Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

By Guest Blogger Jeffrey Nytch, DMA

Courtesy JeffryNytch.com
“Not all who wander are lost.” You’ve probably seen that phrase at some point on a bumper sticker. Aside from the (unintended?) irony of pasting that on the back of a mode of transportation, it makes a good point: sometimes just because one is not on a straight-and-narrow, no-diversions path doesn’t mean one isn’t still heading forward in a meaningful way. It just means that we all travel our own paths, and those paths are as unique and varied as our individual selves.

I think this is particularly important in the arts. I’ve noticed that folks often think the road to success is a straight line. And by “folks” I mean humans in general, and artists in particular. And there are two problems with this. One is that the “straight line” view implies a single acceptable destination, when time and again we see careers that unfold in unexpected ways – ways that turn out to be far better for the person in question than the original goal would have ever been. The second problem with the expectation of a “straight line” to success is that it hardly ever works this way. Both our reading of history and the popular media reinforce this idea that the “greats” see greatness in their future, go for it, and perhaps after a period of struggle or hard work success shines its face on them. From there on out they’re on Easy Street.

This is a fiction. There might be individual cases where this is the way things unfolded, but they are the exception, not the rule. Far more often we travel a twisty path of apparent defeats and hollow victories before we finally figure out what we want to be about. And that’s okay: our path helps shape us, helps us develop our skills (can sometimes force us to develop new ones), and enriches our personal and professional lives in ways we can’t possibly foresee. Those experiences make us better.

Unfortunately, our educational system, and particularly that in the arts, does not encourage this kind of open-ended thinking. Our artistic education is, in one sense, a complete paradox: we strive to learn our craft and develop our creativity, and we do so within a highly-structured curriculum and a highly competitive atmosphere (both in school and certainly in the professional world beyond it). Yet craft and artistry are themselves very subtle, complex, and even delicate things: they often take years (decades!) to develop, and they can do so along an almost infinite variety of paths. Some musicians flower early and spectacularly, but fade quickly; others don’t really find their voice or their true creative purpose until well into their mid-life or beyond. In the meantime, their life experiences are shaping and influencing their art in a myriad of ways.

Since I come to you today wearing my hat as Director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at The University of Colorado – Boulder, all this talk about paths begs the question: what does this have to do with entrepreneurship? Well, folks who have made a life out of starting entrepreneurial ventures – so called “serial entrepreneurs” – all say the same thing: things never turn out as you expect them to, and that’s a good thing. In fact, I’ve never seen a group of people wear their failures as proudly as entrepreneurs: they will happily recount their miscalculations, mistakes, and outright blunders. Artists would do well to learn from their attitude: what artist has ever mastered a difficult piece of music without a great deal of toil, trial and error and, over the course of their relationship with the piece, an evolving understanding of what it means and how best to communicate that? And yet when it comes to their careers, artists often turn around and expect success to come with little or no effort on their part. They’re kidding themselves.

Successful entrepreneurs have learned that obstacles and “failures” are often the most valuable learning experiences of them all, teaching critical lessons they would not have learned any other way. They learn to celebrate the twists and turns of the path, for those are often the points at which breakthroughs and innovations emerge that would have been missed otherwise. The same is true for student musicians, whether you be pursuing a career in performance, education, scholarship, composition, conducting, music business, or something else altogether: it’s in the curvy paths of our life that the most powerful skills are developed, and it’s often out of these diverse experiences that one’s true professional calling is revealed.

So when I talk about taking an entrepreneurial approach to an artistic career, what am I talking about? Well, that may be the topic of future columns, but here it is in the nutshell. Thinking entrepreneurially begins with a simple premise: the only way to create value from what you do is to connect your product with a market that needs/wants it. That sounds straightforward enough, but the truth is that artists aren’t used to thinking this way. The traditional way practitioners of the “fine” arts tend to think is that their art exists on a higher plane, one where such notions as markets and value are, at the least, unimportant, and at worst, corrupting. Either way, their artistic upbringing has taught them that paying attention to such things is not the path of a “serious” artist.

