Successful business models in music

How do you make money in music? To understand how musicians make money, I turn to successful business models. My paternal grandfather made a living teaching English. Teaching music is one of several ways to earn a living in music.

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Natural voice network

Reclaim your voice. Anyone can sing. You don’t need to read music notation. Listen. You can make beautiful music with your voice.

These are the messages of the “natural voice network,” something I read in Caroline Bithell’s well-cited 2014 book “A Different Voice, A Different Song: Reclaiming Community through the Natural Voice and World Song.”

I had to experience it for myself. I googled “natural voice network” and found a website with details of upcoming events. There was a free rehearsal at St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green. It’s a part of East London I knew well, for I had lived and worked near Victoria Park some thirty years ago.

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Getting the gig: cover letters

Writing cover letters is an art. It’s much easier to get the gig because the person already knows you.

I like the word “gig.” It not only refers to getting a concert booking but also a job, a project, and any opportunity that pays.

The way I secured the next three gigs did not start with a phone call, an e-mail, or a cover letter. I simply walked into the office of the activities director and said, “Hello! How are you ? Long time no see. Say, have you booked anyone for Thanksgiving or Christmas?” I got the gigs because I showed up, I had a track record, and I caught him at the right moment.

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Remembering the Tsunami

Elwin Hendrijanto premiered “Toccata on an Elegy Theme” written by Anne Ku after the 26 Dec 2004 tsunami that struck Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.

The tsunami that hit Japan yesterday brought back vivid memories of a winter six years ago in the Netherlands. In the comfort of my home, I read about the unexpected tsunami of 26 December 2004 that nearly destroyed my favourite holiday spot in Thailand.  As the tragedy unfolded through the Internet and Dutch radio, I became conscious of how useless and helpless I felt.

It was my first year as a composition student at conservatory. I had neither the money nor the means to contribute anything of value. I could not volunteer at the scene. I did not know anyone that was affected. It was before Facebook and Twitter. Yet I felt as though I had lost a dear friend.

In the end, I expressed myself by composing an elegy to the victims of the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia. I asked the Indonesian pianist Elwin Hendrijanto to premiere it in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Toccata on an Elegie Theme by Anne Ku
Toccata on an Elegy Theme by Anne Ku

His interpretation was so much more powerful than what I expected. It’s like a tsunami — you see it coming but you have no idea how powerful it could get. Listen below.

Elwin Hendrijanto plays “Toccata on an Elegie Theme” by Anne Ku

I did run for a fundraising event for the victims of Aceh, but it was working on this piano solo piece and getting my friend to play it that released me.

On Friday 11 March 2011, through Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, I saw what happened in Japan.

Decision rules in music composition

Such mathematics gives us an appreciation for the beauty of music. When I was studying composition at the conservatory, I learned that mathematics could reduce and ease the decision making required when composing.

One of these techniques was deciding on the interval to use. Serial music is an example of a predefined decision rule. Understanding the mathematics of music helps to determine decision rules for composing.

When I was 7 and had to learn English for the first time, I regressed to mathematics for comfort. I listened to English through my Chinese ears and the only thing that made sense was to resort to math.

“What Chinese animal year were you born in?” I motioned with my hands.

Instead of asking my American teachers for their age, I figured it out through the Chinese zodiac system. It was the logic of Modulo 12.

The Circle of Fifths works by the same principle. There are 12 notes in an octave, each corresponding to a key — hence 12 major keys. Each key is related to the next by a perfect 5th interval.

Circle of Fifths Diagram
Circle of Fifths Diagram

Such mathematics gives us an appreciation for the beauty of music. When I was studying composition at the conservatory, I learned that mathematics could reduce and ease the decision making required when composing.

One of these techniques was deciding on the interval to use. At each step you choose the next note to be the interval above or below. At some point, you switch to another interval. [Listen to Interval Scherzo by Anne Ku 2 min 47 sec, live recording of pianist Elwin Hendrianto’s world premiere in Utrecht, The Netherlands, 22 March 2005]

Serial music is an example of a predefined decision rule. To learn about twelve tone music composition, I created a spreadsheet to compute the different rows, inversions, etc. I proudly showed it to my teacher. I found a way to use Excel to compose music!

