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Music

Supporting from behind the scenes: what is the role of an agent and a manager?

Author: Virgo Sillamaa / Edited by: Lucas Sego (Kestrel)

Introduction

In this first edition of Field Recordings, a series of conversations about career development for academically trained musicians, I talked to three agents and managers who are all working with emerging and developing talent through a very boutique approach. Our conversation took place on April 1st, 2021, via Zoom as most societies were still in lockdown due to the COVID crisis.

Els Moens is based in Belgium and leads her own agency Els & and the Artists, representing some young and excellent Belgian chamber music ensembles and artists worldwide, including: Trio Khaldei, Revue Blanche, the baroque ensemble Les Abbagliati, lute player Sofie Vanden Eynde and her projects Imago Mundi, and Romina Lischka & Hathor Consort. 

Minna Huuskonen is based in Finland and manages her company Minnamurra Music Management & Agency with a multi-genre roster across contemporary/classical, jazz, and world music scenes. It also includes Apollo Artistit, a new agency with the purpose of helping young artists with their careers and artistic development.

Philippa Allan is from Australia, based in Germany, and has worked in artist management since 2007. Working at a prominent international agency for several years and later as orchestral manager at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, she founded her company Real Arts in 2019 which was inspired by her desire to more closely connect the artistic scenes of Australia and Europe. 

You can find more in-depth bios at the end of the conversation.


Conversation

Virgo Sillamaa

To start, could you describe your role as an agent or a manager in the wider music ecosystem? And also what‘s the mission that drives or inspires you to do this work? 

Els Moens

I think it’s important to say that we have a key role in the development of the career of an artist. Our main task is to make sure that the artist has concerts – that’s, of course, the most important thing, but we do other things as well. What I like a lot about my job as an artist agent is that I’m kind of in the centre of the development of their creative ideas and often the first person they talk to about their projects. It is then my job to transmit these ideas and projects to concert halls and festivals and when it finally arrives on stage then that’s a very rewarding feeling and I’m very satisfied then. So, I guess that’s the reason why we do that and why we continue, despite the sometimes difficult circumstances.

Minna Huuskonen

To put it very simply, I believe that music connects people and therefore makes the world a better place. That’s my mission since I started working in music and it has remained the same regardless that I have changed my role from festival programmer to an agent to a promoter to whatever. I’ve done lots of different things, but this has been my goal since the beginning. And I really believe music has the power to increase understanding, tolerance, and solidarity in the world.

Virgo Sillamaa

Some people might want to work with those who are at the peak of their creativity and have already achieved success. Minna, you’ve also worked with a lot of young artists over the years, with some who maybe will have some success only after some years. Why?

Minna Huuskonen

Because I really admire their talent and if I can help them in their careers then that’s really motivating to me. I choose an artist to work with purely based on artistic reasons. Of course, I need to get along with them as well, but the music and the talent is at the core of my criteria when I choose an artist. And then young talent sometimes really speaks to me. I’m just blown away by how much talent there is amongst young musicians.

Philippa Allan

I certainly agree with both Els and Minna. That’s precisely what I like about doing this job as well. 

I also think we’re between the presenters and the artists. We have to have an understanding of the complexity of an artist’s idea, be able to visualise how it would look on stage and what’s possible. And then be able to articulate that for presenters, while understanding the presenters needs at the same time. I think that’s an interesting space to be in because we also have the potential to help artists to influence the direction of the industry. There’s a lot of conversation that has sped up during the COVID period around new audiences and concert formats and how much diversity we can really see in concert halls. Do we really see everything that is going on or should we broaden our awareness a little bit? What engages Els, Minna, and myself, I think, is really getting into an interesting niche idea and bringing it through to fruition. And also bringing new ideas into concert seasons that have come from these younger people – that’s the interesting thing! We can help the artists to believe in their idea, mentor them, and coach their project into reality.

Virgo Sillamaa

It’s very clear all of you are willing to work with emerging talent and that is really encouraging! But still – there’s probably a hundred young artists to one out there that you can actually manage to work with. Is there a readiness level that you’ve somehow defined or do you only look at the talent? Should these young people turn to you or do you prefer to find and approach them?

Philippa Allan

That’s the difficulty of having this vicious cycle: you have to be managing yourself in order for a manager to be able to see that you’re ready and professional enough. But at the same time, I also think it’s very important that they think about where they want to go and are supported in that. I work in mentoring some young people who are in the phase between being students and on the cusp of being successful. The idea of having goals and developing an awareness of themselves as an artist is important. Am I just a violinist? Or do I have other things that interest me as a human being as well? Maybe there are some places in my career where I can combine these things? As a result, you might want to change what you’re doing during your career. So you don’t want to define yourself by the repertoire you play, which is why you have artists that then suddenly start to look at world music or jazz and say, ‘this is really interesting’. And that’s how it should be. That’s what music is. It’s not static.

Minna Huuskonen

I basically just go to the concerts, read the media and see what is happening. So, in my case I think it’s about fifty-fifty–either I approached the artist or they approached me. Often my friends who know my tastes also recommend some artists to me. But the main thing that needs to come together eventually is to have a really clear discussion about whether we agree on how to collaborate. First, we need to think about where the artist wants to go and then we think about the steps that are needed to get there. For example, if an artist wants to have a big career in North America, but I think that Japan and South Korea could be better territories, it’s going to be a disagreement from the very beginning. So, we have to be able to agree on the targets and on what the steps are to get there. Also, the artist needs to understand that it’s a collaboration and that they have to be active as well. Therefore, I really carefully select the artists that understand what I need from them and what they will get from me – it’s not always a match. 

