Looking for mavericks

This was the first in what turned out to be a long series of posts, in which I and many readers highlighted people, groups, and institutions making new departures in classical music, doing things in new ways. This wasn’t even close to a complete list, but it was an exhilarating start, especially because this information simply isn’t available. Classical music has been changing at an almost explosive pace, and yet most of the changes happen just below the radar, maybe talked about in the media here and there, but never catalogued, so there’s nowhere anyone can go to find out how many of them there are, or what they’re about. 

I want to change this, and hope that the list I and others started here can become a permanent part of this blog. And that it will grow, until we have at least a start toward making a catalogue of change, something that can inform and inspire everyone who works with classical music.

But a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Or, in this case, nine steps. This first post of mine, and the eight that followed it. Which are these: 

Breaking the mold” (about Ad Hoc, a chamber ensemble that describes its performances as jams)

Mavericks nominations” (the first group of readers’ suggestions)

More Mavericks” (more readers’ suggestions)

Path-breaking piano curriculum“(about a truly astounding program at a Canadian university)

Mavericks — continuing” (still more from readers)

We personalize what music is” (about the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, which is breaking 

A lot of mavericks” (final nominations from readers — who suggested more than 50 people and groups)

Final mavericks — Jade Simmons and a Go-Go symphony” (final only for 2012, because we’ll resume this in 2013)

Still more mavericks (resuming in 2013, with marvelous things from two major institutions, the Toronto Symphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment)

 I’m looking for classical music mavericks.

In my last post, I talked about how inspired I was by a business book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Winby William C. Taylor and Polly G. LaBarre. And I gave an example: Southwest Airlines declaring that it wasn’t in the air travel business, but rather in the freedom business. Which led them to empower both their customers, and their employees. Which then made air travel better.

There are so many other examples in the book.

  • A bank that has a rule it calls, “One to Say Yes, Two to Say No.” As the bank explains, “All employees can say ‘yes’ to a customer, but must first check with their supervisor before saying ‘no.”
  • A huge ad agency, in Portland, OR, that built a new headquarters, with space for artists in residence, offices for nonprofit roups, and a space for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Why surround themselves with outsiders, especially artists? To make sure new ideas flow into the agency. The agency also set up a school for aspiring advertising people, and subcontracts big accounts to the students, sometimes getting campaigns the agency’s top people would never have thought of. (The image shows the headquarters’ lobby.)
  • A gold mining company that crowdsourced geology. Published maps of their land, and asked for new ideas about how to find gold on it. Again with terrific results.
  • Proctor & Gamble, which crowdsources research. If there’s a scientific problem to be solved, even though P&G employs many scientists, they’ll put the problem out on the Internet, and invite solutions.
  • Whole Foods, which has a mission statement that says, in plain English, that it sets forth goals, not realities: “the way we would like things to be,” with honest acknowledgment that the goals aren’t always met. Just imagine an orchestra or opera company having a mission statement like that! Describing, in clear language, the kind of performance they’d like to give, and saying right out that they don’t always get there.

This is a 2006 book, and, as always with inspiring business studies, you have to read with a grain or two of salt. Companies that looked good in 2006 may have stumbled since. But still the book is inspiring. It’s about a new kind of company, one that redefines whatever business it’s in, to:

  • empower employees (the ad agency, Wieden + Kennedy, encourages employees to apply for grants to support personal projects, with only one rule: those projects have to be truly personal, and can’t have anything to do with advertising)
  • empower customers
  • inspire new thinking
  • find new ways to connect with the world (Whole Foods has a “Declaration of Interdependence,” Wieden has an open-door policy “that fills its hallways, meeting rooms, and public spaces with interesting visitors and unexpected guests”)

Classical music, to put it mildly, needs thinking like this. Needs people and organizations that work in these ways. Traditionally, we’ve operated (like much of the world) from the top down. But the world is changing, and we have to change, too. We have to empower the people who work in classical music institutions, and, even more, our musicians and audience.

