Baroque oboist Kristin Olson has expanded her reedmaking business, Reed Lizard, with the support of a Jonathan Madrigano Entrepreneurship Grant.

Musician as Business Owner

In today’s economy, the age-old mantra of “practice, practice, practice” may not be enough to fully prepare musicians for a career, and in response emerging artists are taking advantage of an increasing number of entrepreneurship training opportunities at music conservatories. One closely watched program that got underway in September is supporting five innovative projects by Juilliard students and alumni during the 2012-13 season. The Juilliard School’s Jonathan Madrigano Entrepreneurship Grants provide up to $4,000 to current students and recent graduates to fund business projects, online platforms, products, films, interdisciplinary endeavors, performance projects, and educational initiatives. Among the projects receiving grants this season are a social media marketing and training program for artists and organizations; a professionally produced film showcasing Juilliard playwrights and composers; a music-education program for lower-income families that provides free music lessons, scholarships, and access to high-quality instruments; and a project that uses classical music to address the issue of student bullying.

For orchestral musicians, pursuing creative challenges beyond the “day job” can bring welcome rewards and challenges; this topic was covered in Symphony ’s Winter 2013 issue. The inaugural Madrigano grantees won funding for their ventures through a competitive application process during the 2011-12 academic year. As part of the grant program, Madrigano—a New York-based financial advisor—has been leading professional development sessions with guest speakers, as well as personally conducting business-strategy sessions with each of the grant recipients.

Recently, SymphonyNOW caught up with oboist Kristin Olson, a 2012 graduate of Juilliard’s Historical Performance Program who used her entrepreneurship grant to expand Reed Lizard, an oboe reedmaking business with an emphasis on Baroque oboe reeds. Olson—who also holds music degrees in modern oboe from the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Southern California—says that, like most oboists, she knew nothing about Baroque oboe reeds when she first turned her attention to Baroque oboe a few years ago. Olson says she is thrilled to be filling a special need for Baroque oboists, and enjoys making a business out of something she was already doing.

How Olson decided to apply for an entrepreneurship grant: An email blast went out last year to students at Juilliard, where I was in the Historical Performance program. I already had the oboe reedmaking business, but on a very small scale. I had a basic website, and a couple of customers, but I hadn’t done any marketing. I didn’t want to just apply for the grant to make more reeds or something—that wouldn’t make sense. I realized that I had this whole Baroque oboe thing going on, and wanted to expand my reach as an oboe reedmaker beyond “I got an order, I’ll make a reed and send it out.” I wanted to really influence how the next generation of Baroque oboe students grows up by having access to some reeds. So in addition to making reeds and expanding the business to have more customers, part of my application was having a better website that was easier to access and more visible, aimed specifically at teaching Baroque oboe reedmaking, seminars, classes, lessons, whatever it takes to get some of the knowledge out there about approaching this instrument. I also plan to visit music trade shows like IDRS and Boston Early Music Festival and say, “Here’s some stuff that you can go play the oboe with!”

“I thought that the grant would basically be, You win! Here’s a $4,000 check. Bye, see you. It’s so much more than that.”

On the need for a Baroque reedmaking business: There are a ton of oboe reed makers out there, but in this country I don’t think there is anyone else doing Baroque oboe reeds. Before I came to the Juilliard historical performance program, I could not make Baroque oboe reeds. I had no idea what I was doing. It’s a separate process. In modern oboe reeds, we use a shaping template. You can get shaper tips for Baroque reeds, but you have to do it by hand. You’re eye-balling it and shaping it down to make it look beautiful. Until you’ve seen it done a few times you have no idea. On top of that, there just aren’t enough Baroque oboe teachers in this country. Unless you happen to be studying oboe in a place close to one of those main teachers, there’s no way you can start the Baroque oboe, because the reed is everything. Imagine trying to pick up the oboe if there was no standardized place to find out about reedmaking, no decent place to get reeds, or a teacher to show you not only how to adjust them but say, here is what it should feel like.

Modern oboe reeds versus Baroque oboe reeds: The ideal Baroque oboe reed is extremely stable. But Baroque oboes aren’t standardized. So you can’t put reeds for a Saxon oboe in an Eichentopf oboe. Now, if someone contacts me and asks me to make reeds for a Stainsby oboe or an Eichentopf oboe, I can say yes. I’ve made so many different reeds for so many different customers, that now I know what works and what doesn’t.

Profits and losses: I make a profit. There is a market price for oboe reeds that is anywhere from about $15 for student or more mass-produced reeds, up to about $25 to $30 for modern reeds labeled “pro.” The difference between “pro” and “student” reeds is not how hard or resistant the reed is to play. The ones that sound really good, that I spend a lot of extra time refining, those ones come with a premium: they go for $25. The ones that vibrate very fast and are very easy to play, that have a general level of stability but where the absolute level of sound production is a little lower, those reeds are $18. Anybody can play on them, and they’re going to sound great.

“Artists aren’t used to putting monetary value on the thing that they’re producing. Jonathan Madrigano inspired us to be confident that what we’re producing is a business and is worth this dollar price-tag.”

How Olson is using her grant money: I have a new website, and I worked on my marketing. I’ve been getting a ton more customers and orders since some of that has been in place. I hosted a public master class recently in New York for out-of-town Baroque oboists at an arts space I rented in Midtown. There was a small fee to attend. There were about twelve people in the room— I put the whole thing together in less than a week. A couple of the modern oboe players there have gotten interested in taking lessons, getting reeds, getting more information … which is awesome!

Learning to be an entrepreneur: Jonathan Madrigano is getting to know our businesses from the inside out. I thought that the grant would basically be, “You win! Here’s a $4,000 check. Bye, see you.” It’s so much more than that. So many of the things that I’ve done since September have been because I have a grant meeting with Jonathan the next day and my homework for the business was to write up a part of the proposal, or give a report on finances. It forces you to keep moving forward, whereas if you’re floating on your own, because it’s a lot of work, it’s easy to think, “Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Jonathan gives us great assignments on how to take the next step. He inspires us to not be afraid—this is going to sound weird, but—not to be afraid to make money. Artists aren’t used to putting monetary value on the thing that they’re producing. He inspired us to be confident that what we’re producing is a business and is worth this dollar price tag. At the end of the year, all the grant recipients will have to offer a full report. Every time I request some grant money as we go along, I keep a log of it, because they’re going to want receipts. Jonathan is great, because he’s not a performing artist himself. He sees opportunities for marketing, for growth in ways that we would never think of, because as artists we don’t think about it that way. Business people think about it differently. It’s not just about profit. It’s about thinking about your value in a completely different way.

Why it’s good for musicians to have a side business: Even if you get an orchestra job, is that job going to be artistically satisfying, or monetarily or financially satisfying? What are you going to do if you win a great job and you like it, and it pays … $25,000 a year? You can’t raise a family on that. You can’t eventually buy a home on that. So what are you going to do? Teach, sell your reeds, you’re going to have some side business, take another job … there’s lots of things you can do, but not until you start thinking about it that way.

Below, a behind-the-scenes look at Kristin Olson’s reedmaking studio.

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