided I would appropriate it in order to raise some concerns I have in light of the recent explosion of arts entrepreneurship programs across the country. Are we falling into our own “pornography trap,” fetishizing arts entrepreneurship at the expense of meaningful deployment within our institutions?

Five years ago there were only a handful of arts entrepreneurship programs around the country, most of them in music. But sometime during the last couple of years it would seem that a tipping point has been reached: now there are dozens of them, with more popping up every day. In and of itself this surging tide of new programs is not a bad thing. Indeed, it’s what I and many other advocates have been promoting for a long time. And if arts entrepreneurship is suddenly the “hot new thing,” then those of us who have been leading the charge for them should be happy, right? Isn’t this what we’ve wanted? Well, yes, of course. Nevertheless, I have some concerns. After all, quantity without quality can ultimately do more harm than good – especially in education.

Here’s the thing: when something becomes “what everybody has to have” there is a tendency for it to be thrown together without regard to content or quality. When this is the dynamic, the goal is simply to be able to say, “See? We’re keeping up with current trends. We have a program too!” In the case of arts entrepreneurship, it would appear that pretty much every music school of every type is recognizing that they need a program. Great! But who is running these programs? What qualifications do they have? What pedagogy are they employing? Have they given much thought to the particular needs of their institutions, and how their program should be structured to meet those needs? Do they have any entrepreneurial experience? Do they even have a notion of what entrepreneurship actually is? Given the fact that this field is just getting off the ground, that there is no terminal degree for an arts entrepreneurship educator and that most of us are in fact educated only within our respective fields (composition, performance, scholarship, etc.), I know first-hand that there is a lot of “winging it” going on out there. I also know that in order to create a program that is built on strong pedagogical and theoretical foundations one must undertake a great deal of research, discussion with peers around the country, careful thinking, and planning. I’ve been in my position at The University of Colorado-Boulder for 51/2 years, and in order to get to the place where I feel I can truly call myself an “arts entrepreneurship educator” I’ve had to embark on a non-stop, self-guided graduate degree in entrepreneurial principles and business practices. I’ve read countless articles and books, shadowed entrepreneur-educators in the business school, attended numerous conferences on entrepreneurship education, and worked with mentors from the entrepreneurial community. And I’m not claiming any special status as a result of this work; I’m just making the point that this is what it takes. While I draw on my 20 years as a freelance composer and arts administrator every day in the classroom, these experiences alone did not equip me to be an effective educator, and they certainly didn’t give me the vocabulary and rubrics to teach entrepreneurship. I had to learn how to place those experiences within a larger conceptual framework, such that my teaching ceases to be self-referential and instead focuses on imparting flexible and adaptable tools to students. To do that, I had to go back to school.

Unfortunately, what I tend to see is folks being thrown into this arena who are perceived by administrators as having “been entrepreneurial” with their careers by mere virtue of the fact that they have been good at the proverbial “pounding the pavement.” But pounding the pavement is not the equivalent of “being entrepreneurial,” and without a strategic and theoretical framework to guide their teaching the best they can impart to students is essentially, “If you want to do what I did, this is what you do.” This might be sufficient for those students who do indeed want to pursue a similar path, but it is not our job as educators to predetermine the career options of our students, nor are we doing a sufficient job if the only skills we teach are those that allow them to operate within the status quo of an industry undergoing enormous change. Our job is to give students the strategic and evaluative tools to realize their own career aspirations and to effectively adapt to changing circumstances. For me, the ultimate entrepreneurial success for my students is not when they go down a path similar to my own, but rather when they use the entrepreneurial strategies I’ve taught them to go into something completely foreign to me.

Hand-in-hand with these questions is the “arms race” mentality of higher education these days: “If Institution X has a degree in something, then we need a degree as well or we’ll lose students to the competition.” While I understand the need to remain competitive, allowing that to drive our curricular decisions dooms us to repeating the very problem that so many music schools have already perpetuated – that of creating endless new degrees at every level and sending more and more graduates into an economy that can’t accommodate them. Furthermore, as soon as a field of study is turned into a degree program it becomes an end in itself. And entrepreneurship is not an end in itself: it is a means to an end – an end determined by the student, not the institution.

Underlying these questions is the continued misunderstanding of what entrepreneurship actually is. As I touched on above, many career development programs (most, actually) that carry the moniker of “entrepreneurship” have very little to do with it. First and foremost they focus on those “pavement-pounding” skills: how to find and implement gigs, marketing skills, managing social media, and business-related things like contracts, taxes, basic bookkeeping, and copyrights. Some programs go further, adding things like community outreach and engagement (usually under the banner of “leadership”). Music Industry programs that focus on the commercial music business are often lumped together with entrepreneurship programs (“because entrepreneurship is about making money, right?”), even when, once again, the purpose of these programs is quite different. And because, like any fetish, calling something “entrepreneurial” generates excitement, many programs are adding that phrase to their press kits and changing their names without actually including any true entrepreneurial content. Just recently I saw an announcement for a new Masters degree in Arts Leadership and Administration. Under the banner “Fostering the Spirit of Entrepreneurship,” the press release states: “Course content focuses on entrepreneurial subjects such as leadership, finance management, media communication, arts policy, project planning and evaluation, community engagement, events management, and more” (emphasis mine).

