Nigel Boon: A Leave of Absence.

Nigel BoonHappy New Year!

 For our first Profile Phriday of 2014, I’d like to introduce you to Nigel Boon. Nigel is the Director of Artistic Planning for the National Symphony Orchestra, a world-class ensemble based out of Washington DC’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Their summer home is our place – so I may be a tad biased about how wonderful they are, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true!) His story starts in childhood, and winds through different countries (and continents!) before landing him on our shores. Here’s his story.

Nigel, tell us a little bit about your childhood, and when the classical music bug really bit.

Well I grew up in the south of England, but my dad was  in the British Military, in the Royal Navy, so every so often we’d move away for a couple of  years and then come back home again. When I was ten, we were living in Malaysia, because he was stationed at a naval base in Singapore.  I had a 27-mile  each way school-bus commute that required my passport, journeying from Malaysia to Singapore each day to school. (Ed. In comparison to my “walking to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill BOTH WAYS” stories, you win. Hands down.) When I got back to my school in the UK my new classmates all looked at me as if I was this freak with a suntan! But I had already experienced living in a different country, in a different culture, and that’s one piece of advice that I have for people: live abroad – it will change your perception of life, the world, your own country, yourself, and your own possibilities. After returning to the UK, I started grammar school (correlates to middle & high school here in the states), and fairly quickly found myself at the top of my class in music and languages.

Very cool. What was your instrument?

I never learned to play an instrument – it never occurred to me, never occurred to my parents. We didn’t have much classical music at home, so it  never really came into question. But I really enjoyed my general music classwork at school. However, when I turned fourteen I had to deal with a formidable timetable clash – I was forced to choose between continuing with music or studying German (which we will see later was a great irony). The British school system channeled you very early into specific educational directions, so I was forced to choose the direction of my future university course of study by the time I was sixteen. So I chose German over music and therefore subsequently ended up on a language and linguistics course at University in York. I wasn’t smart enough or old enough at the time to understand all of the possibilities and ramifications of my decisions.

At university I rediscovered classical music. I had a friend who had what for me at the time was a huge record collection, with over a hundred-fifty classical LPs. I was looking through them one day thinking “Oh, I’d like to hear that! And I’d like to hear that! And that!” And that was pretty much it – I was hooked by music, and nowhere near as excited about my language studies. I thought that studying linguistics had only two possibilities: I could either teach or research, and I didn’t want to do either of those things. I just wanted to be able to speak languages.  So, come the end of my third year at university – the third year of a four-year course – I had managed to spend so much time and money listening and listening and listening to classical music that I had got myself into a situation where I had 80% of my university coursework to do in my last year.

Ouch.

Yes. My supervisor at the time – who also loved classical music, we had gone to a few concerts together in Leeds – he said “You know, take a year’s leave of absence. Go away, think about what you want to do, and I’ll sign the form for you, I’ll authorize it.” That, I thought, was actually fantastic. And I’m still on my year’s leave of absence!

Really? (Slow clap from the Editor.)

I really have no doubt that I was too young for university – I even took a year off between grammar school and university to be a language assistant in Germany, but still, it wasn’t enough time.  I was a very young 19 year old and couldn’t realize all of the possibilities at the time. (My alternate theory is that we live our lives in the wrong order. Because what could be better after a fulfilling life of work than to go and learn? And then when you’ve learned, what about just playing?) (Ed. LOVE it. I could totally get behind that timetable.)

So, there I was. I moved to London, applied for a job at a music publisher – Boosey & Hawkes – and was interviewed by someone who is still, these many years later, a very close friend. The official part of the interview must’ve lasted 5 or 10 minutes – it was an entry level gopher job –  and then we chatted about all of the concerts we had been to, the one we were coincidentally both going to that evening, and I think he recognized a like soul, someone who was almost fanatically passionate about classical music. And I was, I was like a sponge, it was like osmosis, I was sucking up everything that I could find anywhere and everywhere. Which, given what I’m doing now, turned out to be really useful, because my knowledge base is very broad, very wide.

I was at B&H for two years, during which time I realized that what I really wanted to do was to work for a classical record label. I saw an ad in the London Evening Standard one day, and it was a completely basic, banal ad, obviously placed by an agency, and it said something like “Record company seeks person.” I mean, really so basic! But I thought I’d look into it, and contacted the agency, and they sent me for an interview. Deutsche Grammophon was the label, which was strangely the only classical label I had ever wanted to work for. It was the perfect label for me. I went for an interview, and it turned out that the job was for stock control. So, during the interview I said “Well, I’m not sure that this is the job for me.” And they agreed, and said that they’d keep my name on file in case anything else came up. Of course, I was pretty disappointed and went back to my office…but later that afternoon I got a call, and it was DG saying “Forget the first job, we actually have another job that’s about to open for Advertising Manager, Would you like to come and do that?”  “Of course I would, thank you very much!” And for three years I did the press, trade and program book advertising for DG and its sister label, Philips, in the UK. After three years I got a call from the head office in Hamburg, (and here is the aforementioned irony), inviting me to move to Germany to work in their head office in Hamburg because I was fluent in German. My love for living abroad made it an easy choice, and in 1984 I moved, and although I initially thought I would be there for two or three years, in the end I was there for 15 years.

