Arts Feature

Conference Puts Musical Entrepreneurship Front and Center

Savvy Musician Event Draws Participants From Throughout the Country

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The four-day Savvy Musician in Action conference ended Sunday at the University of South Carolina with an all-day program that included a nine-team pitchfest.

The conference, now in its second year, is organized by David Cutler, a jazz and classical pianist, composer and arranger who was hired by USC in 2012 as associate professor of music entrepreneurship. It aims to fill a gap in music education by teaching students the entrepreneurial skill set needed to thrive in a world in which musicians frequently cobble together complicated careers that require juggling numerous projects and income sources.

USC was the first university in the country to have a full-time music entrepreneurship professor. Cutler, who lived in Pittsburgh before coming to USC, emphasized Sunday that not only has the university made entrepreneurship a priority, but also that Columbia has a fertile landscape for arts collaboration — noting that he’s found it much easier to form community partnerships here than he has seen in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
That bodes well long-term, he said.

“Mark my words: Columbia will become a hub for arts entrepreneurship.”

The conference kicked off Thursday with a full day of training on the entrepreneurial mindset, at which attendees learned about business models, how to pitch an idea and more.

Thursday night, the public got involved as five contemporary classical ensembles — whose members were attending the conference — performed at the Tapp’s Arts Center. The groups that performed were winners of the Savvy Musician’s chamber competition — the only such competition that makes innovation a primary category in which groups are judged. Performers included Warp Trio, Ensemble 39, Duo Anova, invoke and the Fourth Wall, the overall winners of the competition.

The performances — enthusiastically received by a multi-generational, multi-racial and not particularly classically oriented crowd — helped strengthen and solidify Columbia’s status as a hub for new music, a status initiated by USC’s long-running Southern Exposure series and continued by Conundrum Music Hall. Free Times documented Columbia’s proclivity toward such music in a 2011 cover story by Patrick Wall, “The Austin of Indie Classical.”

While the performances were high-caliber — and it was a rarity for Columbia audiences to see that many contemporary classical groups at the same time — they were not the primary reason the musicians were in town. Back at entrepreneurial boot camp, the musicians learned about product development, business research, marketing, finance, social media and more, and received input from experts such as Howard Herring, CEO of the New World Symphony; Ranaan Meyer, bassist of Time for Three; and Kimball Gallagher, a classical pianist who gives salon-style concerts throughout the world.

Sunday was the day to present all they had learned, in the form of achievable, sustainable business proposals.

The teams, comprised of the roughly 60 attendees to the conference, were charged with the task of coming up with a music-related entrepreneurial concept and developing that concept to the point where it was presented both as a visual exhibit hanging on the wall of the Copenhaver Band Hall and in a verbal pitchfest.

Ideas ranged from Valor’s Voice, which would bring artists and veterans together to help soldiers process their experiences creatively, to Mad Creek, a proposed artist retreat on a horse farm. Several awards were given, including an Audience Choice award, which went to Valor’s Voice.

Perhaps the most coveted award, though, was for the pitchfest, which was judged by a panel including Ken May, director of the S.C. Arts Commission; Caitlin Bright, director of the Tapp’s Arts Center; and Juliana Iarossi of USC’s Darla Moore School of Business.

The pitchfest winners? Music Fit, an idea combining music lessons and physical fitness; and Mini Maestros, a film score composition camp for kids. In contrast to some of the other ideas, these required less startup capital and demonstrated greater potential market demand. Could they work in real life? In both cases, it remains to be seen. But in going through the process of developing an idea and having it held up to scrutiny, all of the teams honed their business skills for the future.

And that, after all, was the point of the conference. 

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