Thursday, 9 April 2015

Making Music Work - ISM Conference

ISM - Make Music Work
Make Music Work was the title of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) conference on Tuesday 31 March at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Milton Court. The event brought together a huge number of ISM members, and students to listen to and take part in debates about the big questions around creating a sustainable career, with The Jury's Out focussing on competitions, Make Something from Nothing looking at ways of being creative, Getting is Straight looking at legal issues and not getting ripped off, and The Idea's the Thing about turning an idea into a career. Interspersed with these were performances from a wide variety of musicians including Westcombe Brass, Juice vocal ensemble, Benjamin Baker, Gabriella Swallow and her Urban Family and Kesnija Sidorova.

Things kicked off in a lively fashion with Westcombe Brass (Paul Bosworth and Nial Mulvoy, trumpets, Alex Joyce, French horn, Emma Bassett, trombone, and Joe Palmer, tuba) performing Elgar Howarth's Processional Fanfare, and arrangements of Jimmy McHugh's On the Sunny Side of the Street and Irving Berlin's Putting on the Ritz.

The Barry Ife, president of the ISM  and head of Guildhall School, and trumpeter Alison Balsom introduced the day.  Ife described the conference as an 'audit of systems in place to ensure young people progress into the profession', whilst Balsom talked about the steps in her career which took her from student to professional musician, and these were many and varied ranging from BBC Young Musician to studying in Paris for a year where the teaching tradition was radically different. Throughout she emphasised the need to balance repertory with integrity with music which people want to pay to listen to.

Westcombe Brass
Westcombe Brass
In complete contrast they were followed by Juice vocal ensemble (Anna Snow, Sarah Dacey and Kerry Andrew) who performed Paul Robinson's Triadic Riddles of Water and Ice, Sarah Dacey's arrangement of the traditional song Cruel Mother and Sally Whitwell's Going Somewhere.

The first panel discussion was The Jury's Out on competitions with a mixture of performers, teachers and an someone who managed a competition: Richard Morrison, Chief Music Critic, The Times, Benjamin Baker, Violinist, YCAT; Emma Bassett, Trombonist, Westcombe Brass; Roderick Lakin, Director of Arts, Royal Overseas League; Mark Messenger, Head of Strings, Royal College of Music; Ronan O’Hora, Head of Keyboard Studies and Head of Advanced Performance Studies, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Anna Snow, juice vocal ensemble.

Lakin felt that competitions could be brutal, and that we needed to accept that the task of the jury was to whittle down the competitors, but that it was essential they choose a musician and not a show pony. Messenger was not particularly positive about them, but felt they can be useful mainly because of the amount of preparation needed but to do well performers need to turn their spontaneous/creative side off. From the performers, Bassett said that she enjoyed the preparation and choosing the repertory whilst Baker said that the biggest benefit could come if the competition coincided with something that you can find useful, and you also find more out about yourself as a performer.

Musicians were in a Faustian pact with the competition industry when performing was not an objectively quantifiable discipline

O'Hora pointed out that there were over 650 competitions and so a huge range, but that musicians were in a Faustian pact with the competition industry when performing was not an objectively quantifiable discipline. Whilst Morrison also pointed out that the public likes them!

Discussion also moved towards the vexed issue of whether the results were truly independent, and Messenger said that he felt that there were a small number, known generally to teacher in the conservatoires, where doubtful jury practices do happen still and that the effect was insidious and devalued the rest. And Lakin, who is responsible for the competition run by the Royal Overseas League, said that it does not have to be like that.

Discussion then moved on to wider issues and seem to lose focus somewhat, though interesting points were raised. The whole discussion seemed to take for granted that competitions should and will exist, and students need to work within the system, and the opportunity was not taken to consider the whole issue from a wider standpoint. Chatting over coffee afterwards, a couple of people commented that the panel seemed to rather take as read the point raised from the floor that there were few competitions for older people.

Benjamin Baker
Benjamin Baker
We returned from coffee to listen to a performance from violinist Benjamin Baker who played the Allemanda from the Sonata No. 4 n E minor, Op 27 by Eugene Ysaye.

