A conservatory with a record label and a management company? It’s weird. Where is it?

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

The recent announcement by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music that it is acquiring classical music record label, Pentatone, to go along with the arts management company it bought two years ago has caused some scratching. angry head and a flurry of questions many observers.

What kind of deal is that, anyway? Is the Conservatoire, a venerable establishment dating from 1917, still an institute of higher education in the sense in which it is generally understood? Or is it transforming itself before our eyes into a sort of conglomeration of musical enterprises, in which the students are only one group among many others? And if so, what does this mean for music education in this country?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. As Mao Zedong would have said when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, it is too early to know. And before I continue, I must reveal that I teach a seminar on music criticism at the Conservatory and also attend the annual Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, which operates under the auspices of the school.

David H. Stull, however, will be happy to chime in. The surprisingly ambitious and persuasive president of the Conservatoire, will tell you why having an organizing relationship with Opus 3 Artists clients – 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. These musicians might be more likely to come to San Francisco for recitals, master classes, and residencies, and students might learn from them.

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

Similarly, the presence of an in-house label could very well be an educational and professional asset for Conservatory students in a wide range of interests, especially those wishing to pursue a career in the recording industry.

But one thing seems clear, and that is that part of the consternation over this development, both for me and for other viewers, has to do with a deep uncertainty about the role of money in the arts.

Specifically, perhaps, it touches on the sense that the career trappings of late-stage capitalism — in particular, the gig economy and pervasive emphasis on self-directed entrepreneurship — have permeated the worlds of classical music and contemporary.

Besides the life of the independent musician, which has always been part of the classical landscape, the Internet has lowered the barriers to entry for all kinds of professional endeavors and reduced the power of traditional gatekeepers.

As a result, every young composer, budding conductor, budding oboist and tuba virtuoso must now be their own manager, press officer and booking agent all rolled into one. Doesn’t leave much time to practice scales, does it?

And this rhetorical emphasis on creating your own opportunities – which is both challenging and tedious – is underscored by the success stories that carry over the years, growing brighter with each tale.

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

In the 1980s, for example, composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang formed the new music collective Bang on a Can to perform their own music and that of their friends. Through restlessness and determination, they launched a series of pickup gigs that eventually exploded to include a record label, chamber ensemble, summer festival and more. Today, Bang is a cultural colossus.

Similarly, the International Contemporary Ensemble was formed when flautist Claire Chase – now one of the collaboration partners surrounding Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen at the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra – and several of her pals from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music have concocted a series of concerts out of thin air amid a snowstorm in Chicago.

These are inspiring stories, but do they also carry a slight coercive constraint? Are they participating, if only by implication, in the American mythology that anyone with enough savvy can get by on their own?

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

“I prefer to talk about advocacy and activism,” she told me. “What I don’t believe is that a young artist can afford to just show up and play without thinking about what their contribution is – who they’re doing their work for, and why and how.”

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

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

“When we were in college and after,” he said, “Michael, Julie, and I would get together every day and talk about things we wanted different — what music we thought should be played that wasn’t not played, ways to present music so you can hear it in a new context, ways for young composers to be treated with respect.

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

It’s one thing to commit to artistic change; it’s another to have the organizational and financial skills to carry out the project. The story of Bang on a Can is partly a story of stylistic change, but as William Robin’s recent book “Industry” shows, it’s also a story of broader changes in the funding of American arts in the years 1980. (I once heard Gordon tell a concert audience that the secret to success he 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.)

This is where schools like the San Francisco Conservatory can make a real difference. One of the significant changes under Stull’s leadership has been a greater emphasis on teaching the real-life skills students will need for any type of musical career: how to navigate a recording session , how to get an orchestral audition, how to manage their finances, how to find a manager (or have a satisfying career without a manager).

For anyone who has reached adulthood without ever having learned how to manage their money or file their taxes – and who feel shackled by this lack – this is exciting stuff. Not only that, it is a necessity.

“For musicians today, when they graduate, it’s not enough to perform at the highest level,” said conservatory dean and director of studies Jonas Wright. “They need to know how to market themselves and how to manage a balance sheet. It’s not enough 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, this kind of broader knowledge has deep roots in music.

“In the 20th century, we focused on specific roles and didn’t have a broader conversation,” she said. “But historically, Bach was an entrepreneur. Liszt collected funds for his concerts. Students need more context for their interpretive skills, and now we are finally getting back to it.

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

A more optimistic scenario is for the Conservatory to become a place where the musicians of tomorrow are immersed in all the intricacies of the modern professional workplace – including not only the purely artistic side, but also the financial and logistical workings of a full career, whether entrepreneurial or not.



Laura J. Boyer