Virgo Sillamaa

Els, you’ve worked with some artists for a number of years. So it’s possible that you can’t take on a new artist very often because you’ve got your hands, and your roster, full. So how does it work for you?

Els Moens

Yes, indeed. I started my agency in 2014, after being inactive as an agent for a few years because I also had an agency before. When I started again, of course, no one knew that I was starting again. So I had to look for artists myself, which was a bit bizarre, because normally artists find the agent and not the other way around. I contacted some people who work as radio or festival directors, etc. and I asked about who the really interesting artists in Flanders were at the moment. I chose one, contacted them, and fortunately it worked. I had started with two artists like that and then others followed. Because it’s a small world. Sometimes I have to deal with artists’ relatives and friends, who are also artists, who then ask me if I can work for them as well. And of course, it doesn’t always fit. The first criteria is, of course, quality and the artistic profile of the artist, but you also have to understand each other, agree on what the agent does and what the artist does. I have to believe in their projects because I can’t present projects to programmers which I don’t believe in or which I don’t understand or like. So, there has to be a match. And indeed, I’m looking for long term collaborations. There are colleagues of mine who add artists to their roster every year. First of all, I don’t have the space for that. The capacity of my agency is limited, but also I really prefer to work with artists on the long term and be a part of that development over the years. Another important aspect for me to decide if I will work with an artist or not, is the international potential. 

Virgo Sillamaa

That is an important point and I’d like to ask more about this. As agents or perhaps also managers, your business comes from the artists business. So, coming from Flanders or Finland, which are fairly small markets, is it a necessity, then, that you only work with artists who really are internationally active? Because working only in a small local market, the economics just won’t come together. How does that impact your choice?

Els Moens

For me, it’s a question of choice, because I also have some artists that I only represent in Benelux, that is Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. That’s the agreement that we have and that’s fine. I could represent them internationally as well, but that’s our agreement. But when the artist is asking me to work for them worldwide, then of course the International potential becomes very important. I’ve been in contact with some Estonian artists as well and, of course, when you come from these countries, you need to go international as soon as possible, because otherwise the market is too small for an agent to become involved.

Minna Huuskonen

I totally agree, the International potential is crucial. When I choose my artists it has to be there. With many of the bands that I represent, they actually have a local agent for Finland and I do the international bookings, that’s usually the agreement. Some of the bands I can also sell in Finland, but that’s not enough. If somebody wants me to do only Finnish territory, I’m not going to do it. I need at least Scandinavia to start with, but preferably some European territories and even worldwide.So the international potential is really crucial, otherwise I just can’t live on this in a market as small as Finland.

Virgo Sillamaa

What does the working relationship with your artists actually look like? Do you call every day or meet every six months? Do you talk once a week? What’s the dynamic?

Minna Huuskonen

Definitely not every day! I think communication is important and essential, we need to be in contact, but not even every week. Sometimes it depends on what’s going on. If there’s a lot of tour planning or if there’s an album coming out that requires a lot of actions like finding the PR, etc., then it can be more hectic. Sometimes in a bit of a slower period,  it’s more about keeping in touch and updating each other. It’s really important to keep in touch because it has happened that one of my artists became pregnant and I only heard later on that she can’t do the gigs that we had planned to do. Or if my artist plans to move to Spain or to Mozambique – I need to know about these private life things because they will affect the work big time. So, just this kind of fluid communication, exchanging greetings and ‘How are you doing? What’s going on?’, not just professionally, but personally as well, is really important. Of course, every artist has their own strategies, different plans, different targets, it’s always a tailor made approach. That means that the way to keep in contact with the artists is also tailor made. With some, quick social media based contact works, with others it’s more through email and longer messages. It varies. But communication between the artist and myself is really important.

Philippa Allan

Yes, I agree with that. I mean, not every day, definitely not. But because there’s just so much to do, I do find the most fruitful collaboration is when you do keep in contact fairly regularly. It’s also because it’s inspiring in both directions. For example, during COVID, while theoretically they have a lot of time to write music or do other creative work, with this atmosphere around us, it can be hard to remain inspired. So that can also be a part of it, being a sounding board for ideas in both directions. Sometimes the artists don’t realise valuable aspects of their own network and if we’re talking to them, we can catch valuable ideas and say ‘Oh, that would be great’ or ‘I’ll follow up on that for you’. During this crisis time, I have also noticed our role in the area of mental health. It can be really depressing when they’re used to being on the stage from one day to the next and being at the top of their game and then suddenly nothing. There’s only so much practice you can do without performance goals. So, that has definitely been a large part of communication in the last year.

Virgo Sillamaa

As you already mentioned before, goal setting matters and can shape the different approaches to working with your artists. From your experience, how good are the artists themselves at setting goals and do they have an idea of the success they want to achieve? Or is it more like I want to do my art and then go wherever it takes me?

