McNally Smith music school teaches students how to create their own gigs

Music collaboration
Ben Kelly, a 2011 graduate of McNally Smith College of Music, collaborated with Ashley Gold while writing music in his Minneapolis, Minn. office Tuesday, June 9, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

"Practice, practice, practice" just isn't enough to get you to Carnegie Hall anymore.

These days, music experts say, it takes business savvy, technical skills and a head for marketing for many music students to succeed in their field.

So starting this fall, McNally Smith College of Music will begin turning its students into music entrepreneurs — graduates with a wide range of industry skills who can create their own gigs instead of waiting around for music jobs to open up.

"There are more opportunities for young creative musicians to make a life in music — if they are prepared with the right tools," said McNally Smith President Harry Chalmiers.

Fashioning a career out of multiple pursuits — such as composing, performing and teaching — is nothing new, and some say Mozart himself was a great example. But such careers haven't been the norm - and haven't been emphasized in music schools.

That's changing as musicians adapt to a drastically changing performing landscape, says professor David Myers, former director of the University of Minnesota School of Music. Musicians need to reach new audiences as traditional outlets such as orchestras struggle under growing financial pressures.

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Music colleges are experiencing "a growing awareness that too many music graduates are not able to figure out how to make a living pursuing their art," he said.

Myers said the move toward entrepreneurship has gained momentum in the past five years after growing slowly over the past couple of decades. Although some schools have established institutes and offered optional classes in music entrepreneurship, Myers says integrating such education fully into the curriculum is not widespread.

McNally Smith could be an exception. It has long been known for being more practical and commercially oriented than conservatories and more traditional university music programs. It hopes its redesigned curriculum will put it a step ahead of many of its peers.

Ben Kelly
Ben Kelly has diversified his income with a variety of music-related jobs including performing in a band, teaching, launching an arts group and mentoring students.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

In a nutshell, it's requiring students to learn skills from other aspects of the music industry outside their specialties and apply them throughout their studies.

Performers, for example, will do regular work in production and mixing booths - long the domain of producers and engineers -- just as they'll have to know how set up and manage performances, handle contracts and market themselves in a professional manner.

"Twenty years ago, it wasn't commonplace for performers to also have those skills, because the industry was so specialized," said John Krogh, the school's marketing chief. "There were clear delineations between performance, composition, recording engineer, mix engineer."

That's not so much the case these days, in part because technology enables musicians to do the work that used to be done by large music companies. It also enables musicians to bypass the traditional big-company marketing pipelines and reach audiences through the internet and social media.

It's not just performers who must diversify. Those studying music business or engineering at McNally, for example, will also have to learn other specialties. Those students must have a good sense of the artistic side of music, Krogh says, if they're going to work effectively with musicians.

Jeff Bailey, head of McNally Smith's bass guitar department, says learning the business and technical side of music has boosted his career as a musician. He started as a bass player, and now has his own studio.

When people looking for performers realize Bailey can help them in other areas — such as using special software or choosing equipment to achieve a certain sound — he becomes more marketable.

"I'm not just being hired as a bass player," he said. "I might be hired as the recording engineer and the bass player. That's a big difference - if you're getting two chunks of income instead of one."

Mentoring students
Ben Kelly, right, talked with Hope Academy students Seth Neterer and Shevon Greene during a mentoring session at Inverted Arts in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, June 9, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

McNally Smith alumnus Benjamin Kelly used his business savvy to branch out from bass playing into film scoring, producing records, holding live events and putting on theater shows that feature his music. Much of that show work has meant learning how to handle tasks — such as scheduling, catering, lighting and marketing — that he couldn't pay others to do.

Being an entrepreneur, he says, has freed him to pursue a variety of artistic interests.

"That's how successful and working people in the industry get around - by doing a lot of things and being part of all these random projects," he said.

McNally Smith sophomores Rene Ogunti and Jamere Lewis say they welcome the new tools and approaches. They may have grown up with social media, for example, but they had to learn how to use it in the music business.

"It's either get with the flow," Ogunti said, "or get left behind."

Sound booth dancing
Ben Kelly danced while mentoring Hope Academy students at Inverted Arts in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, June 9, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

It's hard to say just how widespread the entrepreneurial focus is among U.S. schools - in part because their approaches to it vary widely.

The U of M, for example, began two business-oriented programs under Myers several years ago: an "Entrepreneurship and Musical Careers" course with the Carlson School of Business, and a grant program that enables students to conduct community-oriented music projects.

Interim Director Scott Lipscomb said such projects teach business skills such as planning, networking, reporting and how to generate funding.

He said if the U could make those two options requirements, "that could be a very successful model."

Yet the move toward entrepreneurship hasn't always been smooth. National media reports suggest some faculty members are less than enthusiastic about embracing the business side.