Can an artist be a successful business man ? Answers the record of Milton Blackstone: "Yes”
A. RAYMOND MULLENSJune11933
Salesman of Music
Can an artist be a successful business man ? Answers the record of Milton Blackstone: "Yes”
A. RAYMOND MULLENS
I HAVE often heard business men complain, sometimes bitterly, sometimes humorously, that where mere mundane matters are concerned musicians are impossible. I don't believe I ever heard a musician complain that business men are incompetent musicians.
Which doesn’t mean that business men are harsh, intolerant fellows, or that musicians are so full of the milk of human kindness that they scorn to utter an unkind word. It means that musicians have many opjiort unities for admiring the skill with which the men of the marts go about their business getting a name on the dotted line, writing letters calling attention to overdue accounts, occasionally. even, pushing currency through the opening at the bottom of the awe-inspiring bronze grille: whereas few business men have watched a composer scoring a symphony or an instrumentalist preparing a composition for public performance. The commercial gentlemen may be pardoned, therefore, if they imagine that this form of busy-ness is performed in a state of dizzy frenzy which it certainly is not and that musicians are both frenzied and dizzy.
May I present Mr. Milton Blackstone, violist of the Hart House Quartet? That he is a fine musician both Europe and North America have conceded: that he is a salesman who has "put over” a product exceedingly difficult to market, will perhaps be news to thousands of music lovers who have heard him play.
Salesmanship and Music
IF 1 AM to write about Blackstone as a salesman, I shall have to «insider him also as a musician, for it was by becoming an exceptionally skilled performer on his chosen instrument that he discovered he could manipulate human beings as successfully as strings and bow.
Milton Blackstone’s parents came from Russia—a country where they hold to the curious belief that music is one of the necessities of existence. Hence, Milton at a tender age
outraged the pastoral calm of Brooklyn with scrapings on the strings of a violin. In the interests of truth, it must be stated that the budding Paganini did not love to practise; tried to evade it. in fact, by every ingenious excuse he could conjure from an active imagination.
But how he did love to listen to music made by others! So, at the tender age of nine or thereabouts, the art of salesmanship was invoked to serve the art of music.
A start was made by selling newspapers. I have Blackstone’s word for it that this form of commercial endeavor is not devoid of risk to life and limb. It involves jumping off rapidly moving street cars, and not infrequent encounters w’ith young gentlemen whose fistic skill would indicate a successful future in the prize ring. Which may account for the fact that Master Blackstone’s early commercialism was soon discouraged by his parents.
But Fate favors the importunate. Performances at the Metropolitan Opera House could, it seems, be heard in return for the selling of librettos. In one respect Blackstone fulfilled his contract with the Met. to the letter: he listened with rapt attention to the music performed. Unfortunately he was so conscientious an auditor he rather overlooked the matter of selling librettos. So it chanced that not many days after his second experience with salesmanship the artentranced youngster might have been seen unhappily making his way backstage with a stack of unsold books of words under his arm. Fired!
Enter the fairy godfather. He doesn't look the part, for he is disguised as a short, dark-haired, fur-coated Italian. His name is Alessandro Bond, and he is one of the Metropolitan’s most popular tenors. He is kind-hearted, this man with the golden voice, and, noticing a lad w'ith tragedy writ large on his face, he takes out a card and scribbles on it: "Admit Mr. Milton Blackstone to all performances in which I take part. A. Bond.”
Then there was the time that Mischa Elman was booked for a recital at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Milton had been promised fifty cents for admission to the gallery. As the time for the recital draws near and there is no sign of mamma or papa, the lad is in a fever of impatience. Can his parents have forgotten what night this is? Apparently
they have, for it is twenty minutes past eight and he is alone in the house.
Never mind. Violin students must hear violin concerts even if they have to crash the gate. An attempt to mingle with the crowd that is pouring into the theatre is foiled. Hello! There is Elman’s father. He w'alks around to the alley leading to the stage door. Stepping softly and keeping a respectful distance, Milton follows. Papa hears footsteps, realizes that he is being shadowed, makes a bolt for the stage door. Two burly stage hands make their appearance, and Milton is sent on his sorrowing way.
Some years later Blackstone is playing quartets with Elman. He tells him this story. ‘T didn’t dream when I was running like mad down that alley that one day I should be playing beside the man I had tried so hard to hear.” Elman smiles gravely but quizzically. “Which is one of the reasons w-e are making music together,” he replies.
When you interview' a musician you are always supposed to ask. “With whom did you study?” I did. I’ll try and give Blackstone’s answ'er in his own words.
“I suppose I was very lucky. Just about the time I was playing the violin well enough to be heard without too vigorous protest, it so happened that several well known teachers came to America. In view of w'hat happened I can’t give you their names. Anyhow, these teachers offered scholarships to students whom they considered show'ed unusual promise. For some reason or other, I managed to win two or three of these scholarships.
“I don’t believe that I am more temperamental than the law allows, but the fact remains that these teachers and I didn’t get along together. It may be heresy to say so, but I believe that one’s best teacher is oneself. I am sure that I learned more as a member of Arnold Volpe’s Young Men’s Symphony Orchestra than I did from any single teacher. I had to learn to read difficult music at sight. I learned the lesson of team w'ork and discipline. I was given an opportunity to furnish accompaniments for many fine soloists, both vocal and instrumental. I was made to realize that a musician’s study of his instrument must be
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conducted in as businesslike a manner as are the activities of a banker or a factory superintendent."
