Developing Community-Based Music Initiatives

October 1, 2009

Getting gigs, finding students, and building an audience for art music is a tough challenge in the world of the IPod, YouTube, and big-screen TVs, but it is in the interest of every musician today to be proactive in developing new avenues for performance, audience development, and music education. Though many members of The College Music Society can find some degree of support for such activities from their home institutions, working with communities beyond our college and conservatory environments is a good way to expand musical horizons and to connect with other musicians and audiences outside the usual academic circles. Too often we restrict our thinking about music to the institutional organizations such as university and college music departments and symphony orchestras in which we are trained to function and we assume that, if we are doing something we believe is worthwhile, the public should beat a path to our door. Then we are surprised when they don’t.

With increased pressure to defend and justify the important place of music within education and society at all levels, building real and substantial links with the wider community through concert programs and educational activities is becoming more and more important. The solution is not to water down or change the art and ideas that we hold dear, but rather to create an environment in which access to these things is open to the average person. In particular, I think that a more entrepreneurial approach to promoting and actively selling what we do as educators, researchers, and artists is very important. This requires developing skills in sales, advertising, and communication that many of us lack and it involves fundamental shifts in attitude. I would like to tell you about what I have learned through founding and developing a very successful program called the South Delta Jazz Festival and Jazz Workshop. In the span of a few years we have grown from a week-long summer music institute with four faculty and a dozen students to a major festival with a substantial operating budget presenting many concerts a year and a summer institute with eight faculty members and forty students.

In 2003 I was working at Delta Community Music School in Ladner, British Columbia, a typical suburb south of Vancouver. My circumstances at the time will sound familiar to many of you. Like many musicians, I wanted more gigs playing the kind of music I want to play, and like many music educators, I was deeply dissatisfied with the state of music education in the schools. I had also just finished my Ph. D. in music education and I was beginning to realize how few people would actually read my doctoral thesis, or my articles in academic journals. I felt a deep sense of discomfort with the lack of public engagement with the ideas that I thought so important. I decided that I should do something positive to change the situation. In discussing these issues with my colleague, Stephen Robb (a superb clarinet player and director of the school), we decided that it would be worthwhile to create a summer jazz program and put on a few concerts. We had a number of important things going for us at this stage that are worth considering. First, Ladner was essentially terra incognita for arts events. As much as I would have liked to create concerts nearer the center of Vancouver, where I live, I realized very quickly that competing with some of the huge summer events and programs that happen there would ensure we never got off the ground. Second, we decided to operate under the umbrella of the Delta Community Music School, which is a registered non-profit group.This allowed us to give tax receipts to potential donors under certain circumstances. It also allowed us to utilize their existing lists of emails and phone numbers. We opened a separate bank account within the organization and worked out a deal on the use of secretarial services during our enrollment period. Third, Stephen and I had a strong pool of extra-musical skills. He is an experienced website designer, and I have some background in graphic design. This saved us a lot of money on design of posters, brochures, website, and other marketing aspects. Fourth, we had a large existing network of students, potential teachers and performers. Collectively, we taught at three colleges, three elementary schools, two community music schools, directed four community bands and have about fifty private students.

We put these skills and assets to work and the first year of the program was a modest success. Our enrollment of fifteen students was about half of our goal. The concerts were musically excellent, though poorly attended. We managed to pay the guest artists and other faculty but didn’t have much left for ourselves. Both Stephen and I got to play jazz all week with people we liked, and we made a real difference in the lives of the students who attended. I implemented many of the ideas I had been exploring in my doctoral research and found it very satisfying to actually apply my ideas.

The next year saw modest but important changes in the South Delta Jazz Workshop. We increased tuition fees to a level that would help us cover our costs better, we increased the number of full-time faculty to five and met our target of thirty students. We decided to advertise and promote our noon-hour concerts as a separate entity, which we called the South Delta Jazz Festival. Concert attendance was a little better than the previous year, but was still poor, and it was difficult to recruit enough students to fill the program. Once again we had great fun playing music and teaching, we kept our budget ‘in the black’, and unlike the previous year we were able to pay ourselves as much as the other faculty.

At this stage, Stephen and I were fairly happy with our accomplishments and just planned to let things continue as they were into the next year. Like many of you, we had the feeling that we were sort of musical prophets preaching in the bleak wilderness of suburbia and assumed that poor attendance and limited success were simply a condition of trying to do something worthwhile and important and that the community just wasn’t “hip”enough to understand what we were doing. What we didn’t understand was that we lacked some significant skills, and one more person, to help us achieve our goals.

