In October 2020, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) acquired the management company Opus 3 Artists. In May 2022, the conservatory bought the boutique Dutch record label Pentatone. And in December 2022, SFCM added the prestigious London agency Askonas Holt to its portfolio, consolidating Opus 3 under Askonas chief executive Donagh Collins.
These acquisitions were greeted by a mix of curiosity and anxiety. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman wrote that they had “prompted furious head-scratching and a flurry of questions from many observers.” In the San Francisco Classical Voice, Janos Gereben described the purchases as “a mysterious tear of unprecedented business deals.” Some commenters on SlippedDisc saw a dark conspiracy, with talk of Askonas Holt becoming “the puppet of American paymasters.” (In fairness, SlippedDisc commenters see most anything as a sign of conspiracy.)
In a recent Zoom call, David Stull, the president of SFCM, explained the vision behind the conservatory’s purchases. Stull, a tubist, hobby pilot, and veteran classical music administrator, speaks in the clear paragraphs of a practiced public speaker. “Stull is just simply a visionary,” said Stephen Rubin, the former New York Times classical music reporter turned publishing magnate, memoirist, and SFCM donor. While the acquisitions spearheaded by Stull promise real benefits for SFCM students and the three integrated companies, the main “audience” for these purchases appears to be the conservatory’s donors, like Rubin and Gordon Getty, the composer and SFCM graduate whose inheritance from his oil tycoon father is worth billions today. (Getty is currently the conservatory’s largest single donor, giving over $1 million from 2021 to 2022.) This strategy, in turn, is forced by the highly privatized American education sector.
By purchasing the two artist management companies Opus 3 and Askonas Holt, Stull hopes mainly to give SFCM students better access to the prominent artists on these agencies’ rosters. In 2021, the conservatory completed construction of its $200 million Bowes Center, a “vertical campus” which includes performance spaces, student housing, and luxurious apartments for visiting artists. These concert venues and apartments, along with direct access to artist calendars, mean SFCM can easily slot sought-after performers in for masterclasses while they are on tour in the U.S. The acquisitions give “our students an ongoing, exotic set of educational performance experiences that are very difficult to find,” Stull said, “and that’s our goal.” He noted that SFCM students were recently able to play a side-by-side concert with the musicians of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. When Canadian Brass gave masterclasses, a member of the group got sick, and a student trumpet player jumped in: a valuable chance to play with the legendary quintet.
Owning Opus 3 and Askonas Holt makes organizing masterclasses more efficient for SFCM while alleviating a common planning challenge: keeping the tour both compact and busy enough to cover costs. And bringing in famous musicians—ones that potential donors have likely heard of—“allows us to expand our reach on donor connection,” Stull told me. I asked Stull what separated SFCM’s holistic approach from the more common model, where conservatories invite artists to masterclasses on a case-by-case basis. “The difference is that we’re able to drive a lot more funding to it,” he answered, “and we’re able to organize more of them, and they’re longer.”
Stull is adamant that SFCM students won’t be funneled into professional artist management at the two companies that now belong to the conservatory. “You heard it here first: SFCM students or alumni don’t have any particular advantage in being managed,” he said. “They have to secure that opportunity on their own.” The conservatory is planning an apprenticeship program that will connect young artists to the two management companies, but the young artists will not necessarily be chosen from the student body—instead, the agencies will initiate a global search.
The winners of this search will become SFCM-alumni-by-association. “Do you see SFCM people coming out of this program, being managed, maybe having performance careers? Yes,” Stull said. “Did they necessarily do their pre-collegiate, undergraduate, or Master’s level work with us? No, they could have done that anywhere.” He added, “If you can imagine an ultimate doctoral program of a kind: In that way, they become our graduates.”
Articles like this, straight to your inbox
This is probably a more efficient version of the conservatory to agency pipeline. However, the basic mechanism of talent discovery remains the same: a young musician must catch the ear of a gatekeeper, either an agent or a prominent artist. “Yuja Wang was there recently, she was an artist in residence, and she went insane for some young pianist,” Rubin told me. “My guess is this kid’s gonna have a whole career. He’ll be represented by one of those two companies, and he’ll record for Pentatone.” (Wang herself is represented by Intermusica, not Opus 3 or Askonas Holt.)
The label Pentatone will enrich the student experience in a similar way. Pentatone will mostly continue working with its usual slate of established performers (and maybe the occasional exceptional student). Meanwhile, student recording engineers will be able to accompany the Bowes Center’s Grammy-winning lead sound technician while he makes recordings, learning from the experience. Stull compared this approach to prestigious research universities, where “you have many PhD students working with Nobel laureates or legendary researchers… the students have a chance to apprentice with someone who really understands how to investigate an idea, and the leader of the project has the assistants they need to actually complete the task.”
