Conservatories As Artist Management Generates Strong Responses

Yesterday’s post about conservatories and schools of music getting into the artist management game generated a great deal of fascinating feedback at my Facebook wall, the majority of which spanned a range of well-articulated concerns.

You can join in on the conversation firsthand but here are some of the highlights worth sharing.

One individual was concerned about this becoming the latest step down the path of conservatories becoming commercial endeavors:

It seems like yet another pernicious step down the road of “higher-education-as-private-enterprise.” Increment by increment the US system of higher education in most of our schools of music has become a cash business. Well-known teachers serve as front-line sales people. The corporate beneficiaries are the banks underwriting student loans with high-interest, non-dischargeable debt (about as blue-chip as can be for a bank). The schools themselves serve as sales operations supporting and exploiting the sales efforts of the most famous teachers. Leaving aside what it says about the US value system, it’s a challenging business model because the costs of space and instructional time are necessarily high with music schools.

It’s different at the few music schools like Curtis that are scholarship only, but at most schools (like San Francisco) the top students are heavily subsidized (as with college athletes) through scholarships, and the vast majority of students in the middle or back of the pack go deep into debt paying the bulk of the costs.

Artist managers also face a challenging business model: it must be incredibly difficult to meet overhead with a percentage of concert sales unless and until one has a roster of folks who command high fees and are willing to perform a lot. Managements take on a lot of risk too: obviously when concerts are cancelled the money stops flowing for everyone but managers have business overhead creating extra pressure in those situations. It seems likely that those pressures must have heavily influenced Opus 3’s move under the roof of the SFCM

So these two problematic and precarious models are starting to live under one roof, presumably to provide strength to one another, but that seems misguided to me as each model is now an additional point of potential failure for the other: it seems easy to imagine a school being forced to divert scholarship funds to a management hemorrhaging money, or for a management to be forced to forego a critical marketing effort to allow a school to cover the cost of an unforeseen maintenance issue with its facilities. I wonder if there is any kind of a plan in place at these institutions for managing the countless conflicts of interest that will exist between the two initiatives?

Another observation focused on the sobering potential for abuse masquerading as investment:

One of my first thoughts was whether you would see students indentured to their conservatories. “Tuition just went up $20,000, but you can attend for free if you sign with our agency arm for 40% of your future earnings.

One reader called attention to what seems like a push for academic organizations into an area reserved for professional artists, ensembles, and organizations:

One of my biggest concerns is that – even more than some conservatories do already – the focus will shift from developing young artists to only admitting young artists that the schools perceive to be ready to concertize (and by extension, profit from).

But not all feedback was negative. Some focused on potential benefits, at least when applied to faculty:

For many faculty members who don’t have management (for whatever reason) this offers them representation so that they don’t have to self-manage/produce. The brand imprimatur is meaningful as well and, as appropriate, marries career support across performance and teaching. It’s a lot of eggs in one basket, but I am interested to see how this develops.

Jump into the conversation or leave some thoughts here as a comment.

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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