Small business success #30: Kevin Rhodes: A music maestro turns his art into a business

Maestro Kevin Rhodes

Maestro Kevin Rhodes

When you’re an artist, how do you run your “business” effectively? Each performance or each piece of art is handcrafted, so to speak, and it can’t be mechanized, produced cheaper in another country, or mass-produced. Yet, solid business skills can build an effective support system for the artist, which can free him or her up to work on the art.

Kevin Rhodes is one busy conductor and music director. He leads the Traverse Symphony Orchestra in Michigan and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts, and serves as principal conductor of Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. And that’s just on this side of the pond. When we spoke over coffee in February, he’d just returned from the Stuttgart Ballet. Last season, he conducted at both the Vienna State Opera (where he was the music director for the annual Nureyev Gala) and the Paris Opera Ballet, where he’s a regular. He conducted the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra last September, and flew back to the U.S. a couple of days later to conduct the Springfield Symphony and rapper T-Pain at Gillette Stadium for the opening of the New England Patriots season.

Rhodes began conducting at the age of 16 in Evansville, Indiana, his hometown, and received music degrees at Michigan State University and the University of Illinois. Upon finishing school, he got his first gig with the Albuquerque Civic Light Opera, before heading to Europe as principal guest conductor of the Basel Festival Orchestra. A busy career in Europe followed, and Maestro Rhodes returned to the U.S. in 2001 to lead the orchestras in Massachusetts and Michigan, although he still spends a lot of time in the concert halls, opera houses, and ballet theatres of Europe.

Home base for Rhodes is Westfield, a small university city in western Massachusetts, which is convenient to international airports in Boston and Hartford. “Team Rhodes” includes his wife, Jane, a theatre veteran who manages his schedule, flights, accommodations; three agents (one in the United States and two in Europe) to book his engagements; and accountants familiar with international taxes; a webmaster, and others needed to keep Rhodes’ time free for rehearsals, performances, and studying scores.

“I learned a lot of the business end of the music business from mentors,” says Rhodes, “because there were no courses in arts administration specifically for artists in the music business that I could fit into my schedule.”

Since Rhodes began his career in Basel, continuing education programs and arts administration programs have been established, but these are primarily geared to those who want to run an arts organization or a gallery.

Rhodes also learned a lot by being thrust into the business side of the arts. “When I was 16 and doing community theatre, we were doing a musical,” he says. “The manager gave me a dollar amount that I could spend on getting and building an orchestra for the show. I had to figure that out.”

Rhodes, on the advice of others in the business, did not incorporate, but operates as a sole proprietor, contracting accounting, web, and other services on an as-needed basis. “My situation is unique,” says Rhodes, “because I work in several countries, each with their own tax structures; I need assistance from a specialist.” Rhodes adds that the cultural climate is different in different countries.

The best piece of advice he was given came from a German conductor who said, “Be flexible and adapt. Don’t over-invest your emotions in the job; when your emotions cloud your confidence in your work, remember the paycheck.” Rhodes manages to keep a perspective that allows him to manage multiple projects, find the emotion in the artistry, and find the business acumen to do it all profitably.

The best skill set that a maestro must bring to the table? “Networking,” says Rhodes, who can speak comfortably with and before all kinds of groups of people, from musicians to media, from dancers to donors to audiences.

Rhodes says he could take on more work with advance planning, much in part to the administrative and technical support that Jane provides. He’s protective of his art, and won’t allow himself to mass produce or overproduce. And, that’s succeeding in small business.

For further information on Kevin Rhodes: http://kevinrhodesconductor.com/

For information on the Traverse (MI) Symphony Orchestra: http://traversesymphony.org/

For information on the Springfield (MA) Symphony Orchestra: http://www.springfieldsymphony.org/

For information on the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston: http://www.proarte.org/

He also has a Facebook page, Kevin Rhodes Conductor.

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Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.

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