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Lessons from the Outside: A Venture Capital Firm for New Music

Lessons from the Outside: A Venture Capital Firm for New Music

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One of the sessions I attended at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore this year covered commissioning new works. It was an engaging session to an overflow audience, and many interesting thoughts came out of it. But I want to focus on just one of them.

Among the attendees were new music champions Arlene and Larry Dunn. At one point, Arlene asked how audience members—not the performers or the show organizers or composers, etc., but the people who listen—can participate in the commissioning of new works.

This is a question that I think is worthy of deeper and ongoing consideration and exploration by anyone involved in building an audience or a scene. Many of the ways in which music is produced separate audiences from the opportunity to directly support the creation of new works. This is the case in popular music as well as other genres. There are organizations that collect money from audiences in order to produce and package music experiences, but few paths for direct participation by fans in the music’s invention.

Thinking about Arlene’s question, there are some popular platforms such as Kickstarter and Patreon. But anyone who has run a Kickstarter campaign can tell you that the work involved in successfully funding in this way can be exhausting. Moreover, there are questions about how sustainable Kickstarter might be. After all, how many times can an audience be tapped in this way each year, and how many times can the organizers expend the effort required?

Patreon sort of handles the sustainability side by being built with the idea of ongoing payments vs. Kickstarter’s one-time cash infusion model. But the Patreon subscription model doesn’t easily align with the commissioning of a single work. A work is more like a product, while Patreon is built to fund a process.

patron

What if, in an effort to make a better answer for Arlene’s question, we examine potential futures that don’t exist right now but could? My Bonnie Jones Grant, which funds my music-making activity, involves helping organizations handle challenges strategically. Why not use some of the techniques from the business and finance world to see if we can come up with something?

Scenario Planning

One tool that is used by people who think deeply about business and the future is called scenario planning. It’s mostly just a serious term invented so that the guys and gals in suits don’t feel silly saying, “We’re doing some daydreaming over here during our corporate retreat.” While a little more rigorous than plain old daydreaming, it’s not terribly daunting either.

Ultimately, it’s a game that goes more or less like this: Identify some variables that you suspect are important, get some understanding of what influences those variables, outline several possibilities for what the future might look like based on what you understand of the variables, build a set of plans so that your organization is prepared to deal with this potential future reality. Bonus points are awarded for any data or existing models/behaviors from other fields that can be applied to any of these steps.

Also, it’s one of those hippie games that doesn’t have a winner. It’s either fun and productive or it isn’t. (I suppose some people do win if the future they identify comes to pass and, because they’ve played this game, they are prepared for it.)

Most importantly, this is a game anyone can play and there are no single right answers. We could all play this game and come up with a wide variety of very creative answers to Arlene’s question. And it’s a question that anyone who makes music should be happy to answer: how can audiences directly support the creation of new work?

An Example

I’ll run through my own short version of scenario planning on this so long as you all agree to remember that this will be just one potential solution. You may come up with something equally or more viable if you play this game as well.

Variables that I suspect are important in examining the future of funding new works are: Desire of audiences to participate at all, desire of audiences to participate directly, desire of audiences to feel a part of the process/some ownership. There are other variables as well that, for the sake of not boring people, I’m not going to get into in this piece.

Is there anything we can observe that points at these variables? Well, there’s the existence of Kickstarter and Patreon, two platforms with active users facilitating the creation of new work through direct participation. There are also commissioning clubs, which serve as an example of audience members self-organizing to fund the production of new work.

We also have Arlene’s question, a sign that there is someone who is interested in these things but wants to be closer to the generative side of the equation. She doesn’t necessarily want to wait for a composer, performer, or presenter to start the process.

Other things we can observe are that there are many boards for arts organizations which contain people who may have similar motives and desires to those expressed by Arlene.

In terms of trends, many pixels have been darkened in an effort to inform us that millennials are particularly interested in social action and direct participation. Perhaps the Kickstarters and Patreons of today are really just the tip of an iceberg for activating this generation as they move into positions of greater authority and influence.

But Kickstarter and Patreon rely on producers to initiate the commissioning activity. And commissioning clubs may lack some of the formalized structure necessary for larger scale and longevity. Are there other existing models where non-producers fund people/organizations to produce something?

cash ideas

Yes, of course. This is how many businesses are created. A group of investors pool some money together and provide it to a business so the business can make something (more money, usually). There are several different ways this happens. There are models where lots of people put in money and don’t think about it while a manager invests it (i.e. low/non-existent participation from the people putting up the money). And there are models where the people who put money in are very, very involved, sometimes selecting and altering the management of a company for example.

What’s useful about examining how business funds creation is that it provides a currently functioning model in which money is already flowing for the development of new things. It also shows that there are several ways this can be done for low-involvement and high-involvement.

Perhaps there’s a future in which someone like Arlene becomes an investor in a fund that is actively pursuing the creation of new works. It could likely work in a way similar to existing venture capital funds. Perhaps there are a handful of managers that seek out and vet potential projects.

