The Mindset of Success: Four Pillars for Today’s Music Entrepreneurs Part 1

It is a fascinating, challenging time to be a musician.

Traditional institutions struggle to remain relevant as new technologies and new ways of performing, disseminating music and interacting with audiences are changing our very world. A new model and more entrepreneurial model of success is emerging.

What kind of mindset do you need to create success in these unchartered waters?

My sense from observing successful entrepreneurial musicians is that the mindset of success encompasses 4 elements, the 4 pillars for today’s music entrepreneurs:

  • Passion
  • Positivity
  • Possibility
  • Perseverance

Here are some reflections on the mindset of success and how it is manifested in some of today’s most promising up and coming musicians. I will draw on the experience of 4 alumni of the Yale School of Music who recently appeared on a panel that I recently moderated at Yale.

Mellissa Hughes (center) with Martha Cluver and Caroline Shaw (known together as Va Vocals) - Photo: Thomas Deneuville

Mellissa Hughes (center) with Martha Cluver and Caroline Shaw (known together as Va Vocals) – Photo: Thomas Deneuville

The Artists:

Owen Dalby: A specialist in both new and early music across the stylistic spectrum on both violin and viola, Owen is the co-founder of Decoda, New York City’s trailblazing society of virtuoso chamber musicians, arts advocates, and educators, comprised of alumni of the Ensemble ACJW (a joint venture of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, the Weill Institute of Music in partnership with the New York City Department of Education), which Owen attended after graduating from Yale. Through Decoda , Owen prides himself on performing the highest quality of music with equal attention to community outreach and advocacy, thus creating a new model of how a chamber music ensemble can perform and interact with audiences.

Mellissa Hughes: Mellissa is a versatile soprano who enjoys an international performance career spanning concert halls and rock venues and collaborates with contemporary composers to perform new music in a wide range of styles. Equally at home with Mozart, Handel, and baroque opera,  she is the lead vocalist of Newspeak, an amplified alt-classical band, and also appears with Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire. Mellissa has worked with today’s leading composers including Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Steve Reich, David T. Little, Missy Mazzoli, Ted Hearne, and Frederick Rzewski.

Missy Mazzoli: A prolific composer whose works are widely performed all over the world by noted orchestras and ensembles including the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, the American Composers Orchestra, New York City Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, Missy collaborates with a wide range of artists and also performs with Victoire, the band that she founded. Upcoming projects include a commission from Carnegie Hall for a new work for Victoire, Wilco drummer/percussionist Glenn Kotche and vocalists Mellissa Hughes, Martha Cluver and Virginia Warnken, as well as premieres of newly commissioned works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and pianist Emanuel Ax. Missy is on the Music Composition Faculty of the Mannes College.

James Moore: A multi-instrumentalist who performs on classical and rock guitar, banjo, mandolin, James incorporates his classical training and adds a healthy dose of improvisation, theatrics, and experimentation. A familiar face on the New York scene, James also tours widely throughout the world and has collaborated with a wide-range of artists and composers, including John Zorn, David Lang, and Michael Gordon.  James is also a founding member and director of Dither, an electric guitar quartet known for precision playing and creative programming. He has served on the faculty of Princeton University, and he has been a guest artist at universities across the country.

Each of these artists has followed their own, unique path to creating success. Yet they exhibit similar characteristics, starting with the way they think about and approach their careers.

They are all passionate about what they do, they are optimistic and look for opportunities to share their unique way of making music with today’s audiences, and they work hard and are committed to making things happen. And the consequence is that they are creating their own success. To me, that sums up the mindset of the successful music entrepreneur.

Let’s examine the four pillars of this mindset.

1. Passion: I love this!

Passion underlies any successful entrepreneur. As Steve Jobs told the graduates of Stanford University in his epic 2005 Commencement Address, the only way to be truly satisfied in life is when you follow your passions and do what you believe to be great work: “You’ve got to find what you love. …Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. …So keep looking until you find it.”

I love this advice because passion is a powerful motivator. Researchers including Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale University’s School of Management, have observed that people’s attitudes towards their work fall into one of three categories:

  • a job, where the motivation is a paycheck;
  • a career, where the motivation is likely to come from extrinsic factors like money, prestige and promotions; and
  • a calling, where one is fueled by an inner passion and finds his or her work to be personally meaningful and fulfilling

It is the third category—the calling—that characterizes the successful music entrepreneur.

Thus, Mellissa Hughes described her “calling” as working with composers in a variety of styles. She exhorted our students to show their passion when they perform because audiences respond enthusiastically when they feel passion coming from the stage.

Owen related that his calling or “true north” is chamber music, with offshoots that include early music and leadership in ensembles. Owen told us to be convincing and passionate as you break the rules, to create something meaningful and to advocate for music.

And both Missy and James radiated passion when they were speaking about their work. We could all feel their passion. So to me, that is one crucial element in the mindset of success.