I like objectives and constraints to be preset to help bound a problem. A commission such as “write a piece for my new born baby to reflect the our French and Japanese heritage” is better than “write a piece for my new born baby.” A commission that has a goal and set of criteria or constraints help make the job of a composer much easier.

Most of the time, we as performers ask composers to write a piece for piano and guitar with no criteria or constraints. Implicitly we want the composition to be playable, interesting to listen to, and have a longevity beyond the amount of time it takes to write and learn to play it. Every composer has his or her own ideas. They are not always explicit at the outset.

Understanding the mathematics of music helps to determine decision rules for composing.

Future of music business models: contact with your fans

The third thing we weren’t taught in a classical music education is contact with our listeners. At conservatory, we were not taught to promote ourselves or our music. Least of all, we were not taught to get to know our listeners, let alone build a fan club. If we don’t know our fans, how can we contact them?

The previous blog got too long. The third thing we weren’t taught in a classical music education is contact with our listeners.

Futurists advise that the business model for musicians in the future is contact with your fans.

I mentioned in another blog that classical musicians don’t know their fans. At conservatory, we were taught to interpret, analyse, perform, teach, and compose music at conservatory. We were not taught to promote ourselves or our music. Least of all, we were not taught to get to know our listeners, let alone build a fan club. If we don’t know our fans, how can we contact them?

The blog simplifies the formula as follows:

Connect with Fans (CwF) + Reason to Buy (RtB) = The Business Model

Classical musicians want to spend as much time as possible practising and perfecting their music. This explains why agents and impresarios are necessary to deal with everything else. In a big concert hall, it’s impossible to look into the black void to see who your fans are. Only with a small audience can you see them.

Getting to know your fans requires time to network with them. The best time is after a concert. There are no free drinks or snacks after a concert at the conservatory.

I was at a final exam concert recently, packed with supporters of the singer whose teacher applauded her as her first master’s student at the conservatory. She said,”Now let’s pop the champagne.” (or something to that effect.) The student replied,”Thank you. I have given you my music. That’s all I have.” (or something to that effect).

Indeed, after every concert at the conservatory the opportunity to stay and network is squashed by lack of drinks and food to lure people to stay. If musicians are conditioned to leave right after a concert, where is the opportunity to get to know who your fans are? If you don’t know who they are, how can you contact them?

Mayor of London Ealing signs guest book after a concert, 2003
Mayor of London Ealing signs guest book after a concert, 2003

What they don’t teach you at conservatory

The best time to learn about succeeding as a self-employed musician is after conservatory studies. But this is where the conservatory is no longer obliged to educate you or to ensure that you do make it in the real world. As conservatory students, we didn’t learn how to get gigs.

Now that many of my musician friends are graduating, I would like reflect upon what I learned in the past two years after conservatory.

My hypothesis is that even if the following topics are taught at conservatory, students would rather spend more time on performance or composing (their main subject). The best time to learn about succeeding as a self-employed musician is after conservatory studies. But this is where the conservatory is no longer obliged to educate you or to ensure that you do make it in the real world.

Final exam concert at Utrecht Conservatory, 2 June 2008
Final exam concert at Utrecht Conservatory, 2 June 2008

The black hole after conservatory is felt by many people, including myself.

I felt this void today when I met with the director of a local residence for elderly patients with dementia.

The 600-year old building has gone through extensive renovation such that it feels like a 5-star hotel. Conveniently located in the Museum Quarter of central Utrecht, a Roman city of cobbled stones, the impressive building has a brand new concert hall that seats 80 to 100 people. The new Yamaha grand piano gives a velvety soft sound, perfect for my piano guitar duo.

Yet as I sat in her office with my various marketing material, I am confronted with a disturbing reality.

“I am flooded with enquiries from musicians and people who know musicians,” she exclaimed. “Everyone wants to play in our concert hall. I have conservatory students willing to play for free.”

