It's trendy to call yourself an entrepreneur—of any kind—right now.
And that's dangerous. Whenever something is in style, every poser and wannabe comes along and tries to jump on the train.
Unfortunately, lots of music schools are jumping on the bandwagon too. They are telling students to be "entrepreneurial" without teaching them what that actually means or turning them on to useful resources.
I wrote my book, Make It, to help remedy this problem but no one person—including yours truly—is going to have all the answers. You need to always being pulling from multiple sources and adapting it to fit your own strategy.
In addition to giving you my perspective through Make It, I'm on the lookout for other musicians who are walking the walk too.
Emily Davidson is a cellist who I consider to be one of those people. She's a lovely person and an excellent musician, but her entrepreneurship really distinguishes her. Lots of people manage one or two, but it's rare to see a musician killing it on all three fronts.
How many baroque cellists do you know that have 2,000+ YouTube subscribers and nearly 10,000 Instagram followers with a successful strategy to monetize those followings?
I bet you can't name one. Most people don't know what baroque cello is at all. Hell, most people don't know the difference between a bass and a cello!
Despite this, Emily has cultivated a nice following based around her talent and enthusiasm for baroque performance.
See for yourself:
She's playing the game and winning. The numbers alone are a strong indicator that she's doing a lot right. Want to know how she does it?
Emily graciously agreed to do an interview with me and explained all this and so much more.
On a personal level, I'm excited to put this interview out because Emily and I agree on a lot, yet work very differently. The sound of our music, how we're making money, and our web platforms are very different. For a younger musician just approaching this stuff for the first time, it is very healthy to see very similar principles applied in contrasting ways.
You're going to want to take notes. This interview is loaded with the kind of practical advice I emphasize in my book—you can start applying a lot of this today.
Brew yourself a coffee, grab a pen, and don't forget to leave a comment at the bottom of this article.
The full interview with Emily Davidson
Emilio Guarino: Give me your elevator speech. Who are you, what do you do, and what should the world know about you?
Emily Davidson: I’m Emily Davidson, also known as emilyplayscello. I play the baroque cello, a historical version of the “normal” modern cellos we see today, and I specialize in the music from the baroque period.
I believe this music can speak to people just as much as contemporary music, and it is my goal to bring this repertoire to more people. A lot of people think playing in a historically-informed way is about doing things "right," but it's much more about emphasizing the interesting features of this music.
The reason people think baroque music is boring is because they're interpreting it the way they'd interpret Brahms. When we use the same tools and aesthetic that the baroque composers were working with, we can really see the music come to life.
EG: We both seem to have had rocky undergrad experiences, but college was ultimately where a lot came together for us both. It worked out OK for us. What advice would you give to a students thinking about going into music professionally?
ED: I entered music school at 17 years old with just under two years of private lessons under my belt. Needless to say I was very behind my peers, and unfortunately I didn’t receive the guidance I needed to catch up. The system failed me in a lot ways and I have issues with the way most music conservatories are run in this country.
That being said, it was probably good training for the real world—it is very complicated to be a professional musician and we aren’t given an instruction manual. My rocky undergrad experience was good training in finding my own way, which has served me well.
For students thinking about becoming professional musicians, I think it’s pretty simple: if you love it and you want it to be your job, do it. If you love something, you should be willing to work and invest in it. If the passion is there, the devotion and work ethic will come naturally.
Don’t go into music because you’re “good” at it or you’re not sure what else to do. There will always be “good” players; we need people who are passionate and love what they do.
EG: You're involved in electronic music like I am. How did that come into the picture? How much of a priority does it get? What do you personally gain from it, artistically and/or financially?
ED: My interest in electronic music started with my brother, a professional DJ with a focus on video game music.
As a trained classical musician, I definitely had my judgments:
“A DJ doesn't even do anything”
“Making electronic music doesn’t take as much skill as playing an instrument”
As I learned more about his craft, I was fascinated at how complex and deep the skills actually were. He and I collaborated on a classical remix album, OldStyle, where we remixed baroque pieces into electronic dance music using 8bit sounds. It was a fun project, but since then I’ve kept my interest in electronic music and classical music fairly separate. I haven't found a way to merge the two that feels artistically satisfying to me.
Now, I DJ under the name Baroqueen, playing hip hop, EDM, and pop music. Baroqueen is sort of like my alter ego; because the audience for hip hop is pretty different than the audience for classical music, I find I can express a different side of myself as a DJ. In both scenarios I get to make artistic decisions that I find rewarding. For now I see DJing as a side project, but I’m excited by its potential.
EG: Tell me about your "inner game". There are a lot of highs and lows living as a freelance music. What do you do to stay level headed and focused?
ED: I think it’s really important to have projects that excite you. Whenever I start to feel a lull in my work I naturally start planning the next thing. I’m probably a bit of a dreamer in that way, as I often fantasize about new projects, but I think that attitude has helped me.
Seeing your own projects through to completion takes perseverance, especially since no one else is keeping you in check, so I find that being a little starry-eyed keeps me motivated.
I’ve also tried not to victimize myself too much. In the earlier stages of freelancing, it’s easy to get frustrated and down on yourself when the quality of your work isn’t what you’d like it to be, or when you have to do some non-music stuff to pay the bills.