Jamie was a guitar student of mine and one day I told him that he should take a week off work and participate in the Jazz Workshop. He asked about the tuition fees and was shocked at how low they were. He asked how we managed to put on an event like this with so little money. I told him how we were just squeaking by financially, but that we were having a good time, bringing art and music education to the “uncivilized” masses. He asked if he could raise some money for us. I was fairly sceptical of any chance of success, but I agreed. At this point we were only three months away from our third annual event. It only took Jamie a few weeks to raise close to twenty thousand dollars in sponsorships from local business and corporate entities. We sold out four or five concerts, had a waiting list of ten students, hired two more full-time faculty members, paid everyone 30% more than the previous two years, and had $5000 in the bank for the next year. The following year, we added a monthly concert series, a series of weekly educational seminars and became a real musical focus for the community. I learned from Jamie many important lessons about how artists and educators can effectively ‘sell’ themselves, their work, and their vision for the arts as a vibrant and vital sector of community life without compromising artistic integrity.

Initially I was so amazed at Jamie’s ability to market and promote what we were doing that I felt it was just some kind of personal magic, and there was certainly some of that. But, by carefully watching how Jamie works, I have identified some key skills and techniques that he uses to consistently get results.

Let’s look at one concert leading up to our 2006 Jazz Workshop. A fairly well known British saxophonist friend of mine was going to be in town and I had organized a concert at the Arts Centre where our summer event would be held. My poster for the event announced the date, time, musicians, and a little one-liner describing the concert. Stephen and I planned to sell tickets through our usual network of students and their parents—we thought only of the people we already knew. Jamie’s approach was radically different. Like many non-professional musicians, Jamie saw a concert as not just a chance to hear great music, but as a social event and looked for ways to sell an overall experience to a very broad potential audience. Rather than putting the name of the artist at the top of the poster, he wanted “Hot Jazz Night In Tsawwassen.” The names of the artists were small and tucked away in the corner. To me, “Hot Jazz Night in Tsawwassen” sounded lame. Jamie did a lot of other things Stephen and I would never have done. He organized a temporary liquor license for the Arts Centre and rented wine glasses. He talked to the supermarket across the street and convinced them to donate plates of food. He put up posters at the local running store where he and his triathlete friends shop. The running shop sold tickets for us and gave a 10% discount to anyone buying tickets for our show. He called a Ford dealership owned by a local resident and asked for and got a large sum of money in return for putting the their logo on our posters and tickets. The dealership received fifty free tickets to hand out to staff and customers. He organized an “after party”at a restaurant across the street with special deals on appetizers and drinks. The concert sold out in less than two weeks. The after-party went on until 2:00 A.M. with really amazing live music and the restaurant was so busy that it ran out of food.

Let’s look at the details that made this event successful. Jamie knew that most people in Ladner didn’t know my saxophonist friend, that they don’t listen to jazz and have never been to a club or jazz concert. The words “Hot Jazz Night in Tsawwassen” were not as lame as I thought. For this audience; they were exciting and enticing. This told people that this was a different, out-of-the-ordinary event. The presence of a bar and food and a big post-concert party told them it was going to be a fun social evening in a suburb where nothing else like this happens. I learned from this that you have to make what you are doing make sense to the average person. You have to tell them why they want to have the kind of experience that you are offering. It isn’t a question of cleverly covering up what you are really doing, but rather emphasizing the comprehensible and accessible aspects of the event in such a way that people will try it out.

I also learned a very basic but powerful idea that I had n’t really considered before. Often we see arts funding as charity, but Jamie very quickly saw how what we were doing had actual commercial value in terms of advertising and generating goodwill for business. Small businesses need to get people through their doors to buy products and services. Big businesses need that too, but they also need ways to make people feel good about what they are doing and what they offer. I would never have asked a running shop to sell tickets for a concert. I had always sold tickets at music and record stores just like everyone else I knew, but our target audience didn’t frequent such places and there are no record stores or musical instruments stores in the town anyway. The running shop was next door to the supermarket and so it would be easy for people to get the tickets when they were out to do their shopping. The running shop was more than happy to sell tickets for us. In excess of 250 people came through their door to buy tickets and most of these people had never been in the shop before. The 10% discount they gave on their store products was really nothing compared to the advertising costs they would have had to pay to get 250 new customers into the store.

