Wildcatting in the arts: How River Oaks turns musicians into entrepreneurs

Mar 25, 2014, 4:47pm CDT
Courtesy: River Oaks Chamber Orchestra

Alecia Lawyer, founder and principal oboist of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra.

Reporter- Houston Business Journal
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To say that Alecia Lawyer, founder of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, takes a different approach to the arts in Houston would be an understatement.

She's focused as much on ROCO's ROI as its repertoire.

"I like to call it wildcatting in the arts," said Lawyer, who founded the 40-person chamber music group in 2005 and says her  entrepreneurial streak works well in Houston.

"Teaching musicians to be entrepreneurial is a necessity," she said. "Most artists don't have a business side. They're uncomfortable talking about money."

That's because "this isn't something they teach at Julliard," said Lawyer, a graduate of the prestigious New York music school and ROCO's principal oboist. 

"You practice for hours in a room by yourself, graduate and they wish you good luck, and send you out into the world," Lawyer said. "What they don't tell you is that orchestra chairs are lifetime tenured positions."

For oboe, that means maybe three seats a year open up.

"Outside of a tenured position, the music schools don't teach you how to make money doing what you love," Lawyer said.

Lawyer is trying to change that by operating ROCO more like a business than an arts group. The approach seems to be working. ROCO's budget has doubled nearly every year since it's founding and it only relies on ticket sales ($25 each) for 15 percent of its budget.

Instead, ROCO sells $5,500 sponsorships to every chair in the orchestra. Lawyer also teaches musicians to treat patrons like a business treats its customers. So chair sponsors aren't just allowed to sit in on rehearsals — they get to sit next to their musicians on stage. And instead of having a traditional intermission, the musicians go out into the audience and mingle.

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Mark Yost covers money and financial matters for the Houston Business Journal.


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