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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Neoliberalism & Music Entrepreneurship: A response

Updated: May 15, 2018

Andrea Moore’s article, “Neoliberalism and the Musical Entrepreneur” (Journal of the Society for American Music (2016), Vol. 10, number 1, pp. 33-53) is making the rounds recently, and since a number of folks have forwarded it to me asking for my thoughts I decided I’d write a blog entry with my reactions to this important piece of scholarship. (Small world: the author is an old classmate of mine from our days at Rice – Andrea as a percussion undergrad and me as a grad student in composition.)

I read the article with great fascination. As I’ve been writing my own book on entrepreneurship over the past few years, I’ve obviously given a lot of thought to the many different views of what entrepreneurship actually is (as opposed to how it’s billed) and the implications of those views for how we teach and promote entrepreneurship within the musical academy. And one of the things that comes up again and again is the fact that while entrepreneurship embodies a wide range of outcomes and philosophical underpinnings, folks who are wary of it in the context of the arts tend to view it through a narrow and highly specific lens. This narrow view in turn provides the rhetorical framework for the case against entrepreneurship in the arts (and specifically in classical music). Moore’s paper proceeds in a similar manner, concluding that entrepreneurship, despite being promoted as an avenue for artistic freedom and self-actualization, in fact “habituates musicians to precariousness and insecurity through its rhetoric and institutional endorsement.” In other words, that entrepreneurship is an avatar for neoliberal economics, a philosophy that grew out of the laissez-faire economics of the past and expresses itself today in policies such as fiscal austerity, deregulation and, above all, the supremacy of an unrestrained free market. As any progressive will agree, these policies, while promising individual prosperity (and framing such prosperity as the best/only path to personal freedom), in fact result in oligarchical concentration of wealth and a de-valuing of the individual through the commoditization of labor and the transferal of risk from the institution to the individual. So the central question raised by Moore’s paper is this: is the teaching and institutionalization of entrepreneurship in music higher education instilling these values in music students, and if it is, is that a good thing for the future of classical music? Moore’s answer is a resounding Yes to the first question, and implies that the answer is No to the second.

While I find the points that Moore raises worthy of our collective and careful consideration, I find her conclusions to be based on some assumptions about what entrepreneurship is, what’s driving its presence in the arts, and how it’s being taught in the academy that I don’t believe are sound. Related to this is a conflation of neoliberal trends in the broader economy with trends we’re currently seeing in classical music, which I believe are due to a separate set of dynamics.

Moore asserts that entrepreneurship is, in essence, not much more than some fancy window-dressing for neoliberal economic policies that promise increased individual freedom and agency but in fact deliver the opposite; as such, the rise of entrepreneurship in the classical music world is at least supporting, if not actually driving, many of the challenges and disturbing trends we see in the industry today. I’d like to argue that music entrepreneurship has been envisioned as (and is actually serving as) a strategy for responding to these trends and, hopefully, finding ways to maintain (or regain) stability and prosperity in the face of a changing cultural and economic landscape. Furthermore, though trends like the cutting of salaries and benefits in the orchestral world might appear to mirror similar trends in the broader economy, I argue that these trends are driven by very different forces – and as such cannot be seen as the same thing.

While directing much of her criticism to “institutionalized” entrepreneurship in the academy, Moore bases most of her conclusions on either the statements of folks from outside the academy (like Claire Chase, whom she discusses at length) or on how entrepreneurship programs are depicted in music schools’ marketing materials and promotional channels. There is virtually no discussion of the substance of entrepreneurship pedagogy in music schools, and in this I have my first problem with Moore’s argument: if one is going to criticize the teaching of music entrepreneurship in the academy, it would seem that a more in-depth exploration of that teaching would be in order (though she is right to criticize some of the rhetoric around music entrepreneurship – more on that below).

