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The Entrepreneurs You Don’t Think of: Arts and Music in Columbia

When you think of the word “entrepreneur,” what comes to mind? If your answer is something along the lines of “tech startup” or “app developer” (or, if you’re a fan of the classics, “door-to-door salesman”), you’re in the large majority. But as we’ve heard many times this week, anyone can be an entrepreneur.

“People tend to associate startups with IT, but entrepreneurship really can be anything,” says Ryan Coleman of Columbia’s Office of Economic Development. “You can have an entrepreneurial community around the arts and entertainment.”

That’s right. While they’re not the first to come to mind for many, artists, musicians and the like can absolutely be considered entrepreneurs. And a few leaders in the local community are out to prove it.

“A lot of artists haven’t traditionally thought of themselves that way either,” says David Cutler, Director of Music Entrepreneurship at the University of South Carolina. But that’s changing. My title reflects that.”

“A lot of artists used to not even think about business jobs, because they felt like they had one specific skill set,” Cutler says. “I was that way; I could play the piano and compose, and that was important, but that was it. Now, I understand that what I learned from my music background is how to solve problems creatively. I learned about finding my own voice, and taking a chance, and walking the tightrope. As a result of my training, I feel like I have both the big picture and the small picture. And I can apply that to anything as long as I have an understanding of the problem. It could be ‘how do I put on a really exciting concert that’s going to attract a lot of people,’ or it could be ‘how do we transform Five Points into a place that’s going to attract more millennials.’”

savvy-musicianCutler believes that he and other artists have a lot of traits that make them fit the bill for the general understanding of “entrepreneur.” For example, he points out that many people choose the arts because they are following a passion, which is very similar to a tech professional’s motivation for creating something that will solve a problem near and dear to them.

Additionally, he argues that, like the work of a startup owner, an artist’s grind is never just a nine to five gig.

“As a classically trained musician, I practiced 12 hours a day many days of my life,” says Cutler. “Who else does that? Who else has that kind of discipline, that kind of attention to detail?”

He also believes that, as an entrepreneur, an artist can really nail a pitch competition.

“We know how to put on a show,” Cutler says. “We know how to practice, we know how to rehearse things. How to connect to an audience.”

Cutler believes that more and more people are beginning to realize these commonalities, and he feels the perception of artists by the business world as a whole is changing.

“I know a guy who has talked to a lot of companies and made the case for hiring musicians,” he says. “And they say ‘wow, that makes a lot of sense,’ when before they would have just thrown our resume in the trash.”

“I think to myself, if this is the potential that music education has, are we training our students the right way?”

This question is what leads David Cutler to work in his position at the University of South Carolina. It’s also what motivated him to create the Savvy Venture Arts Challenge.

Similar to an elongated Startup Weekend, Savvy is a 6-day workshop that pushes artists to realize their potential as entrepreneurs. Participants prepare a 1-minute elevator pitch for an arts-based business idea that has potential to generate revenue and impact. Teams are formed around those ideas on the 2nd day; for the rest of the week, these teams attempt to build those ideas into concrete businesses. Along the way, participants are given various assignments and learning opportunities to assist in the process. The week culminates in a pitch competition, which, as Cutler describes it, is “kind of like Shark Tank for the arts.”

“We will work you harder than you have ever worked in your life,” says Cutler. “But we will treat you better than you have ever been treated before.”

“Part of the lesson for the artist is, if you look around your community, wherever you live, look at it as your playground, your canvas,” he says. “Look at all the resources that could be there, if you just had the wisdom and the vision to understand how to leverage those kinds of things.”

Fellow leaders in Columbia’s arts community see the potential in Cutler’s conference, the impact it can have. They, too, aspire to show artists the potential they have to thrive as business minds.

“We want that to be the message,” says Lee Snelgrove, Executive Director of One Columbia. “We have helped David over the past few years at Savvy in a few ways. We put together a panel of artists and government officials and tech people, and they all sit together and talk about what’s needed. We also advertise their events so that we can get artists around here out to talk to these entrepreneurs, who are also artists.”

Like Cutler, Snelgrove wonders why there is a divide between the idea of entrepreneurship and the artist.

“I think it feels that way because Columbia is so focused on bringing in things like tech companies,” he says. “So many places are. And that’s reflected in the people that come for Savvy. Their businesses are art-based, but they still have a tech flare to them.”

“I think we should be broader,” says Snelgrove. “I don’t want to see people that are just going to create an app. It’s really hard to get an app into market and get it widely used. I do think there are ways to get more creative businesses out of the arts.”

