Yoda Would Never Say This to Young Musicians (On Arts and Entrepreneurship)

Yoda would never say this to a young musician apprentice:

“Are you an artist or an entrepreneur? Choose you must.”

He also wouldn’t say: 

“Anger, fear, entrepreneurship. The dark side of the Force are they.”

But he might say: 

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

When I was growing up, practicing my Bach and Chopin, learning about the great masters, I had wonderful fantasies about the life of an artist. The short version of this fantasy was that art flowed magically from heaven to the artist to the page to the listener.

As for “from heaven to the artist,” I learned pretty quickly that while art can involve seemingly magical moments of inspiration, those moments can be heartbreakingly fleeting and hard to capture.

As for “from the artist to the page,” I learned that preserving these magical inspirations involves the dull, diligent, dreary work of transcription—as any professional composer will tell you. Alex Shapiro, a composer from Washington state, puts it honestly when she says in her Twitter bio that she is “Often found aligning notes with the hope that some of them might sound good together.” I learned from my days as a music editor that the professional engraving and publication of such aligned notes takes lots of money, focus, and coffee to get right. 

As each of these fantasies were replaced by experience, I also realized something that was just as important:

The mundane realities of making music take nothing away from the glory, majesty, and magic of the musical experience.

If you’re a professional musician or composer, perhaps you’ve had the same realizations.

But what about the last part of my young image of art, that the best art flowed magically from the artist to the listener? This part of the musical fantasy was far more persistent, and I held onto it for much longer. But when I became a musicologist—a professional music historian—I realized that all of the great composers from the past have either been self-promoting, or have had a champion (a colleague, historian, or patron) who promoted their work. Think of Felix Mendelssohn championing J.S. Bach’s choral works, or Diaghilev championing Stravinsky, or any number of 20th-century music historians writing the biographies of “under-appreciated” composers from the past. No, even this last part of the fantasy has a more mundane truth behind it: 

Even musical geniuses remain unknown unless they have champions.

That champion might be themselves (a self-marketer like Wagner; see Nicolas Vaszonyi’s recent book), or it might be a colleague, historian, or critic. Some composers today would rather not have anything to do with entrepreneurship (see the link to R. Andrew Lee’s post below). This is a position I respect. In that case, however, one would hope that another champion would arise to bring the best talent to our attention. There’s no other way for the rest of us to enjoy it. If music is composed in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it...

So I don’t think Yoda would make a young composer or musician choose between art or entrepreneurship. It is not so much a question of deciding between the light or the dark side of the Force, as it is learning how to navigate the mundane realities of music-making while retaining a sense of the magic that drew you to music in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between art and entrepreneurship for several years now. It’s at the heart of my research on music branding, and I’ve given research presentations on the topic. But this post was more immediately spurred on by a vibrant discussion on newmusicbox.org. I highly recommend reading the post, “You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur,” by R. Andrew Lee, and Alex Shapiro’s response post. And usually I avoid comments sections at all costs, but the NewMusicBox online community does it right. The comments add crucially to the discussion and should be read as well. 

How do you see the relationship between arts and entrepreneurship, or commerce in general? Who are the champions that have brought the music of great artists to your ears?