Trevor Meagher Meditates on and Interviews Arts Entrepreneurs

In this post, SMU and Meadows student Trevor Meagher interviews three creative entrepreneurs and reflects on his findings. 

Interview Analysis/Reflection

Through my interviews with three successful musicians and “businesses of one”, I gained significant insight into each of their perspectives on “what it takes” to not only survive, but thrive in the current arts entrepreneurship environment. Though it was unfortunately difficult to get in-depth answers from one source, Derek and Steven’s interviews provided exceptional information that has already proven useful in my development as an entrepreneur.

Steven’s interview was the most directly applicable to my personal journey, and his answers to all of my questions were both enthusiastic and informative. From talking to Steven, I gathered that although he takes a fairly traditional approach to technical growth as a freelance artist, his innate charisma and ability to sell himself, rather than simple proficiency in his playing, have had a significant positive impact on his business. Nearly every answer from Steven gravitated to one of three central ideas: be adaptable, be charismatic, and consider your audience. These points underlined the most interesting element of Steven’s interview: his ability to articulate concepts remarkably similar to those we have discussed in class as hallmarks of his success, a recurring theme throughout our interaction.

Zak’s interview was, unfortunately, a bit like ‘pulling teeth’. However, I did glean a very similar, albeit simplified version of many of Steven’s answers. Interestingly, Zak and I have spoken informally about his band (rather than his freelance venture) several times since our interview, and the steps he has referenced in his group’s success have often mirrored the central element of my interview with him: aggressive and assertive self-promotion in order to gain new clients and maintain old relationships. Ultimately, Zak tended to emphasize more of the technical elements of freelance musicianship rather than taking Steven’s more audience-oriented approach.

Derek, although a musician, approached his interview from the perspective of a private consultant working with performing arts groups, and his expertise (and therefore emphasis) lay within the various legal and financial maneuverings necessary to not only support himself, but also successfully sustain his myriad of clients. Though his insight focused much more heavily on these technical aspects rather than interpersonal interaction, he still echoed Steven’s assertion that the critical element of any small venture is the ability to adapt, to improvise, and to work tirelessly so that one’s name is the first to mind when a job comes into existence. Additionally, Derek placed a heavy emphasis on efficiency and distillation – breaking down complex challenges into easily and rapidly accomplishable goals, and learning everything possible before making the first move in each endeavor so as to streamline its accomplishment.

Ultimately, though interviewing three very different players, musicians, and businessmen, a remarkable similarity began to show throughout every interaction: the assertion that adaptability and preparation, regardless of environment, are the keys to success.

Interview # 1 – Derek Hawkes, Private Consultant for Arts Nonprofits, 2nd Trombone, Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

Did you have a business plan when you started your business?

I did, but it was rudimentary; I made sure that I had some starting money and was keeping receipts, since they are opportunities for tax write-offs and such. I’ve found that my personal level of detail in planning has to fluctuate, though. As a consultant, the information I have access to is dependent on the level of detail that the organizations I work with choose to maintain. I try, however, to keep my level of financial detail in my business as stringent as possible.

Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

I certainly think they’re helpful, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them necessary. I think there’s an assumption that everyone has one and that that assumption is wrong; it isn’t the case that everyone successful has one. But with that being said, I’d definitely say that having one is ideal. It’s safer to have that and adapt from that than it is to try and white-knuckle your way through everything.

What three pieces of advice can you offer developing arts entrepreneurs?

First off, and this one is simple, have your prerequisites in order. Have experience with whatever field you’re trying to enter. It’s straightforward: the more you can learn about what you’re doing, the better you are at doing it. For the second piece of advice, I guess I would have to go with an extension of the first; you learn more from mistakes than you ever can from successes. The real trick is finding the right failures to study. I’d say it’s better to learn from others’ failures than your own. See their mistakes and take action before you even make them. As for the third piece of advice: keep it brief. I try to keep everything based in what I call “five second ideas”. The more you can keep everything within – or as close to – five seconds of explanation, the better. The more you can communicate with the less you actually say, the better.

Interview #2Steven Vogel, Freelance Trombonist, Austin/San Antonio Area

Did you have a business plan when you started your business?

When I began to work as a freelance musician, my “plan” was to be as marketable as possible. For me as a musician, that meant showing up to a gig/rehearsal/concert with my music prepared, all my equipment in top working order, and with a presentation of myself that was as professional as possible.  This branched out to my social media presence, which I began to gear almost specifically towards my career as a freelance musician and teacher.

Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

I do think that a plan, even if very basic, is necessary. However, more than anything, I believe that any plans you do make must have room for change. Without accounting for change, even the best-laid plans will fall to the wayside.

What three pieces of advice can you offer developing arts entrepreneurs?

Advice: First, have a social media presence; and an active and current one at that. With the availability of technology being such an accessible tool in day-to-day life, it is to your benefit to have websites like Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, and others that show exactly what you’re doing and with whom in the music scene. Second, be adaptable from one engagement to another. It isn’t uncommon for me to go from playing a church gig, musical, and salsa gig all in one day, and each gig comes with its own set of standards and expectations. The only thing you can control is the way that YOU fulfill those standards, so don’t sweat the rest. Be flexible and resourceful and you are sure to please your employer. Third, don’t forget to “hang.” The social aspect of music is incredibly important, and more than a few professionals have been blacklisted in both local and global scenes just by being antisocial or plain mean. Make friends with your colleagues in your field, and pick their brains for advice and general knowledge. You are much more likely to get a call back if someone remembers your personality fondly.

I really don’t think I’m doing anything all that groundbreaking, however I will say one thing that has helped me to have so much success is to constantly be observing what people want to hear from performers. By being aware of my audience and my clients, I have found repeated bookings from several clients, as well as recommendations that have led to many other jobs.

Interview #3 – Zakery Lewis, Trombone for Kyle Thornton & The Company, Freelance Trombone, Boston Area

Did you have a business plan when you started your business?

No, I did not.

Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

Yes, having a skill or product is never enough.

What three pieces of advice can you offer developing arts entrepreneurs?

-Hone your craft.

-Market yourself (online and in person).

-Maintain relationships.

What, if any, skills did you incorporate from other disciplines or studies

when starting your venture?

Social sciences and psychology. As an individual, I really enjoy reading. Leadership literature has definitely helped me develop as an entrepreneur. Understanding others gives you insight on how to interact with them on an individual basis. Maintaining these relationships is key for job security and being hired back.

What would you do differently if you restarted the entrepreneurship process now?        

I would have put a larger emphasis on my online presence and labeling myself as a brand. With that structure in place, I would have then developed a business plan.

What are some of the major changes your business has experienced since you started?

Supply has definitely increased, meaning more freelance musicians have come to Boston, which has made the pay go down.

What plans do you have for your business from here?

I plan to engage my clients more, that way I will be the first option for the job.

These interviews were conducted as part of research for the course Developing an Arts Venture Plan in the Arts Entrepreneurship program at SMU.

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