Wednesday, January 23, 2008

sustainability and music (4)

Well, a year and a half into this experiment with an "alternative business model" for my music ministry, I can report on how it's going and even begin musing about how it might work for others who might want to try something similar.

It's actually been about 5 years since I "quit my day job" and moved music-making from being my "side thing" (which it had always been - and that was good) to being my "main thing" both vocationally and economically. And a constant theme throughout those 5 years has been a strong sense of call and vocation for this work, many questions and doubts about its long-term financial viability, and the deep sense that there must be an alternative to the mainstream assumptions ("tour! tour! tour! sell! sell! sell!") about what it means to "make it" or even just to "make a go of it" in "the music business."

In particular, what would it look like to structure this ministry/business in a way that is livable, healthy, sustainable (ecologically, relationally, economically) over the long term? In a way that can function well on a small scale (has a sense of "enough") and does not have to buy into the "celebrity system" and grow to be "as BIG as possible as FAST as possible" in order to be viable? Or, in other words, a way that is "designed for permanence" (to use the phrase from E.F.Schumacher's classic book from the 70s - "Small is Beautful: Economics As If People Mattered")?

Four of the five "revenue streams" for SmallTall Music are fairly standard - CD/digital record sales, performances, royalties/publishing, and what I call "special projects" (a catch-all category for different things that come up from time to time). Developing the fifth "revenue stream," for me, has been the key to making this an "alternative business model" that enables the whole system to function on a scale that is livable and (I hope) sustainable - a "business model" that better reflects my faith and vocational aspirations.

Essentially what I've done is taken the "Community Supported Agriculture" (or CSA) model and applied it to music. On a CSA farm you pay an up-front annual fee (or "membership" or "subscription" or "shares) and receive regular deliveries (usually weekly) of fresh, locally grown (usually organic) produce throughout the growing season. In the same way, I've set up a "membership" system so that when you "become a member" of SmallTall Music (household or congregational/institutional memberships are available) you receive regular "deliveries" of fresh, locally-grown produce - "songs of faith for small and tall" - straight from the producer, yours truly, via download from a "Members Only" page of the SmallTall Music website.

I've written about this system elsewhere, so you can find more technical details of how this works, and a more whimsical description of the system and the philosophy behind it. For now, suffice it to say that this little experiment (which folks familiar with the CSA model have taken to calling my "Community Supported Music" or "CSM"... or "CSArts"...) is entering its second year of operation, and I think it's going well:

- as of today there are 58 paid-up "members" of SmallTall Music. 13 are "congregational/institutional" members and 45 are "household" members.
- after the first year I was rather anxious about "renewals" - sure, it's a neat idea and all, but how many of the members would want to renew for a second year? Much to my delight, the renewal rate so far has been nearly 100% - way better than I had dared to hope.
- more members are beginning to participate actively in various ways - by giving feedback on the songs and how they're using them, giving ideas and suggestions for other songs ("we really need a song to sing when..."), by using and recommending the songs in various contexts - a group of STM members even sang backing vocals on a couple of songs on the new studio album.
- good participation in the first annual "SmallTall Music Members Jamboree," which is a whole "delivery of songs" made up entirely of songs written not by me but by the members of SmallTall Music.
- I'm getting requests from various members for a new "category" of membership ("sponsoring member?"), because they want to support what I'm doing by contributing more than the requested "annual fee."

This is exciting and encouraging, and while I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I started this thing, and it's obviously still in its infancy, I'm very pleased with how it's moving. While this membership system is no economic juggernaut (and I'm still hoping to cut down on my web costs by learning to do more of it myself), it is for me a key piece in the puzzle of long-term viability, and over time my hope is that the membership system will serve as the kind of base-line income that is more consistent and predictable as other revenue streams (CD sales, royalties/publishing) fluctuate depending on many factors.

This is slow and patient work... but good and fulfilling and fun work too. In the wise words of Gary Guthrie, STM member and an old friend who runs a CSA of his own in Iowa:

" are breaking new ground... It is always tough going to break up the clods and turn in the grass pasture... But with time, patience and spreading a lot of manure the soil improves bit by bit. By nurturing the soil life community we literally feed the grass roots! What does it take to start a grass roots movement? Ya have to spread manure and feed the soil!"

I'd never thought of it quite that way before... but here's to spreading more manure, hopefully for a good long time to come!

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