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Thoughts on the 1st Int’l Conference on Music Entrepreneurship, Oslo-Norway

It was my great pleasure to represent the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Entrepreneurship Center for Music this past week at the 1st International Conference on Music Entrepreneurship at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. The conference was presented in partnership with the Center for Excellence in Music Performance Education, and the Norwegian Business School at the University of Oslo. My paper, “Entrepreneurship as Unifier: Rethinking the Art/Entrepreneurship Dichotomy” was the closing plenary session, and it wrapped up two days of fascinating scholarship, dynamic student performances, and provocative conversations. And, unlike so many conferences where one feels that the offerings (while interesting) have little practical content to bring home, this conference gave me much food for thought about “what’s next” for entrepreneurship in the arts, and how critical it is for those of us in the academy to come to terms with how to incorporate this emerging discipline into the traditional conservatory curriculum.

The conference theme, “Between Artistic Autonomy and Economic Reality,” was addressed by entrepreneurial leaders from around the world, including Hong Kong, China, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, the U.K., the U.S., and of course Norway. My two fellow Yanks included my good friend Angela Beeching, formerly of NEC and the Manhattan School of Music, and now an independent consultant (her book, Beyond Talent, is used in my career skills class at Colorado); and Karen Munnelly, the new Director of Professional Programs at UT-Austin, whom it was my pleasure to meet and get to know. The conference also included students from the U.S., the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway who had been in Oslo all week in an entrepreneurial boot camp called RENEW, a program of the European Erasmus Project (https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/node_en). All in all, it was a diverse and energetic group of some of the world’s most passionate advocates for arts entrepreneurship.

One of the most interesting discoveries for me is that the issues faced by American institutions vis-à-vis arts entrepreneurship within higher education are pretty much universal the world over. Resistance to incorporating entrepreneurship into conservatory training is still present, particularly among the “old guard” faculty and/or more conservative institutions. Similarly, those institutions that have begun including entrepreneurship training face the same philosophical and pedagogical conundrums, including:

Is there a difference between career skills and entrepreneurial skills, and if so, what do those differences consist of?

Is it optimal for a career services center and an entrepreneurship program be operated out of the same office/department, or has it just ended up that way more or less out of default?

Is entrepreneurship just new venture creation? And if not, how can we define it with sufficient clarity that our institutions understand its role and purpose?

Is entrepreneurship something that should be required of all music students, and if so, how is that best achieved?

And lastly, behind all these issues is a broader, and ultimately far more important, question: how can conservatories properly prepare students for a rapidly changing world, one in which the experiences, world-views, and mindsets of faculty are often rendered shockingly obsolete (and with great speed), and where what holds true of the arts economy today is unlikely to remain true in the future. In his opening Keynote address, Nick Wilson of King’s College, London, noted that music undergrads starting their careers today may very well have professional careers spanning 50 years – more than twice as long as they’ve lived so far! Think about that: when our current undergraduate students were born, internet streaming hadn’t happened yet and social media was in its infancy. Given how much has already changed in their short lives, how much more change will take place over the course of their careers, and how do we best prepare them to navigate such a dynamic world when we can’t reasonably predict what the musical marketplace will look like five years down the road, much less 20, 30, or 50 years?

The answer, of course, is that if we merely equip them with the “toolbox” skills required to operate in today’s marketplace (things like managing social media, understanding how best to present and distribute your content, grant writing, addressing copyrights and internet piracy, and all the rest) we are doing them a grave disservice, because the shelf life of those skills are not much longer than a loaf of preservative-free bread. What we must do is provide our students with the strategic and critical thinking skills required to navigate and adapt to change, recognize new opportunities, and manage risk in a constantly evolving arts economy. And that’s the true role of entrepreneurship, and the real reason it’s so important to our students.

Debunking the commonly-held notion that scalability is key to entrepreneurial success.

Of course, how to accomplish this within an already full and highly structured curriculum (and one that is steeped in tradition, to boot) is the question. As with most such broad questions, the answers will vary from institution to institution and one size does not fit all (nor should it). Moreover, addressing such a fundamental issue is likely to require more than one avenue of approach. Just as being a well-rounded musician requires a range of courses and experiences, institutions wishing to develop a strategic and adaptable mindset in their students need to incorporate such thinking throughout a student’s education, from coursework to private lessons to performances. And while there are more and more institutions around the world launching and developing entrepreneurial career programs, all of these programs represent discrete, stand-alone offerings that reside, at best, on the periphery of students’ training (or at worse, a barely-tolerated but necessary evil). What nobody has yet figured out is how to integrate an entrepreneurial/strategic mindset into everything a music student encounters, to take problem-solving, opportunity-recognition, and strategic adaptation and bake it into the conservatory experience at every level.

There are two reasons why this breakthrough hasn’t yet happened. One is that educators who would sincerely like to try it lack the training required for successful implementation: the musicologist has been trained in music history; the applied professor on his/her instrument. What does it mean to incorporate entrepreneurial thinking (broadly defined) into the particulars of their corner of the curriculum? The entrepreneur in me sees this as an enormous opportunity, one that is already be addressed by EU’s Erasmus Project (which includes a component of educating educators) but has yet to make it to the States. The second issue blocking integration of entrepreneurial thinking throughout the curriculum is, to be blunt, the systemic resistance to change and lack of imagination that is endemic to American schools of music. Even the boldest and most forward-looking of American conservatories are only tweaking the paradigm by which we educate musicians; a far greater number will pay lip service to such changes but what results is what our Day Two Keynote speaker Angela Beeching called out as merely the proverbial “lipstick on a pig.”

It seems to me, then, that if we are truly serious about training our students for the dynamic and unpredictable careers that await them, if we really want them to strategically engage their imagination in solutions to the many challenges facing both the arts economy and our society as a whole, we might want to start with ourselves, and risk imagining a new structure for the music education of the 21st century. Figuring out how to organically integrate an entrepreneurial mindset into our curriculum would be a good place to start.

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