Five Ways Entrepreneurs in Historical Performance Can Win in the Sharing Economy

04/07/2016 01:51 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2017

We've all read the articles: the millennial generation is coming of age under some of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. For the musician, this means even more difficulty winning a position in a major orchestra, fearing increased funding cuts from your non-profit, and a shortage of university jobs. Entrepreneurship classes at conservatories aim to prepare students for these hazards of industry, while heralding the success stories of trust-funded young start-up ensembles. It's a daunting model, and it betrays a broken system. But the story doesn't end here; in fact, it may be just the beginning for musicians in historical performance with something unique to share.

Those of us in specialist fields like historical performance (HP), where profit is hard to scale in a traditional market sense, are in a natural position to transition away from failing models of industry where hours worked are directly exchanged for profit, and to move toward the sharing economy model, which is predicated on the principle that individuality, rather than goods, is scarce, and therefore valued as a commodity. We are seeing this play out in New York right now in a major way, as young people in HP with nothing at all to lose are starting their own ensembles, building them on social media, and creating platforms for themselves to share their art. Success in the crucial early stages looks different for everyone, and it can be hard to know how to get started when there are more options than ever for how to grow and connect to others. What unites those gaining real ground is a shift in mindset away, ironically, from the profit model. When an obsessive desire to make art and share it with others is at the forefront of planning, real value is brought to the world, and the givers start to profit.

1. Start Small to Scale Up
A colleague of mine about to start an early music group asked me recently if he should become a non-profit right away. Many might say yes, but I said no. Filing out 501(c)3 paperwork requires you to define the personality of your ensemble before you begin, to focus on cultivating a limited amount of relationships, and leaves little room for growth in the protean stages of work. The truth is that you are going to be a completely different entity in five years: your personnel may change, your repertoire will solidify, and your connections will broaden. Attach yourself in the embryonic stages to an umbrella organization, spend time growing, and amass a body of repertoire that will gain you experience. Play everywhere, and document everything. Use this crucial time to build your email list, and to do everything that you possibly can without paying for it. Once you have something to show for yourself, dust off the non-profit paperwork, and you'll find that you're in a much better position than you were previously to attract superior board members.

2. Don't Compare Yourself with Others

"Only when you make art that isn't for everyone, do you have a chance to truly connect with someone."

-Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception.

Every ensemble expresses itself in different ways, even in HP, where it would seem we all share similar values and goals. Some concertize all the time, and never record. Some record right away and never play concerts. And so on. The point is, it doesn't really matter what direction you take, so long as you are making work of the highest caliber and connecting to the people who value it the most. Contrary to popular belief, direct competition actually inhibits growth and success, and this is true whether you are selling car insurance or chamber music. Under the laws of perfect competition, all products get competed away if clones wrestle for the same market, because resources divide evenly and grow scarce. Pure creativity, however, will always find its own audience and will always trump competition. So be yourself. Focus on what you can bring to the world that no one else can, then birth it into existence. Your ideas, by nature of their inevitable individuality, will scale.

3. Shift from the Profit Mindset to the Value Mindset
If we can give ourselves the freedom to remember the essence of what it means to make art -- that art is about more than just making money and survival, but about having an impact and doing something we love -- our art will thrive, and so will we. For the musician entrepreneur, this means generating income through teaching, copywriting, editing, coaching, writing, researching, etc., if we need to, so that our creativity has room to breathe. This also means sharing our art widely, and giving gifts to our audience, in the form of our music, but also with beautiful online content, a bit of shared research, a track from a new cd, or new videos periodically emailed around. In the sharing economy, people who pay us with their attention are just as valuable as those who pay us with dollars. For many this is a tragically hard pill to swallow because the hours-to-profit model has been so deeply ingrained. Capitalism tells us that everything has to be fair -- that an even trade must occur between goods and payment. A valuable gift, however, binds the recipient to the giver forever, and also signals surplus. Some may think that it's difficult to be generous when hungry, but remember that by being generous you will keep yourself from going hungry in the end. Giving gifts of the highest quality, the sort that can never be adequately paid for, signals to the world that you have plenty more to share -- and this perspective is magnetic.

4. Build a Solid Online Platform
Due to the discursive nature of our field, many of us in HP are as fully invested in our research as we are in performance. Social media provides us with a vehicle to help us figure out what we want to bring to the conversation, and provides us with the tools we need to take an authoritative stance. Different channels of social media attract different audiences, however. To maximize scope, post everywhere, and cross-fertilize posting, but focus primarily on one channel to ensure it's robust, after checking stats to see which is most used. Having a website designed from scratch can run you upwards of thousands of dollars, and isn't necessary, especially in the beginning. (It also means that there will be a middleman to deal with each time you need to upload or edit content.) Thanks to companies like Weebly or Squarespace, it's easy to make a beautiful website yourself from template -- and if you're horrible at making a site look right from template, like most people I know, you can even have a gorgeous templated site built for you at a fraction of the cost (one company I love who does this is Templixity). Read up on SEO (search engine optimization) and teach yourself how to tag your website with searchable keyword terms to increase its ranking on Google.

5. Do the Work
Nothing I've said above has any value whatsoever if you don't put in the work. Hard, consistent, organized labor is the single most important element in the entrepreneurial process and can't ever be taken for granted. Entrepreneurs in HP who can successfully leverage their inventiveness and commitment to create consistent work of the utmost quality will find success, especially now, in a world where we can connect to anyone, anywhere, with the click of a button. But as you work, ask yourself: are you learning? Are you proud of the art you're putting into the world and of the connections you're inciting? If you've answered yes, you have reason to celebrate.