Marketing Yourself as a 21st Century Musician

It is no secret that the opera industry is in financial strains. As a singer, I sometimes feel helpless watching the industry I love report cancellation after cancellation. Knowing that lack of funding is a main source of these issues, I often think about how interesting projects can be created in a fiscally sound way. I do think, however, that although this is a scary time for the arts, it’s also a time for an exciting renewal. 

This article is meant to act as a guideline to help singers take the driver’s seat of their own artistic endeavors. It is based on a lecture called “Marketing Yourself as a 21st Century Musician,” which I have given at several conservatories and opera companies and is the formula that I used to create a film version of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs for Opera Philadelphia and a theatrical concert called “Emily” for Opéra de Montréal. 

I’ve found that the way to get from point A to point B is to simply start moving. You do not need all the answers as you set out on your journey, but you do need unwavering belief in yourself. As you set forth, keep in mind that it’s important to keep up your project’s momentum and tackle small goals first as you work through it. If your momentum or drive slows down, the likelihood of your project coming to fruition dwindles. Movement toward your goal can go in any direction as your end goal will likely change—but when people ruminate on one thing and stay stagnant, the idea remains as just that. 

If this describes you, start by reflecting on your interests that have nothing to do with singing. A self-produced project takes a lot of time and effort to move forward, and it will be easiest if it revolves around something you have a great interest or passion in. Your project could be as simple as drawings that go side by side with the translation in the program or a song concert that you program. It could be poems that you wrote that remind you of your own experience as you reflect on the text of the concert you’re about to give, which could also develop into the text of a song cycle that you create with a composer. 

Choosing a Topic and Collaboration

Let’s say Artist A is a singer who loves trains. How can we combine those interests? I always recommend starting with something small and building out. Ask yourself, “Is there something that already exists that you can put your own stamp on, or is this going to be a whole new venture?” Either way, collaboration with other creatives will be one of your best assets.

Artist A reflects on what would grab the interest of an audience. Keeping in mind the idea of starting small and building out, one avenue involving love of singing and trains could include developing a scene of an opera that takes place on a train. A murder mystery, a story about a missed connection, commuting and catching the eye of a familiar face you have seen on the same route for a few days…the list goes on. It starts as just that—one scene or perhaps one song. 

Looking at what the next steps to get to B are, what is needed? A composer and a librettist. This is where collaboration comes into play. Part of what is so wonderful about the CS Music community is that there are numerous creatives in one network. Once you find a librettist and a composer (perhaps you are one or both), have a meeting to discuss next steps. What is the ultimate goal, and what is the first step to reach it? Perhaps it is an hour-long opera project. Start by outlining the major plot points and developing one scene. From this you will find that a natural progression starts to take place and something exciting starts to develop. 

Organizing Your Thoughts

Once you have your idea, you must be able to see it clearly in your mind before you bring it to other people. The problem is that others can’t see it as clearly as you can, so you need to help them do so. This is where your pitch deck comes into play. A pitch deck is a concise presentation that gives a breakdown of your project. It should answer the questions “What is the project?” “Why is this project relevant and needed?” and “What is the aesthetic of the project?” You should use both words and images to invoke the general feeling of the project and give people a sense of what the final product would look like. 

Ask yourself, “If I presented this to a performing arts company, why would they say ‘no’?” The main reason is usually money. If you can find a way for your project to be inexpensive yet visually intriguing, your likelihood if getting a “yes” is increased. With that said, the next thing you’ll want to figure out is the projected cost of the project as it will inevitably be the first question that is asked of you when approaching a producing entity. 

The Cost—A Three-Tier System: Budgeting three versions of your project can seem like a daunting task, but this is where you can ask for advice and insight from “your team” (mentors, teachers, coaches, arts administrators, family, friends). Even if you don’t know the answer, chances are someone on your team might know them or know someone who will know. As a general rule, if you can keep the physical needs of your project limited in price but high in creativity, you’re on your way to backing a winning horse. 