So what does music entrepreneurship training tend to consist of? Well, the first answer to that is one that perhaps even my colleagues in the arts entrepreneurship sphere might resist, but I’ll say it anyway: most of what’s labeled as entrepreneurship isn’t entrepreneurship at all. As Moore correctly points out, the definition of entrepreneurship has expanded to such a degree that pretty much any aspect of promoting oneself or maintaining a business is termed “entrepreneurial.” This is far less about any philosophical bias on the part of music schools (the normalization of neoliberal ideals, as Moore would put it) and has much more to do with the fact that “entrepreneurship” has simply become a buzzword, one that music schools – most of which continue to slavishly adhere to a music pedagogy that is nearly 200 years old – have appropriated in a desperate to be seen as “relevant” to the 21st-century educational landscape. (And I would argue that because of its wildly expanded definition, the “entrepreneurship” buzzword has become a virtually meaningless one, at that: buzz words tend to have a short shelf life, after all.) And so programs that are for the most part career skills centers nevertheless call themselves entrepreneurial and utilize the standard rhetoric around that word to promote those programs. [1]

While contributing to confusion about the meaning of entrepreneurship-proper, the housing of traditional career skills under the entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though: students need the basic skills of the “professional toolbox” too, and when these skills can be taught alongside the precepts of entrepreneurial thinking and action those tools can be deployed with far greater effectiveness. In light of this misappropriation of “the e-word” (as I like to call it), Moore both has a point and misses the mark. I agree that one of the core reasons “entrepreneurship” has become such a trendy and even glamorous term these days is an overall embrace by our culture of the neoliberal ideals of self-sufficiency and self-actualization through one’s own individual activity. I also agree that wholesale embrace of these ideals is not necessarily a good thing. At the same time, extending use of neoliberal-influenced rhetoric to mean that entrepreneurial training is driving neoliberal economic ideals and practice is a stretch that isn’t borne out by the substance of entrepreneurship training taking place in the music academy. Not only is the bulk of that training simply traditional career skills, but those aspects that are explicitly entrepreneurial are about addressing the very problems facing classical musicians and institutions today.

Moore spends a lot of time talking about a brilliant term coined by the labor economist Guy Standing, the “precariat.” These are the “solo-preneurs” of the sharing economy, the individual proprietors outside any sort of collective labor entity (whether it be a union or some other employing entity) and are therefore deprived of things like benefits, a steady and predictable salary, and, consequently, are deprived of a sense of economic stability as well. Neoliberalism celebrates these individuals as enjoying the freedom to shape their own fate and on their own terms; those who are in the precariat trenches might see it as simply a new form of enslavement, where economic risk is borne by the individual and the bulk of the financial gain still ends up somewhere else on the economic ladder. Freelance musicians who have no regular academic job or tenure in a performing organization most certainly belong to this class, and there’s no question that those individuals make up a very large percentage of professional musicians today. The question is whether or not institutionalized music entrepreneurship is resulting in more musicians entering the precariat class or is a response to that trend; whether it is contributing to the struggles of precariat-class musicians or helping alleviate them.

Moore makes a convincing argument that institutions and individuals who praise the precariat economy as a good thing are (most likely unwittingly) espousing an economic philosophy that is quite at odds with their progressive politics and more in line with neoliberal thinking. Where I lose her is in her argument that entrepreneurial training in the academy likewise advances the precariat economy as a desirable end, and in so doing, advances a neoliberal economic philosophy that makes the problems facing individual musicians even worse.

She’d have a point if that was the reality of what’s being taught. It’s not. Music entrepreneurship educators are acutely aware of the fact that any music career is a difficult road. Whether or not it’s any more difficult today than it was 30 or 40 or 50 years ago is perhaps open to debate (though I would argue that over the last 30 years it has gotten progressively harder, for a variety of reasons). The difference is that 30 years ago nobody was teaching music students how to survive out in the world: they were taught how to be good musicians, and, unless they were lucky enough to have a well-connected teacher who was committed to their students’ success, were sent out in the world to more or less fend for themselves. Today, music schools have finally grasped the inherently unethical nature of such a system, and are becoming increasingly committed to providing students with a working knowledge of the tools they will likely need in order to successfully navigate their profession. We’re not glorifying self-sufficiency; we’re recognizing that a lot of musicians lead freelance lives and we’re hoping to help them do so more effectively in the face of a rapidly changing musical marketplace.[2]

