21st Century Music Careers

Originally published as '21st Century Music Careers' at Musical U

As Notable Values’ Susan de Weger healed her own broken musical identity, she re-examined the whole music education and career system. In the process, she discovered that following her own path meant blazing the trail for others to create a new paradigm for 21st-century music careers. We spoke to her about the evolution of the profession of music and her vision of what it is to become:

Q: Good morning Susan, and welcome back to Musical U. More and more we have been looking at career issues for today’s musicians. Why is that even a thing? Music has been around forever. What would you say is the fundamental change that needs addressing?

I think it’s two things. One is the conservatory model of education: traditionally, 150 years ago, if you were a musician that wanted a job in the orchestra, you apprenticed with the master who had that job. When your teacher retired you assumed that position. So supply and demand were fairly even with performance jobs.Then we put music education in the conservatory system and had this ballooning of music school graduates—but we didn’t have a ballooning in jobs. That’s been one issue: this model of a single job with a single employer hasn’t changed.

Then we put music education in the conservatory system and had this ballooning of music school graduates—but we didn’t have a ballooning in jobs. That’s been one issue: this model of single job with a single employer hasn’t changed.

Secondly, the world around us has shifted. Entertainment—which is currently what we’re doing—is free. People expect it for free because of the internet.

If we just continue to train for these non-existent jobs in orchestras and think that that’s the one point of music education, and if we don’t shift what we’re doing to be broader than just entertainment, then we’re not building an audience. We’re not being meaningful or relevant to the world. We’re just doing the same thing that we’ve always done to the same people who are pretty much the people that look like us. There’s no demand for us.

Q: Does that make you sad?

It doesn’t make me sad. It makes me really excited about rethinking the value proposition of a music education—shifting the focus away from purely entertainment and performance.

Firstly, there’s the transferable skills—communication, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving—that we spoke of last time; the skills that trained musicians bring to the table in non-musical contexts.

Then, in the larger scope, the ability to really re-engage with music’s purpose to communicate and heal the world around us, because I don’t believe that something most large arts organizations have an eye on. They’re still focused on the entertainment and performance part, to people who look just like them, who are aging.

There are all these issues around sustainability of the large arts organizations. Even if you do get a job in an orchestra, that’s not the job security that it once was. We see in America where many orchestras face significant financial challenges.

The ability for us to design a life that is based around music, that allows us to entertain and also allows us to heal and communicate and earn money in however we choose to do it is the only way forward.

Q: I think we’re all familiar with the idea of music for entertainment purposes, but could you expand a little, when you refer to music for healing and for communicating?

I just think our ability to respond to the major issues that our communities are experiencing. Most artistic programming is very inward focused, it’s what we want to do. I want to play Mozart’s four horn concerto because I really like it. Does the world really care about that? Who needs to hear it again? Really, now.

Can I not take a look at my community and see the issues that my community are dealing with and artistically program pieces that address those issues that my community are experiencing? That builds an audience for you because it’s suddenly relevant and meaningful to them. It’s not just another concert of Mozart’s fourth horn concerto. We’re able to communicate from the stage then about why we choose to program these pieces, because of their end response to the world that we live in and to our experiences.

We’re in a really great place where audiences want meaning and connection from their experience because we’re so disconnected via the internet, right? The opportunity to eyeball each other in a room and be vulnerable and say, “I’m really concerned about, whatever it is, global warming or the Brexit … ?” Whatever it is that the issue is in your community, as a musician, artist and creator, I’m really concerned about this and I’ve been really upset about it and I wasn’t quite sure how to wrestle with my emotions, but I found some comfort in this piece of music that I’m about to play for you and share with you.

That’s what I mean about it not being about just playing music at people but actually responding to the needs of the world around us.

Q: That’s fascinating. There’s a clear parallel with the world of pop music or hip-hop, where we expect artists to explicitly address the issues of the day in a way that maybe isn’t traditional or suitable in classical music. Similarly, when we switch on Youtube, we’d expect a lot of Youtube artists to have 30 seconds at the end of their video chatting about why they made that video. That’s something that’s generally missing from live, classical music performance.

It is now, but it didn’t used to be. What about the Farewell Symphony? Through a combination of compositional charm and performance art, Haydn communicated with a his employer about his hostage orchestra’s desire to return to their wives. Isn’t that one of the most poignant stories of the power or music? We’ve lost our way a little bit.

Q: It sounds like you have a very optimistic outlook on the 21st century for musicians. Do you feel the modern music industry is in a position to help with that? Do you feel the work you’re doing is guiding musicians to opportunities that are there and waiting? Or do you feel it’s a matter of replacing the current music industry with something better?

It’s up to us to build an audience for ourselves. I’m very convinced that autonomy is the only way to have any sort of life with music in it, with performance in it and so it’s just up to us to do this.

Q: I see. You used the term “career mix.” Do you think it’s a necessary part of modern musicianship to combine multiple professional roles?

