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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

The Commoditization of Musicians

Updated: May 13, 2018

Last week I read this blog by entertainment attorney Kevin Case, and I found it to be a provocative article worth exploring further. Among several striking statements, this one really hit me: "The chairman of one major orchestra demanding huge cuts noted the “quite remarkable” number of music-school graduates, characterizing it as “a large supply.” Case goes on to point out how much he’s encountered this attitude with orchestral management nation-wide, and how he’s concerned that this is leading to treating musicians just like any other component commodity such as bolts or screws: as long as there are plenty around, the price will remain cheap – and one bolt is just as good as another, right? Get them as cheaply as you can, and if one supplier won’t give you the bolts you need at the price you’re offering, there are plenty of other places to buy bolts at a cheaper price.

It is indeed alarming to think that a similar attitude is spreading in the world of professional musicians. And while it’s true that the supply of musicians is indeed quite large – as I've stated elsewhere, there are more professional musicians performing at a higher standard of excellence than at any time in human history – we also know that we possess infinitely more value than some mass-produced cog in a stream of production. The problem is that we haven’t done a very good job communicating our value, despite the large supply. That has created a vacuum of understanding and appreciation for what we have to offer, and that vacuum has been filled by the standard notion of supply and demand that de-values the commodity the greater supply that’s available. In the eyes of some, musicians are becoming widgets.

How do we counter this trend? How do we regain our position in the marketplace as commodities of the highest value? I’ve decided I’d like to address this question in four parts:

Adjust our Mindsets • Educate our audiences • Find the Need • Become an Artist-Advocate

1. Adjusting Mindsets

As with most things in need of change, we need to start by looking within ourselves and see how our own mindsets and perspectives impact how we act and conduct our business. I’ve found over and over again that if we view ourselves in a certain light, it’s likely that’s how circumstances will play out for us. So if we assume that nobody is willing to pay us for our work or cares about what we have to offer, it’s likely that those are the scenarios that will occur. We accept the little or nothing that is offered to us because we don’t believe that we’re worth more. That may seem obvious on the surface, but as artists many of us have serious self-image issues – particularly if we’re from the non-pop tradition. We’ve bought into the notion that we’re not valued by the broader society, that only a small portion of the population appreciates us or cares about what we do. We end up accepting the crumbs that get dropped our way because, deep down, we assume that’s as good as we can expect. Or worse, we think that’s all we deserve.

We need to shift that mindset to one that sees what we offer as of the highest value. Artistic expression in all its forms is one of the most precious of human activities, and if we have the talent and the discipline to develop our art we are not only personally blessed but extremely important to the fabric of our society. Moreover, each of us is a unique entity. Rather than buying into the notion that we’re “just another musician,” reflect on what makes you a unique individual and how you can make a unique contribution to all your endeavors. The “widget” mentality devalues us by assuming that one violinist is just as useful as the next; we need to demonstrate through the art we make that this is not the case: we’re not widgets, we’re a precious and unique commodity of the highest value. If you have trouble embracing this “value mindset” (or if you ARE a ‘musical clone’ – they do exist), it would be a good idea to dig down into yourself and figure out what’s driving that. Because without a value mindset, and developing your uniqueness, unlocking value in your career will be difficult.

A value mindset can play out in a lot of ways, some of them remarkably simple. For instance, having a more value-oriented mindset means we’re more likely to ask for some payment for that gig (and sometimes asking is all it takes). Or it can mean we start thinking more strategically about that gig doesn’t pay us money but can perhaps pay us in other ways (exposure, networking, experience, etc.). A positive “value” mindset means that when an opportunity presents itself but the money is absent, we immediately start exercising our entrepreneurial skills to unlock the value – rather than either walk away from the project or assume it can’t pay us. Having a value mindset leads us into the entrepreneurial process, which is the way we convert an opportunity into a paying venture. A value-less mindset, on the other hand, leaves us empty-handed.

One note of caution, though: having a value mindset doesn’t mean being inflexible when it comes to how you’re rewarded for your time and talent. As I implied above, value can take many different forms beyond money. Also, thinking entrepreneurially means figuring out where the need is that we can fulfill –and meeting that need might mean altering what we do or how we do it in order to unlock the value we seek. I’ll speak more about that in the upcoming “Find the Need” segment (I’m NOT talking about compromising yourself!), but I wanted to put it out there up-front. Embracing a value mindset means never leaving an opportunity empty-handed, but how we choose to fill our hands can take an infinite number of forms. Embrace that, and you’re well on your way to finding more value in your professional life.

