What is Engaging Music? Lessons from the Arts Enterprise Summit

March 14, 2011

I recently returned from Kansas City for the 2011 Arts Enterprise National Summit; an intense weekend of workshops, seminars, panels, and networking centered on the idea of cultivating new collaborations among artists and entrepreneurs. With presenters ranging from Andrew Taylor to Margo Drakos (founder of InstantEncore.com), author David Cutler, and Drawing Down the Vision gurus Amy Bogard and Adam Siegiminowski – attendees had ample opportunity to engage with one another and explore how to better engage our communities through art-making.

One theme permeated the weekend: it is obvious that, in the end, successful arts ventures – non-profit or otherwise – must tap into a community spirit that connects artistic skills with a vision for how to add value to society. And this value must be realized by measurable terms; without effective substantiation even the best ideas may fail to translate into sustainable projects (as many emerging ensembles have realized). So the question that follows is, how do we add real value (e.g. economic, social, or cultural) in a way that secures cash flow (e.g. through grants, gifts, and commercial enterprise) without sacrificing artistic goals?

New Music Everywhere (NEW MUSE) is dealing with this challenge now, and one idea is apparent to me as a highly-effective driver in translating musical ideas into community-enriching events is found in the notion of engagement as a foundational principle. That is, prioritizing the needs of the community, and finding programming ideas that reflect the interests and needs of the community.

This leads to the question of valuation, one of the most challenging topics for any industry, but particularly with regard to how we can quantify the non-quantitative. How can we count into the equation the intangible measurements of artistic success, those that lie beyond the bottom-lines of profit maximation and cost reduction?

Of course, there are some corporate models in other industries where “unquantifiable” assets have not only been accounted for, they have been leveraged to create more value for those who cultivate them. Apple, for a basic example, (arguably) does not follow a traditional market leader innovation formula (at least since the mid-1980s). It didn’t create the first MP3 player, the first smartphone, or the first desktop computer. But it DID find ways of making these technologies more accessible, more attractive, and trendy. In that process, the engineers at Apple – like others in organizations like Google and Virgin Airlines – have found ways of revealing the potentially qualifiable assets that these technologies possess. You want the iPad because it’s fun to use, not because it’s purely functional; the use of that device is entertainment in itself. Picking it up brightens your day. That is why Apple’s grip on the market is so powerful, and why it is continually the trend-setting brand in mobile technology.

At the heart of this analogy is a strategy that we can relate back to the arts. A fine place to start for us in the “non-profit contemporary music” world (what a niche!) is the endeavor of bringing music to the places, and in the ways, where people want to engage with it. This isn’t always the concert hall. Le Poisson RougeClassical Revolution, and Boston’s A Far Cry, are three examples of this principle taking flight, but there must also be a place for localized iterations of hip, fresh, and fun (gasp!) contemporary music.

Can music occur in Madison’s Hoyt Park, for example, or in a hole-in-the-wall bookstore? How about a library? Will these experiments in unpredictable performance arenas become the new performer/audience norm? What about the effect of spontaneous immersion in music, not for the sake of surprise, but as a way of pinpointing the importance of this date in history? Will these spur a sustainable business model? Surely the answers to these questions aren’t simple ones, but at the core lies the pursuit of a new audience-centric paradigm, one where the act of music making arises as a direct response to perceived need within our communities for more engaging concert formats. Certainly, the idea of jumping out on a limb to “see what could happen” can be frightening, and NEW MUSE is poised to find out exactly what will happen with our upcoming events.  But that is also part of the fun. Paraphrasing the words of Picasso, we are attempting to tackle the challenges to which we do not know the answers, so that we may learn the ways of accomplishing them.

This article was originally posted at the New Music Everywhere blog, reposted here by the author’s permission.

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