I would never have asked a Ford dealership to sponsor a concert. Ford usually advertises their trucks with country music and the Ford dealership that sponsored the event was nearly forty kilometres away from the concert hall. But Jamie knew that the family that owned the dealership lived just up the street from the Arts Centre and were very prominent members of the community. He knew that if this family put their stamp of approval on the concert in the form of their corporate logo, many people would attend the concert just to be seen there. This kind of community networking and creation of prestige appeal are essential. The concert sponsorship was very inexpensive advertising for such a company in light of the fact that they had a captive audience of 250 customers enjoying a great evening paid for by their dealership. The fact that fifty free tickets were distributed at a location 40 kilometres away from our concert hall also meant we had successfully reached out to an audience which would never otherwise have heard of the event.

Now you may think this is all hucksterism and salesman stuff, and that all of this marketing leads to an audience that wasn’t there to hear the music. I was worried about that too and, in fact, it was true that a few of the people who came weren’t there for the music and it is true that some stayed out in the reception hall drinking their way right though the second half. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people who came heard a very good concert. We educated and entertained the audience that evening and built a significant following for a genre of music that most of the audience members would never have given a second thought. I learned from this experience that we too often build walls around ourselves as musicians and assume that what we do will only be appreciated by an elite few. The reality is that when people are in the presence of great music, they can feel what is going on even if they don't understand it or even fully appreciate it. They know when they have had a real, authentic experience and they will try it again. But you can only involve people in that initial experience by meeting them on their terms and telling them what you are doing by going to the places where they live, work, eat, and play, even if those aren’t the places you are likely to be found.

The essence of our approach with this concert and with all of our subsequent projects was to treat any and all people, organizations, and businesses as potential supporters for our venture, excluding no one on the basis of whether or not we thought they would be interested. The pattern we established with this concert served us well, as we built an audience for the Jazz Festival and recruited students for our workshop. In obtaining funding for the Festival and Workshop, we reached out to other unusual sources including a multi-billion dollar real-estate firm that became our title sponsor, law firms, banks, wineries, the Port Authority, radio stations, donut shops, grocery stores, plumbing companies, a hotel, two restaurants, printers, athletics clubs, the local chamber of commerce, service clubs like the Lions, Rotary and Kiwanis, and private and public schools. Essentially anyone and everyone in the community who showed any interest was given a way to contribute and be included.

There are two lessons I have learned from this process which I think are key to any initiative of this kind. The first and perhaps most important lesson is to cultivate a relentlessly positive attitude and to consciously project that attitude to anyone with whom I come in contact. When someone asks how things are going with the festival I have learned to tell them how great it is, how much we are growing, how much community support we have, how wonderful the musicians are, and what a positive difference we are making in the lives of students and audiences.

People want to get involved with positive and exciting organizations. I have learned never tell people about problems with funding, temperamental artists, slow ticket sales or the like. Too often in the arts we focus on a lack of funding, lack of audiences, and lack of interest. While these are real problems that need to be addressed, they can’t be solved by whining and complaining. People want to be on the winning team more than they want to help the underdog. If you wish to promote and grow an organization or sell out a concert you must convince people that it is something in which they would like to be involved. No one wants to sign on to a program that might underachieve or fail.

The second important lesson is related to this. In addition to being relentlessly positive, you just have to be relentless. In music we are only on the stage some of the time, but good salespeople and good communicators are on all the time. You need to talk to everyone you know about what you are doing. When he was selling this concert, Jamie told everyone he knew, whether he thought they were interested or not. He emphasized what a great time they would have and mentioned other people they knew that would be there. He always told people how fast tickets were going to sell and how they needed to get them before they were all gone. Until I listened to how Jamie promoted I hadn’t realized how often I said things like “I hope we’ll get enough people to show up” or how I had always emphasized how great the music and musicians would be rather than how much fun the evening would be and how much people would enjoy it.