We could go further with this analogy, I suppose. Venture capital isn’t a grant. The investment is expected to return something to the investors. So there’s ownership. Perhaps there is some exchange of ownership of the musical product that is funded which is transferred to the investors. Just as in business today, this sort of arrangement would not be acceptable for everyone. But for some, it might.

I discussed this idea, just as a thought exercise, with a composer friend of mine: considering that many startups receive significant investment and aren’t actually expected to profit for some time, what if music had that same luxury? What if our hypothetical venture capital for new music was putting up a million bucks for the creation of a new work with the idea that creators would make something worth more than a million bucks over the next few years?

Thinking in this way broadens the scope of what we’re doing as music makers beyond a single premiere presented to a handful of friends, or even a large audience. It asks us to consider greater potential for what we’re doing, which is good.

I’ll call this my potential future for Arlene’s question: Groups of audience members who collectively organize to fund the creation of new music. Each group has an agreement amongst itself regarding the kinds of things it funds and the kind of ownership stake it asks in the resulting work. There would likely be an ecosystem of groups like this catering to different audience members’ interests and skills.

There are benefits in this approach beyond money. For example, since the people participating in our potential music venture capital fund have a stake in the success of the work, they may be more willing or able to provide non-tangible assets: making crucial introductions, facilitating access to rehearsal/launch/performance spaces, and media connections. (The breathless coverage of technology startups is largely a function of the venture funding mechanism in common use in that industry.)

There is also benefit to the participants in the venture fund. Meeting and working together for vetting and successful launch of music projects allows for a deeper and richer interaction among capable people. There can also be value in gaining skill at identifying and incubating emerging projects.

For the greater new music scene there are benefits as well. Any new music venture firm that becomes capable of supporting the launch of several projects will likely come to the conclusion that they can improve the chances of success by providing physical space for the development of multiple projects, much like co-working spaces in business. There are probably several things like this which would benefit from the pooled resources of the fund. In addition, increased interaction between music makers on several different projects may also improve chances of success.

A successful venture firm of this sort could alter the geography of the new music scene as well. Silicon Valley is the site of the startup economy because that is where the venture capital resides. Originally, it was less expensive than existing business centers like New York. Put several new music venture organizations with rehearsal/development spaces in a place outside the traditional centers of operation, and the geography of innovation within the field will tilt as well.

It is these larger issues, like geography of innovation, which will likely attract a new audience to the concept and to the music. It is common for smaller second- and third-tier cities to try to develop innovation centers or business incubators. The ability to influence the generation of a new industry would be attractive to individuals who are looking for the benefits of an increase in the number of innovative thinkers and creators in their town.

Certainly the whole “innovative music makers are going to make your town awesome” line of thinking isn’t completely obvious to everyone. But it’s obvious to enough. The success of Austin as both a music city and a technology city is well known and studied in civic policy circles, for example. There is a conference called Music Cities that is focused on precisely these kinds of issues.

What sort of things would need to be in place for this kind of thing to occur in new music? First up would likely be a collection of investors in a position to invest without significant anxiety over losing their investment. These people already exist, it’s just that they are captured more by business venture capital at the moment.

Creators would have to develop broader visions for their work, which includes functional revenue streams. The stereotype is that musicians only care about “The Art,” but I know enough musicians to know the stereotype is not entirely true. Even beyond that, in business it is extremely common to have a partnership in which one of the partners is the product/creative person and the other is the operations/business person. Some venture capitalists won’t invest unless there are at least two people for this very reason.

In other words, creative teams and projects may need to expand their individual capabilities or take on additional team members to fill this need. So perhaps another sign of the potential future outlined above would be noticeable leadership positions in ensembles and composer teams that consider deeply issues of revenue stream generation. I’ve read at least one recent article promoting retiring the myth of the solitary genius composer, so perhaps there is movement in this direction already.

Just One Potential Future

The idea of a venture capital model for the creation of new works is just one possible answer for Arlene’s question at the New Music Gathering. Hopefully enough readers are now so outraged by this idea that some will take up the task of creating a different potential future and sharing it with us. Or perhaps some people will get to work assembling the first version of this new way to create new music.

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Gahlord Dewald

Gahlord Dewald
Photo by Mira Steinzor

 

Gahlord Dewald is a musician specializing in acoustic, electric, and synthetic bass frequencies. He is currently commissioning new works for solo double bass with or without electronics. He delights in sharing new music with small audiences in Burlington, Vermont, where he lives. You can learn more about his work at gahlorddewald.com.
 
 
 

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One thought on “Lessons from the Outside: A Venture Capital Firm for New Music

  1. Don Glasrud

    As a guitarist and like most self employed freelance musicians, I have had to create work for myself for the last 40 years. Most of my bread and butter work has come from long term gigs that are based on personal relationships with audience. I get to play jazz most of the time but not without compromise. I build trust by playing what is necessary to make situations work with audiences.(communicate,communicate, communicate). They in turn have given me the freedom to play jazz and be creative over time. The gig I have now has been 21 years. I feel a part of the community because I have developed so many friendships with people from all walks and have become known as the musician who will always be there. I feel that my creativity widens the more I interact with the folks. I believe new ideas have to be introduced gently over time with patience and by building trust.( I am loving this discussion)

    Reply

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