A conservatory with a record label and a management firm? That’s weird. Or is it?

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Bowes Center for Performing Arts. The conservatory recently acquired Pentatone, a classical record label. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle 2021

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s recent announcement that it has acquired a classical record label, Pentatone, to go along with the arts management firm it purchased two years ago, prompted furious head-scratching and a flurry of questions from many observers.

What kind of a deal is this, anyway? Is the Conservatory, a venerable establishment that dates back to 1917, still an institute of higher learning as the concept has generally been understood? Or is it morphing before our eyes into some sort of musical business conglomerate, in which the students are one constituency among many? And if so, what does that mean for music education in this country?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. And before we go on, I should disclose that I teach a seminar on music criticism at the Conservatory and also participate in the annual Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, which operates under the school’s auspices.

David H. Stull, the Conservatory’s astonishingly ambitious and persuasive president, will be happy to explain to you why having an organizational relationship with the clients of Opus 3 Artists — who include, among many others, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, banjoist Béla Fleck, saxophonist Joshua Redman and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — benefits the school and its students. Those musicians might be more likely to come to San Francisco for recitals, master classes and residencies, and students would be able to learn from them.

David H. Stull, president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle 2018

By the same token, the presence of an in-house record label could very well be an educational and professional asset for Conservatory students across a wide range of interests — especially those interested in pursuing a career in the recording industry.

As Mao Zedong supposedly said when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, it’s too early to know. But one thing that seems clear is that some of the consternation around this development, both for me and for other onlookers, has to do with a profound uncertainty about the role of money in the arts.

More to the point, perhaps, it touches on a sense that the career trappings of late-stage capitalism — in particular, the gig economy and the pervasive emphasis on self-directed entrepreneurialism — have suffused the worlds of classical and contemporary music.

Aside from the life of the freelance musician, which has always been part of the classical landscape, the internet has lowered the barriers to entry for all sorts of career undertakings and reduced the power of traditional gatekeepers.

As a result, every young composer, every aspiring conductor, every budding oboist and tuba virtuoso is now expected to be their own manager, press rep and booking agent all in one. It doesn’t leave much time for practicing scales, does it?

And this rhetorical emphasis on making your own opportunities — which is at once empowering and burdensome — is underscored by the success stories that get handed down through the years, becoming more burnished with each retelling.

Bang on a Can co-founders David Lang (left), Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. Photo: Peter Serling

In the 1980s, for example, the composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang created the new music collective Bang on a Can as a way to get their own music and that of their friends performed. Through hustle and determination, they launched a series of pickup concerts that eventually ballooned to include a record label, a chamber ensemble, a summer festival and more. Today, Bang is a cultural colossus.

Similarly, the International Contemporary Ensemble was created when flutist Claire Chase — now one of the Collaborative Partners surrounding Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen at the San Francisco Symphony — and several of her chums from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music cobbled together a concert series out of thin air in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm.

These are inspiring stories, but do they also carry a faintly coercive strain? Do they partake, even if only by implication, of the American mythology that everyone with sufficient gumption can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?

When I asked Chase about this in an interview several years ago, she forcefully rejected the “entrepreneurial” label.

“I prefer to speak about advocacy and activism,” she told me. “What I don’t believe is that any young artist can afford to simply show up and play and not question what their contribution is — who they’re making their work for, and why and how.”

Flutist Claire Chase performs as part of the San Francisco Symphony’s “Throughline” program. Photo: San Francisco Symphony

In a recent conversation, Lang also described the founding of Bang on a Can not as an act of careerism but idealism.

“When we were in graduate school and afterward,” he said, “Michael and Julie and I would get together every day and talk about things we wished were different — what music we thought should be played that wasn’t being played, ways to present music so that you could hear in a fresh context, ways for young composers to be treated with respect.

“And after a while it was clear that nobody was going to do these things. So we started doing them. That’s the part of entrepreneurship that I think is really important: to have a mission, to have something you believe in passionately and can commit to.”

It’s one thing to commit to making artistic change; it’s another to have the organizational and financial skills to see the project through. The history of Bang on a Can is in part a tale of stylistic change, but as William Robin’s recent book “Industry” shows, it’s also a story about broader shifts in American arts funding in the 1980s. (I once heard Gordon tell a concert audience that the secret to success he’d learned from his businessman father was to buy something for a dollar and sell it for $2. As a composer, he said, his business model was to buy something for a dollar and sell it for 17 cents.)

That’s where schools such as the San Francisco Conservatory can make a real difference. One of its significant shifts under Stull’s leadership has been an increased emphasis on teaching the real-life skills that students will need for any kind of musical career: how to find their way around a recording session, how to take an orchestral audition, how to manage their finances, how to get a manager (or make a satisfying career without a manager).

For anyone who got to adulthood without ever being taught how to handle their money or file their taxes — and who feels hobbled by that lack — this is exciting stuff. Not only that, it’s a necessity.

“For today’s musicians, when they graduate, simply playing at the highest level is not enough,” said Conservatory Dean and Chief Academic Officer Jonas Wright. “They have to know how to market themselves and how to run a balance sheet. It’s not sufficient just to be an excellent player.”

A recording facility at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Photo: Matt Washburn / San Francisco Conservatory of Music

And as Kate Sheeran, Wright’s predecessor as dean, points out, that kind of broader knowledge has deep roots in music.

“In the 20th century, we got hyper-focused on specific performing roles and didn’t have the broader conversation,” she said. “But historically, Bach was an entrepreneur. Liszt raised money for his concerts from him. Students need more context for their performing skills, and now we’re finally getting back to that.”

Just what role the Conservatory’s growing portfolio of acquisitions will play in that conversation remains to be seen. As always in these circumstances, there’s a delicate line between offering young people learning opportunities and exploiting them, just as there’s a line between an internship and, let’s say, servitude. If students wind up being merely incidental to higher-level business synergies that don’t actually benefit them, that’s a problem.

A more optimistic scenario is that the Conservatory becomes a place where tomorrow’s musicians are immersed in all the complexities of the modern professional workplace — including not just the purely artistic side, but also the financial and logistical nuts and bolts of a fully rounded career, whether entrepreneurial or not.



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