The next discussion was on being creative and entrepreneurial, Make something from nothing with a mixture of PR, fundraising, project and festival people: Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive, ISM, Rebecca Driver, Rebecca Driver Media RelationsTom Hutchinson, Projects Co-ordinator, Royal Philharmonic Society, Igor Toronyi-Lalic, London Contemporary Music Festival, Clare Wilkinson, Senior Grants Manager at the Garfield Weston Foundation and former fundraising consultant, and Michelle Wright, Chief Executive, Cause4. In fact, what was interesting is that most of the panellists wore many hats, and the resulting discussion was interestingly lively.

Wright felt that it was important for young performers to understand the need for a portfolio career, that they needed to have a range of skills so they could make money when leaving college. Hutchinson said they needed to work out what they had to do to survive in London to give themselves time for performance so it was important to think practically. And that it was often difficult for funders to look at classical performers as they never made themselves very compelling, there was a need to go outside the box. This was echoed by Wilkinson who said performers needed to have a story, a reason why people were interested in you.

Coming at this from a PR point of view Driver said that she was constantly surprised at how little understanding people have about telling a story. The need to combine good craftsmanship with a website, videos, social media and good networking skills. That 'Good artist does concert' is not a story to get coverage.

'Good artist does concert' is not a story to get coverage.

But Toronyi-Lalic (who besides being a journalist, also founded his own festival), pointed out that the twist has to be natural and that anger can be a helpful source of finding new territory. But you also had not to be put off by rejections (it has happened to the best of people).

Networking, collaboration and the importance of interacting with people was raised, and looking at why people should come and listen to you, but also being counter-intuitive and going against the flow.

Money, as ever, is an issue and the cost of musicians is really expensive as compared to other art-forms, so performers need to be organised and know what funders are available, when their deadlines are etc. Regarding funding applications, the need for being concise was repeatedly emphasised, though there was room for creativity too. Concision was also important in biographies, though here we had a lively discussion about what the panellists wanted to read on a bio, some were quite basic like listing what year you were born, where you were born and what nationality you are!

And a brand was important, 'what do I stand for, what am I known for', performers needed to be strategic with a vision of what you want to present.

What do I stand for, what am I known for

The long narrow foyers of Milton Court are not quite the best space for networking, but we all managed to have a good an lively lunch, and met contacts old and new. I was lucky enough to bump into a number of people with whom I had only had an on-line contact, as well as people who are readers of this blog (and its always nice to meet those!).

We returned from lunch to Getting it straight a session which sought to look at the relationship between performer and agent and other legal type issues, with panellists being mainly from the legal and administration side including an agent, though more than one was a performer too:  Ivan Hewett, Classical Music Critic, Telegraph , David Abrahams, Head of Legal, ISM, James Brown, Managing Director, Hazard Chase, Richard Paine, Director of Commercial Rights and Business Affairs, Faber Music; Justin Pearson, Cellist and Governor, Royal Society of Musicians; Gabriel Prokofiev, Composer and founder of Nonclassical record label.

There was a lot of good stuff at this discussion, but it was far less lively than the previous one and the fact that almost none of the panellists could adequately manage their radio mikes meant that for many in the hall, much of what was said was lost. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front few rows, but it was still a strain.

Hewett kicked things off with a talk about artists and agents. Brown said that an artist needed to exercise judgement and be demonstrating some development before approaching an agent. But Abrahams pointed out that the lucky few get good advice whilst many are simply desperate to get an agent and end up with someone unscrupulous and exploitative and it was important to Get Advice.

Hewett did pointed out that the whole Artist/Agent scenario was a rather 19th century point of view and Prokofiev said that many musicians are now self-managed which is generally a positive issued but that negotiating your own fees can be awkward. Pearson, who combines  playing and non-playing careers, said the artists would really like to know how much they are worth and why not worth more in the UK.

For composers, Paine pointed out that the amount of money going to them was miniscule, whilst Brown said that the gap between the ordinary young artists and the real box office draw was getting wider and that it was really hard for those in the middle as this market seemed to have disappeared. Pearson echoed this with details of the huge differential (x250) between rank and file musicians and the major conductor working with them, and there was a difficulty getting a sense of the right feel. Abrahams said that it was important to understand music as a profession, and that artists should get the right fee. But competition law prevented the ISM from publishing explicit rates!

