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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Field Notes, Vol. 4 no. 3: But will it scale?

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

On April 12, we here at The University of Colorado-Boulder had our New Venture Challenge Championships, the culminating event in a year-long initiative to support entrepreneurship on campus. I’ve been involved in every NVC except the very first one – though the first one is hardly remembered. It’s NVC Two that is seared in everyone’s memory, because that was the year we were holding the event at a patron’s home up in the foothills above Boulder. Hit by a sudden April blizzard (not uncommon here), the school bus hired to carry us up the hill got bogged down in the snow, started to skid, and nearly went off the edge of the mountain. After we came to a stop I looked out the rear hatch window and, seeing nothing below for many hundreds of feet, announced that I was getting off the bus and going the rest of the way on foot. The remaining passengers agreed, and 20 minutes later we arrived, shivering and covered with snow.

This year’s NVC wasn’t nearly as eventful, though we had much to celebrate: a record 900 people filled the Boulder Theatre (a fabulous and historic art deco venue downtown), and the pitches were the best I’d ever seen. We’ve come a long way in 15 years.

This year’s competition was noteworthy, for me anyway, for another reason: I’m pretty sure it was the first time I hadn’t heard a judge ask, “But how will it scale?”

Entrepreneurs (at least those in the business world) are obsessed with the scaling of ventures. No “lifestyle” entrepreneurs for these folks; they want their ventures to embody the efficiencies, market influence, and profits that operating at scale brings. For the vast majority of entrepreneurs and V.C.’s, if it doesn’t scale there’s something wrong with the concept at its very core. And while that is certainly true for some ventures, one of the things that entrepreneurship in the not-for-profit and arts sectors teaches us is that not every venture is intended to scale. Similarly, while many (if not most) innovations in tech or engineering need to scale in order to be profitable, some ventures (especially not-for-profit ones) simply don’t operate on the same model.

Arts and socially-motivated ventures are designed for impact—human impact, community impact, environmental impact, etc. While they need to have a business model that’s sustainable, profit and yielding big-time gains for investors are just not part of the equation. Moreover, these types of impact are not necessarily improved by ramping up the numbers; sometimes quite the opposite. For instance, companies offering teletherapy on-demand through remote channels may be an example of “scaled up” therapy, but I don’t hear anyone arguing that the quality of the treatment is superior to traditional settings.

So, do we just dismiss the concept of “scale” as irrelevant to our activities in the arts and social spheres? Or does the concept of scale still have some utility in ventures that are not designed to scale in the traditional sense of that word?

I got thinking about these questions (for the umpteenth time) a few weeks back when I had the opportunity to take my multi-media production, For the Trees, to high schools in Colorado. Performed by the fabulous Ivalas String Quartet, we visited seven schools around Colorado in five days, gave a community concert, and reached nearly 800 folks—the vast majority of whom were students. While they were in Colorado, they also presented two additional concert performances that included my piece.

A bit of context for the non-composers in the room: when one composes a new piece, the most frequent outcome is for the piece to get played one or two times by the premiering group…after which it’s up to the composer to arrange subsequent performances (either with the original group or someone else). The problem is, whether those subsequent performances get booked often has little to do with the quality of the music; with the notoriety associated with a world premiere gone, performers and performing groups are guided by myriad other factors influencing a concert program: length of the piece, how well the other pieces fit together, what the presenting entity wants to hear, rehearsal required (a new piece will almost always require more time to work up than a piece in the standard repertoire – especially if it’s a piece they’ve played before) and, perhaps most often, the oft-cited but rarely supported assertion that “too much” modern music will turn off the audience. I always tell student composers that, while they should certainly celebrate the premiere of one of their pieces, the real test lies in whether or not they can get further performances after that.

In a sense, whether or not their piece will “scale.”

With that as context, you can imagine how thrilled I was that, with our tour plus the additional concerts, the Ivalas played my piece a total of eleven times in the space of a week. That’s a rare treat for any composer.

As wonderful as my week with the Ivalas Quartet was, that’s not why I’m writing today. I wanted to write because the entire For the Trees project (of which this tour was only the latest chapter) offers some lessons in how we might apply the concept of “scale” to artistic ventures. Or, put another way, how entrepreneurial thinking can help us leverage limited resources for maximum impact.