EXIT, for a short while, Milton Blackstone. violinist, and enter Blackstone, salesman. The musician’s father was in the fur business. Like many another good business man. he didn’t think much of music as a profession. Possibly he thought, too, that son Milton was no world beater as a fiddler. At any rate, he pressed a heavy suitcase full of fur goods into his son’s not too willing hands, and informed him that he now stood at the portals of a business career.
For one weary, unhappy week an increasingly discouraged young musician lugged his suitcase from one retail house to another. With monotonous regularity he was informed that egress was easy. On Saturday afternoon the disgruntled ambassador of commerce resolved that selling should engage his attention no more.
Fate, capricious wench, suddenly decided to be charming. She ordained that a certain young lady from Toronto should visit Brooklyn and cause a mightily depressed young man to "see visions and dream dreams."
Toronto forthwith became a dream city for our young Orpheus. The future Mrs. Blackstone lived there, and thither he must go.
Investigation brought two cheering facts to light: Toronto possessed a symphony orchestra and was the residence of a famous violin teacher. Luigi Von Ivunits. So young Mr. Blackstone packed his belongings and arrived in Toronto with a little over four dollars in his pocket. He played for Frank Welsman, conductor of the orchestra, and was given a job in the violin section salary ten dollars per week. He also played for Von Kunits and was promptly awarded a scholarship. Collecting scholarships had become a habit with him.
In 1924 the Hart House Quartet came into being. Blackstone was the violist. To recount its many triumphs would just be another case of bringing coals to Newcastle. The concerts given in Toronto were a distinguished success, and it was decided that the quartet should tour Canada.
Three days before the advance man was to have started out on his mission of securing dates he became seriously ill. Now what?
The Honorable Vincent Massey, who had done much to further the quartet’s fortunes, appealed to Blackstone. A shrewd appraiser of character, Mr. Massey decided that the violist would make a success of selling to the Canadian people a desire to listen to music in its purest form. Blackstone was willing to try.
HIS sales method was simplicity itself.
He went into a town’s music store and obtained the names of the local music lovers.
He selected a victim and went to work on him, hammer and tongs.
In many cases the sales talk was a lecture on chamber music. Blackstone delved into history and brought forth examples of monarchs and noblemen who had maintained string quartets for their own delectation. He argued that wherever society had attained a high level of culture, there the string quartet flourished. "Your city,” he would say, "is noted for its culture and refinement. Here, if anywhere, the beautiful conversation of four-stringed instruments will be appreciated. Now the Hart House Quartet ...”
And our salesman, be it remembered, spoke from his heart. He knew little about commercial selling, but he did know that any community which had not had the opportunity of listening to a first-class quartet wasn't getting a square deal.
At times it was hard work. One prospect, for example, listened patiently to Blackstone’s discourse and then asked. "How
many men are there in your quartet?"
But fiery enthusiasm did not fail of its effect. The quartet's emissary was away from Toronto eighteen days and returned with eighteen bookings. Tell me. sales managers, what kind of a record is that for an untrained salesman?
Canada duly conquered, it was decided that the quartet should invade the United States. New York City in particular was a fort that must be stormed. Now, the quartet had not hitherto been heard outside of Canada, and Blackstone’s experiences on his first selling trip had convinced him that something in the way of samples would be decidedly useful, so he took with him a gramophone record which the quartet had made. On one side of it was an arrangement of "Drink to me only with thine eyes," on the other a recording of Boccherini’s Minuet.
Blackstone’s first visit was to the Eastman School of Music at Rochester. New York. He assembled the faculty and invited them to listen to a canned version of the quartet’s playing. "Drink to me only” spun its silky, soulful way to the final chords. An enraptured teacher rushed to the gramophone, snatched the disc from the machine and, before he could put the record in reverse dropped it.
It was the only record that Blackstone possessed, and a duplicate could be procured only in Canada. A born salesman, however, is not easily daunted. This one secured the names of some Canadian music lovers resident in Rochester, and from one of them secured a duplicate. Rejoicing, he went blithely on his way booking engagements which led up to the quartet’s appearance in New York City—the first of twentytwo.
Since then our violist has made possible the appearance of the four instrumentalists in every city of any size between Halifax and Vancouver. He has paved the way for performances in most of the larger cities in the United States: has shepherded the quartet across the Atlantic and brought them back trailing clouds of glory.
What is the secret of his phenomenal success? According to Blackstone, it is a simple one. Fine playing of fine music inevitably produces enthusiasts. Make friends of these enthusiasts, and you have created for yourself a dynamic and highly efficient corps of salesmen. Blackstone does that.
In his office at the Hart House Theatre, Toronto, he has the names of everybody whom he has met on the quartet’s numerous tours. These are his prospects. He writes to them frequently and keeps them apprised of the quartet’s activities.
I should like to quote one of these letters, but Blackstone won’t let me. They are masterpieces of written salesmanship. They ring true. They are warm and friendly in tone, because whoever is a lover of music is. ipso facto, a friend of Blackstone.
Every season Blackstone makes a sales trip. He renews old friendships and makes many new ones. It is probable that when Blackstone visits any city, the Hart House Quartet will follow.
Having made such an outstanding success of selling his quartet to the musical world, it is not surprising to learn that Blackstone receives many offers to enter the business world. "Forget this music thing,” many princes of commerce have said to him. “and cash in on your business ability.” Milton shakes his head and tells them of the days when he tried to sell librettos and furs.
“It’s this way,” he adds. “I couldn’t sell librettos because I couldn’t give my mind to the matter. I couldn’t sell furs because I wasn’t interested in furs. But music! Everyone wants music if they did but know it and I don’t care how much time and pains I devote to the job of convincing them that they do.”
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