Friday, January 25, 2008

an alternative business model for the arts...?

What to do if...

- you are passionate about your art (whether music, visual art, or whatever kind of "form") and wish you could spend more time at it (and even wonder about deriving some income from it)?

- you want to take your art more seriously and "get it out there" to more people, but you don't really see yourself going "full-time," or even necessarily "part-time," in an "employment/income-generating" kind of way?

- you would like to "take the plunge" and try to pursue your art on a part-time or full-time basis, but you wonder if there's an economically viable way to do it?

- your gifts have been affirmed by others who say they would like to support your artistic vocation but aren't sure how?

- you have a real drive to explore or pursue your artistic vocation, but sense a disconnect between your own values, goals, and priorities and the kind of lifestyle and assumptions (eg: "tour! tour! tour! sell! sell! sell!") that seem to be expected/required if you want to be "serious" about "making a go of it" with your art?

As I've wrestled with these questions I keep finding more and more people who wrestle with them too. As you can see on the sidebar of this blog, I am blessed to have friends and colleagues who are pursuing their musical/artistic vocations in a host of creative ways that are as varied and interesting and dynamic as the people themselves. Thankfully there is no "one way" to do this - any more than there is "one way" for any of us to do our art. I have learned and continue to learn a great deal from these co-conspirators... and I've been curious if the approach that I've been developing might be of interest to others as well.

There are a bunch of different models/metaphors that can help describe the approach that I'm taking (which some have taken to calling "Community Supported Music"). In many ways it's a web-based 21st century spin on some very old ways of structuring economic relationships. See which one (if any) of these metaphors resonates best with you:

1) Community Supported Music (CSM, or CSArts - see my last post and an earlier, more whimsical description) is like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm - redefining the relationship between "producer" and "consumer" to be a partnership in the growing and consuming of food. The CSA model offers the opportunity to have a direct relationship (and the possibility of direct participation/involvement) with the person and the place and the process that is growing your food - locally, organically, sustainably. In the same way, Community Supported Music offers the opportunity to have a direct relationship with the person who is "growing music" (or paintings or dramas or whatever) for you (and, quite possibly, motivating you to try your hand at it as well).

2) CSM (or CSArts) is like a decentralized and democratized way of "commissioning" art. Instead of a single wealthy benefactor (or agency or entity) financing/supporting the artist, there is a community of people that sees its role as supporting a particular artist, benefitting from the art, and helping to bring that art to the world.

3) CSM/CSArts is in some ways like a pastor-congregation relationship. A community decides that it is important to call someone and charge him or her with the functions (among others) of living in the community and paying attention to what is going on, spending time in prayer and Scripture study, and preparing something (eg: a sermon) to share with the community on a regular basis for the "building up of the body of Christ." There will be weeks when the pastor (or the congregation) feels that sermon was particularly "inspired" and other weeks not, but that doesn't change the fact that this person has been called (and is financially supported) to carry out this particular function in the community. In many ways this is how I tend to see my role as songwriter. And the CSM system is a way, again, to "decentralize" that function so that the "local, supporting community" can be made up of people from all over the place.

4) The artist in a CSM/CSArts system is like the medieval "town fiddler" (or the "community flute players" that played at Jeremy and WuYan's wedding in China a few weeks ago - see photo above). This is a local person who is bi-vocational and does not typically "make a living" exclusively with music, but everybody knows that when it's time for the party (or the wedding), the "town fiddler" (or "flute players") can be counted on to be there, fulfilling their social function and helping the community to do its thing.

And on and on it goes... I'm sure you could add to this list.

While each metaphor is different, and teases out different aspects of the relationship between the "artist" and the "community," it seems to me that they have a great deal in common:

- relationship and community based
- small-scale and "local"
- more about the "process" (and the social function in the community) than about a "product"
- an economic structure that is "in proportion" with the life and values of the community

While I'm still in the beginning stages, already I'm finding this approach to be a better "fit" with my values and goals and priorities than many of the mainstream assumptions that I hear about what it means to "make it" and "succeed" in "the music business." I see this approach as a way to value long-term sustainability and health over "making it big"; a sense of "enough" over unfettered ambition; a strengthening of relationships in the living out of artistic vocation rather than a sacrificing of relationships in the pursuit of "success."

What do you think? Can you see an adapted form of this model working for you? Could this kind of approach help you to explore and live out your sense of artistic vocation? Is it a mechanism that could help you support someone else's...?

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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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Friday, January 18, 2008

good trip, good to be back

Our three weeks in China were great - what a treat to celebrate Jeremy and WuYan's wedding with her home community in Wuding (Yunnan province, southwestern China, Himalayan foothills). Over the next while I expect I'll be sprinkling some "travel journal" blog posts (with some pictures gratuitously thrown in) among the other SmallTall Musings that I'm eager to share.

It has also felt like another confirmation of this musical vocation that by the end of the trip I found myself eager to get back home and get "back to work." While I've been slowed down by a nasty head cold/sinus infection since we got home, by today I'm almost back "up to speed" and ready to go. Julie's still a bit jet-lagged, but feeling better, and Matthew has bounced right back faster than any of us.

2008, here we come!