As Moore correctly states, “The portfolio career [resembles] freelancing a great deal […],” the implication being (I suppose) that renaming something that’s as old as the hills with an upbeat new-economy term is nothing more than an attempt to cast something that has always been viewed as a struggle as something positive and desirable – a perfect illustration of the tacit acceptance of neoliberal thinking that Moore believes institutionalized entrepreneurship represents. But the only reason “portfolio career” has been adopted by the career development community is because it presents a more comprehensive and inclusive vision of a musical career consisting of multiple components – of which freelancing might be but one part. The portfolio framework is much more in keeping with the reality of most musician’s careers, very few of whom make their living solely as freelance performers, but instead place performing in the midst of private teaching, contract performance in an ensemble, adjunct teaching at a local college, and so forth. Such a career portrait is neither good nor bad, and I don’t know of any educator who promotes such a career as either the ideal or only path towards career success. Indeed, music schools remain overwhelming oriented toward the traditional paths of orchestral performer or college teacher. Providing students with skills that are useful in a portfolio career is not making any sort of value judgement either way: it simply recognizes the multi-faceted reality of a great many musicians’ lives. Whether that leads to greater financial stability or less is subject to all sorts of factors, and no responsible educator would present these skills as some sort of magic bullet to guarantee success. And while it’s true that “freelancing is first and foremost dependent on musical skills…” I’m quite sure that if you ask a freelance musician if they would prefer to have some professional tools at their disposal or not, the vast majority would say they’d like some. Whether we’re talking about teaching career skills or bona fide entrepreneurship, every educator I know of will talk about those skills as being in service to the musician’s particular goals, not in place of them (and certainly not as a substitute for musical excellence).

So what about bona fide entrepreneurial training? Here we must note that there are some important differences between how entrepreneurship is taught in the business school versus how it’s taught in the conservatory – and these differences embody some key departures from the neoliberal concepts at the center of Moore’s critique. “Business school entrepreneurship” (for lack of a better term) focuses on two main issues: addressing “pain points” in the market through innovation, and how effectively the venture can scale. The ideal entrepreneurial outcome in the business school is an innovation that can scale quickly and efficiently, and is sufficiently disruptive of existing markets as to offer significant prospects for hefty financial returns. The entrepreneur is indeed portrayed in an almost heroic light, hailed as the embodiment of the American ideal – the notion that anyone can grow up to conquer the world (or at least their particular corner of it). Moore sees this as a classic embodiment of neoliberal ideals, and I agree with her.

But that’s not the way entrepreneurship is framed in the conservatory. For starters, music entrepreneurship acknowledges that much of the classical music industry operates in the not-for-profit sphere, that most classical music ventures will not scale, and that we see instilling an entrepreneurial mindset – in service one’s professional goals – as far more important to most of our students than traditional new venture creation. And what of that entrepreneurial mindset? That’s where we talk about things like opportunity recognition, focusing on customer needs, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, assessing risk, strategies for leveraging resources, and the value of iteration (learning to “fail forward”). That’s a far cry from glorifying the entrepreneurial lifestyle; it’s simply providing tools that are likely to be helpful to students trying to figure out how to discover and navigate a career path that’s right for them.

This brings me to the last section of the article, a discussion of the challenges facing large classical music organizations (i.e., orchestras and opera companies), and how the entrepreneurial promises of “solving” the “crisis” in orchestras is, basically, an empty one. Insofar as notions of self-sufficiency and market supremacy have infiltrated even the most faithful funders of the arts, resulting in decreased support for cultural organizations (especially in the area of operating funds), there is no doubt that neoliberal ideas are to blame. For years I have noted the philosophical shift within foundations towards a more “return on investment” approach, something I’ve called the “Reaganization of philanthropy.” One consequence of this shift is that orchestras have endured acute financial stresses that have forced downsizing of their rosters and the slashing of budgets, trends that in turn have often led to labor strife and further weakening of the institution. In the worst cases, the companies have folded altogether. These actions look a lot like the results of neoliberal thinking we see in the corporate world, where profit is all that matters and worker productivity is forced to ever-more unsustainable levels by regular job cuts, slow growth, and the paring back of benefits. The problem is, just because they look alike doesn’t mean they are alike. Orchestras that cut their budgets are not doing so out of choice, or in service to notions of increasing worker productivity, boosting investor returns, or raising the company’s stock price –  and their boards and CEOs aren’t pocketing the increased profits, either. The impact on individuals may be the same, but the dynamic behind those results is completely different.

