Wildcatting in the Arts

By Mark Yost
The Houston Business Journal

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.

Alecia Lawyer of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra.

Alecia Lawyer of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra.

“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.
“Every audience member is a friend we haven’t met yet,” Lawyer tells her musicians, half of whom live here in Houston and half of whom come from out of town. “I tell our musicians, ‘It matters who’s in your audience. It matters that you know their name and they know yours.’ ”
The strategy seems to work. Lawyer befriended a group she calls “the founding consortium.” Originally, it was just three River Oaks ladies who were spending just $1,500 on a partial chair sponsorship. Since hosting a sponsorship party at their home, the group has grown to more than a dozen friends who now sponsor five chairs, or $42,000.
Lawyer is also entrepreneurial in the way she presents the group, which performs just eight concerts a year as a whole but has various trios, quintets and quartets that perform the rest of the year.
“I tell our musicians to look at our group like Legos,” Lawyer said. “Sometimes we’re altogether, but then can break apart into smaller groups and still make money doing what we love.”
And like a lot of arts groups, Lawyer understands that her biggest challenge isn’t luring young or old people, but couples in the middle busy with kids. So she started ROCO Rooters, a combination music education program/babysitting service for young couples. ROCO Rooters provides an educational session for kids followed by pizza and movies. Lawyer said it gives parents a three-hour date night.
“We understand that our competition isn’t Houston Grand Opera or the symphony,” Lawyer said. “It’s staying home with a glass of wine and Netflix.”

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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