The Story of a Classical Music Startup: Part I

For two seasons, I ran a concert series in San Francisco called Curious Flights that shined a light on rarely performed works for solo, chamber, orchestra and other large ensemble. Despite the stomach-churning rollercoaster of highs and lows, successes and failures, it was one of the most important experiences in my life as a 21st century classical musician looking to forge my own unique path. This blog series will share my story and the lessons I learned along the way.


PART I

THE GENESIS

  Ideas are rarely fully-formed.

Ideas are rarely fully-formed.

I’d like to say that the idea for my concert series was born out of a moment of sheer brilliance, like a cartoon light bulb appearing above my head.


But it was more like one of those lights that flicker erratically before finally turning on indefinitely.


A few of these early flickers occurred while I was sat at my office desk, working for a small classical music PR firm. It had been almost a year of full time employment since graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and although I was still thoroughly enjoying this new line of work, the honeymoon period was over and something was missing.


I felt disconnected from performing.


Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, I decided to create my own opportunities by organizing a recital that focused on my passion for the lesser-known works of English composers.


With my newfound PR skills, I sent out a press release and for the first time in my life, a tiny little event highlight appeared in a local newspaper. Even a few friendly neighborhood music bloggers came along.


“It's always a bit nervous going to see someone you know perform for the first time, because what are you supposed to do if they are mediocre or just plain terrible? Happily, Brenden's clarinet playing was very, very good and the concert itself was charming…”

- Civic Center Blog


I was elated to be back on the stage albeit with a small audience of friends, in a tiny little church with a no-alcohol post-concert reception policy. And all of those supposedly tedious tasks, such as scheduling rehearsals, creating programs, spreading the word and everything in between, were actually rather enjoyable.


Unknown to me at the time, this was the very seed that would eventually grow into Curious Flights.

 

THE AH-HA MOMENT

  Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Cello & Piano by Joseph Stillwell at “A Celebration of Bay Area Music”

Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Cello & Piano by Joseph Stillwell at “A Celebration of Bay Area Music”

About six months later, I put on another self-produced concert as I continued to scratch that now familiar itch, this time focusing on another one of my passions: the music of today’s composers.


It was another modest sized audience but this time, there were a few members of the public thrown in alongside my friends. And with an even more concerted PR effort, I garnered my first ever review in a reputable local publication.


The music is complex and yet instantly appealing, gorgeously tonal but not “old-fashioned.” The first movement is simply beautiful, the second packs driving energy.

- San Francisco Classical Voice (regarding a World Premiere by Joseph Stillwell)



The fire inside me was burning and it is here that I must attribute thanks to Nicholas Pavkovic, a friend and composer from the Conservatory, who paved the way for Curious Flights after suggesting that I structure these one-off concerts into a series of festival.


The light flickered a few more times but soon flooded my brain as I slowly realized the path that I had been heading all along…


The feeling that something was missing was not just about performing; it was about creating something that I was truly passionate about and that I could share with other people. It was ultimately the idea of creating something bigger and better than just myself.

THE LESSONS

  Music from England would play a huge theme in what was to come.

Music from England would play a huge theme in what was to come.

1) Write What You Know

Many of you will have heard this phrase before and I feel that it is equally important when considering your own classical music startup.


For starters, when the going gets tough (and it most certainly will), what you know best is often what you are most passionate about. Passion will keep you persevering against the odds.


But what you know is also about authenticity.


I could have focused on well-known works by the beloved titans like Brahms and Mozart and perhaps had more success in terms of wider audience interest. But as much as I love and revere these composers, I had a deeper passion bubbling inside me. And as I discovered, it is wiser to be true to oneself and do meaningful work, even if it is for a potentially smaller niche. Authenticity shines through in everything that you do.

2) Look At Your Life

 

Discovering your passion might be easy for some but it is often extremely difficult for others.


If you know you want to create “something” but struggle to know “what”, try to look back through your life and consider the constants that have brought you the most joy.


One could argue that the genesis for Curious Flights stretched back even further than described above. During my time at the Conservatory, I put on two recitals of all English music and frequently performed new works by my fellow composer classmates and faculty. The clues are there.


In essence, be self-aware, pinpoint what you’re good at and passionate about, and then test it out. The two concerts described above were essentially the test-products for my future business. And not just a test for the audience you’re trying to serve, but a test for yourself to see if you actually have the desire to do it.

3) Don’t Wait

The biggest piece of advice is to just execute. I’ve always been a planner and I consider this to be both my strongest and weakest trait. In a bid to organize every single last detail and avoid mistakes, nothing gets done.

Ideas are rarely fully formed and they don’t usually come with foolproof blueprints, so you will make mistakes. But the biggest mistake you can make is failing to move beyond the idea stage.