When the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s president, David Stull, in December announced the school’s acquisition of the UK’s largest concert agency, Askonas Holt, with a staff of 75 and a roster of 240 artists—added to its recent acquisitions of New York–based concert agency Opus 3 Artists and the Dutch Pentatone label—it raised a significant number of eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.
Journalist Norman Lebrecht described the deal as “a ball-breaker for the music biz, challenging traditional agencies to become bigger players in the industry and hidebound conservatories to plant a size 10 pair of trainers in the business world.” Milwaukee Symphony CEO Mark Niehaus said, “David Stull is a very entrepreneurial and smart guy, and I’m fascinated by his expansive thinking. As we all continue to navigate the post-pandemic world, shifts are being made in the orchestra industry. Creative, entrepreneurial thinking and risk taking will be essential to growth.”
I spoke to Stull in December in New York after a joint holiday celebration in Midtown with Musical America and the Kaufman Music Center.
When I asked him about the salient points of the new acquisition, he told me that the Askonas Holt deal was “really about completing the model. We have imagined for some time verticalizing the idea of a conservatory and a record label, with the management companies coming together. The model is a highly efficient financial frame for preparing students to work in real time around the exciting new projects of the world, which would be unique to us as a conservatory, providing artists with a creative space, giving Pentatone access to recording studios and engineers such that they can capture exciting new work and do it for pennies on the dollar.”
He cautioned that there were some misunderstandings about their intentions for their new model. “Most people operate under the misapprehension that we’re going to place most of our students in management,” he said. “And that is absolutely not the reason we’re doing it. A fraction of a percentage of students will go to management. What we’re really excited about is the chance to integrate the work and presence of artists from the agencies into life on campus and to workshop in real time future artistic opportunities for artists and students that can be presented as well as captured on Pentatone.”
When I asked whether a not-for-profit was the right vehicle for this seemingly for-profit adventure, Stull said that “the idea of having a nonprofit as the parent company makes all the difference. The fact that we can now synergistically operate these entities under one nonprofit umbrella allows us to bring to bear our fundraising expertise with a brand-new range of contacts vis-à-vis the benefactors of major artists around the globe, which means that we can provide the 501(c)(3) backdrop for those major artists.”
Stull also pointed out how the Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) program, launched in 2014, prepares composers “to write within the frame of video-game music, film music, and immersion media, including sound design and both video and audio components. This program has a nearly 100-percent placement rate in the profession, starting on average in the high five to six figures. We’ve made these courses available to all of our students and opened it up to artists who we manage through Opus 3 and Askonas Holt. It’s not intended to define the future, but it’s definitely part of the future.”
I spoke to the SFCM’s new outposts in London and Baarn about whether this meant shrinkage and consolidation for the classical music industry or regrouping for growth and expansion.
Askonas Holt CEO Donagh Collins said he “finds this to be a really interesting point for discussion. Many are worried about the future of classical-music audiences, as audiences age and with so much choice and distraction in today’s world. And, certainly, we have to fight for our audiences, attracting people back at different phases in their lives. We can take nothing for granted. Key is access to music education (an instrument, an affordable teacher, a safe place to be taught) and breaking down barriers to entry—hopefully we can add to the experience, education, and access for SFCM students into the future.
“We also want to work further with artists to facilitate their expressing themselves beyond traditional performances, working across genres, and producing events that attract audiences beyond the classical ‘bubble.’ Our alliance will allow us to do more of that, through the physical resources and fundraising expertise at SFCM. It also allows us more access to the recording world through Pentatone.”
In fact, Pentatone may have been the key acquisition, due to its being the primary label for one of the SFCM’s most prominent supporters, Gordon Getty, who has released 19 recordings already and whose complete opera, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, was released by Pentatone in 2022. Asked about possible expansion, Pentatone’s Sean Hickey told me, “we don’t have the capacity currently to do more than 40 releases per year, though that could change in future. What we will have is a lot more collaboration with the SFCM’s TAC program, for instance, in the engineering of Dolby Atmos format to the DSPs [digital signal processors] that require them.”
The jubilation over “verticalizing” is not unalloyed. Rob Hilberink, who produces the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition, the Rotterdam International Conducting Competition, and this year’s Horowitz Competition Kyiv-Geneva, was “already astonished by their acquisition of Opus 3 last year,” and is “afraid this is a very bad development for the business. Clearly, they are hoping that their conservatory will become more attractive, perhaps through offering better guest professors (which is a good thing) or by directly pushing their students to the management (which is a bad thing).
“In a market that is becoming more and more competitive,” Hilberink says, “there is a serious risk that more musicians are ‘exploited’ and pushed too soon, too fast. Also, we might get to a point where careers will become dependent on a handful of gatekeepers. I guess we will see more of these kinds of mergers with this shrinking market. I wouldn’t be surprised if Asia will follow this example soon and start buying up half of Europe’s infrastructure.”
Asked what this will mean for the listeners in the United States, Collins said that one of the missions of the alliance is “to expand what the performance experience can offer to audiences. To that end, we will work with our artists as well as our colleagues at Opus 3 to explore new and innovative approaches to programming, event production, multi-disciplinary collaborations, and more.”