2. Educating Audiences

Now there are a lot of ways that phrase “educate our audience” can play out. And I mean…all of them:

YES: we need to continue to support robust arts education in our primary and secondary schools. YES: we need to find creative ways to speak to our audiences during performances. YES: we need to be willing to challenge our audience with unfamiliar repertory and not assume that they’re incapable of taking in anything beyond the innocuous or the “warhorse.”

So ‘yes’ to all of these things. But that doesn’t quite get at my point. Because so often we throw out those phrases – “we need to educate our audience” – and we don’t really have a clear idea of what that means (or we have what is, in my view, the wrong idea of what that means). You see, all too often artists take a patronizing attitude towards the notion of “audience education”: I have this special knowledge and you should be happy that I’ve chosen to stoop down to your level and share some of it with you. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes: does that sound like an experience that’s going to resonate with you (in a positive way, I mean)?

Here’s the thing: if you want to educate your audience, start out by thinking about something you’d like to know if you knew nothing about the subject in question. Chances are the technical stuff isn’t going to be what draws you in (assuming you can even make sense of it). You want to make a personal connection to the thing. You want to find out what’s neat about that thing, what makes the expert so nuts for it, or how this thing applies to your everyday life in a way you’d never thought about or realized before.

See we know that music is incredibly valuable to our lives. And pretty much everybody else realizes that, too – though they’re musical universe might not overlap with ours. So we have that common ground to start from, and that’s a good starting point.

The last thing to think about is simply that we need to be better at speaking to our audiences about what we do and why we do it. Many musicians are comfortable on stage as long as they can hide behind their instruments, but ask them to talk to their audience and they fall to pieces. Like anything else, public speaking is a skill we have to develop, practice, and learn by doing. Musicians who are good at educating their audiences are also good at speaking with people and establishing a connection with them, and that’s an important part of the equation. If we want them to see the value in what we do, WE have to demonstrate, in terms they can understand, why it’s valuable to us – and how it just might be valuable to them, too. So rather than speaking down to our audience, we need to find ways to have a conversation with them. When we do that, the “education” part gets a lot easier – and Value becomes a lot more apparent.

3. Finding the Need

This is the central issue all entrepreneurs in every field need to address, and it’s also critical to this question of commoditization and finding value. And it’s really as simple as this: if you identify a need that you can fill, chances there value will be found as well. Why? Because if someone values a product or service then they will be willing to give you something in return for it. That “something” might not always be monetary, but it often is; when it isn’t, it still might be enormously beneficial to the artist trying to build a sustainable enterprise with their art.

But what sorts of needs do artists fulfill? To the extent that artists think about this question at all, they generally limit their thinking to things like the universal human need for art, the emotional catharsis that art can release, and so forth. And these are indeed very important needs, but it doesn’t distinguish one artist or work of art from another. So we have to drill deeper down into this concept. Artists need to look at the communities they interact with and identify specific needs that they can meet. For instance, is there a need for arts-based after-school programming at your school? Is anybody in your community performing Early Music, if not, why not? Is there a lack of a particular kind of performance venue that might resonate with your community? And, once you’ve answered those questions, the entrepreneurial process begins as you evaluate and develop your idea, determining its feasibility and, possibly, implementing a venture plan to make it a reality.

All of this starts with the need, however, and it’s absolutely critical. If artists wish to create a culture of value for their work, they have to start by identifying the needs they can meet through their art.

4. Become and Artist Advocate

Advocacy takes many different forms, and it can be tailored to your particular gifts and passions. But however it plays out for each individual, the core of advocacy is the same: you see music as a cause worth fighting for, worth speaking out about, an endeavor worth some personal sacrifice and work to advance. We can’t afford to see ourselves as mere practitioners of our art, and leave advancing the cause of music and the arts to someone else – administrators, critics, whomever. Each of us must instead pick up the mantle of responsibility and speak to this cause in every way we can: when we address our audience, when we speak to the press, in our blogs and social media, to our colleagues and students.

And it has to go beyond mere words, too. It means we serve on boards or committees. It means we get involved with our schools. It means we become active in our political process.

Last year I had the great experience of participating in the Day of Advocacy, where arts educators and advocates from across the Front Range gathered at the State Capitol to lobby for increased arts funding. It was an amazing day, in which I learned about how our state government works and made my voice heard on an issue of critical importance. As I spoke with legislators and aides I was struck by two things: one was that there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding among some to the importance of arts funding and the role it plays in our economy. And the other was that most legislators are ready to consider our arguments – we just have to reach out to them and make our case. In other words, our voice does matter and does have an impact. I think we often foreclose on those opportunities by assuming our efforts don’t make a difference. But they can, and they do.

How might you become more active as an Artist-Advocate? What are the issues you’re most passionate about, and how might you make your voice heard? If you’re not sure, just get involved: I guarantee it will prove to be more fulfilling that you ever imagined!

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