Remember that you can invoke a particular environment with very few physical items. You can feel like you’re on a train by setting up benches, hanging industrial lights, and playing the sound of tracks and a whistle at the beginning of the performance. It’s a good practice to come up with three tiers: the cheapest option, the middle option, and an all-out version designed as if money were not a limiting factor. What would you want to see on stage in each of these scenarios? Price each of these out, because you never know what a producing entity might be looking for. 

The Pitch: The next step is to come up with your “elevator pitch.” This is a two-minute explanation of what your project is and why it’s important. Once you have your pitch deck outlining your project, run it by your team. They will provide an outsider’s perspective and raise questions that a producing entity will likely ask you, which will help you realize the weak and strong points in your pitch. With this feedback, go back and refine your pitch.

Example

My creative partner, Christopher Allen, was asked to perform a concert with Atelier Lyrique at Opéra de Montréal. He went through the above process and decided that doing a concert composed of text from Emily Dickinson’s writings would be an interesting evening in the theater. The thought process could have ended there, and the audience would have a wonderful concert of art songs set to Dickinson’s text. But, he posits, “create something that the industry needs and audiences want.” When we develop a project, we ask ourselves if this project fulfills both of these requirements. So he asked if I could come onto the project to create a show out of these two song cycles that use Emily Dickinson’s text. 

As I sat with the pieces and learned more about who Emily Dickinson was as a person, I thought about having the singers tell the life story of Dickinson through her own words, with each person representing a different figure in her life, either actual or metaphorical. One singer would take on the role of Emily, one would be her cousin who died at a young age, another would be death itself, and so on. Once I knew more about Dickinson, I then created a narrative of her life through staging these pieces while not changing the order or text. As I developed the narrative through what the singers would do and how they would interact on stage, I asked my team for feedback, which I then implemented.  

Once I had this idea, I put together a pitch deck for the company. I asked if I could have a desk, four chairs, a pen, paper, a trunk, and some flowers. From this, the singers, Christopher, and I created a theatrical concert—because as I thought about what I would like to see as an audience member, I realized I always prefer an evening with theatrical elements to an evening of just standing and singing. 

The cost? Under $500 if all of the items needed to be purchased new. However, the company already had everything in stock, so it cost them nothing extra. As I was thinking about the project in its initial iteration, I was also thinking ahead to how we could pitch this to other performing arts venues in the future. The “set” is made out of things that most companies have in stock, making it much easier to produce than other shows. We have since successfully pitched this to Wolf Trap, where it will be performed in April 2024.

In conclusion, I’m sure you have a great idea that the world is waiting to see. Using this formula to help get from Point A to Point B is one way to go about creating a self-produced project, and I hope it helps. Singers have a lot to say, and they should be heard.

Johnathan McCullough

GRAMMY® nominated baritone and director Johnathan McCullough recently premiered his production of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs produced by Opera Philadelphia, which was nominated by the Recording Academy for Best of Recording, received an International Opera Award nomination, and won the Artistic Creation Prize at the inaugural Opera America Awards for Digital Excellence. He has sung leading roles at Opera Philadelphia, Komische Oper Berlin, English National Opera, Opéra de Lausanne, Portland Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and many more. McCollough was selected by Renée Fleming to participate in the Weill Institute Song Studio at Carnegie Hall, where he has also performed in concert. Upcoming singing engagements include appearances with Pittsburgh Opera and Lyric Opera Kansas City, as well as directing “Emily” at the Barns at Wolf Trap. He currently serves as the opera program director for the National Children’s Chorus leading the National Youth Opera Academy. He is also the executive director of Fourth Wall NYC, a theatrical vocal ensemble focused on interdisciplinary collaboration as well as artist well-being. As a director, McCullough’s work has been noted by The New York Times as “a pacesetter for cinematic opera.” For more information, visit mccullouighbaritone.com.