Minna Huuskonen

In my experience, they don’t necessarily think that far ahead. They kind of seize the moment and take what is coming their way, but I insist on making plans. So, together with the artist we write down: Where do you want to be in one year’s time? In three years time? And in five years time? We set these goals and then we see what are the steps towards them. Do you have to apply for a competition or go for auditions? Or do you maybe have to collaborate with other artists or need some help with a colleague, etc.? They’re all different, but we definitely need to talk about this together. I can’t give the goals to the artist, they need to know where they want to go in order for me to help out. Usually that hasn’t been a problem and we do find the goals together. I might have to push a little bit and maybe feed some ideas because they might not even think that big. I encourage them to think big, but also to be more clear about their targets. If you only think it would be great to one day work as a soloist with some orchestra – it’s not clear enough. We need to know which orchestra, when, and doing what exactly? 

Young artists might not be ready with their artistic profile yet. Perhaps they haven’t found their own voice, but eventually they need to find it. I’m not getting too much involved artistically with those personal characteristics and skills, but they have to think where they want to go, so I can help out with setting the targets and thinking how to get there. Especially with classical music, I think it’s harder work. You really have to be aware of the network that you are working in, see where you place your artist and how does that benefit this particular artist at this moment, or in two years time. So, there are different ways of looking at the artists’ career and how we set the goals and how we go towards fulfilling them. The success would be that we reach some of those goals, whether it’s in two or five years time.

Virgo Sillamaa

Els, you have worked with some of your artists for quite a while. I’m interested in how you set goals, but also because you’ve had this longer experience, are the artists getting better at goal setting? Because there’s this stereotype that artists are unstructured, crazy and creative, and rational behaviour like goal setting is not for them.

Els Moens

I have noticed that, indeed, artists get better at this. The artists I work for were young when I started with them. An ensemble that had existed for only a few years and was developing a lot, and now it has become an established ensemble. In the beginning we were happy with one concert abroad. Now we have longer term perspectives and they know that in two or three years, they want to do this or that. Every year I meet with all of my artists to discuss the festival themes, long term projects, programs for the next season, etc. In the beginning, when we had those meetings, it was like ‘Oh, now I have to start thinking about projects for two years later’, but now we are used to it and understand why we have to think like this. It’s good to see that they have evolved in that way and I can guide them a little towards that. I can tell them, ‘Look, in three years time, this or that will happen in the industry’, a birthday of a composer, a certain festival theme, etc. Or I encouraged artists at a certain moment to record a CD because it had been years since they’d recorded their last album. For instance, the ensemble doesn’t have a CD at all yet and I feel that I’m getting kind of stuck when talking to organisers as they always want to hear if there’s an album and for which label. So there are opportunities that come our way during the years, but it’s always difficult to plan long term, as so many things happen in between. It’s like this in our business. 

Virgo Sillamaa

Philippa, what is your experience when it comes to working and planning with artists? 

Philippa Allan

They do get better at planning. There are a couple of artists that came to me and they are a little bit older and already more advanced in their careers and have been managing alone for a long time. Then the challenges might arise as to how to start working together and whether they’re able to relinquish some of the control of what they’re doing. They came to me because they wanted to have more time to actually create and not be doing the office work. While with some we might find a project management tool and that works well, it’s not so with others. The communication has become a little bit more dispersed. While I like to use the phone, because just having a conversation can save a lot of time, some people like to use social media or WhatsApp type conversations. Sometimes they come to me about issues of presentation, if there are things that could be tweaked or updated. Some had websites done 15 years ago that were among the most modern websites at the time and now that’s not so much the case. We have used the COVID time to update some of that as well. And there are also personal conversations about when someone was very successful before and now we have to revisit and just update or fix things up, looking at whether it still reflects that artist and who they have become meanwhile. I can only say it’s very individual. 

Minna Huuskonen

I just wanted to add that really seeing and meeting the artists is important as well. Half of the artists in my roster were from abroad and I need to make sure that we actually meet. So, we try to see if we could meet at Jazzahead! or Classical:NEXT or some other festival or occasion where we could have dinner and a deep conversation. So it’s not only about calling, I really insist on meeting in person as well.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Virgo Sillamaa

The way you all are talking about goal setting and working together in general points to a very personal relationship. There’s a lot of back and forth reflecting and sharing inspiration going on, am I right?

Els Moens

Yes, and I wanted to add that, for me, it’s very important to listen to the artists explain their projects, because we need this information to transfer it to the programmers. So, indeed, meeting in person is very important. Of course, in between we email and talk on the phone, but to discuss new projects in depth, it’s very important that there is a dialogue and that we take time for that. Now, because of COVID we’re also thinking about new ways to do this and I’ve asked each of my artists to make a video in which they present their new projects for the next season. It’s more lively and might be more attractive to the programmers than the PDF that I send, which, of course, is also necessary.

Virgo Sillamaa

I want to ask you about the entrepreneurial mindset. This is a catchphrase, sometimes perhaps overused, but a young artist needs to be entrepreneurial in many ways, also in the academic world.  What you’re describing is that in addition to being able to be a good artist, you need to be able to present your ideas, even if it’s to your own agent. So, how important is that and again, is this a skill that they can get better at? 