Yes. I absolutely do. I don’t know if you use the term in the UK but in Australia we call it “portfolio career.”

I see it like this. The center of the wheel is music and all the different spokes of that are a range of different activities that your music training allows you to do. If you want a career in music, that is how it’s going to look in the 21st century and that actually is how it has looked for quite a while.

Even the tiny percentage of classical musicians who work with orchestras, most of them engage in activities outside that employment. They not only teach, but they also have their own performance projects on the side. Particularly for young people, flexibility and versatility are things they want out of employment. Having your core skillset as your music training, with a range of different activities, gives you the ability to smooth out the financial bumps.

Q: I can see that that wheel-and-spokes model in two ways. One is it’s nerve-wracking because you don’t have job stability and the other is that the blend can create it’s own stability—much more so than a modern job. It sounds like you would fall into the latter camp.

Yes. There’s a fantastic piano trio here in Australia called Project Anon. Thomas, who is the violin player, won the Australian Concerto Competition. They all won every prize at the conservatorium. They won everything going. They blitzed, they did their honors. They knew all along that they wanted to have their own self-managed chamber trio. And they were aware that that meant they were going to require a stable income from one source, to allow them to have the time and energy to continue to perform. They knew they were going to need a lot of business savvy. They knew this as undergraduates.

After they’d been through the conservatory, Nicole (the pianist) went and did a masters of marketing and Thomas, with his passion for design, did a masters of architecture. They are now working. Nicole now works part-time for Deloitte’s Consulting as a digital strategist. Thomas has a graduate architect’s position. They work part-time in these stable roles and then they run this incredible piano trio. I mean, they’ve just been at Spokane, Washington, speaking at TEDx about their work.

It doesn’t have to be lots of little itty bitty things and very unsteady. You can have a portfolio mix where it’s a chunk of your time doing something very stable, that draws on your training, that gives you time and brain space to be able to continue to make music on your own terms. They’re a really great model of how they’ve taken their training outside of performance and music to where there is a demand for their skills and really good pay. And they’re still growing and running this fantastic chamber ensemble.

Q:That’s a tremendous example. I was expecting you to say, “Then Nicole brought her skills back to the trio in marketing them amazingly and they had a runaway successful career.” I imagine that is true to some degree, even if she’s working for Deloitte. No doubt her skills have been helping with the trio as well.

Absolutely. The key thing is they didn’t want to be on anybody else’s ticket. In the work I do with high performing secondary students, I say to them, “There are no rules anymore. Or the one rule, sorry, is we must be artistically excellent.” The rules used to be if you played the clarinet you had to play clarinet repertoire and somebody else made the decisions and booked you. Well, those rules don’t exist anymore. There’s no need to do that. The only rule is to train for excellence as a musician and then decide what’s most meaningful for you and go make that happen.

Q: There’s a natural question there, where I’d love to hear your perspective. Training for excellence is admirable. But isn’t that quite tricky when you’re rejecting the kind of top-down judgment of the traditional system? How do you know whether you’re excellent enough?

Exactly. That’s a very tricky question. I guess it depends … For me, it’s more in the process rather than the outcome. I completely misunderstood that part of high-level music training, is to train your mind. It’s like mastery. You’re never going to “get there.”

Pablo Casals, the most famous cellist, was 90. When they asked him about practicing, he said, “Well, I practice every day, because I might get better.” It’s not about achieving some ethereal level of technical achievement on your instrument, when at that point you’ll be good enough. It means turning up and doing the work every day to make today better than yesterday. Mastery doesn’t have an endpoint because you can always improve.

Q: Okay. Aiming for excellence is really about aiming for excellence in your practice of becoming a musician and being a musician rather than passing a threshold that says, “Now you’re excellent.”

Exactly. Yep. It’s the mindset. How can I make this better today than it was yesterday?

Q: Fantastic. How would that mindset apply to the business end?

The first place to start is understanding that you have the power to do this. It’s the mindset of autonomy that’s far more important at the beginning than skills, because the skills can be acquired but the mindset can’t. Then down to what’s important to me in life. If stability is something that’s important, then Nicole’s model of a stable part-time job and then musician on her own terms is a better fit for you.

If you are driven by flexibility, versatility, and change, then you’ll have a better thermometer for the ups and downs than someone for whom stability is really important. Do some work about who you are and what you want.

Then we can start to add on the enterprise skills of project management, marketing, and communication. Put your mind in the right place and you’ll see the application of those skills.

Thank you, Susan! I appreciate your clarity and insight—a rare gift in this heady time of great—but often confusing—possibilities. I look forward to hearing more from you about 21st-century music careers.

2016 has been a big year for Susan’s career as well. With her growing website Notable Valuables, the launch of the IgniteLab music career program with the Melbourne Conservatorium, and her own performances, her spokes and wheels are spinning right along. Next time we’ll talk with her more about building your authentic career identity. In the meantime, check out Notable Values to inspire you to rethink the amazing possibilities of your own musical career.