Artists as entrepreneurs

New program through Lawrence teaches liberal arts students to think from  bottom-line perspective

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Many icons of the arts world didn’t exactly start out in the black. Vincent van Gogh mooched off his brother for most of his life, and Edgar Allan Poe got nothing from his first book but a copyright and a few editions from the publisher. Even J.K. Rowling is reported to have been on welfare before “Harry Potter” supported her.

So maybe it’s stories like those that lead artists to suspect financial gain and creativity are mutually exclusive.

Some Baby Boomer musicians view making too much money as taboo for an artist.

“It’s sort of perceived that ‘If your motivation is money, it’s going to ruin your music,’” said Tom Washatka, jazz saxophonist who has been plying his trade for more than 30 years in the Fox Valley.

Way before little Tommy Tucker sang for his supper, we romanticized the idea of the starving artist warming himself on the flame of his passion.

Somehow it seems like poets in garrets should be so amply fueled by their creative fire that they don’t need fiscal fortification. We pay fake wrestlers to entertain us but not street mimes or subway singers, since the latter seem so happy doing what they do for free.

“I think the perception with many people in society and even, unfortunately, the parents of musicians that are up and coming who want to pursue music as a career, is that it’s not something you do as a career, it’s something you do as a hobby,” said Janet Planet, longtime Fox Valley-based jazz vocalist, instructor and owner of Janet Planet Enterprises.

But Planet and others defy the notion that artists take an unwritten vow of poverty. Poets and potters have as much right to prosperity as psychiatrists and presidents.

“I am a small business, and my music is my product,” said Rob Anthony, acoustic guitarist and singer-songwriter based in Appleton. “You have to keep in mind that when money exchanges into your hands, you have to produce results, and that means satisfying customers, market retention, making sure people will come back to that establishment. You have to put a smile on your face, make sure the staff is happy and the owner is happy.”

 

Mr. Bojangles, Inc.?

Being an independent artist doesn’t mean sleeping till 3 p.m. and trilling out a few notes when the muse strikes.

“People see Janet Planet on stage singing and they think ‘How glamorous,’ but that’s not all there is to it,” Planet said.

As CEO of themselves, freelance and indie artists are in charge of promoting and producing their products, booking gigs, negotiating and collecting payments, and marketing, blogging, tweeting and Facebooking, in addition to actually performing or producing something.

“When people are hiring you, you have to give them a return on their investment,” Anthony said. “You have to make sure you are representing their establishment to the best you can do so when guests leave, they say, ‘I will be back, I will bring money, and I will bring a friend next time.’ If you can’t do that, then you aren’t being a good businessperson.”

Artists also have to diversify, Planet said. In L.A., they’re called WAMS, or waiter-actor-model-singers. Here, creatives just wear many hats, and not all of them are berets.

While Planet supports herself entirely on music, singing isn’t all she does. Janet Planet Enterprises owns a small record label, and she does voiceovers and commercials and she works at a radio station when she’s not performing in concert.

Her husband, Washatka, owns a company called Narrator Tracks, which creates and sells royalty-free music to corporations like GM, Toyota and American Express. One of his tunes ended up in the movie “The Bucket List.” He’s done some 95 CDs. The little enterprise not only keeps the lights on in the Washatka house, but keeps many companies from violating music copyright laws by playing music for which they don’t have licenses.

 

Business cool

But ouch, my head! All of these words: diversification, customer retention, marketing. How do artists pick up business know-how?

Enter stage left: the Innovation & Entrepreneurship program, or I&E for short, at Lawrence University in Appleton.

In its fourth year, the program includes courses that teach students to look for market needs, speak persuasively about solutions, and see the world from a bottom-line perspective. The program combines classes and faculty from the economics, physics, music and social sciences departments.

I&E is aimed at enabling students to take their liberal arts education from the realm of thought to the realm of action, said Adam Galambos, assistant professor of economics at Lawrence.

Galambos defines ‘entrepreneur’ as an agent of change. The word comes from the French for ‘to take into one’s own hands,’ or to undertake.

“An entrepreneur is somebody who takes charge of their own destiny,” Anthony said.

“Our students learn to analyze the natural, social and political world around us, and use that understanding to identify needs, problems in the world, and to solve them in innovative ways,” Galambos said.

Like the problem of empty storefronts on College Avenue.

 

Hopping from solution to solution

The Rabbit Gallery in downtown Appleton refers to student-run, short-term art galleries that are set up in vacant storefronts on College Avenue. The locations jump around, hence the name. Galambos and Gary Vaughan co-teach the class that makes The Rabbit Gallery happen. Students start with an abbreviated business plan with financial projections, then they plan, paint and prepare the spaces, call for and curate art, work with artists and the community, and open and staff the gallery, according to Vaughan.

“These are things that as business owners, we may take for granted, but this is the first experience for many of them,” said Vaughan, who owns Appleton-based Guident Business Solutions and teaches business and finance at Lawrence and Concordia universities.