Els Moens

Indeed, being entrepreneurial is a term quite in fashion now, but in fact, what does it mean? I think the new generation of artists is very entrepreneurial, but conservatoires are still kind of their own bubbles. What happens when the artists have graduated and left the conservatoire? As an artist, you should be aware of the fact that you need to show yourself to the world. Through social media, through conversations, or through whatever ways. What’s very important is that the market knows what you as an artist are doing. That is very important! Now, I think, we have all the tools that we need. YouTube or Vimeo, we have social media, etc. As an artist, being able to use these in a good way is a plus.

Philippa Allan

There are many funding opportunities available, but students coming out of tertiary education are often not yet thinking about producing their own thing. If you could secure some funding, bring the money on the table and if the presenter likes the idea, they’ll help to make it happen. This can be a real way to get to the market. Students can be made more aware of such opportunities in those institutions. Entrepreneurship is also about recognizing strong partners to make something happen in a certain amount of time and being nimble enough to change with the market or even move ahead of the wave, to be setting the example for others in what can change. If you really believe in an idea, then don’t be too worried and simply go try and find out. By talking to your partner or to agents or the presenters you can test the idea a little bit and then make it happen.

Virgo Sillamaa

Do you think it’s a talent or a skill?

Philippa Allan

I think it’s both. I have changed a lot of my work last year to helping my artists go for funding to just pay the rent. The more they do this the easier it becomes. You get used to making your explanation of the project succinct, to work out what the true value or the unique selling point is.

Virgo Sillamaa

Minna, what’s your experience? Are artists these days having to be a bit of the producers of their own projects as well?

Minna Huuskonen

I think they will probably need to be that. The thing is that the music institutions don’t teach entrepreneurship, at least in the classical music studies. Maybe just a little bit, a few lessons by visiting guests at Sibelius Academy, but it’s really not part of the curriculum. Which is a shame because the world has changed a lot and artists need quite a lot of different skills. They need to see the financial part of it and also see the big picture that it’s not only about practising and performing. It’s about so many other things around it as well – there’s PR, there’s the networking, and so many other things that you need to do. All these skills should be there at least on a certain level. Even if you have a team, an agent and a manager, a label, and a publisher, I think that you still should know at least a little bit about all these different aspects of a career. And have a mindset of being genuinely interested in it. 

For artists in the beginning of their career or still studying, this is not something they actually think about a lot. One example is a young conductor I worked with, he was 20 years old at the time. When there was an offer, he was only interested in the repertoire that he got to conduct, and then whatever the fee was, which was fine. As an agent I need to think about the fee as well, of course, about setting up a certain level and price on the market. When you’re young and maybe have a student loan and also maybe your parents are supporting you, then you don’t really have to think about all this. In Finland we have such a great grant system that a lot of artists can get funding for collaborations, performing abroad or recording, etc. Therefore these topics are perhaps neglected in education, but I think that we should be more upfront about these things with the young up-and-coming artists, whatever the genre.

Virgo Sillamaa

I have heard the following logic and justification many times in the past: classical music is especially competitive, there are many, many musicians trying to make it and the top is super high and very hard to get to. If you don’t perform at a very high level, you’re not going to get any work anyway. Therefore it follows, that we need to give all the time in the academy to the artistry and everything else must come later. Then again I hear you saying that there are also other skills that need to be nourished early on. How do we find the right balance?

Minna Huuskonen

If you’re just coming out from the academy and haven’t really learned about these topics, it would be really wise to have an agent or manager who does it for you. Because on your own without these skills, you probably won’t succeed that well. Only with quite a lot of luck you might find a few crucial contacts, who will lead you towards some opportunities, taking you further. However, I wouldn’t leave it to chance or luck only. If you acknowledge that, okay, I don’t know about the music business, how to find the right people, how to market myself, or how to make a contract, etc., then it would be wise to find somebody who does it for you. However, just finding somebody who is willing to work for you might take a lot of time. So, even when you’re studying and haven’t graduated or started a career, it would be really good to use those years also for that kind of planning and think about who you want to work with and where you want to go. Because if you just end up with the academic certificate, but there’s nobody for you then and you don’t know what to do, it will be very problematic to start advancing a career.

Virgo Sillamaa  44:25

Do I understand correctly that for the young artists in classical music the competitions have been the main showcases? You go there, give a great performance and hopefully you get picked up by these agents or managers who will produce a career for you. Is this still relevant today?

Philippa Allan

I’m not such a fan of competitions, but I do understand that for someone who is just coming out of the tertiary institution it helps if they can say, ‘I’ve done this and that’. But to be honest, in my experience, winning a competition alone doesn’t necessarily make an artist incredibly interesting. Some artists are very good at winning certain competitions. That’s a different skill for me than being an artist with potential longevity in their career and ability to inspire an audience. At the same time, I did discover one interesting competition a few years ago, Honens competition in Canada, where they had a much more rounded approach. 

Virgo Sillamaa

So an award from a competition does not necessarily earn you a booking from a big concert venue or an agency contract?