The best part of being a freelancer is that you have a choice—I’ve left non-music jobs behind even if they paid well and were flexible, simply because I found non-music jobs to be hard on my ego.
I’m picky about my work, and I’ve used that pickiness to motivate me to build a career I can feel good about.
EG: You do an excellent job promoting yourself. You have a great presence and following on multiple social media platforms. What value does that add to what you do? What have you learned in the process of building it? Assuming this is a teachable skill, what should musicians be working on to build their own version of this?
ED: Thanks! My social media following is a huge part of my career and I feel really lucky to have such a supportive fanbase.
As much as I love performing live, it can be pretty difficult to reach a large number of people that way. Even in Boston, a city with a huge artistic community and classical music scene, I’ve attended concerts with less than 25 people in the audience. It can be demoralizing and frustrating to the performers.
The internet expands reach dramatically, and with the right tools, guarantees that it will be seen. What I love about social media is that it gives me a constant access point to my followers. I don’t have to be playing a concert in their city on a day when they’re free. I can reach them at any time, share what I’m working on, and let them into my world. In many ways it’s a much more intimate way to share yourself with your audience.
The most important part of any social media is to be authentic. People want to connect with someone who is true to themselves and their fans, and it comes across in ways that people can’t articulate but can feel.
I think knowing who you are and what kind of image you want to project goes a long way in having a successful account. Once you’re clear on your image, consistency is really important. I try to post on Instagram every day if I can, which is my largest following as of now.
EG: Playing at a high level, promoting yourself, networking, and all the other things that go into what we do take lots of time and energy. How you do balance it all and make sure everything gets done?
ED: I think any good project should encompass most of these things, so you can do it all at once. When I decided to record my first solo album, I had to practice a ton, which improved my playing. I was spreading word about the album and sharing the process, which naturally built my following and promoted myself.
When the release concert rolled around I extended invitations to professional contacts and sent out press copies of the CD, all which helped build connections. I think most musical projects should be including all the big things: skill on your instrument, promotion/audience building, networking/connections.
That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to force yourself to do everything. I see a lot of people forcing themselves on social media because they think they’re “supposed” to, and they don’t have much success as a result. I personally hate the concept of networking, and used to go to concerts to try to meet people and get hired and just left feeling artificial and like a suck-up.
I think a better way is to find what you’re good at and really invest in that. If you network really well in person but can’t take a decent photo, don’t sweat trying to make an Instagram account and focus on your strong social skills instead.
It’s good to step outside of your comfort zone and push yourself a bit, but if something is just not for you, that’s okay. I think we’d live in a much more interesting world (with happier people) if people followed what’s natural to them instead of trying to do it all.
EG: Speaking of networking skills, we have both taken theory, ear training, and the other subjects typical in a music school curriculum. If you were to design a music networking curriculum, what would that look like? What specific skills and habits does a musician need to cultivate to assemble a great network?
ED: As mentioned, I’m not a networking expert. Too often networking feels like people looking for a leg up instead of building a connection naturally.
When I find like-minded people who I respect, I reach out to give brief praise and introduce myself. I’m not usually looking for something specific they can offer me. Once we’re introduced, a mutual opportunity or collaboration can present itself organically as the relationship develops.
EG: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur? I have some strong opinions on the difference between entrepreneurship and freelancing. What is your position?
ED: Never really thought about the difference, actually! I think an entrepreneur is someone who makes their own product in a way, so I guess someone who's strictly gigs isn't an entrepreneur. I don't know, I'm interested in discussing this more, but don't know this answer!
EG: Assuming a musician sounds great and has a solid education, what other skills should they be cultivating?
ED: Here are two big ones I typically notice:
Stage presence. I think it’s hard to adjust out of the hyper-critical conservatory environment where we’re constantly shamed for our mistakes. We have to shake all of that loose once we enter the professional world or else our self-consciousness comes across.
As performers we need to handle mistakes or bumps in our performance with grace, and we also need to capture our audience from the moment we step on the stage, not just while we’re playing our instrument.
Verbal and social skills, as it pertains to audience interaction. Performers should feel comfortable speaking to their audience, be it about the repertoire, their instrument, or something else. I’ve seen plenty of concerts where the performer speaks and they have no clue how to project their voice to a crowd, and they typically seem stiff.
It’s equally important to be able to talk to the audience in a smaller setting after concerts and receive praise and comments with a friendly, open demeanor.
EG: You have a lot going on between your teaching, performing, and social media platform. What is next for you? Where are you trying to take things?
ED: I’ve loved the response I’ve gotten on YouTube and really want to see my channel continue to grow. Patreon (a crowdfunding site) has made it possible for me to make decent money on each video, which really allows me to invest and commit to producing videos regularly.
I’d love for that to grow so that I can continue to raise the bar. I’ve learned so much about audio and video production by working on these videos, and of course my playing has improved by having to record myself once a week.
Other than that I would love to do a solo tour, especially considering that my audience is so spread out thanks to social media. It would be great to get to meet some of my long-distance fans in person and take an unaccompanied program on the road.
Emily was very humble about it in the interview, but make no mistake, she is a networking machine. I would seriously recommend studying her closely. Here are the places where you can follow her online:
Bonus Material: Video and Podcast