A knock on the door interrupted our conversation at 10:30 am. One of her staff complained that they’ve run out of bread.

“Call the baker,” she said.

“Nothing is open until noon.”

“Call the baker after 12,” she said.

As conservatory students, we didn’t learn how to get gigs. We were happy to play for free. We didn’t know how to get people to come to our concerts unless we told them to come to the conservatory where every concert was free.

After conservatory, we compete with musicians who are willing to play for free.

What differentiates us from the not-yet-graduated musicians?

We need an income. We can’t perform in the conservatory anymore. Where can we play and get paid?

So the first thing that we should have learned at conservatory is how to get paid concerts.

We’re taught to find students to practise our teaching on. In the training for a piano teaching diploma, my teacher told me to get started early. Learn to build a piano teaching practice.

What if you don’t want to teach? What if you want to perform? What if you want to compose for a living? None of my compositions teachers told me how to get a commission, how to apply for funding, and how to get paid as a composer.

If anyone is interested in this topic, please LEAVE A REPLY below and mention whether you want your comment published or not. I have learned a lot more things not taught in the 4 years I was at conservatory. And I’d like to continue onto another blog about “what they don’t teach you at conservatory.”

Why musicians attend concerts (part one)

It’s hard to get other performers to come to concerts because they are busy rehearsing or giving concerts themselves. I daresay that to take time away from my own practice (if I am not already giving a concert), it would be for reasons such as a) free …..

I don’t count on musicians attending the concerts I invite them to unless they have the time and the inclination as I’ve listed above.

Before I became full-time musician, I often wondered why the free concerts at conservatories were not well-attended. They were of excellent quality in acoustically perfect concert halls. The instruments were perfectly tuned. The concerts were listed in advance on web sites. The locations were central and easy to get to. In other words, there were no barriers to entry.

As I got busier in my studies at conservatory, I discovered that there was not much time left to go to concerts. Even if they were free, I could not afford to go. I was still curious, and I still felt the necessity to explore new repertoire and be exposed to new sounds. But it became a tough choice as the opportunity cost grew too high.

It’s hard to get other performers to come to concerts because they are busy rehearsing or giving concerts themselves. I daresay that to take time away from my own practice (if I am not already giving a concert), it would be for reasons such as

a) it’s free or nearly free

b) curiosity

c) to support another artist I know i.e. simply to show up and witness a performance

d) a personal invitation that is hard to refuse

e) to meet the others that will be there, i.e. networking

f) to educate myself

g) to see a work or composer I absolutely love or miss

h) a social occasion, i.e. to go with others and make an outing of it

I’m sure there are more reasons I’m not even aware of.

I don’t count on musicians attending the concerts I invite them to unless they have the time and the inclination as I’ve listed above.

The last reason (h) is why I’m taking time off tonight. I’m going to see a free concert performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Amsterdam Conservatory. I invited three others to see this three hour opera. A fourth one tried to book it online, but it was already full. Even FREE performances can be “sold out.”

continued

Quattro clavicembali e archi, Firenze

A memorial concert for a teacher who had passed away a few years ago. The concert was also dedicated to a harpsichord teacher who was retiring after 40 years. She played on her own harpsichord for the final piece: Brandenburg Concerto number 5 with violin, traverso, violin, viola, cello, and double bass.

My mother and I took a nap after lunch so that we’d be ready for the evening concert. Afterwards I stopped by my landlady’s home for a chat. She wasn’t there but her son welcomed me in. “May I play your piano?” I asked. 

I got carried away sightreading Mozart and Chopin. We had twenty minutes to walk to the conservatory, a building which backed against the famous Galleria dell’Accademia. It should be fairly easy to get there from our palazzo apartment — through the Duomo Square going northwest.

For some unknown reason, I couldn’t find it. We walked. We stopped. I consulted the map. It was dark. My mom flagged down a passerby to enquire how to get to the Academy. 

“Galleria dell’Accademia?”

“Si.”

“Michelangelo David?”

“Si.”

I was panicking by the 9th ring of the church bell. It was 9 pm. We were nowhere near the state conservatory. I hate to be late. I was so set on getting to the concert on time that I had temporarily forgotten that we were on holiday.