Lee believes that one of the reasons he doesn’t see more of those creative businesses is, quite simply, people don’t think they can make it.

“Traditionally, a lot of arts organizations think they need to be non-profit, when they probably, at the core, have an idea that can be turned into a business,” he says.

Thankfully, there are programs in the Midlands working to debunk that thought. According to Snelgrove, there’s a program through the South Carolina Arts Commission that works with artists to help them think about how they can turn their work into a business, or to come up with a new idea that can be a business venture. That program is called the S.C. Artists’ Ventures Initiative.

“There’s also a discussion of how you can be an independent musician in Columbia,” says Snelgrove. “Kevin Felder [who is a Christian rap artist under the stage name Big Redd, as well as an organizer of One Million Cups] has done these workshops called The Indie Ground, which is all about teaching musicians and producers about music as a business.”

artist-at-workSnelgrove believes a unified training program to unite artists and entrepreneurs could be another beneficial step, for both communities. It would help artists think in terms of profitability, and entrepreneurs in terms of creativity.

Perhaps Savvy could be the outlet to promote this collaboration of arts and business. Perhaps Savvy could be the game-changer Columbia needs.

“What sold me was coming on the Sunday, when they’re presenting their ideas to local VIPs in the art and tech communities, who are seeing these people coming from all over the country that are impressed with Columbia, and are totally jazzed about whatever they’ve been working on all week,” says Snelgrove. “In one weekend, [David] has changed their life and how they think about what they want to do with arts. That’s a big deal.”

It’s a big deal not only from an inspirational perspective, but from an entrepreneurial one as well.

“I think there are a lot of good business ideas that are coming out of the Savvy musician,” says Snelgrove. “Maybe because of the nature of the workshop, the plans that come out are totally viable ideas.”

It should be no surprise, then, that Cutler was invited by Jack Beasley to a meeting leading up to Global Entrepreneurship Week. He was asked to provide insight on how to make the event, simply put, “cool.”

His suggestion is to tell the stories of 100 local entrepreneurs in 100 different places. Imagine projecting videos onto the sides of buildings, open for the world to see. It’s a pretty compelling thought.

He also added a condition to that response, one that reflects the thoughts of many of our GEW leaders.

“We’re not going to become a leader just by doing the same things everyone else does,” Cutler says. “If you want to be a leader, don’t just focus on Global Entrepreneurship Week. We’re entrepreneurs. Find your own kind of thing that nobody else is doing, and figure out how you can get the national or international spotlight with that.”

Cutler believes Columbia’s opportunity may be in the intersection of the two communities he works to bring together.

“A lot of things contribute to the desirability of a place, but one of them is the arts,” he says. “Arts can play a really big role… There are other people saying ‘we want to make Columbia a tech town, a startup town, to increase the quality of living.’ Very similar conversations. But those conversations are happening separately. And most people are not thinking about the other side when making that message. Lots of towns are having these conversations independently.”

“We have an opportunity to look at the intersection between creative industries, and entrepreneurial small businesses,” Cutler says. “And I think that can be one way we can really put ourselves on the map. I’m convinced that there is an opportunity for huge riches for communities that decide to embrace the intersection between the business world and the arts world. And I would love to see it be us.”

“What would happen if we put both sides together on a team and had them try to solve the problems of Columbia together?” Cutler asks. “It could be a game-changer.”

“If you want that conversation to happen, there are two ways to do it,” he says. “You can create a culture where it just happens on a regular basis. But it takes a long time to change a culture. The other way is you create an event that brings all kinds of attention. And people will say ‘wow, look at the potential if we embrace this.’ So I’ve been thinking, what kind of event could bring thousands of people here, where we can show off our town by bringing these groups together?”

Perhaps Savvy is the answer. Cutler believes he has not yet figured it out. But he is determined, and he will keep working on it until he does.

“It’s a dream, but that’s where you have to start,” he says. “It’s a dream that other people haven’t had.”

The mind of a true entrepreneur.


Catch up on the Global Entrepreneurship Week Series:

#1 Columbia Kicks off Entrepreneurship Week

#2 Columbia’s Entrepreneurial Cheerleaders, Dot-Connectors and Mentors: The Groups that Facilitate Startup Successes in the Midlands

#3 “More Than a College Town”: Columbia Offers Resources for Students to Become Entrepreneurs

#4 The Entrepreneurs You Don’t Think of: Arts and Music in Columbia

#5 Potential to be Great: The Future of Entrepreneurship in Columbia

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