So once again I find myself agreeing with a piece of Moore’s argument but not her conclusion: neoliberal ideals helped get our large musical institutions into the situation they’re in by changing the norms around philanthropic giving; how orchestras have reacted has been dictated solely by economic necessity. The same could be said of the upending of the recording industry that has taken place over the last 15 years: it was the transformative impact of the digital revolution that caused the old business models to fall apart, not any sort of economic agenda or philosophy at work. And while the response of large media companies to these trends might be classical neoliberalism at work, the recognition of new opportunities on the part of individual artists and performing groups is a positive result of entrepreneurship: recognizing opportunities in the midst of change. Given that change is the one constant in today’s economy, what should our response be as educators? We can do what conservatories largely did until recently – ignore market realities and hope for the best – or we can provide students with tools to navigate this new reality, hopefully to successful ends. Given that the question of recording and distribution in the digital age is primarily one of the market, it stands to reason that entrepreneurial skills in opportunity recognition and business model evaluation will be invaluable to musicians looking to discover new paradigms that benefit them and their work. This is essentially the same issue I addressed above when it comes to career skills training: we’re not glorifying the portfolio career, but rather making a pragmatic response to the realities of the musical marketplace.

Moore sees this reality to be an unfortunate one, requiring individual musicians and musician-led ensembles to take on more and more of the responsibility for their success (both in terms of work and financial risk). There’s no denying that this is a reality we must face. I’m not convinced that it’s substantially different than it ever way, though: every account I’ve ever read of a festival, ensemble, or other sort of musical concern started in the last century has addressed the tremendous burden of non-musical work – and a corresponding stress on music-making – borne by the founder(s) of the institution in question. I can’t say that I have much sympathy for musicians who complain about these struggles and the difficulties of balancing administrative work and musical practice while trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance: it has always been this way and likely will always be that way in the future. It is hardly a new dynamic that if you don’t want to play full-time in an orchestra or maintain a full-time job in academia, you will likely have to put forth a certain amount of work; the more ambitious the enterprise, the greater the work.

Which brings me back to the tools we give our students. I feel I have an obligation to provide as many of these tools as I can to students who are preparing for a career in the 21st-century musical marketplace. I can’t make the hard work of starting one’s own ensemble or festival or teaching studio go away, but I can make that work more efficient and hopefully more effective. Yes, it’s fraught with change and uncertainty. Yes, the portfolio career has many drawbacks and challenges. And yes, there is still a path forward for those interested in the more traditional careers of orchestral performer or college professor, and we should teach those skills, too. But regardless of what path a student decides to pursue, they will need skills beyond their musical talent. At the end of Moore’s paper I’m left with the question, “Then what would you have us do? Only help students with what they’ll need for careers in full-time orchestral performance or higher education, even though the number of such jobs available at any given time are vastly – vastly – outnumbered by the number of applicants? Should we offer no career skills training at all?” Moore does not provide any answers.

Still, many of my colleagues in the academy – especially performance faculty who came up through the ranks 30 or 40 or 50 years ago – would disagree with my earlier statement, “regardless of what path a student decides to pursue, they will need skills beyond their musical talent.” “Musical talent and hard work were enough for me,” they argue. But these folks (many of whom are extraordinary performers and teachers) overlook two key facts. 1) The digital revolution has changed virtually everything about our industry today, and as such the old ways of structuring a career have either changed significantly or gone away altogether. The old ways are not sufficient anymore for all but a tiny fraction of those talented enough, lucky enough, and/or well-connected enough to bypass the path of virtually everyone else. 2) Colleges, universities, and conservatories are producing more music graduates than ever before – thousands upon thousands more. And while it’s true that significant numbers of those graduates will not end up pursuing a professional music career (many never even intended to), it is still true that the post-war equilibrium of growing numbers of music graduates and growing numbers of music jobs has long since evaporated; we can deny it all we want (and many in the academy continue to do so), but there’s no escaping the fact that we have an enormous supply/demand problem. So short of closing the majority of music schools nationwide, the solution to this problem – and it’s a moral imperative, in my mind – is to give students tools to help them understand the market they are about to enter, and help them create endeavors that can survive within that market. Entrepreneurship provides those tools. To withhold them would be a near-criminal disservice to our students.

