The Tech-Savvy Singer
The Velvet Business Plan
BY AMANDA WHITE
Keeping track of the small details of your career is a challenge for every singer. And yet, having and sorting that information could be critical to your success as a singer. Find out why it’s so important and read about a new tool that is making it easier than ever.
Everyone tells you that you need to write a business plan. But how many singers have actually done it? Well, if you’re attending this year’s Classical Singer Convention, now’s your chance. Bill Bennett, creator of Velvet Singer, a software program that helps singers organize their professional lives, will be conducting a workshop on creating a business plan. Here he talks about his software and why, yes, you actually do need to write that business plan.
What’s Velvet Singer?
Velvet Singer is an organizational tool for classical singers that I developed while I was finishing up grad school at DePaul and doing some part-time consulting work. I began by creating a simple database to track my auditions and just added from there. Then I began expanding as I found the need: What repertoire was I singing at auditions? How much was I spending? Who was I meeting? So it was born out of necessity. There was no way to keep track of this information other than developing big Excel sheets or lugging around a pen and paper.
So what, exactly, does the software consist of?
Well, it is a relational database application—it is like layers of spreadsheets carefully interconnected and ready made. What is powerful about a database is that you can quickly jump around and tally up data: How much did I spend last year? How many auditions did I perform? What is my most successful starting aria? But I find that the “softer” features are still the ones people write to me the most about: journaling after auditions and lessons, developing a new process, and having that accountability to keep after your goals and stay organized. That is what represents a major breakthrough for people in using Velvet Singer.
How does Velvet Singer differ from what’s already available on YAP Tracker?
I use YAP Tracker and have for years. I love the features and am impressed with how they continue to roll out excellent tools to help our business evolve. I primarily use YAP Tracker as a way to look up information. Along with Classical Singer and a few other resources, YAP Tracker is an excellent way to learn about auditions and competitions. Velvet Singer solves an entirely different problem area for singers: staying organized in all that we do.
Velvet Singer helps you organize and keep track of productions in which you perform, money that you make, people that you work with, repertoire that you are working on, lessons that you sing. And so Velvet Singer is a comprehensive journaling method of chronicling your entire professional journey, almost like developing a memoir—but a powerful, data-driven memoir with hundreds of statistical reports, tax information, and over 2,600 arias to pick from. Velvet Singer is a new category of product. My main competition is people working up several Excel spreadsheets or using good, old-fashioned pen and paper.
Do you find people get overwhelmed with so many features or do they take to it easily?
Developing a workflow and interface is more of an art than a science. An iPhone does so many different things. If you dig into the settings, you can really get through layers and layers of functions. But it is simple and clean. Velvet Singer is cross-platform (Windows or Mac), but it has a nice, colorful, Mac-like feel. I am grateful to have such a great team to help continually refine what and how we present data. So I find that singers, even singers who are not comfortable with technology, take to it quite well.
The software begins by asking a few simple questions, like “What is your voice type?” From there, users quickly set up some repertoire by picking from our list of arias. After you develop repertoire, the system asks if you have sung any productions in the past. Productions become “Projects” in Velvet Singer, and each project has people you worked with, repertoire you performed, money you made (or spent).
As users explore, they can peel back the layers. If you explore into the lessons and coachings area, you will be prompted to sync with your Google calendar. If you are liking some of the reports and want to share them with your friends, teachers, or parents, the system will ask to set up your e-mail account. So Velvet Singer becomes much more than a static tool waiting for you; it is interactive and helps you along the way.
At the convention, you’re going to be teaching a workshop on building business plans. Teachers and mentors have been telling singers to write business plans at least since I was in college [ahem] years ago, but I’m not sure anybody actually does it.
That is it exactly! Yes, I was told to do it, but never did.
I offer two seminars at schools and opera companies around the country, and they both are working, equipping, hands-on sessions. I studied engineering as an undergrad before pursuing singing for my masters. In engineering, we always had “labs” to correspond to almost every lecture. I follow that same formula in my seminars. Each singer creates a business plan in the session and leaves with a tangible, actionable process for keeping up with it going forward.
Do you actually know any top-level singers who literally have business plans? Or do you think their managers make them?
I certainly do, and many cite business planning activities as core to their success. Top-level singers are typically very busy people and they are very targeted about which business plan articles or exercises they focus on, and these areas naturally are different than would be for singers at other parts of the journey.
For example, a top-level singer may do more work developing a strategic marketing plan by analyzing that market and comparing it to their product. An undergrad may benefit more from doing a strengths-and-weaknesses assessment. The question I ask is “What problem are we trying to solve by doing the work of creating a business plan?” That can be a good way to focus your energy and make sure you are getting the value you seek. Simply, business plans are a way to organize your thoughts, discover new information, and communicate with others.
The philosophy and approach behind Velvet Singer Software and Velvet Singer Seminars are quite similar. They are both solutions that help singers take control and gain objectivity and insight. It was out of the process of developing the software and working with so many singers to define what this all-in-one organizational tool should keep track of, and how it should do it, that I discovered the need to create these seminars and to teach this “process.”
In the seminar, we use a workbook that has many checklists, simple comparison choices, and fill-in-the-blanks. The workbook is a simple, quick, and “push button” framework to give structure to our dialogue. Likewise, the software solution offers simple choices and prepopulated picklists. Our mission is to take what can be a very intimidating process and deliver this message loud and clear: “This doesn’t have to be difficult!”
If you had to boil it down—say, for the people who can’t make the seminar—what would be the three questions a singer should ask themselves, as a proto-business plan?
Rather than trying to tackle a list of business planning areas (even three can represent a serious “barrier to entry”), I would encourage singers to begin by focusing on a process: when, why, and with whom. Choose a process that has a low burden and then make an absolute steadfast commitment to stick with it (100 percent is much easier to maintain than 98 perfect).
For example, resolve to send an e-mail on the first of every month to your dad describing your goal for the next month. Or add quarterly reminders into your calendar that you will treat yourself to coffee and work on your mission statement. Or commit to interviewing six of your “stakeholders” about your strengths and weaknesses. In engineering, we call this an incremental and iterative approach and it absolutely works if you work it.
What do you hope singers take away from your seminar at the convention?
In addition to physically taking away their completed business plan workbook, singers will leave the session with a dramatically improved sense of self-awareness and empowerment over their path.
Amanda White is a coloratura soprano in New York. She can be contacted through her website at www.notjustanotherprettyvoice.com.