Let’s start with the impetus for the piece in the first place. After taking the plunge and finally writing my first string quartet in 2016 (for the wonderful Carpe Diem String Quartet, who premiered the piece at Carnegie Hall), I immediately started thinking about the next one: like so many composers before me, I’d been bitten by the string quartet bug. I got thinking about the incredible program we have here at University of Colorado-Boulder, where graduate student quartets from around the world audition for a two-year residency with the esteemed Takács Quartet, who have been in-residence at CU for 30+ years. During my time here, I’d worked with five of those graduate quartets (two of which folded after leaving CU); it seemed like a good idea to make the next quartet a consortium of the quartets with whom I’d worked over the years. In the end, the remaining three quartets came on board: the Ivalas Quartet (who gave the first performance in Boulder in 2021), the Tesla Quartet (who performed the East Coast premiere at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust in 2022), and the Orava Quartet (an Australian quartet that is just now returning to a normal performance schedule—fingers crossed for the Australian premiere next season).

Scaling lesson #1: Consortiums solve a lot of problems Getting more than one performer or group on-board to premiere your piece means it’s easier to fund (funders like to know the resulting piece will get a broad exposure; it also opens up the opportunity for each group to kick in just a little of the cost of an otherwise expensive project). It automatically guarantees multiple performances in different locations. And it provides an iterative process that is invaluable to the composer tweaking details that are often addressed differently by different performers or that only reveal themselves after multiple performances. Each quartet, in turn, can claim bragging rights for helping bring a new piece into the world. Easier funding, more performances, broader exposure, improved outcomes: consortiums are powerful tools for composers and performers alike.

Scaling lesson #2: Partnerships increase impact Building a robust audience is the goal of everyone involved: performers, venues, and (most of the time, anyway) composers. Despite this, it’s often true that each of those three entities expects the other to do the work of engaging the community and getting them to come to the show: performers expect the venue to take care of it (after all, isn’t that part of their job?), while understaffed venues often hope performers will bring their own fans. Meanwhile, composers (the old-school ones in particular) are prone to feeling that such work is simply not their responsibility. These attitudes, though they are changing thanks to the ease of social media, work against everyone’s interests. Working together as partners with a shared goal means not only that more people can potentially be engaged, it also means the quality of material being shared is higher because everyone is contributing from their strengths: the venue is the one with the big mailing list and the marketing chops, the performers are the ones with the best work samples, and the composer can provide unique insights into the nature of the work. Whenever I’ve participated in these types of collaborations, we’ve never failed to pack the house.

Non-arts partnerships can be just as valuable. With my first symphony, Formations (inspired by the geology of the Rocky Mountains and commissioned by the Geological Society of America), we had the marketing team of the presenting orchestra (the Boulder Philharmonic), but we also had the GSA and its many community contacts; we partnered with Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks for “musical hikes” and other community events; we presented informational sessions with our underwriting sponsors and, in turn, tapped into their mailing lists. The result was the largest opening night attendance in the Boulder Phil’s history. What’s more, many of those patrons had never been to a Boulder Phil concert before—the “Holy Grail” of classical music marketing. (A fun aside: as we approach the 10-year anniversary of Formations, the folks from the parks department just reached out to me regarding a repeat run of our musical hikes. How neat to have the memories of a piece you’ve written still resonating 10 years later!)

With For the Trees, one of the core concepts was that it would be more than a concert piece that uses additional media (oral histories, visual elements, sound design, and lighting). All of those elements would merely be channels for the audience to find an emotional and personal connection to the issue of deforestation and climate change…and to then become motivated to take action. With this in mind, performances are planned in conjunction with local environmental organizations who are present to talk with the audience, provide resources, answer questions, and share opportunities to get involved with initiatives taking place right there in the community. These organizations of course shared the event with their constituents as well, yet again bringing people into the concert hall who wouldn’t otherwise attend.

Which brings me to…

Scaling Lesson #3: Efficiency is a type of scaling, too

And lastly, our planning of the For the Trees tour was done to leverage our limited resources for maximum impact. Having other concerts planned in Colorado right before our tour meant that one of the largest expenses of all– getting the quartet here from New York City—was covered by a presenter and wouldn’t come out of my budget. Planning to visit schools in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley (near Aspen) meant that we could schedule yet another evening concert in conjunction with the Aspen Music Festival and School and three community partners (an additional fee for us, another packed venue…). We called in some favors to get a deal on a Boulder hotel and to treat them to a dinner party at the end of the week. And by carefully working out a schedule that minimized backtracking and used our Boulder base as a hub, we maximized the number of schools we reached at a minimal cost.

I’m sure that many of my B-school and V.C. friends might look at these examples and protest that none of them constitutes “scaling” in the true sense of that word. And I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But if I’m about anything as an arts entrepreneurship educator, I’m about helping artists see that the worlds of business and mainstream entrepreneurship have some important lessons for our part of the world, too. While some of these concepts aren’t a perfect one-for-one fit for the world of the arts, our creative minds are more than capable of mining them for bits of wisdom that can have a profound impact on our work and its place in our community. What lessons might scaling have for you and your work? I hope you’ll give it some thought!

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