Philippa Allan

There are some concert venues who do showcase such artists with competition awards in a kind of a ‘rising stars’ type of an approach. It doesn’t interest me personally as an agent and I don’t think it’s going to get you an agent necessarily. I just think it’s not part of the times now. There are artists out there who go around the world winning competitions. It’s kind of what they’ve trained to do. And then what happens after that is not too interesting. For me, it would be more interesting to see how aware they are of different things going on in the arts. While you’re at the tertiary institution you could be inspired by all sorts of other musicians there at your own institution, you should be going to concerts, anything you can – jazz, world music, films, art galleries. It’s astounding how many students I find, in Germany at least, who just stay in their practice rooms and then go to the lessons. When I was studying, it was hard to find other people who wanted to just get together with red wine and chamber music. We have to get out of our practice rooms and I think the best professors are those that inspire their students to do that. Maybe the institution, above the professors, should also create that kind of an atmosphere where the students are encouraged to be curious. 

When I was studying, the jazz concert day was on the day that the classical musicians weren’t in the building. I used to go to their concerts because I wanted to hear what they were doing and it was a completely different atmosphere. How great it would have been if they were listening to some of our stuff, and we were listening to some of theirs. They were far more relaxed in presenting their pieces. And you will hear each other’s music as though you’re a different audience as well, which is what we’re trying to achieve later down the road. You’re not playing to other violinists when you’re performing an actual concert. So this awareness already helps prepare the mindset for collaborating later and working out who one is as an artist. You don’t have to be stuck on the same path the whole way.

Virgo Sillamaa

Minna, how about your 20 year old conductor  for someone like him, were competitions the way forward?

Minna Huuskonen

We didn’t really consider them, no. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and that was in the opera. In his case, we actually used some key people who were willing to help him in his career, because he needed good references. The good thing was that he really knew where he wanted to go. So, we were just thinking about the steps and how to find the opportunities. And, as I said, for him it was not about the money, it was about the right kind of repertoire that he wanted to focus on.

In the Sibelius academy all the big Finnish conductors come and teach and the students can assist. But they need to find their own profile and their own voice, because they can’t imitate the big conductors, they really do need to be themselves and find their own way of being in front of the orchestra. So it’s not really about competitions, in this case it’s more about the right contacts and preparing for those opportunities, which are opened through such contacts. 

Virgo Sillamaa

Els, how about you?  Ensembles are perhaps a bit of a different ballgame as there aren’t many ensemble competitions. Is that correct?

Els Moens

Indeed, I think competitions are good for some kinds of artists and for soloists, etc. I think it’s also important, what is behind the competition. Is it just that you get the title of a winner or is there a program behind it? For example, in Belgium, there is a good competition, Young Belgian Talent. After the award, they follow the young graduates for several years, making recordings, supporting a career, etc. That’s more important than just the competition. When it comes to competitions for young artists, it’s only for certain types of artists, not every graduate from a music academy has the same profile. There are graduates who decide to start teaching and not perform a lot. And that’s perfectly fine! And then you have others who want to join an orchestra, that’s fine as well! And then you have others who have no idea at all and get a job somewhere, do some projects, and perhaps they find out what kind of artist they want to be after a few years. So it’s not like every graduate from a conservatoire has a good idea of what they want to do. Not all of them have their own projects or a strategy of what their career should look like. 

Philippa Allan 

Sometimes the orchestral musicians, for example, are the ones that somehow do find a way to do their creative things on the side and as a result they’re happier with being in the orchestra. Because otherwise, you’ve gotten the job by being a wonderful soloist and really nailing it in the audition. But then you will be placed in an orchestra where the bowings are probably given, you don’t choose the conductor, and you don’t really do the programming. Those people who are doing creative projects on the side and are thinking with the organisation, are often the ones to start the most interesting chamber music series on the side or other research projects behind the scenes that enrich the orchestra they’ve joined.

Els Moens

The same about teaching, I think. Many artists teach, but besides that they have their own artistic practice and both influence each other.

Virgo Sillamaa

UK’s Help Musicians recently published a report, ‘Building Sustainable Careers in Classical Music’, and one of the areas they highlighted is mental health. There’s a lot of pressure for these young people to achieve. They also bring up the idea of a career being a sort of ladder where you start somewhere ‘low’ like an orchestra,and if you can’t get anywhere, then you teach. But what you really strive for, is the big soloist career. The report calls for deconstructing such a hierarchy of importance and achievement because actually you can do a little bit of orchestra playing and a little bit of teaching and be really happy about it. How much do you see this as a problem? Do the young musicians coming from the academy carry a pre-conceived, often very linear, idea of success?

Philippa Allan 

I think it’s often because it is a really intensive thing, trying to perfect your instrument. It takes a lot of hours and thought and repertoire to get through. But you also have to eat and you have to have stories to tell once you’re playing your instrument well. So, you do have to go out and experience other things and find other influences too. It kind of becomes this abstract thought in the head: what is actually  success? Maybe that’s an interesting conversation for students to have at several stages during their studies. You think differently when you’re an undergraduate student than when you’re doing your masters.

Minna Huuskonen

I agree. In the classical music world, definitely that’s the case. I represent three pianists, who are all still students. At first I was thinking they would compete with each other, but luckily they are all very different characters and they like different repertoires. Also, they are a bit on a different level with their careers. They all have won competitions and have a different amount of performing experience in Finland and abroad. I can see them having different paths from this situation onwards. The thing is that the school is not going to help with this. Those who will help with this are those agents and managers and some other people who hopefully can help them with their career. The school is not at all supporting this idea  that you can actually choose whatever you want to do in your musical career. Whether it’s teaching, performing, composing, or conducting. Or doing both – all – whatever. That’s the kind of thinking that an artist has to do and if it’s not encouraged openly by the institutions, then somebody else has to do it. And I just really hope that young talents can find those people who can do that thinking with them.