The problem is, none of these topics is entrepreneurial in nature, and studying them will do nothing to “foster a spirit of entrepreneurship.” Don’t get me wrong: they’re valuable skills, and we should be teaching them. Moreover, any would-be entrepreneur would be wise to incorporate those skills into their venture. But in and of themselves, they’re not entrepreneurship. Why? Because these skills proscribe a particular outcome; they are limited to the contexts in which they reside. (“If you want to promote your concert, here are the things you do.” “If you want to form a non-profit organization, here are the steps.”) Another problem with teaching such “outcome-specific” skills is that, by their very nature, the methods taught in 2015 are likely to be obsolete by 2020 (if not sooner).

Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, does not proscribe a particular outcome. In fact, one of the coolest things about entrepreneurship is that it can play out in an infinite number of ways – as often as not, in ways unforeseen at the outset. Entrepreneurship is a strategic mindset, one that helps identify and evaluate opportunities. Moreover, entrepreneurship requires us to devise ways to connect our product to our target audience through the meeting of their needs. This is the complete inverse of the “pavement-pounding” approach often taught in music schools and that arts organizations continue to employ – with steadily worsening results. This traditional approach is based on the root concept of getting people to want what we want. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is about figuring out how to use our knowledge, skills, and passions to make a product that is valuable to someone else. This is not a minor point. It’s critical to the whole question of educating the musicians of tomorrow on how to revitalize classical music and bring it back into the center of our cultural life. Teaching traditional pavement-pounding will only continue the status quo; we need a new approach, and one which can adapt to changing times. Entrepreneurship does not go obsolete because it is a strategic mindset that is infinitely adaptable. At its core, entrepreneurship is about adapting.

This doesn’t mean we toss out the teaching of those traditional business skills. But they must be taught in tandem with entrepreneurship, using them as the tools with which we realize our entrepreneurial vision, tools that are best used when guided by a coherent and strategic vision. And as the particulars of outcome-specific skills change with technology and so forth, the adaptive nature of entrepreneurship allows the strategy to be continually redirected and reshaped. Entrepreneurs can therefore find the unique path that suits them rather than be locked into the limited range of outcomes possible through traditional fixed-outcome skills. If we need proof of this last point, all we need do is look at how the entrepreneurial approach has played out countless times throughout history. Technology and economic systems change, but the entrepreneurial spirit driving innovation and opportunity recognition has been around for a long time, and will continue to be around long after today’s technologies and paradigms have disappeared.

Which brings me back to entrepreneurship “porn.” At a time when classical music may feel like a sinking ship, a time when educators are beginning to recognize the fundamental imbalance between the number of graduates we churn out every year and the number of opportunities for them, a certain urgency – anxiety, even – is beginning to take hold. New programs in entrepreneurship feel like a hopeful solution – and they certainly can be, at least in part. But my concern is that arts entrepreneurship is simply becoming the latest fetish in higher education, the indulgence of which will allow music schools to avoid making the more substantive changes they need to make in order to truly re-shape the nature of music education for the 21st century. What must we do to avoid that outcome? Here are three things:

  1. Entrepreneurship programs must be built with care and intention, not just thrown together out of a need to “keep up with the Joneses.” Programs must also be suited to the needs of students and in harmony with the institution’s broader mission and vision, meaning that while there may be best practices to emulate, each program will still take on their own unique form.

 

  1. Entrepreneurship must not be viewed as a magic bullet, particularly if its implementation allows everyone else to mentally check a box and continue in the same educational paradigm they’ve been in since the 19th century. In order for entrepreneurial teaching to have a truly transformative impact on music higher education it must be moved from the periphery of our students’ experience and integrated into the overall mission of an institution. Once again, this will look different for each place, and will require a lot of collective discussion, soul-searching, and faculty collaboration. Too often we see a program unveiled with great fanfare (and often accompanied by a nice financial gift), only to find upon closer inspection that what’s really there is just a dressed-up and re-branded version of the traditional career services office: box checked, problem solved! See the emperor’s new clothes?

 

  1. Also, if entrepreneurship is to truly be a transformational force in music higher ed then we mustn’t be pulled into an arms race mentality. We should not create a new degree program simply because everyone else is, and personally I think we should resist creating degrees in entrepreneurship altogether: as I stated earlier, entrepreneurship is not an end in itself but a means to an end – an end in which the individual is empowered to shape a professional life that is fulfilling and sustainable. So we must go about the launching of entrepreneurship education products the same way an entrepreneur begins the launching of their product: namely, by asking “Where is the unmet need?”

 

And perhaps most importantly, before we start claiming entrepreneurship as part of our programming – something that makes great fodder for recruitment brochures and cultivating donors – we need to know what exactly it is we’re talking about. This is an exciting time to be in the field of arts entrepreneurship. There is tremendous growth happening and all sorts of potential for making a lasting and transformative impact on arts education. But let’s be sure we’re not producing entrepreneurship porn – an ephemeral, idealized fantasy lacking true substance. Instead, let’s be sure we produce something solid, lasting, and real.

 

 

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