So here’s an invitation to everyone reading this. Nominate classical music mavericks! Email your nominations, or tell us about them in comments to this post. I’ll put the best nominations right in the blog. And, starting tomorrow, I’ll start listing a few of my own.

Let’s change classical music. We’ll fade away if we don’t.

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  1. says

    I’m really inspired by San Francisco violist Charith Premawardhana who immediately recognized the potential for a concert at the Revolution Cafe in the Mission district to reach an audience resistent to the establishment culture. Six years later Classical Revolution has at least 35 established, volunteer chapters worldwide in bars, clubs, cafes and restaurants, which has allowed each of us to experiment with what I call New Classical, presentation formats that make the difference for curious music lovers. Now if we can only secure funding to professionalize the movement.

    • says

      Good thought, Rick. Charith is certainly trying to do things differently. I especially like your last point, about professionalizing the movement. Which is growing around the world. Among orchestras, the Memphis Symphony is said to be active in clubs, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in London, certainly is. (See their “Night Shift” program, on their website.)

      But how can we professionalize playing in clubs? Which for me means, very simply, making money from it. The quick answer, I think, is that it can’t be done. Bands and singer-songwriters don’t make money playing in clubs, or at least not at first. I think the answer lies in taking the club performances as a starting point, and then doing what bands do. Start building a fan base with club performances. Then move to larger clubs. Keep building the fan base. Move to still larger clubs, then to small non-club performance spaces (small theaters, for instance). At this point you’re starting to make money. You can also sell recordings and merchandise to your fans. You should be aiming for shows in places seating a couple of hundred people, with ticket prices reasonably high. (We’ll have to learn what that means, in practice. But we’re selling tickets to fans, so they should be willing to pay.)

      That’s my idea, anyway. I’d love to hear yours. What will you do with the funding, when you get it?

  2. says

    Greg, in Detroit our series has already impressed hundreds of folk who love the novelty of a different kind of music in a club, who love picking up information about how to enjoy classical, and who love that they can meet, watch and greet musicians up close. Furthermore, we amplify lightly thru my quality sound system so no one misses anything, esp. when we create meaning by introducing pieces and interviewing players. We’ve all been playing voluntarily so I don’t always get enough players even as a monthly series.

    So with funding I would hire players to play from my three books of symphonic arrangements and compositions, guest ensembles doing standards or genre-bending, and individuals doing solo rep with our fearless pianist. The best part is that new audiences don’t mind if we’re sight-reading. They enjoy a glimpse into the process, what can go wrong and how we coordinate time without a drummer. Anyway, I’d expand our monthly series into 4 times per month in our three regular venues around the city and add one or two more. Plus I’d be able to advertise better with more flyers and cards than I can paying out of pocket. Our attendance has shot up already since the Detroit News published a cool video story on us last month.

    How can we professionalize playing classical in clubs? Well, from where I sit, there are a number of parties interested in seeing art music reaching a wider swath of the community. I know donors, foundations, music institutions and orchestra musicians who are gravely concerned that we build both new audiences and community support for classical. If they can be convinced that the quality that really matters in clubs is not so much of the performance but of just showing up full of passion and interacting, then they’ll realize that investing in young freelancers to play chamber music is actually a very cost effective way to inject art music into the larger community. There are some caveats but it’s really no different from BUSKING, a great teacher of humility and fearlessness. Except here you don’t need to ask anyone to throw money in your case.

    • says

      Thanks, Rick. Everything you say makes sense. You might be able to advertise/market/promote your concerts without spending anything. There are techniques for that, which are used these days even in giant marketing campaigns, where money is spend freely. The trick is to get people who love what you do to promote it to their friends/families/networks on online contacts. Of course, you may already be doing this! You keep in touch with the people who come to your shows, always finding new ways to get them involved. You organize a street team, as the term goes, a group of fans/volunteers who spread word online about everything you do.

      Plus more! These methods may actually be more effective than the flyers and other printed material (plus paid advertising) that have traditionally been used.