There’s one aspect of Moore’s paper which I think we all need to take to heart, however. Much of Moore’s criticism of music entrepreneurship and its institutionalization in the academy has to do with the rhetoric we use to promote and justify our programming. She is right to point to overly upbeat promises of entrepreneurial training as being the golden passport to career success. And she is also right to call out any “valorization” of the independent musician’s life as one of unfettered personal freedom, the ultimate (or only) path to self-actualization – rhetoric that is right out of the neoliberal playbook.

And I completely agree. In fact, I’d go further: I think that upbeat rhetoric about the entrepreneurial training students will get at a given institution is all-too-often a diversionary tactic intended (consciously or not) to deflect attention away from the elephant in the room: the gross supply/demand problem I spoke about above. “Don’t worry about your career prospects after music school, we have an entrepreneurship program that will give them everything they need!” I don’t know if this is part of what’s driving Moore’s discomfort with the institutionalization of music entrepreneurship, but if it is I’m right there with her.

And so in talking about either the particulars of our programs or the pursuit of entrepreneurship generally, Moore’s point is well-taken: we must be realistic about what entrepreneurship can – and cannot – do, and we must be careful to avoid painting entrepreneurship as the best/only path to a career of personal fulfillment. We must be equally careful not to let promotion of our career skills programs to come off as a panacea for all the challenges facing music graduates. We must be sure to promote entrepreneurship as a set of tools and strategies designed to help music professionals find their way, not as an end in itself; as a mindset that helps musicians use the tools in their professional toolbox more effectively and efficiently. It’s not a magic wand, nor does it turn a path filled with hard work, risk, and potential failure into one of easy self-actualization. Perhaps most of all, it’s not a solution to the larger structural issues facing music higher education or classical music’s role in the broader economy. Having said all that, I’m still confident that, on the whole, music professionals who have some entrepreneurial tools at their disposal have a far better shot at sustainable and fulfilling careers than those who don’t. That’s why I do what I do.

Our economy is undergoing tremendous changes, and not all of them are for the better. And while these changes are being felt in every sector of our economy, classical music is faced with a particular set of challenges grounded in the reality that it has never been able to thrive in the free market without the support of philanthropists, governments, or other institutions (like the church). I also happen to believe that because we are the purveyors of something of great value – music – that we also have unprecedented opportunity to make a difference in this tumultuous, hurting world. But that means that the music graduates of today deserve as many tools as they can get to help them find a path for themselves that is artistically fulfilling and financially sustainable. The rest is just a question of hard work, luck, and fate – just as it’s always been.

Jeffrey Nytch is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Entrepreneurial Muse: Inspiring Your Career in Classical Music,” due in March, 2018 from Oxford University Press. He is also an Associate Professor of Music and Director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at The University of Colorado-Boulder. You can find out more about him at

[1] I’ll count myself among these offenders. While entrepreneurship in the business-school sense of that word is part of what we offer at The University of Colorado-Boulder, the program I run there is mostly a career center in the traditional sense of that word: offering instruction in what I call “the professional toolbox” (marketing, promotion, fundraising, fiscal literacy, copyrights, contracts, gigging, and so forth) as well as placing interns, conducting mock interviews, sharing job postings, and so forth. Someday I’ll rename The Entrepreneurship Center for Music with a more comprehensive and descriptive title, for precisely the reasons being discussed here.

[2] I finished my schooling with virtually no tools for my professional life beyond those of a career in higher education – the assumed destination for us doctoral students. Consequently, I spent the next 15 years of my professional (non-academic) life walking into walls and falling flat on my face. One of the chief motivators for doing what I do today is to atone for my institutions’ lack of preparation for what I would face as a professional, and to help make sure that new generations of music graduates are better equipped for a career in music than I was.

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