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Case Study

Annemarie McGahon & Fiona McLachlan

Founders, The Cairn String Quartet

Tue, 1 December 2009

With its roots in busking on Buchannan Street, The Cairn String Quartet was founded by Annemarie McGahon and Fiona McLachlan who both studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD). [Now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland]. After finishing as one of the 10 finalists in the SIE New Ventures Competition 2008, they decided to run the business and perform full-time. The following interview was conducted in 2009 and printed in the SIE magazine, Ignite.

How did the Cairn String Quartet get started?

Fiona: It started with busking on Buchannan Street in Glasgow. People kept coming up and asking us to do weddings, and then we realised that people were willing to book people off the street, and we realised there was a huge market. So we started busking for gigs rather than for money, and we sat down and had a think, and then one of us said…

Annemarie: Shall we just do it?

Fiona: Exactly! I’d been thinking about how we could take it beyond busking. And Annemarie said I’ve been thinking about it too. And then we realised we could do it together.

Annemarie: So from there we asked for two people to come and play with us to complete the Quartet, and to begin working on more music to fill a gig. And then we went to Business Gateway to ask for a grant, as we were self-funding. And to do that we had to establish other things such as headed paper, a bank account, things like that. That’s how it started. And that’s how it became a business.

What is it that makes you different from other Quartets out there?

Annemarie: We play modern music as well as classical in our string quartet. But we didn’t find our niche for a while, and for a while we were just like everyone else. We had good contacts, we went to wedding shows, we did our best to get into things.

Fiona: But we noticed that we were the only people from the RSAMD doing it. Whilst there were lots of other people from other universities who also played music, we were the only people who were trained in a different way.

Annemarie: It’s not exactly frowned upon, but at first it didn’t seem like a real option. We were expected to play Mozart and Beethoven, not the Kaizer Chiefs!

How do you feel about being called ‘entrepreneurs’? Is it something you can relate to?

Annemarie: It is, yeah.

Fiona: I’m quite proud of it, to be honest! We both knew we wanted to be musicians, and now in the last couple of years its become entrepreneurship. It’s kind of evolved.

Annemarie: RSAMD didn’t push entrepreneurship as a major agenda. And the two things that we do go hand-in-hand. Well, on paper they had Enterprise Skills. And everyone got this mark, and it was 5 credits, and no body knew what it was about. That was ‘enterprising’. It was in a box. It wasn’t ‘business’.

Fiona: I think that’s why we’ve been so successful. We’re open thinkers and we’re thinking outside the box.

You could say that artists, and performing artists, could say they’re self-employed, but how would you say being a self employed musician differs from being an entrepreneur?

Annemarie: I think the fact that we’ve built a business from the ground, and people do a lot of that, but other people who do weddings don’t go to the extremes that we have.

Fiona: Yeah, like find their niche, find their marketing, sell it, and sell it really well.

Annemarie: We’re not just doing gigs to scrape a living, which is an image often tied to the concept of musicians for a long time.

Fiona: And I think when you’re self-employed, there are a lot of people who sit and wait for a phone call from the Scottish Opera, but being entrepreneurial you make your own opportunity. You don’t sit and wait for things to come to you, as anyone could do that, but I think it’s actually doing it yourself and it making it for yourself.

So what was it that made you pursue entrepreneurship over orchestral work?

Annemarie: I think it was Vourneen Ryan, at RSAMD. She works with SIE to encourage entrepreneurship in the Academy. She was the first person to walk into the college and say here’s how you can make money, here’s how you can think outside the box. We had already started, we went down to see her about how people contact her for gigs, and she was fantastic. She showed us the different competitions we could enter, and different sources of funding.

Fiona: It was having someone who had faith in you, and made you feel like you weren’t out on a limb.

Annemarie: Especially another musician who had been out on the orchestral circuit, and could actually say “this is a really good idea, this isn’t frowned upon”. It was her enthusiasm.

At what point did you realise your idea could be a good business, or that the business was working?

Fiona: It was when we went to speak to Vourneen.

Annemarie: And on the way home from the SIE Enterprise Academy.

Fiona: For a long time, we were going along and making some money, but nothing spectacular. And then we saw Vourneen, who had this amazing faith in us, and we entered the SIE New Ventures Competition, and it took off from there.

In first year, was entrepreneurship a concept that had crossed your mind?

Fiona: No, definitely not! I hadn’t even really thought about anything we were doing until the Enterprise Academy. Up until that, even at the drinks reception on the evening of the Academy, I remember talking to a Competition Sponsor and saying “as long as we’re making music, that’s what we want to do” and we were still very much in that musicians mind set. And I think to an extent we still are but not so much, we’ve balanced it out with business.

Annemarie: Before, we’d always thought we are going straight into an orchestra, in first year you think you’re going to be a soloist and everything is going to happen for you. But you never think you’ll make that money yourself.

What benefits have come out of running your own business as opposed to taking the more steady path of orchestral work?

Fiona: You can make your own choices, you can where you’re going, you can say no and you can say yes. You can choose what you want to do, rather than desperately grasping. We’re not saying that we wond’t do orchestral work.

Annemarie: I’d love to still do orchestral work! And I’m sure Fiona would too. But at the moment this is where we need to concentrate. Orchestral work is so different, and I think we’d like to be there eventually. But at that stage you are answering to somebody else rather than yourself. And also there’s maybe six people for one job, so the competition is massive.

What advice would you give to students looking to maybe start up their own venture?

Annemarie: I’d say, if you’re thinking about doing something, don’t start it up because you’ve seen somebody else do it, and you know you can do that too. You’ll end up scrabbling around and doing what a lot of other people are doing. Think outside the box and see what’s missing.

Fiona: Just do it! Take the risk, it’s scary to do, but just do it.