Virgo Sillamaa

You’ve mentioned that artists need to get out there, find the people and connect with their future collaboration partners, etc. – let’s call it the professional network. Obviously, this is important, but how to do it? What would you suggest to young musicians emerging from the academies when they don’t yet know that many people?

Els Moens 

That’s difficult, because there’s no ready-made answer to that question. In my experience, young artists who want to achieve something know quite well the way towards that goal. The ones who want to participate in competitions find a way; others who need mentoring find it as well and also they can find their way toward funding, etc. Indeed, it’s important for artists to have a network. They can start by playing and performing and also by talking to people after a concert. For example, if you don’t have a good project offer yet, then just talk to a program director anyway and ask them for advice. I think it’s very important when you’re young and a beginner to already get to know these important programmers. You can talk about what you want to do and ask for advice. I think these people like being asked questions like this, so that could be a good thing to do.

Manuel Nägeli
Photo: Manuel Nägeli (Unsplash)

Virgo Sillamaa

Minna, how important it is for artists to reach out to people and how responsive are professionals usually?

Minna Huuskonen

The promoters are not interested in me, they’re interested in the artist. So,  if we’re at a trade fair or conference, I do the business talk, about marketing and deals, etc. However, I still  like to have the artists with me, because that’s the interesting part for the professionals. Everybody wants to talk to the artist. I feel that, again, it’s a collaboration. It’s really beneficial if the artist comes along, at least at certain times to certain places and be there and talk about the music. Because they’re the one who will have to reach the audience. I will connect with the promoters and those who make decisions in booking, that’s my job, and I don’t need them to get involved with that. But it’s really beneficial if they are also there, to shake hands and make an appearance. 

When I did a lot of bookings for a festival, I remember those artists who were personally present. Even if I spoke to the agents about the deals, I remember that the artists were there as well. They were interested in their business. They wanted to mingle with the professionals. It was more casual, but it benefited my work. So I do encourage artists to be at these networking situations and appear occasionally at the professional expos. Even if they don’t need to do the business talk, they can talk to  fellow musicians,  journalists, or fans and the audience. Networking is the main thing in my work, keeping my network alive and growing, because without the personal contacts, I can’t go anywhere at all. It takes a lot of walking and talking and attending places and that’s what I do, but the artist should do it as well, even just a little bit, to help me out with that work.

Philippa Allan

I think that they’re maybe not aware of it as young musicians, but as they grow up, the contacts they made during studies with fellow students can remain really strong and important as well. 

Virgo Sillamaa 

So, if an artist is already working with an agent or a manager, a more organic division of work appears. But what about before that? Els, you also mentioned that it would be good if young artists would talk to the programmers, ask advice, and so on. Of course, it might be very different from country to country, but I feel that sometimes in the formal institutions young people are not encouraged to be very open, because it has to do with their artistic appearance. For example, I  read an article in an Estonian cultural weekly a few years ago where a critic scolded the performers for talking to the audience and how that ruined the barrier that is needed in the classical music concert for the artists to appear somewhere ‘higher up’. There is a general view that you shouldn’t do these things, promote yourself and talk business. What I hear from you is that maintaining this artistic appearance is perhaps not very productive towards building their future professional lives.

Minna Huuskonen

I encourage them to be open and talk to people. It’s good to be friendly and give a good impression. Whether it’s a big festival director you will meet somewhere or just a fan – they’re all equally important for your career. If the artist is really shy it’s ok to just stay at home, but usually they’re quite good at talking to people in their own way. They don’t have to attend every single cocktail party, but I encourage them to also make their own contacts. And when we go back from an event, they can tell me, ‘okay, I got these five business cards, we had a chat with these people, can you follow up with them?’ Again, it’s a collaboration.

Els Moens 

Yes, it is about collaboration and also about the nature of the artists, because some artists like talking to programmers, others don’t like it at all. I respect that. I have artists who almost never talk to a programmer, because they think: now I have an agent, and the agent does it and it works. And then others really appreciate the fact that they can keep a strictly artistic relationship to a programmer, while the business side is up to me. Both things work, and it depends on who you are.

Minna Huuskonen

Just as an example. I attended this virtual trip to Germany for classical music companies, organised by Music Finland and I asked one of the panellists, if I were to start networking in Germany for my conductor, where should I go? And they suggested that I go to the opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonics. So I told my guy that we need to go there, that he has to come with me, because he’s the young conductor and it would benefit him to be present as well. Because when I start talking about a really talented young conductor, it’s just me talking. But when they actually see this guy, it  makes all the difference, and they can start chatting. So, if the person is such that they like to talk to people, they should be there. And if they don’t like it, then they don’t have to. There are personalities with different kinds of social skills and we have to respect their personas and work accordingly.