Amazing. You were in the thick of things, at one of the biggest, best labels in the world, right when the classical music recording industry was really booming.

True. I went in as Product Manager, responsible for all new releases, and then a few years later became Head of Product Management, which included back-catalogue re-releases and some marketing responsibilities.  But I remember my first day, when I was meeting everybody, and I met the producers. And I thought “Oh, that’s the job I really want, but it’s really not a job I’m ever going to get, because I have no musical education.” And then ten years later I became a producer! There were two types of producer at DG, Recording Producers and Executive Producers. Executive producers are rather like those in the film industry – they look after the recording careers of soloists and conductors, putting together their recording schedules & plans, deciding rep with the marketing department, and then putting it all together and making the projects happen – booking the halls, soloists, etc.  I was lucky enough to work with a number of extraordinary musicians such as conductors Oliver Knussen, Mikhail Pletnev, André Previn, Christian Thielemann, Neeme Järvi, and baritone Bryn Terfel.

That job, and this job at the NSO, have been the two most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had – I’ve enjoyed them all, but these two were/are the best.

You’re obviously not still with DG now – what happened, and when?

In 1999 the writing was on the wall for the major classical labels. When I started in 1981 there were, I don’t know, maybe 15 complete Beethoven symphony cycles on disc. But by 1999 there were perhaps three or four times as many.  But there weren’t three or four times as many buyers and costs had increased, sales were down, and it was clear that product was flooding the market. The labels were looking for the next 3 Tenors, the next blockbuster, which didn’t fit with my aesthetic. And I was ready for the next challenge. I went to London and worked in artist management with Harrison Parrott. It wasn’t a great fit for me, because I was suddenly on the other side of the fence.  I think I felt more at home as a “buyer” and much less so as a “salesman”. It’s a subtle shift of perspective, but one that I struggled to make. I stuck it out for 2 years and then I was offered a position back in Germany, but I wasn’t quite ready to move back there or to take on that particular position. So I freelanced for a bit – I worked with a Baroque ensemble in the UK, a contemporary group in Oslo in Norway, a contemporary music festival, a music publisher, a couple of individual artists – and then three years later I got two almost-simultaneous phone calls.

One call was from Boosey & Hawkes – their Director of Publishing, who had joined B&H when I was first there, asked if I’d consider being Head of Promotion for 6 months, while the incumbent was on maternity leave. The focus was on promoting the work of living composers, and I was excited by the thought of taking on something I had not done before. After a month they asked me if I would want to stay on beyond the original six months, and when my colleague returned from maternity leave we found that neither of us wanted a full-time job, so we very amicably divided the composers between us and continued to work together. It was the perfect job share.

The second call was from a former colleague at Deutsche Grammophon – she and conductor  John Eliot Gardiner had married, and he had made recordings of all of the Bach sacred cantatas – 57 cds – over the course of a year. DG had decided to not release them. But her invitation, “We’re going to set up our own record label – would you like to help?” was irresistible. So we set up a very special small record company that is still putting out recordings – Brandenburg Concertos, Brahms Symphonies, wonderful things all with John Eliot. I divided my time very happily between this new label and B&H for about two years.

I have to say at this point that I’ve been very lucky, and more than once – I’ve been at the right place at the right time a number of times, and I’m very aware of my good fortune.

Then, in the middle of 2006, I got another phone call, this time asking if I’d be interested in talking about an opening at the NSO, the programming position . It was again something that I’d never done, and it was again abroad – I was, of course, interested! I had an hour-long phone conversation with Rita Shapiro (the Executive Director of the NSO), and came to interview in September 2006. I started in February 2007, and here I am.

It seems, looking backwards, that you found the things that were interesting to you, and just kept looking for opportunities to learn and grow.

I have to admit that I’ve never really known what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work in music, I knew I wanted to work in the recording industry, but I had no idea of what my career trajectory would look like. However, now that I’m in this job, and only now, does everything I’ve done up to this point make any kind of sense. Because when the phone rings in my office, it’s almost always someone that’s doing something that I used to do. Artist managers, record company representatives, publishers – I have experience in all those industries and can put it to very good use in this job.

It sounds like your approach to going wide as far as skills and repertoire have served you well. What advice do you have for folks struggling to figure out their career path?

For me one of the most important things is to not force matters. When things don’t work out, or aren’t immediately clear, don’t feel you have to push to try to find an immediate answer. Don’t necessarily feel you have to make a decision under forced circumstances. Frequently if you wait for two weeks the answer will materialize, and the thing will suddenly somehow fit together.  Also, don’t feel you have to have your career path mapped out before you when you’re 18 or 20 or 22.  You don’t.  Try things out.  Learn from them.  Don’t worry if one thing doesn’t work.  Usually something else will work.  If you’re open to change and are flexible, it will appear to you that there are more possibilities.

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