The Slippery Slope

In the post economic downturn environment, it is all too easy to become the victim of detrimental group-think; musicians are overpaid, board members don’t donate enough, managers should work harder etc. Even though most of us who make a living in the arts know better, it is good to see traditional media sources picking up on the dangers associated with letting this sort of detrimental thinking go unchecked. Case in point, the recent article by Rachel L. Swarns in the 4/20/14 edition of the New York Times that examines the notion of assigning value to artists.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-037Swarns profiles a current member of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus (Met), which is timely given that the institution is embroiled in the early stages of an ugly labor dispute. But the part you don’t want to miss focuses on the need to avoid stereotypical arguments on assigning value.

No one blinks when an experienced corporate manager earns a size-figure salary in [New York City]. But an opera singer? We still romanticize the image of the starving artist. We like to think that talent will eventually fill dinner plates and checking accounts.

But in real life, people who can’t pay their bills often put aside their passions, starved of the training the attention and the resources they need to shine. In real life, there are rents and mortgages to consider, commuting costs and car payments, college debt and voice lessons.

The Met’s current labor negotiations will undoubtedly go a long way toward testing the limits of these arguments and throughout the process you’ll almost certainly hear plenty of extremist voices but throughout it all, do yourself a favor and conduct regular reality checks to question whether or not you’re slipping into any of these self-defeating outlooks.

All of this reminds me of an article highlighted in a fairly recent You’ve Cott Mail* where an artist participating in a high school career day took a teacher to task in front of the students for suggesting that students interested in a career as an artist should maintain a backup plan. In response, the artist unapologetically questioned the teacher if she offered similar advice when any of the sessions featuring doctors or lawyers.

In the end, everyone in the field will do better if the overall public perception of art and culture improves.

* I can’t remember which issue, so I don’t have a reference link; if anyone does, thank you in advance for sharing.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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6 thoughts on “The Slippery Slope

  1. I saw the NYT article and thought it was one of the best ones on this topic that have recently appeared. I do think that another trap we have to avoid, though, is the fallacy of “fairness.” Of course no one blinks when an entry level attorney at a top NYC firm makes six figures, and it’s not fair – it’s really not – that only artists at the very top of their profession, anywhere in the country, can earn equivalent amounts. But in our society, we’re not compensated based on what’s “fair,” relative to our talent, training, and achivement, but first and foremost on how much society values what we do. In general, American society does not place a particularly high value on the work of the nonprofit arts sector – that’s one reason we’re nonprofit, because we do things that otherwise would not happen based on the for-profit market alone. An example: Taylor Swift made $40 million last year at a time when many orchestras struggled to make payroll. I think Taylor Swift is a very talented young woman. But Is it fair? Depends on who you ask, I suppose, but it is what it is, and it’s definitely not her fault.

    Also, on your final point: I am sometimes asked to do these career days as well, and heck yes, I would unapolegetically tell students in the arts that they should have a back up plan. I have seen way too many musicians who have never been able to make a really satisfactory living doing what they love, and I don’t see the situation improving any time soon. And no, I would not say the same thing to aspiring doctors or lawyers. The reason is, you can be an average accountant, lawyer, or doctor and make a good living, but only the very most talented artists even have a chance to do that. Our society needs a lot more accountants, lawyers, and doctors than it does contrabassoon players. Perhaps in a “fair” world, you could do whatever you wanted to do, and be rewarded if you were good at it. But that is not the real world.

    I think to suggest that this will change for the better in the lifetime of anyone reading your article is not realistic. Therefore, I think that cautious advice to aspiring musicians is exactly what’s needed, not pollyanna-ish “follow your dreams” stuff that may lead to much disappointment in later life.

    I recall a famous contemporary composer once said it well – if someone told him “I want to be a composer,” he’d say “don’t.” But if someone told him “I’m a composer – now what?” – then he would give lots of practical advice. I think it behooves all of us in the field to encourage aspiring artists, but to do it in a clear-eyed, realistic way.

    • Thanks for weighing in Paul and I wholehearted agree with the dangers of encouraging anyone to enter a career in the arts with what you describe as a pollyanna-ish approach. At the same time, I see greater value in making certain they enter with eyes wide open, knowing the risks and statistical likelihood for success. Once that piece is in place, aspiring artists should do what any aspiring professional should do by way of investing 100% of their efforts into that process. Allocating time and treasure for a Plan B before putting everything into the potential for success is simply counterproductive. And keeping in line with the example used in the post, would anyone really recommend to a pre-med or law student that s/he should consider a Plan B? Simply put, if an aspiring artist fails, s/he does the same thing any entrepreneur does; retrain for a new career or leverage existing training to branch into something new.

      I agree that the fairness discussion is another slippery slope and the additional layer of complexity is to not let either perspective unduly influence the other to the point of placing artificial limitations or expectations. Ultimately, that’s where the real danger lurks. I also tend to avoid using extremes in these arguments; there will always be one percenters in practically every field, such as your Taylor Swift argument, but those are exceptions and shouldn’t influence the larger discussion vis-à-vis the points raised in the NYT article.

      • Thanks Drew! I think there’s also room for discussion about exactly what constitutes a “Plan B.” It’s not necessarily being prepared to change careers completely – although sometimes that’s necessary – but it might also be awareness of other opportunities in the same field. My teacher, Harvey Phillips, always encouraged his students to be as diverse as possible. Made sense, because let’s face it, there’s only one tuba player in an orchestra, there’s dozens of well-qualified applicants for every opening, and it’s going to take tremendous talent – and some luck – to make a full-time living that way. So, he would say, play jazz, play rock, play chamber music, work with composers, learn about the music business. As you said, it starts with making sure eyes are wide open to the realities of the field.

        I do think, though, that artists have to be more aware of the possibility of a real need for a Plan B than do the pre-med or pre-law students in your example – a) because a clear-eyed look at the statistical likelihood for success will be sobering, and b) because the studies to that point of a pre-med or pre-law student may be more applicable to other careers than typical conservatory training alone would be, for a musician who has to change fields.

        Fortunately, I think the conservatories may be more pro-active in this area – realistic career preparation – than they were 30 years ago.

        • Excellent points all around again Paul and it is interesting that you bring up the realistic career preparation aspect. I see a lot of good work going on here but I am also concerned that some groups are selling the entrepreneurial route in the same fashion as the original conservatory myth of “practice hard and you’ll win a job.”

  2. Great article and comments. I recently interviewed a leading brass educator and performer for our blog and the issue of portfolio careers came up in our discussion. The interviewee suggested that only by focusing totally on music performance studies could a student have any guarantee of success in a career as a musician given the natural talent and daily hours of focused practice that are required to rise above the pack.

    As both a full-time orchestral musician and a part-time arts manager it’s perhaps easier for me to see both sides of the coin – while it is great that conservatories are preparing students for the reality of the job market they are going to face (through courses on entrepreneurship and arts management etc) it is also clear that the more a music student is distracted from their goal to become a performer the less likely they are to achieve that goal, as our interviewee suggested.

    Perhaps models like the Curtis Institute and the Australian National Academy of Music which strictly limit the number of students they admit to performance courses and which demand a clear focus on performance are the way forward? Other students looking to have a career in our sector who are deemed at entrance exams to have little chance of a performance career might then be encouraged to consider other related degrees that are more relevant to their job prospects in our industry (eg. music education, musicology, arts management or music production).

    I’m not sure about the situation in North America but Australian conservatories and universities are definitely admitting a large number of students to tertiary-level performance degrees who will have little or no chance of a professional performance career – they will likely become educators or leave the field all together as their training has prepared them for little other than one-on-one teaching or performance.

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