It was important to understand music as a profession, and that artists should get the right fee. But competition law prevented the ISM from publishing explicit rates!

With money being tight, Prokofiev felt that there was new openness and that people should explain what the budget is and open a dialogue between performer and promoter, working together rather than being suspicious.

There as  long an fascinating discussion about performing rights, with the issues of Spotify, YouTube etc and the fact that we don't have a system in place to handle these. Again the pact is a bit Faustian, as a musician needs them for exposure but they hardly pay at all. Prokofiev was constructive and said that people are now turning to Bandcamp and Kickstarter.

It was agreed that education needed to be part of it as there was a perception that things that appear on the web just appear there and are not the fruit of someone's labour. There is no easy answer.

a perception that things that appear on the web just appear there and are not the fruit of someone's labour

Next came two contrasting performers, first cellist Gabriella Swallow and her Urban Family (Lizzie Ball on violin, Dave Maric on accordion and Pedro Segundo on drums) and they played the tano Esqualo by Astor Piazzolla and their own arrangement of four of Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances. Then another accordionist, Ksenija Sidorova came for a solo spot. She told us that she would only be playing music specifically written for the instrument (rather than arrangements) and gave us Sergej Voitenko's Revelation and Vladimir Zubitsky's Omaggio ad Astor Piazzolla (she could not play real Piazolla as he never wrote for accordion, his chosen instrument was the bandoneon which is related).

The final session of the day, The idea's the thing looked brought together musicians who had all carved an individual path to discuss how to go from idea to career, with Sara Mohr-Pietsch, BBC Radio 3 presenter, Helena Gaunt, Assistant Principal, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, John Slack, Clarinettist, Berkeley Ensemble, Gabriella Swallow, Cellist, Samantha Ward, Artistic Director, Piano Week Festival; Toby Young, Composer; Ruby Hughes, Soprano, BBC New Generation Artist 2011-2013.

Gaunt started things off by describing the Creative Entrepreneurs course which has been introduced at the Guildhall School. She started off by commenting that they have discovered that musicians are not terribly entrepreneurial; the best were those over 30 and more men than women! But she then went on to enumerate the ways in which musicians had many skills which make good entrepreneurs.

Ward commented that she had not be trained in business, nor how to sell herself, and after thirty she was now learning on the job. Young said that though he had been on courses, the best way to learn was on the job. Swallow admitted that after her training she barely knew how to turn on a computer, though things were changing now. Slack said that the earlier you started the better.

Hughes introduced a rather different point of view, feeling that the music was more important and that she grappled with the word entrepreneur. Young commented that musicians found networking a diry work, but Hughes also admitted that there was also the reality of earning a living.

the music was more important and she grappled with the word entrepreneur

Slack felt it was important to have the creative idea first, then the effort to make it happen; it was important to be financially viable and it might be the musicians are not always doing what they want. Swallow said that her session work including Downton Abbey had really helped, though you had to still enjoy it and do it with integrity. Young said to have enough fingers in enough pies that one might work. He combined work as a composer, with a PhD and in the pop world, though he too insisted it be done with integrity, and felt the pop world was more creatively open. Mohr-Pietsch concluding this segment with a comment that there was a tension between business as competition, and a sense of supportive, co-creative work.

They then moved on to talking about how you got over the hump from college to full time work. Hughes said it was important to have people on your side, support to keep each other going, Ward added you should acknowledge that you have achieved a lot. For Swallow, her Urban Family was a family that you make with friends and that connections were important as was working with people who have the same ideas as you.

The next area was more controversial, what do you get paid for. Young said his was 75% pop royalties, with the result from his academic job and classical commissions. Hughes said hers was mainly performing and teaching, whilst Slack said 50% of his came from administration and only 30% from performing. Swallow said 50% from session work and the rest from long term collaborations and solos. Ward said hers was mainly from a mix of performing and teaching, and that Piano Week was now breaking even.

The formal part of the day concluded with a lively and entertaining talk from Edward Blakeman, director of the BBC Proms talked about the ways the BBC supported young artists.

Afterwards we had the more casual part of the say, with cocktails sponsored by Classical Music magazine.
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