This view is both an historical fiction and seriously self-defeating. Even the greatest artists and musicians of history have had to think about who would be on the receiving end of their work, and those who didn’t either had patrons supporting them or they lived lives of utter deprivation. This last scenario is of course an option for any who would chose it, but for all but the greatest talents it’s a path that most likely leads the artist chucking it all in exchange for something else: the ultimate loss for both artist and posterity.

The entrepreneurial artist, however, realizes that thinking about how best to reach a market need not be a corrupting mindset. For one, only the most authentic artistic work has any hope of connecting with an audience: the artistic consumer has an amazingly good sense of what is real and what’s not. Secondly, it’s often in filling a particular need within the market (one’s audience) that an artist unlocks their most meaningful work. Since our host Taminophile would want me to relate all this back to his blog somehow, let me give you an example from the world of opera: Mozart’s Magic Flute. This piece was intended for an uneducated audience distinctly different from the aristocracy of the state-supported opera houses Mozart had previously composed in. Flute was designed to be a commercial success in a mass market, and as such Mozart explored new theatrical and musical forms that resonated throughout the world of opera for the next century and beyond. Thinking about the needs and sensibilities of his audience didn’t compromise Mozart’s artistry, it unleashed his creativity in new and exciting ways. In the end, the opera was not just an entrepreneurial success, it was an artistic one as well.

Entrepreneurial tools themselves – things like understanding how markets work, how one determines the feasibility of an idea, and constructing economically viable venture models – are easily learned. In and of themselves they don’t give anybody “the answers;” rather, they help the artist/entrepreneur ask the right questions, questions that unlock paths and possibilities previously unseen. And that’s where the power of the entrepreneurial approach resides: it gives form and structure to creative, innovative thought. A good idea – artistic or otherwise – is not valuable in the marketplace just by virtue of its existence. Value requires putting that idea into a form that can reach people, and doing so in such a way that the producer (the artist) can continue to produce that work and be rewarded for it.

I always maintain that artists are natural entrepreneurs. And not because they tend to be scrappy and resourceful at finding ways to sustain themselves. (Or, not just because of those things!) See, entrepreneurs are creative people – whether they realize it or not. They’re able to look at situations and see them from a unique perspective, a perspective that in turn sees opportunities where others missed them. They find creative solutions to things, and they’re open-minded and flexible enough to drop what they thought was their Main Plan and go down a different avenue altogether in pursuit of an even better opportunity. In other words, they’re willing to allow their creativity to lead them wherever it might go – even if it’s down a road nobody else thinks is worth traveling. They might appear to be wanderers to the outside observer, but they’re simply on a different sort of path.

Artists have this same capacity – if they allow it to come forth. The challenge for artists is to trust their own creative impulse, jettison the tall tales they’ve learned about the nature of artistic success, and recognize that their art is indeed a precious commodity of great value within the marketplace. Although the road ahead will still be twisty and filled with unexpected turns, embracing an entrepreneurial perspective will at least insure they’re heading in the right direction.

Jeffrey Nytch enjoys a rich and diverse career as a composer, performer, educator and advocate – but it hasn't been a straight line getting there. He spent much of his teen years exercising an uncanny ability to make money in the stock market, and dreamed of someday going to Wall Street and conquering the world. Then there was his study of geology, which nearly took him down a different path altogether. But throughout it all, music has been the abiding passion of his heart; in the end, it won out with his career as well.

What followed has been a professional odyssey of sorts, involving an accomplished composition career including performances by major artists and ensembles throughout the U.S. and Europe, teaching positions at Carnegie Mellon University and Franklin & Marshall College,, a five-year stint as executive director of Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and an assortment of day jobs ranging from managing the operations of an entrepreneurial venture in Houston to serving as a minor administrative cog within the machine of a very large university. He draws on all these experiences as faculty at The University of Colorado-Boulder, where he runs the Entrepreneurship Center for Music, one of the nation's leading programs in arts entrepreneurship and professional development -- with the stunning geology of the Colorado Front Range as the backdrop. It's nice when things come together, isn't it?

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