Was it necessary to rush, panic and drag my mother to a concert that wasn’t advertised for tourists? That I had to check and double-check for the location and time? We had already seen one concert earlier in the day. Besides, it was Halloween. Everyone else was costumed up to party.

Recalling high school geometry, I steered us parallel and perpendicular to a familiar street. Through the glass doors, I saw well-dressed locals walking into the concert hall. We had arrived. I sprinted to the door and heard the musicians tuning in the background. We could still make it.

The ushers looked past me with concerned faces.

“Are you all right?”

Who were they talking to? I turned around.

To my horror, my mother was crouched on the ground. She had fallen.

She smiled apologetically as someone pulled her up. 

“Are you okay, mom? What happened?” 

She had missed a step just before the glass door. When I looked at her, I suddenly realised that she wasn’t 17 but 70. I wasn’t 21, but I behaved like a 12 year old totally disregarding my mother who tried to keep up my fast pace.

The concierge asked if she would like some water and led us upstairs. People were still arriving at 9:10 pm.

We peered into the hall. The view was even better than downstairs. Quickly we walked to the first row where, as if it was intended the entire time, two seats were freed up for us. 

What a view it was! But neither of us had brought our cameras. 

Four harpsichords sat side by side. [Two grand pianos sat idle against the walls.]

A programme of Bach with string quintet. A transcription of Vivaldi. BMV 1065. MBV 1063. My favourite BMV 1060.

A memorial concert for a teacher who had passed away a few years ago. The concert was also dedicated to a harpsichord teacher who was retiring after 40 years. She played on her own harpsichord for the final piece: Brandenburg Concerto number 5 with violin, traverso, violin, viola, cello, and double bass.

As I type this, I’m multi-tasking to make sure we get to tonight’s free concert on time. A countertenor, flautist and organist will perform at San Maria de’Ricci at via Del Corso at 21:15.

Title translation: Four harpsichords and string quintet

Free concerts in Florence, Italy

Both concerts of musicians from the conservatory were free to the public. But my mother and I were perhaps two of the few (or only) tourists in the audience. At five minutes before eleven, we stepped into an empty hall in the National Library. Two others were waiting outside (perhaps not daring to be the first to sit down).

The evening concert was not advertised at the Tourist Office or  “The Florentine,” the fortnightly English paper that contains interesting intellectual articles and an events listing. [Why doesn’t such a paper exist in the Netherlands?] Nor was it mentioned at 11 am concert in the National Library, that same morning. 

Luckily I had found it on the website of the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory which specified the programme and the date but not the time of performance. I had stopped by the conservatory the previous day to enquire about the time.

Both concerts of musicians from the conservatory were free to the public. But my mother and I were perhaps two of the few (or only) tourists in the audience.

At five minutes before eleven, we stepped into an empty hall in the National Library. Two others were waiting outside (perhaps not daring to be the first to sit down). My concern about poor attendance soon vanished when the locals steadily filled the hall by the time the concert began — at 11:15.

Already I suspected that the Petrof boudoir grand  would be too soft for the violin. Why didn’t they open the lid completely rather than just barely? Sala Galileo was a circular dome with high ceilings and marbled floor. The piano looked inadequately small for the space. Sure enough, the violin overpowered the piano.

In spite of the acoustic imbalance, the two young men executed their playing beautifully. My mom enjoyed the music immensely and remarked that the programme of Kreisler and Dvorak was well-chosen. [In other words, our piano guitar duo should reconsider our choice of repertoire. Why don’t we play music from the Romantic era? Why can’t the guitar break my heart the way Kreisler’s Liebesleid can?]

After the concert, we stepped out into the warm Tuscan sun and photographed that enchanting view from the Arno River. In 1966, it had overflowed and devastated the city to such an extent that the Florentines refer to the 20th century as the time before the flood or after. I could scarcely imagine such a calm (and motionless) river with the rare canoe would sweep away Ponte Vecchio or rise 5 metres.

We decided to take a nap to be awake for the evening concert.