The mini revolution of the San Francisco Conservatory

The music world watched the San Francisco Conservatory of Music takeover of major artist agency Opus 3 and, recently, the Pentatone record label with a mixture of amazement and disbelief. So what does a Conservatory do in these universes? The duty discussed it with David Stull, instigator of these great manoeuvres.

“No, we won’t buy a symphony orchestra,” replies Mr. Stull, president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, when we ask him what string is now missing from his bow. Even if he laughs at it, the answer is hardly a joke. “So many people are calling on us to redeem them; you have no idea what is for sale! »

Since the staggering upheavals spearheaded by David Stull and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) and its patrons, new eyes have been cast on this educational institution. Some believe that David Stull has become the Croesus of classical music.

These acquisitions are so unexpected that a state of daze seems to have anesthetized the will to understand the process. Since the acquisition, in October 2020, of Opus 3 and that of Pentatone, in May 2022, few media have been interested in the why of the case.

The cataclysm

To understand the potential earthquake that is taking shape, we obviously have to go back to March 2020. The cessation of concerts on the planet due to the pandemic certainly affected artists and institutions, but also hit artist agencies: work multiplied ( cancellations, reorganization of calendars) and fixed costs intact (salaries, rents in large urban centers) for cash inflows reduced to zero overnight. In the trade, it was the hecatomb at a vertiginous speed.The duty wrote it several times from June 2020. The “big agency” model, with a wide range of artists, but staggering fixed costs, then collapsed in favor of “boutique” agencies on a human scale. The symbol of chaos was the bankruptcy of Columbia Artists, which closed at the end of August 2020.

Everyone wondered then what would be the fate of Opus 3, the other major North American agency. No one really understood the meaning of its acquisition, in October 2020, by an unexpected actor: the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Since then, in May 2022, the SFCM has also bought a Dutch record company, Pentatone.

The integration

“The acquisition of Opus 3 and Pentatone stems from the desire to develop a new model, says David Stull. It is not only about educating the artists of tomorrow, but about providing a crucible in which artists of our time can create and disseminate new works. »

Practical example: within an artistic agency, a pianist plays the 2e Concerto by Rachmaninoff. With this aura, he goes from town to town to present it. “That same artist might have ideas for a creative project involving other artists, a violinist, a poet, a media artist, a dancer. But there is no space for this project to hatch, remarks David Stull. As an educational institution, we are equipped for this, and also eager to involve our students in the creative process. If we can bring this artist to our campus and generate collaborative projects, not only is it educationally interesting for our students, but ultimately good for the agency that can present the project across the country. »

We think, here, how much the recent immersive concert Transfiguration, by harpist Valérie Milot and cellist Stéphane Tétreault, would have benefited from germinating in such a crucible.

David Stull also points out that the SFCM being a non-profit organization, it is possible for it to raise funds both to support educational projects and to stimulate the creation of such artistic projects. “We know how to do it and do it very well. This gives the agency powerful leverage to support artists. In other words, the nonprofit is helping commerce.

Another application, musical creation: “Imagine a work for piano and small orchestra by a contemporary composer. The artist does not have the means to have access to musicians and studios, and we have them on hand! We can welcome artists and their projects, bring collaborators, then use our record label, our sound engineers to broadcast the project, since we have the recording studio, the teams. »

In summary: “If you are a student, you are exposed to creative bubbling. If you are an artist, you are represented by an agency that can help you realize your ideas. If you are Pentatone, you have access to the great artists of the world, represented by Opus 3, but also to the units and the human resources necessary to produce at the lowest cost at the best level what you need. »

Lower costs

“We can integrate into the SFCM divisions generating fixed costs that weigh on the balance sheet. All these companies need financial, legal, human resources, etc. services. In addition, compared to previous structures, we save office space, especially since many employees can work from home,” adds Mr. Stull.

The savings made can be allocated to other, more artistic missions: “The companies we have acquired benefit from the SFCM platform to reduce their costs and advance their ideas”, summarizes the president. With competitive advantages over boutique agencies.

Imagine a work for piano and small orchestra by a contemporary composer. The artist does not have the means to have access to musicians and studios, and we have them on hand! We can welcome artists and their projects, bring collaborators, then use our record label, our sound engineers to broadcast the project, since we have the recording studio, the teams.

The next step will be to allow student groups to accompany eminent artists for community projects with children piggybacking around artistic projects. This sounds a bit like an extension of the model of peripheral community activities of the Bach Suites Tour of Yo-Yo Ma few years ago. “In these cities, the presenter will be able to say to his sponsors: ‘Instead of just presenting Emanuel Ax, we will also send students to schools, free of charge'”, value-added projects funded by SFCM donors.

The acquisition of Opus 3 had been financed in October 2020 by an “anonymous donor”. David Stull prefers to remain discreet on the engine of the acquisition of Pentatone. “The donors involved are multiple. They don’t want to hide. The reason for their anonymity is that they want the focus to be on the ideas and where this is all going. He asserts that many new donors joined in the wake of the acquisition of Opus 3, inspired by the audacity of the gesture.

The village

Operationally, David Stull oversees Rob Berretta, who directs Opus 3, assisted by Chief Operating Officer Benjamin Maimin. Sean Hickey is the new director of Pentatone, which will operate in the Netherlands and the United States. A holding includes the three entities, which operate in synergy, but retain their autonomy.

“Think of a village. Basically, everything is connected, but everything is independent. Opus 3 is linked to the SFCM and with Pentatone, but Opus 3 artists work with many other labels. Likewise, Pentatone can hire any artist they think is the best. But the more Pentatone involves Opus 3 and uses our resources, the less expensive it will be to operate. The SFCM will attract and educate the best young musicians. Not all of them will participate in outside projects or recording projects, but we will make their curriculum unique by expanding their experience through our alliances through our acquisitions and through our philosophy. »

For the president of the SFCM, all of this could be done in San Francisco because the culture of innovation is part of the city’s DNA. “People are comfortable with risk. We’re over 100 years old, proud of many traditions, but excited about innovation. And if this model is born here, it is because our board of directors prefers to look to the future. »

David Stull, who won’t buy a symphony orchestra, knows his next priorities: “The media in the sense of dissemination, that is to say how to better target and reach the public receptive to new ideas. It will emerge quickly and naturally. We master the model, we know where we are going and what we want to achieve. You have to work on the customer relationship and the narrative hook. »

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