The entrepreneurial life of the musician

Dr Diana Tolmie has written a suite of enterprise courses for music students called My Life as a Musician

“I didn’t grow up in a musical house, but we did own a record store. We never really sat around the table talking about music, the family talked about business. I had an absolute passion for music and loved playing, but I wasn’t surrounded by it, my environment was other stuff.”

Teacher, researcher and woodwind specialist, Dr Diana Tolmie has combined her passion, professional experience and her MBA training to lead the development of an innovative suite of courses and research around career management for musicians at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University.

Dr Tolmie believes musicians need to be creative entrepreneurs; developing, honing and forever recreating musical identities that challenges themselves as life-long learning artists and allows them to sustain their livelihoods.

Since 2011 Dr Tolmie has been delivering a career development stream of study that helps students understand their cultural and economic value beyond their musical skills and dedication.

The result has been a series of courses called My Life as a Musician (MLaaM), that challenge students to imagine their possible future selves, and develop supporting skills that will assist the sustainability of their careers.

In 2018, to give the course a facelift, Dr Tolmie invited the University’s commercialisation office, Griffith Enterprise (GE) to act as consultants to the third MLaaM course and bring their experience and network of commercial partners to augment the program.

My Life as a Musician 3 has been progressing well, but I wanted to refocus on a more direct, innovative and creative entrepreneurial process and outcome, plus engage more ‘normal’ people outside of the Conservatorium” Dr Tolmie said.

“I called GE because they’re the premier part of the Uni that upholds entrepreneurial innovation and while they don’t generally work with students they were more than willing to help.”

Business Innovation Manager, Hunter Walkenhorst contributed a lecture, and both he and Diana invited mentors including GE’s Jens Tempe to workshop the students’ ideas and help them refine creative pitches and business plans.

“Hunter brought the discussion of the business model canvas, creating a one line pitch to a non-music audience, and contributed to mentorship, which the students really responded to.”

The mentors brought into the course included, start-up advisors, engineers, app and technology developers, as well as graduates of “The Con” who have been successful in developing their own businesses within technology and design.

“The Con”, like few other areas of any university, contains a student cohort who have realised their passion and focus at a very early stage in life and spent years honing their skills before they even audition for entry at tertiary level.

This commitment naturally creates brilliant musicians, but also creates challenges for those trying to prepare them for a world surrounding their high-risk aspirations.

Dr Tolmie (who completed an MBA after her music degree) understands why some of the student musicians are allergic to words “entrepreneurship” or “enterprise”. She believes this is more than likely because the student musicians have yet to grasp that their world of work involves the essence of creative entrepreneurship.

“It’s actually what they embody all the time, but in developing one’s craft it is too easy to adopt a bit of an ‘art-for-arts’ sake’ mentality where you hope someone else will be responsible for the supporting business tasks necessary for success. Or, that performance will be the only thing that you are capable of and if that doesn’t work out — what next?,” Dr Tolmie said.

“The business world can be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and the life of the musician has always been exactly that, they’re actually a perfect fit for each other.”

As well as opening students’ eyes to the possibility of entrepreneurship as professionally, personally and artistically liberating, MLaaM empowers students to realise that their creative minds, intense focus and comfort with hard work are qualities very much in demand.

Dr Tolmie’s research centres around the cultural, economic and social contribution artists make to the nation, beyond their performance skill. She would ultimately like MLaaM courses to evolve into a student-based ‘incubator’ or ‘hatchery’ open to students of all levels who see creative entrepreneurship as a promising outlet for their diverse capabilities.