Business Acumen

Last Tuesday I held my first ever lecture about working in the music business. I have been hired to give a series of five lectures in total in this school year, aimed at young twenty-somethings with a very general understanding – if any – of what working as a freelance musician entails.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of acumen is ”keenness and depth of perception […] especially in practical matters”. defines the word as ”keen insight; shrewdness”. Merriam-Webster also describes its etymology as coming from a near-identical Latin term that means ”sharp needle”.

I believe the reason why they wanted me for these lectures is because I have a rather broad experience of freelance work within the music business. Not all-encompassing, to be sure, but still.

I have worked as a writer and editor; produced podcasts as well as reports for national public service radio; written music for choirs, video games, symphony orchestras, vocal ensembles and more; produced concerts, including making graphical and print materials; taught music composition, basic conducting and music history; performed as a soloist as well as a member of various ensembles…

One of the points I wanted to stress in last week’s lecture was that all of this experience comes with an important downside. Working with many different things like this also means less focus, less specialisation.

I am not as experienced a composer and arranger, for instance, as I might have been if I hand spent less time writing, teaching, performing and making podcasts. I would be an even better writer and editor if I had dedicated time and energy to actively honing that skill instead of simply learning by doing.

In both aforementioned cases, one could point to different merits and successes and say that ”David, you are an experienced composer and arranger as well as a writer and editor”. But there will always be specialists who are better at one or the other, and I gave a few examples of this during last week’s lecture.

The most memorable, at least for me, is when I and a friend of mine in music college were asked to provide one orchestral medley each of game music for an upcoming game music concert in the local concert hall. We were both ambitious students and avid game music fans, so you could definitely say we were up to the task.

However, my friend was far more dedicated to composing and particularly arranging music for orchestra than I was. He said as much himself, that he preferred writing interesting and effective arrangements to composing original music. Thinking back, on the one hand I felt that my arrangement was perhaps more interesting and creative, but on the other, my friend’s was more elegantly and skilfully executed than mine.

While my arrangement ended up a one-off thing, my friend’s arrangement landed him a number of rather high-profile arranging jobs and firmly placing him within the ranks of our best, most dependable orchestral arrangers. With good reason, I should add.

To be fair, there were other factors beyond this that also affected this development. One of those, which I also talked about with my students, is that I have throughout my freelance career as well as in my college years I have mostly been quite bad at maintaining current or future-prospective business contacts.

In this particular case, had I stayed in regular (but not excessive) contact with the concert producers and kept on developing my arranging skills, I might also have gotten some of that work. I want to stress that I believe both parts of that conditional statement are important; after all, in order for someone to want to hire you, you need to provide a certain set of skills and qualities. Those need to complement and/or supersede the contractors’ current staff.

In my case, I probably was neither a good enough orchestral arranger for them to actively seek me out, nor was I proactive enough in staying in contact with them to stick in their minds. When I look back on my active years as a student and a freelancer, being proactive has paid off more often than not whereas being passive has been almost universally detrimental to my business.

Yet another very important aspect of this is the difference between enthusiasm, ambition and determination. Those attributes are quite different, even though they can manifest in superficially similar ways. I have in the past acted on a preponderance of enthusiasm, enhanced by ambition and enforced by a tenacity bordering on stubbornness. A lack of determination and focus, however, has turned me into more of generalist than a specialist. A jack of all trades running the risk of mastering none of them.

However, in later years, as my proficiency in these various skills have grown, so has my ability to use them professionally both in isolation and especially in combination. A broad experience and understanding of how different aspects of the professional musical world intersect and are codependent can be very valuable and, to put it bluntly, attractive to a potential contractor.

You still need to put in the work of finding ways to combine your own particular set of skills, and the type of jobs where your skillset is valuable. You still need to maintain and cultivate a network of relevant contacts. Enthusiasm can be a very good thing, but can lead to a lack of focus if left unchecked. A consciously balanced mix of enthusiasm, determination and ambition seems to me to be the best way forward.

Incidentally, the well-known ”jack of all trades, master of none” phrase seems to at some unknown point have received a second line by an unknown author, turning it into a more flattering rhymed couplet (not to be confused with a cuplé) which also describes that ideal state one might reach through diligent and tenacious work.

Jack of all trades, master of none
But oftentimes better than master of one.

Categorised as Blog posts

Composer, arranger and songwriter for performance, recording, broadcast and interactive media.