Opus 3, Askonas Holt, and Pentatone also benefit from new structural efficiencies. Since SFCM is a non-profit organization, it can accept donations on behalf of these for-profit companies. Patrons can sponsor an individual artist’s tour through one of the agencies, or their new recording on Pentatone. This is especially valuable in the label’s case. “Anyone who tells you that they’re making a fortune in classical recording, I’m here to say to you that is absolutely false,” Stull told me. “It doesn’t happen.”
The appeal to donors is obvious: They can pay to connect their favorite artists with SFCM students, bring these artists on tour to their hometowns through the agencies, or even sponsor a preferred musician’s recording of their favorite repertoire on Pentatone. It’s a patchwork of for- and non-profit models that seems well-suited to classical music in the United States, almost always a money-losing proposition—though from a European perspective it seems possible the tastes of individual donors may come to have an undue influence on musical practice.
Stull’s innovations make good business sense, both for SFCM as a conservatory and to Opus 3, Askonas Holt, and Pentatone as music-industry firms. For SFCM students, things are more complicated. Tuition at the conservatory is $52,800 per year; the “student budget” on the conservatory website brings the total annual cost up to $81,791 including books, health insurance, and other fees and personal costs. Every SFCM student receives a scholarship, averaging 61 percent of tuition. That leaves an average payment of over $30,000 per year, plus life in one of the most expensive American cities.
Those are eye-watering numbers in the rarely lucrative field of classical music, though of course not at all unusual in the U.S. (“In the United States, I’m sad to say that’s a good deal, compared to what the education costs,” Stull noted with a laugh.) I asked Stull why SFCM decided to invest in Opus 3, Pentatone, and Askonas Holt instead of reducing student fees as much as possible, in a model similar to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia or the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He answered that SFCM is fundraising right now to make attending the conservatory “an entirely debt free experience for students.”
“We raise this point with donors,” Stull told me. “We say, ‘Listen, we intend to give scholarships and service awards, because we’d like to make that cost essentially go away for students. But we want them, in doing that, not to feel like they’re entitled to it without some giveback.’”
That giveback takes a noble form: Stull wants students to teach and perform classical music in underserved communities in exchange for scholarships. “It’s a great way for us to put young musicians in front of students who otherwise don’t have access to music, and for those musicians not to have to take on loan debt,” he said. “For a donor, the chance to give a scholarship that not only supports the education of young artists, but also can transmit that student’s enthusiasm and talent to say the next generation who otherwise couldn’t have access to art—that’s very powerful for someone who’s giving money to us.”
Like the acquisitions of Opus 3, Pentatone, and Askonas Holt, Stull’s scholarship fundraising strategy seems at least as focused on potential donors as it is on SFCM students—arguably more so. This is probably a necessity in the cutthroat American private education sector, and it would be unfair to fault SFCM for adapting to a nationwide systemic issue over which it has no control.
From my perch, SFCM’s strategy still looks like a raw deal for its core constituency of young musicians. Conservatories are already excellent at launching careers for their most exceptional students, a process the school’s new, closer connections with the agencies and the label aim to facilitate. Naturally, wealthy donors also like creating opportunities for the very best talents; that reflects how they see themselves. As one philanthropy blog argued, “Putting donor’s needs at the top of the charity agenda has resulted in the generation of funds for the problems donors see in the world, not the actual problems themselves.”
The challenge facing American conservatories now is not that the most exceptional young artists are being regularly overlooked; it’s that many more, also skilled young artists have no realistic financial path to pursue music after college. They get stuck in day jobs to pay off debt from learning to practice an art that doesn’t seem to want them.
Stull knows that not all his students will become successful classical musicians. “Education should create opportunities for anyone who engages it to become the best version of themselves,” he said. “That may mean that they’re a concert artist, it may mean they go to medical school after conservatory. And you know what? We’re proud of them in both cases.”
Most people will go on to nothing quite so impressive. Low cost university education, which I enjoyed at the Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, is powerful because it allows students to pursue less concrete goals with fewer worries about the future. A conservatory without huge tuition fees—and, if necessary, without exotic education experiences—can be a place for young people to listen, play, compose; to think about who they are and what art means; to be young for a short, nearly frictionless while. ¶
Subscribers keep VAN running!
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.