Virgo Sillamaa 

Addressing these topics, I understand how for many young musicians this might be a bit overwhelming. They still have to practice and develop themselves as an artist. And then there are also these other aspects of needing to be entrepreneurial, getting out to talk to people, and so on. It’s encouraging to hear you say that it’s actually okay to be yourself. But still – while being in school is mostly for practising and developing yourself artistically, what could they do while still studying in order to prepare themselves for a professional career?

Philippa Allan

I think it’s worthwhile to practice seeking inspiration as well. I spoke to a young artist who’s over here studying from Australia with a grant. The whole idea for someone doing that is not just to study with a teacher, but to go to a concert every single night. That’s of course not possible at the moment. So we were talking about how she can do that while being here. Maybe there’s a project she’d like to explore and then start using this time to do the research behind it. Whether she pursues that project straight afterwards or if she has it in her pocket for later, it’s still worthwhile thinking outside of your general practice. I really like this idea of changing your focus of practising, sort of steering your awareness into certain areas of thought. Once you do that, suddenly all of these other things start to become apparent as well – artists become apparent as well as the ensembles and festivals where they play. You start to explore and get to know the names of who’s on the scene at the moment. You just become more aware.. 

Also, for your personal inspiration to practice, looking outside, what other people are doing, noticing what’s missing in the scene entirely, and looking for what might be interesting to bring into the mix later – these things are really important.

Minna Huuskonen 

I’d encourage them to go to concerts and use the intermissions just to talk to people, use introductions by somebody to somebody that you would like to meet and keep your eyes and ears open. You have to follow the market and see who is doing what, so you become better able to place yourself in that competitive world of music. It’s important to be visible, active, and start building your contacts gradually. And be nice to everybody. You never know who you’re talking to, you have to think that everybody is equally important, so don’t underestimate anybody. Somebody in the line waiting for a coffee could be someone really important for your career or a future fan. 

Els Moens

I would encourage students to participate in as many projects as possible, because that’s really a way to show yourself to the world. That’s how conservatoire students get out of the walls of their school – they do projects with partners. I would also encourage students to participate in projects where they’re linked with other art forms, like fine arts or film. Also go into exchange studies. Don’t stay in the building of your conservatoire for five years. An international exchange is really an added value and can create a network abroad for you. It’s a starting point for future projects and collaborations.

Virgo Sillamaa 

What could academic environments do better in order to support  young students in getting more prepared for real life after their studies? Talking about being entrepreneurial and the importance of networking and so on – is this something that professors should address, because the students trust them the most? Or should we do courses on career building? What would be the best place and the most organic way of bringing these topics into the students’ awareness at the right time?

Els Moens 

Yes, indeed. The professors could also give more attention to aspects like these, besides the playing, because the professor usually also has a career and students can learn a lot from that.

Virgo Sillamaa

Minna, you’ve mentioned a few times that the academic environment is perhaps not supporting young artists in getting ready for a real career. What would your suggestions be? 

Minna Huuskonen

A good example comes from the folk and jazz music departments of the Sibelius Academy. They are very active in reaching out internationally to the right kind of partners, whether other schools or ensembles, and so on. They also organise excursions, taking the students to different kinds of trade fairs and they try to share with the students the way the music business really works. Who are the different players in the field and how the huge competition works. This is not done in the classical music field, at least not here. It would be really useful if classical music students also at some point could go with their professors and tutors to these international events, where they can see what networking really means; What is the competition like? What does it take to stand out from the lot? What kind of promotional tools should I have? And so forth. Depending on whether you are in chamber music, opera, or early music, I’m sure there are different kinds of really good international events that students could learn something from. As far as I know, that’s something that hasn’t been done here and it might be useful.

Philippa Allan 

I completely agree with Minna and Els. I think it’s about how we can better connect the inside of the institutions with the outside world. The arts world is run on a shoestring and there’s not much extra money or resources anywhere, but a conservatorium could have more connection perhaps with an opera house locally or do a project each semester with a different outside institution that’s in the same city. And these collaborations would perhaps be able to get extra funding even. When I was studying, we had something like Business Studies, given to us in our final semester before going out into the world. I mean, at least we had it, but it was a series of lectures on how to write a CV and so on. I think it has to start in the first year. Where are we going with this study? What are you inspired by? Even if you are an undergraduate student, we don’t want to kill those ideas. 

Virgo Sillamaa 

We haven’t talked about COVID. What are your biggest fears and hopes in terms of what’s going to happen now in the future? 

Philippa Allan

There’s no way of knowing at the moment. In many countries it is literally a question of whether some of these institutions will still even exist afterwards. I’m sitting in Germany where it’s quite comfortable, a lot of institutions have enough funding to just bridge over, but in  other countries where things are far more dependent on ticket sales, that’s a whole other question. That’s why I’ve started to think of myself as more of a producer as well. So that during these times, maybe we could put concerts on ourselves if it gets down to that. 

Another thing that COVID has taught us is the value of in-depth and local. So, rather than flitting around from one station to the next on a tour, maybe it makes sense to be in one place for a couple of days. Have more conversations with the presenters about having a kind of a mini festival when a particular artist is in the city and ask what else they can do there. Maybe there’s a possibility to do an outreach thing, as well as their solo concerts. There will still be touring, but we have to think about the value of the time an artist spends in a certain place – how can we make that more valuable for everyone?

