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A New Model for a Music Conservatory
One music school is breaking all the rules—and almost certainly for the better
I’m rarely surprised by the music news. It’s usually some variant on “going from bad to worse.” A private equity fund swallows up a rock catalog, or a web platform loses 50 million songs, or music fans listen to the same Ed Sheeran song for three years in a row.
Nothing fazes me anymore. I’ve come to expect the worst, and I’m rarely disappointed. In five years, musicians will probably all be giving free concerts in the Metaverse, while peddling ape NFTs for worthless Zuckerbucks between songs. The payoff can’t be much lower than their streaming royalty checks.
But a few days ago, I was shocked by a positive story that almost everyone else ignored.
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Pentatone, a classical music record label, had been put up for sale. This, in itself, was no surprise. I admire Pentatone, and keep close tabs on its releases—which are of high quality. Pentatone has even won some Grammy awards, and not long ago was named label of the year by Gramophone magazine and the International Classical Music Awards.
But the plight of an indie label is hard nowadays, no matter how good the music. So the company was receptive when a buyer appeared on its doorstep.
The surprise was that the label was acquired by a music conservatory.
I’d never seen that happen before. The usual formula is for a large label to swallow up a smaller one. Occasionally a financial investor steps in, but they are usually too savvy to get into this tough business. The only other potential buyers are wealthy individuals who think it might be fun to own a record label. (God bless ‘em—they have underwritten many a fine album over the decades. I hope they at least got a tax write-off.)
But a music school?
In this instance, the buyer was the San Francisco Conservatory of Music—which now owns a record label with headquarters in the Netherlands. The label will continue to operate independently—and given the 5,000 mile distance from San Francisco, that should almost be a given.
According to SFCM head David H. Stull, this move “creates an extraordinary backdrop to explore new ideas for performing, recording and distributing music.” And, in an unusual choice of terminology, he referred to the combination of music school and record label as “a research and development engine.”
This breaks all the rules.
But the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has done this before. Two years ago the school acquired Opus 3 Artists, a talent agency and arts management firm. “We will now be the only conservatory in the world with its own management company,” Stull boasted at the time.
This wasn’t just any booking outfit, but an illustrious organization founded by Sol Hurok, one of the great impresarios of the 20th century. Its roster of artists includes Yo-Yo Ma, Branford Marsalis, Emmanuel Ax, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, Belá Fleck, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields orchestra, Joshua Redman, Osvaldo Golijov, Chanticleer, Aaron Diehl, the Chieftans, Daniel Barenboim, and a hundred or so other artists.
You can now start to imagine the synergies and opportunities at work here. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music not only enjoys a professional relationship with many of the leading musicians in the world, but has added a Grammy-winning record label that might attract even more of these artists. These connections could benefit the conservatory students in many ways—and, of course, generate visibility, as well as income and donations for the institution.
In addition, the conservatory also owns a state-of-the-art audio studio. So, in a strange sort of way, it already has a footprint in the recording business. Acquiring Pentatone was, for all its incongruity, the logical next step for SFCM.
“We can put out world class recordings for pennies on the dollars,” Stull told me in a phone conversation earlier this week. “Artists can pursue projects they could never afford otherwise.”
Stull is one of the most visionary leaders I’ve encountered in the music world today. But there’s little in his background to explain his out-of-the-box approach to reinventing music education. In his youth, he studied tuba performance and English literature at Oberlin, and later spent time furthering his music education at Juilliard and the University of Wisconsin. He served as Dean of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music before taking on the job of President of SFCM in 2013.
But he gave early notice that he would transform the San Francisco Conservatory of Music into a big league operation. The first significant move I noticed was his announcement, four years ago, that he had raised $46.4 million to help build a new 12-story building—complete with performance halls, rehearsal studios, apartments for students, and other resources.
That was the largest donation to a music school for a new facility in American history. But it’s small in comparison with what Stull is unleashing now.
“I had a number of these ideas when I was at Oberlin,” Stull told me, “but I was looking for a setting where they could be implemented. San Francisco was the right place. Music has moved towards technology, so if you look at the center of technology in the US it’s here in San Francisco. It’s a center of wealth too, and it’s also the gateway to the East. So we’re situated in the ideal place to make this happen.”
And, yes, these are businesses they are acquiring, but donations have made them possible. A biotech investor helped pay for the new facility (and gave as the reason that “music makes me happy”). And now an anonymous donation has provided funds for the Pentatone acquisition. As the SFCM case study makes clear, these things tend to feed on themselves.
Stull amplifies on this point: “When you start creating these models, you start attracting donors who have never given to music before. They’re excited because they’re seeing things that are real, and not just a concept.”
The SFCM has also been innovative in small ways that you could easily miss. I took notice when it launched a special program for music writers a few years back. This was an initiative in my own professional field, and it made perfect sense to me—music writers obviously should have a chance to learn their trade at a music school—but I also realized that no other conservatory was moving in this direction.
I now look at the total picture, and I see SFCM pursuing an ambitious strategy that encompasses the entire music ecosystem. No other conservatory in the world has anything close to their presence in technology, recording, music distribution, career development, concert bookings, and even music journalism. And all of this, of course, is in addition to the performance and composition pedagogy that is at the heart of every music education institution.
This isn’t just a step ahead of the other music schools—it’s several steps. The end result is that SFCM, which was long seen as a good but not great music school, is now showing up in the top ten of various rankings. It’s number eight on this list, and number nine on another ranking. At the rate it’s moving, it may soon start showing up in the top five.
“The student benefit is extraordinary,” Stull tells me. “For example, these connections will allow us to bring artists to campus who are working on a new project for the record label.” He proceeds to explain to me all the ways this might involve students—who can participate in rehearsals and workshops, or maybe even in the recording itself or on a tour.
Similar opportunities also exist on the business side. “If you’re graduating from this institution, you can draw on learnings from actual music businesses—that’s so much more powerful than just learning about the music business in a classroom.”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of all this is how the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is taking bold steps that those famous music schools back East are unwilling to consider. But there’s a tremendous need for experimentation and innovation in music pedagogy—especially in helping students in their transition from studying in a school to earning a living in the real world.
Here are some numbers that reinforce that point. As you can see, it’s hard to get a job after college, but especially in the performing arts.
In other words, the biggest challenge facing music schools is helping students navigate through the turbulent waters of life after graduation. That’s where San Francisco Conservatory of Music is making the biggest investments—and with the biggest upside for students.
“Many schools, even great ones, can be trapped in their traditions,” Stull tells me. “The very name conservatory indicates a tendency to focus on the past. But another way to approach the music we inherit from the past is to capture the spirit that originally created it. If Wagner were composing today, he would be writing for motion pictures—and probably complain that Dolby surround sound wasn’t big enough for him. We need to have a similar approach. Let’s not conserve just the art itself, but also the spirit in which it was created.”
The obvious question is what will SFCM do next. Stull and I talked at length about the other rule-breaking moves the institution might take, and it’s clear that he has more ideas about how to reinvent a music school in the 21st century. “You should expect more,” Stull tells me. “There are at least two more major announcements coming in the next year.”
Frankly, I’m surprised that other conservatories haven’t imitated this bold upstart on the West Coast. But that will inevitably happen. Stull, for his part, would welcome it. “My real hope is that we inspire others to take risks like this. We are a non-profit in the end, so our goal is to advance the artistry. All of us are going in the same direction, and share in each other’s success.”