It wouldn’t be much of a real-world experience if everything glided along perfectly. For a recent batch of students, the lease needed to be tweaked, negotiations had to be made back and forth about the gallery site – it was actually too large, and the students had to finagle renting just part of it – and the water didn’t get turned on when they needed it.

Without water, students had to find somewhere else to clean their paint brushes and rollers. Then later they realized they would need a cash register.

Add to this the no-shows – volunteers who signed up to staff the gallery but never showed – and you have a well-rounded entrepreneurial experience.

“It’s always simple to read about starting a business in a book, or talk about it as theory in a classroom, but real life is different,” Vaughan said. “Working with people and working in teams is something you can’t really teach out of a book.”

Overall, Rabbit’s succeeding. In its first two years, the Rabbit Gallery showed off 112 pieces of art and drew almost 600 visitors. The traffic and exposure helped last year’s building landlord find a longer-term tenant, making for one less vacant storefront on College Avenue. And students learned what bosses and business owners go through.

 

Would you like fries with that major?

One problem with artists is that they often think very narrowly of what they do and what they can do, said Brian Pertl, dean of the conservatory of music at Lawrence University.

A typical career path for a music major, he said, might lean toward practicing really hard and landing a job in an orchestra. But professional orchestra jobs are hard to come by, and once someone lands one, they don’t want to leave it.

“So the chances of actually getting one of those jobs are pretty slim,” Pertl said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a life in music and you can’t combine your passion with your profession.”

Pertl would know about the whole making-a-profession-out-of-your-passion thing. As if majoring in English and trombone weren’t bad enough, the Lawrence alum must really have made his parents shudder when he announced his plans to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. But before he went to grad school, he went to Australia, Tibet, Nepal and India to study the use of harmonics in didgeridoo (also called didjeridu) playing and Tibetan sacred chanting.

How much more unemployable could one person make himself?

Then came a call from Microsoft asking him to play that didgeridoo for one of its first music-of-the-world CDs – Encarta. And that opened the door to a 16-year career at the software colossus, where he managed Microsoft’s media acquisitions group.

The journey back to Lawrence came via his musical performances at his alma mater, where he was asked to apply for the position of dean of the conservatory of music.

 

Passion vs. Practical

Every dean wants graduates to find well-paying jobs. Pertl looked at the music conservatory in the 21st century and asked how it serves the needs of musicians now.

“It’s not enough to show up for practice three hours a day and graduate and hope for the best. You need to be proactive, thinking about how we can make lives in music,” Pertl said. Students need to keep their end goal in mind from Day 1, not just a month before graduation, when they all panic, he said.

The idea behind the I&E program is to get students out of their shells and thinking about where opportunities might lie and what they can do with their art, especially considering existing tools like the Internet and Skype. They’re asked to think of themselves as a product and how to market their talent as a thing.

“There are many things we have never asked a student to think about in a conservatory setting, and these are all things that I am asking them to think about very seriously in these classes,” Pertl said.

 

Didgeridooist for rent, call 857-5309

Pertl’s class came up with an online booking tool that improves upon the old-fashioned “Need a drummer?” gig boards of yore.

The project forced students to think through the business of booking talent, from finding musicians to researching booking-agency commissions.

“They learned a lot about working with people, working with the web, working with their business model, thinking what their revenue stream would be, thinking about what their costs were going to be as a whole,” Pertl said. “I can guarantee these are things they never thought about.”

They also get a taste of what employers look for when screening for reliable help: people who show up on time, people who deliver what they promise, and people who can be depended upon to represent their employer well.

“A lot of it (predicting which applicants will be reliable) is a judgment call, but we talk about ‘How much of this are you already doing?’ It certainly gives us a greater comfort level if they are already (performing publicly),” Pertl said. “If they come to us and say ‘We don’t have a car, and we only know three songs,’ it’s like “No, this is not going to work.’”

Some students in his class asked if the booking service would be responsible for providing taxi services to wheel-less musicians, or for transporting their instruments and equipment to events for them.

“Think about that – if that was your business model – is that a smart thing to do or do you want to hire people who have transportation so you don’t have to worry about it and it’s not your responsibility?’”

 

Reduce, reuse, reframe

Instead of thinking of being a musician as a negative in business, students should realize they’ve got many skills that are critical in the business world, which a lot of people going into the business world don’t have, Pertl said.

“You have collaborative skills because you are working with other people all of the time as a musician,” he said. “You have listening skills because you are listening to nuance and all kinds of tiny microchanges in tone, but when you are in a negotiating session or collaboration session, those same nuances in speech can trigger success or failure in that collaboration or negotiation. You’ve got creativity, because that is what we do, and in a survey about the most important asset for a CEO, creativity was voted No. 1.”

 

Lee Marie Rensch writes and edits from Green Bay.