Participatory Music-Making Part 2: A Walking Tour

May 6, 2011

In my previous post, I pondered the question of how one makes music participatory. I was implying that perhaps the reinvention of presentation is not enough; we need to transform the nature of an arts event in a more fundamental way. Now it’s time to get into specifics, to parce together vague notions into a coherent proposition.

Sir Ken Robinson was recently in Madison, giving a talk on the always-entertaining Distinguished Lecture Series about education, creativity, and policy reform. As a fan of his work, I was familiar with his theories and philosophy on those topics, but what suprised me (a little) was his skill at using the medium as message.

If you’ve seen Sir Ken speak, you know what I’m talking about. The remarkable mastery of anecdote to slowly unravel sensible solutions to the the complex challenges facing educators and policy-makers is a hallmark of his style, and this helps make his ideas stick. But Sir Ken’s style also validates the unspoken, yet clearly present, need for challenging traditional notions of audience interaction. His talks are truly participatory experiences, where the crowd feels more like a partner in a conversation, rather than an audience. Anyone who hasn’t yet seen him in person, take a look at his immensely popular TED Talks – they will inspire you and clarify my ramblings.

Seeing him also produced an important “Ah HA!” moment for me, when he described creativity as “applied imagination,” specifically the application of imagination to tackle societal, cultural, artistic, or economic challenges. I propose that this characterization applies perfectly to the discussion at hand. The choice to make music participatory – which challenges not only convention ideas about music and culture, but also forces artists to think creatively – derives from a need to address certain challenges. Society, in general, does not reinvent itself just for the fun of it. Neither does art.

I would wager that artists, and the institutions that produce and incubate them, have led the charge toward more audience-centric and participatory programming for the following (primary) reasons:

1) To reach new audiences
2) Out of a need to find new funding channels
3) In order to move art forward

These goals are not ubiquitous nor are they mutually exclusive; rather, they are ideas nestled within a larger drive to challenge the status quo in ways that add value and improve society. They are also sprawling topics that cannot be done justice in a 1,000 words or less! Let’s start with the first two goals – taking brief snapshot of organizations that are dealing with these challenges through imagination, innovation, and, ultimately, entrepreneurial ideas.

Reaching the next generation

One organization that has used participation effectively to create a new member base for classical music is Classical Revolution. It was founded in 2006 at San Francisco-based Revolution Cafe, with the goal of creating classical music “jam sessions” in bars and coffee shops. What started as  a weekly meeting of musicians, has become a grassroots idea that spread across the world. Chapters exist, and are thriving, in more than 15 cities – including Madison, Wisconsin!

This is perhaps an extreme example, but the success of Classical Revolution lies not so much in the focus on participation as on how participation drives a larger goal of reinventing the classical music experience. Each evening usually begins with some planned performances of repertoire by set performers, and then develops into ad hoc readings of music, based on the personnel present, that often trail off into the night. This creates spontaneous evenings that must be akin to what a Schubertiad felt like – except that theirs is a crowd enjoying drinks and food, all of whom are ready to rock to classical music.  Audiences are transformed into collaborators, sometimes influencing the choice of music, taking requests, or potentially even joining in on-stage.

As a primarily volunteer organization, people are drawn by the ability to collaborate, and by the flexibility of membership. This casual ethos lends to their grassroots growth; Classical Revolution is an idea malleable enough to translate to different cultures and localized demographics.

They are now expanding into new territory with the introduction of a record label, but are in the nascent stages of discovering how to leverage this new “audience” of several thousands of active participants to build a funding base for long-term sustainable growth.

Finding new funding channels

Artsicle is another revolutionary idea – a new venture founded by two young New York City entrepreneurs, Alexis Tryon (who serves as CEO) and Scott Carleton (who serves as CTO in November 2010), in response to the question: Where would you go to buy original art that anyone could afford?  

Alexis and Scott had trolled the art scene in NYC, and found themselves either turned away from galleries who didn’t take them seriously or unsatisfied with the online outlets. They struck on an idea that it would be ideal if  you could find work by today’s emerging artists in one online source. It would have to be curated, and offer an affordable experience, reaching new markets by changing the art collection experience for a new generation.

The result was Artsicle. It went live in March 2011. While there are other online art aggregation site, like, it differs with its focus on emerging artists and, surprisingly, a rental option. You can actually rent a piece of art for $50/month, before buying it (with delivery, only in NYC). The prices range from  $175 to $5,000, most cost somewhere from $500 to $1,500. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: they created the Netflix of visual art.

Alexis is the “collector guru” (B.A. in Art History & Communication Studies from Penn, and worked at the Institute for Contemporary Art) from Philly. Scott is the “chief geek” a tech-startup vet who started work as a nuclear engineer with Westinghouse. He also worked to develop Breakout Developments, a startup that designed modern mix-tapes for iPods.

Bootstrapped so far, this exciting new venture is a fine example of how individuals can use their creative capacities, with a simple goal in mind, to develop a potentially visionary re-shaping of art collection and collectors. This idea hold promise to also open doors for aspiring artists seeking audiences, in this case through commerce.

Moving forward

It’s easier to tackle challenges created by tangible – and evaporating – resources because we know where to apply valuable new ideas. But what of the challenge to reinvigorate creative potential itself; the need to find new avenues of expression for the betterment of art? Now we’re in tricky territory.

If we take Sir Ken’s definition of creativity to heart – “the process of having original ideas that have value” – at least we have a starting point. Of course, as evidenced above, the question of how to move art forward is not exclusive of fundraising or engagement dilemmas. They are webbed together in a delicate and complex marriage. My next post in this series will examine, how artists are addressing this issue. Stay tuned!


4 Responses to “Participatory Music-Making Part 2: A Walking Tour”

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  2. […] ruin the party. I’m certainly a proponent of those ideas, and have written about this topic before, but not everyone is as optimistic. In discussions with those working outside this niche I […]

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