      • says

        I agree with you that street marketing is more effective for the crowd I’m trying to attract. I’m definitely developing a following in the alternative media… esp. after doing an impromtpu Revolution event at a local dive with musicians touring thru town and with whom I’ve read CutTime stuff in Boston two months previous. Their positive response made that a place we can return to anytime to serve a different crowd, even tho it was close to one of our regular venues. We’ve got to go where we find the people. Having a “sponsor” helps: someone who frequents that place and can smooth the way for us.

        Back to funding the Classical Revolution, I’ve launched a tax-deductible crowdfunding campaign today for CRD. I hope folk will spread the word and lower their taxes with a generous contribution this month (before we lose tax-deductions altogether!). I hope you don’t mind if I link it here: http://www.usaprojects.org/project/classical_revolution_detroit

    • says

      That’s true in many businesses. Though I can imagine it’s worse in classical music. What we need are maverick organizations, which are reasonably common in other industries. But not in classical music!

      Funny how our industry works. So many insiders, including people who run some of our biggest institutions, know we’re failing. That *they* (the insiders) are failing. But they go on doing the same things, making only small changes. They know something more is needed, but they’re like St. Augustine, in his famous prayer for chastity: “Give me change, but not yet!”

      A businessman I know was asked to join the board of his local orchestra. As he described his thinking to me, he thought, “All orchestras do more or less the same thing. And they’re all in trouble. So a new model is needed.” Since his local orchestra showed no interest in that, he declined to serve on the board,

      • marklfrancis@hotmail.com says

        I wish I hadn’t experienced what you are describing but its true. This is a business it seems the more you fail the more you get ahead. The boards have actually managed to get worse in recent years. I lost my most recent job despite increasing single ticket sales by 45% because I offend a local family who view the orchestra as their pocession and toy. The increases came from simply getting out in the community and asking people to come. Once they were at our concerts they had a good time. I could go on with the legion of problems in this business but I have to look for work. I’m still unemployed.

        • says

          Good luck finding work, Mark, and I’m sorry you lost your job. The era we’re in is very tricky for classical music organizations. The old ways aren’t working, the new ways haven’t established themselves. most groups are caught in the middle, and some very odd things can happen.

          • Mark Francis says

            Having seen things from the inside I’m much less hopeful. It’s getting pretty close to “too late” for most organizations. I’m thinking of taking your advice and getting out of this racket.

          • says

            “Too late” can be hopeful. I’ve known some powerful people in the biz who think nothing will change until some of the big institutions start to fall. Maybe that’s optimistic, though. The Philadelphia Orchestra hasn’t seemed to learn any lessons from its near-death experience. One person asked my advice recently, about how to fix orchestras, and I suggested he start a new one — one that does what an orchestra should. Not an easy thing to do, and he’d need to raise money (lots of it). But it would help to set an example.

          • says

            I can understand why you’d feel this. Two possibilities, on the hopeful side. (1) Once big classical music institutions start visibly dying, change will come. (2) It’s a perfect time to start a new institution — a new orchestra, for instance. You’d have to raise lots of money. But if you could do that, why not show the world how things should be done?

  3. says

    That Portland ad agency (Weiden & Kennedy), featured in Portlandia, spawned that show’s star Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater Kinney fame). The sculpture in your picture is a life-size statue of a giant prehistoric beaver, part of an art show at the W&K gallery. She made it by crafting a small replica of the beast, then having a friend at Oregon Health & Science University CAT scan it, then making each slice of the CAT scan and gluing them together. Weighs a ton, like 14 feet high. She was terrified it wouldn’t sell and she’d be stuck with it in her studio for life. But W&K’s senior partner bought it!

    • says

      Hi, Tim,

      Figured you’d know about this! I knew the photo was from the company’s building (got it from their website). But so nice to have the history! Hope you’re doing well, and good to hear from you.

  4. says

    True change can take place with teamwork across administration and the musicians. At the symphony I work for, we’re just starting to venture down the path of finding new audiences and looking at performances in unique formats and venues. After brief conversations with some musicians, they are excited and on board and have been dying to try new things themselves. They’ve just been waiting for the right staff people to take the lead, which I’m excited to do. It takes collaboration and trust, which I know is hard sometimes between mgmt and the union.