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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Three lessons from a Rhode Island festival debacle

You’ve probably heard about the Newport Contemporary Music Series, recently launched (if that’s the appropriate term) in Rhode Island and crashing to an ignominious death almost as soon as it began. It’s an unfortunate tale, one that appears (from the outside, anyway) to feature people of good intentions but who got in way over their heads, failed to heed warning signs, and failed to make good. As a result, a lot of time, effort, and money were squandered, and dozens of musicians failed to get paid for their services.

One of the performers called it “a failure of epic proportions that will go down in the Boston freelancing lore of nonpaying gigs.” (You can read the full story here: )

So what lessons can we learn from this unfortunate train-wreck? There are many, and before I begin I’ll underscore the fact that I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of these events, so my conclusions are based on what I’ve read in the paper about the festival and its demise. So while an insider might have additional (or different) insights on what happened, I think there are some teachable moments to be gleaned even from the perspective of the outsider.

Dream big, but keep one foot on the ground… Festival organizer Paul Van Anglen had a big dream – create a new music festival that would feature the biggest names in the world of contemporary classical music. And that’s exciting. All too often, we talk ourselves out of our big dreams because they seem too impractical, or we can’t see a way for those dreams to ever be realized. Though they spend their days mastering the music of composers whose music embodies the best and most ambitious selves, in the end classical musicians tend to be a rather practical lot.

But not Van Anglen: he had a big idea and he dived in with both feet. And there’s much to be admired in that. The problem is that his reach exceeded his grasp. He had neither the experience nor, it would seem, the resources in place to actually deliver on his vision. So while it’s great to dream big, we also need to make sure we keep one foot on the ground, and stay mindful of the practical considerations that will need to be addressed if we’re to succeed.

Which brings me to the next lesson:

Don’t commit until you have your resources secured… If Van Anglen is to be believed, he had a big donor whose promised gift failed to materialize – leaving him and everyone else hanging out to dry. Whether this mysterious donor was real or just wishful thinking, it’s still clear that the actual money had not been received when Van Anglen began booking musicians and venues. There’s an old saying about counting chickens that comes to mind…

Recently my husband and I placed the small family farm we inherited in Pennsylvania on the market. In speaking with the agent about what the listing price might be, we remarked that many folks in the area had expressed interest. And our replied, “They’re not really interested until the write a check.”

I was struck by his bluntness, but I realized he was right. Lots of folks might express “interest,” and well-intentioned people can sometimes even promise to be forthcoming with dollars. But until those dollars are in the bank, nothing is certain. And the larger the amount of money we’re talking about, the more this is the case. In the case of Van Anglen’s festival, it would seem that not only was he depending on a large gift to make everything happen, he was dependent on one single gift. That’s a doubly dangerous situation to be in: not only might your donor not come through, if you don’t have any other sources of support then you’re really up the creek if that donor fails to materialize. That would appear to be what happened in this case, and it was the musicians and vendors who paid the price.

On the flipside, I think of my friends at the Round Top Festival in Texas, where their mantra has always been “if the money isn’t in the bank, we aren’t doing it.” The result is that they’ve never been in debt, have never committed to something they couldn’t deliver, and have established a reputation for fiscal responsibility – which in turn builds confidence among donors that their dollars will be well-spent. Sounds like a much better approach, doesn’t it?

If you delegate, make sure you hire people you know can do the job One aspect to this story that hasn’t gotten as much attention is the role of Harris Shilakowsky, who was hired to contract the musicians for the festival. Though musicians thought they were signing a union contract, Shilakowsky had never filed the gig with the union. The result was that musicians had essentially no recourse when things turned south and their payment never materialized. To my mind this is no small error, and underscores another lesson to keep in mind: Van Anglen’s errors were multiplied when the person to whom he delegated responsibility for hiring musicians – Shilakowsky – himself made a critical error. It’s an important less re: team-building: the people you bring on board need to be folks you can trust. Because if they fail you, that reflects on you. The mistakes of others can damage your credibility, so be careful to whom you delegate responsibility: your reputation may be on the line.

It’s too bad that things went down the way they did in Rhode Island. This festival could have been something very exciting for performers and audiences alike. And perhaps it still will be, though it’ll be much harder to convince patrons to support a reboot after the disaster that was the first attempt. Hopefully Van Anglen won’t repeat his mistakes – and when you launch your own venture, hopefully you can learn from him.

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