Now when I talk to people in the elevator, at a restaurant, at the college, or on the bus, I let them know what we are doing. I wear my South Delta Jazz festival jacket, t-shirts, and hats;, I pass out a business card, or at least direct them to our website. This is hard for artists and academics to do. We aren’t trained to be sales-oriented. Selling takes time away from practicing, research, and other musical things you’d rather be doing. This is also difficult at first because we often feel that people will not be interested in what we do, especially if we play music that is typically viewed as high art, which to many people means complicated, difficult and elitist. The key to overcoming this feeling is to realize that you have no idea who will or will not be interested or where a conversation might lead. Even if the person you are talking to isn’t going to come to your concert or sign up for your workshop, or read your article, they will very likely know someone who is or who will. This is the attitude that allowed us to be successful in reaching out to a community where no one thought a jazz festival could be successful. You will surely meet with negative responses and a lot of people that weren’t at all interested. The key is to keep digging until you connect with like-minded people. We just assumed that what we wanted to do could be done and relentlessly worked to find the people and organizations that would help us do it.

When we begin to cultivate positive attitudes about our work and to promote ourselves, our ideas, and our work unselfconsciously we will find that people will be interested in what we are doing. It doesn’t always feel comfortable or fun to adopt these attitudes or to build these habits, but it is worthwhile. In trying to adopt new ways of connecting with people outside my usual networks of musician friends I have found a significant change in the way I feel about my music and my career. I can honestly say that trying on this entrepreneurial mode has made me feel more open and less self conscious than ever in my performing and teaching. I think this is because I have developed a faith in the idea that my audience, whether in a concert or in the classroom, really does want to hear my music or learn what I have to teach. I have realized that not only do I have something valuable to offer them, but that they have something to give to me, that we depend on and need each other. This work has made me a much better communicator and given me a greater sense of independence from a tenure track job, government funding, or the approval of those in positions of perceived musical authority. I have been able to make a contribution to my community and to provide myself with enjoyable and fulfilling work in the process. I hope you will consider trying it for yourselves.

Would you like to develop a musical event or program in your community? Here are a few important lessons I have learned.

  • Network to build audiences, find sponsors, recruit students, or sell tickets. Treat everyone you meet as a potential audience member, sponsor, volunteer, student, supporter, or collaborator. Then find out whom they know and ask for phone numbers and email addresses.
  • Find a market area that isn’t already saturated with arts events and organizations.
  • Understand and study the demographics of your potential audience or clients.
  • Evaluate and inventory your own extra-musical skills and those of other potential collaborators. If you don’t have the skills you think you’ll need, find likely partners who do have those skills and learn everything you can from them.
  • Build a small but dedicated administrative team with a wide variety of skills. Make sure they are people with whom you can feel comfortable working with over a long period of time.
  • Carefully define the roles and responsibilities of people on your administrative team to avoid task duplication, make best use of talents, and increase personal accountability.
  • Recruit lots of community volunteers and supporters to help you with the practical details: ushers, poster and flyer distributors, people to run the concession and take tickets etc. Give them lots of public recognition and free tickets, free t-shirts and hats with your logo.
  • Partner with existing arts organizations to share advertising, volunteers, office and rehearsal space, secretarial staff, etc. Look for potential mentors in these organizations.
  • Be relentlessly positive and upbeat when you talk about what you are doing or planning to do. Everyone wants to be on the winning team.
  • Be prepared to sell any time and all the time. Prepare a 30 second ‘‘elevator speech’’ that tells people what you are doing and provides an opportunity to hand out a business card.
  • Find a name and logo and URL that describes what you do, looks appealing, and is memorable and recognisable. Then put it everywhere and on every thing you can.
  • Sell your program or event to sponsors as marketing and advertising, not as a charity.
  • Don’t be dissuaded by negative responses. Keep looking until you meet positive people.
  • Make a business plan for one year, three years, and five years ahead showing where you want to go and how you plan to get there. Include a detailed, realistic, achievable, conservative budget.
  • Do not spend one penny over budget, ever, under any circumstances.
  • Be prepared to work long hours, initially for little or no pay, but do look for opportunities to pay yourself for your work as soon as possible.
  • Keep overhead down by doing yourself whatever work you can do (or can quickly and easily learn) rather than paying outside organizations money that you don’t have.
  • Be open to ideas from non-musicians. They are your audience.
  • Seek out sponsors and partners by getting to know people in the community. Meet them on their terms by going to the places where they live, work, eat, and play. Then find some way for anyone who is interested to help and contribute at a level where they will be comfortable and effective.
  • Never underestimate the public’s ability to understand and enjoy art music when it is presented and sold well. Have faith in the power of great music to“turn people on.”
2112 Last modified on October 1, 2018