Minna Huuskonen

There will be changes in the infrastructure. There are companies which are not going to survive this, so maybe there will be less management and agencies – even some of the venues are going to close down. It’s going to look a little bit different, but I’m sure that we are going to go back to the so called normal with live events, performers touring and travelling. But what I would like to see also from the environmental point of view are longer residencies. So you don’t just fly for a one-off concert, but you stay somewhere three weeks and perform, collaborate with local artists, have workshops – stay longer in one place and use those opportunities fully. 

Els Moens

Of course, we don’t know what it will look like, but I think it’s going to demand a lot of flexibility and innovative thinking from all of us, from the side of the artists but also from the side of the programmers. Because now we’re kind of stuck in old structures. A concert has to look like this and has to take place there, especially in classical music. I hope that it becomes more open and flexible now. Also, this will require adapted programs of funding. The issue about touring – I must say that I often sent my artists abroad for only one concert and that doesn’t always feel right. I have always looked for additional concerts, but it doesn’t work every time, because each venue, each festival has their own ideas, etc. I really hope that concert venues will start collaborating more and give our artists the chance to perform in one country for several days after one another, in combination with, as my colleagues already said, longer residencies, opportunities to work together with local artists to do master classes. That would be really nice.

Philippa Allan

There’s definitely time for a change at the moment. I would like to see more conversations between presenters and agencies that include the artists as well, where they’re included in the discussion of how we can  go forward. What can we do to make more sense in this business?

The conversation took place on April 1st, 2021, in a Zoom call.


Biographies

Els Moens

Els Moens studied Musicology at Ghent University, Belgium. After her studies she started working at the office of concert organisations and orchestras, and founded her own artists agency in 1999, where she worked for Belgian artists and chamber music groups, and represented in the Benelux Le Poème Harmoniqie and La Fenice amongst others.

After a break between 2008 and 2014, she founded a new artists agency ‘Els & the Artists’, representing some young and excellent Belgian chamber music ensembles and artists worldwide: Trio Khaldei (piano trio), Revue Blanche (vocal-instrumental quartet), and in early music the baroque ensemble Les Abbagliati, lute player Sofie Vanden Eynde and her projects Imago Mundi, and Romina Lischka & Hathor Consort. With her artists agency, she also renders other services, ranging from fundraising (grant applications) to coaching/mentoring of beginning ensembles and artists.

Minna Huuskonen

Minna Huuskonen established Minnamurra Music Management & Agency, presenting charismatic and carefully selected jazz and world music artists world-wide. In 2013, she also began offering mentoring, promotion, production, and consulting services. Minnamurra artists have performed on all continents, played at major festivals and clubs, and showcased at WOMEX, Eurosonic, Icelandic Airwaves, jazzahead! Mundial Montreal, Seoul Music Week, SXSW, Folkelarm, and Tallinn Music Week.

Minna has over 20 years of experience in various fields of music covering all genres. It all started from playing flute which led to work at Time of Music, a festival of contemporary classical music. Time of Music occupied 10 summers after high school as the festival secretary and later on in 2008-2012 as the executive manager. In between, there were years of political studies and work at Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory as the International Coordinator. During those years the genre also changed to popular music. 10 years passed at the Finnish Music Information Centre (Fimic) working on promotional and export projects. In 2008-2018 Minna worked at the Helsinki Festival, programming and producing for the Huvila Festival Tent, whilst conducting other non-classical music productions. She remained at the festival as an artistic advisor for another year. In 2018 she was acting executive director of the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival.

Minna coordinates Jazz Finland International, a project founded by the Finnish jazz federation in 2019-20 to help Finnish jazz companies go international. In early 2020 she launched the new Apollo Artistit roster introducing young Finnish talent cross-genres, and started acting as a chairwoman of the Foundation of Finnish Music Creators’ Association after two years as a committee member.

She has a long list of confidential posts of which one of the most important was a long membership in the marketing and export committee of The Finnish Music Foundation. She has been a jury member for WOMEX, jazzahead!, Young Nordic Jazz Comets, Israeli World & Jazz showcase, and Radio_head Awards Slovakia. In recent years Minna has done mentoring work for Music Finland, Music Estonia, Sibelius Academy and the Arcada University of Applied Sciences. Her CV expresses her great interest in film music, and beyond her CV it’s publicly known that her heart beats to heavy metal.

Minnamurra means ’plenty of fish’ in Aboriginal language. There is a rainforest called Minnamurra south of Sydney in Australia. It impressed Minna who has always loved fishing, and found the name especially intriguing.

Philippa Allan

Philippa Allan (Berlin/Australia) has worked internationally both as a performing musician and as a manager of projects and artists. She has lived in Berlin for over 20 years, returning regularly to Australia. As a violinist, Philippa toured, recorded and performed internationally with orchestras and chamber music formations, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Ever keen to venture off the beaten track, she explored contemporary classical music early on, experimenting with atypical concert formats and co-founding an electric string quartet during her studies in Australia. Philippa made the move to artist management in 2007, working at a prominent international agency for several years and later as orchestral manager at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. In 2019, she founded her company Real Arts, which was inspired by her desire to more closely connect the artistic scenes of Australia and Europe. Further emphases of her work with Real Arts are the international contemporary music scene, interdisciplinary projects and listening for what might not be easily heard within the constraints of existing traditional structures in today’s music scene.

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