The Build #32: Concert

Listening to live music doesn’t always require a huge crowd. For centuries, people gathered in small rooms to listen to chamber music. As part of the genre we now know as classical, you usually only get to hear it performed in symphony halls and other large venues, where ticket prices and cultural norms can sometimes make the experience feel exclusionary.

That’s what Sam Bodkin set out to change, by building a platform that connects chamber music performers to audiences through intimate house parties. With over 300 events in the past year alone, Sam’s team is building a modern appreciation and a new accessibility for rarely-peformed works.

It’s the story of GroupMuse on The Build.

More about today’s guest:


Announcer: [00:00:00] For 2820 radio in  Philadelphia, it's The Build. Conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges. 
Joe Taylor: [00:00:14] Concert. Listening to live music doesn't always require a huge crowd. For centuries people gathered in small rooms to listen to chamber music as part of the genre we now know as classical. You usually only get to hear it performed in symphony halls and in other large venues where ticket prices and cultural norms can sometimes make the experience feel exclusionary. That's what Sam Bodkin set out to change by building a platform that connects chamber music performers to audiences through intimate house parties. With over 300 events in the past year alone Sam's team is building a modern appreciation and a new accessibility for rarely performed works.
It's the story of Group Muse coming up next on The Build.
Announcer: [00:01:04] The Build is made possible with support from 2820 press. Providing business consulting and content strategy services to customer obsessed companies nationwide. 
Joe Taylor: [00:01:17] It's The Build, I'm Joe Taylor jr. Joined this week by Sam Bodkin co-founder of Group Muse. Welcome to the show.
Sam Bodkin: [00:01:29] Good to be here. 
Joe Taylor: [00:01:30] So take me back four or five years ago, you and a couple of other friends are thinking about entertainment and how we actually have fun in our spare time. Give us a little update or a briefing on how you came up with the idea for house concerts, featuring chamber music. 
Sam Bodkin: [00:01:51] I suppose the story begins during my year off before college, where I was traveling Europe extensively. Yeah. And using the social network couch surfing, it was a sort of a 4runner to Airbnb, except that it was free. And you stayed on the couches of folks all around the world and they were so generous with you simply in the interest of a cultural exchange. That was a revelatory and eyeopening experience and really turned me on to the possibilities of social networking, which I guess that was in 2007, 2008 was still in kind of its nascent stages. So that was kind of the first essential experience. And then in my freshman year of college, I fell mad for Ludwig Beethoven because I was in the basement of one of my closest friends and my neighbor, who was a cellist, and he was working on Beethoven's Opus 133 Grosse Fuge for string quartet, which is a very experimental and out there and modern piece. And so challenged my expectations of what classical music could be, because I was never a serious classical music listener.
As far as I was concerned it was like, you know, fancy music for important people. And it was important because important people said it was. But suddenly this piece of music reveals these depth and these jagged edges to me, and I became completely obsessed with that piece. I was listening to it 10 times a day for the next two weeks. And then I basically became a, an overnight evangelist and I went to the local public library. I was yanking stuff off the shelves, indiscriminately. I packed my iPod and then my world full of this music everywhere I went when I was brushing my teeth, when I was waiting in line for whatever I was listening to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart ,Schubert, Brahms -- the whole  gang. And it just expanded my interior world so significantly. And within about six months of that original transformation, that conversion experience, I had basically concluded that I was going to devote my life to expanding the listenership for this form of art that had added so much to my life.
I grew up in the suburbs of Boston and I can't complain because it was a life of privilege and comfort and stability and safety. But it was definitely conspicuously lacking in depth and substance and stimulation. I would say and even, kind of, transcended mystical experiences that I thought this music provided for me in just a time and again, new composers, new pieces, new performances, and pieces I already knew- always exploring new spaces in my own mysterious interior life. 
And so then I fell in with a group of musicians who gathered in an apartment in Boston on a regular basis in the neighborhood of Allston, which is a kind of a rough neighborhood. And yet we would have these evenings of just divine chamber music performed by some of the best young musicians in the whole world, really.
And also a really great party. The evenings were one, it was both an amazing party and a life-affirming art experience. And I was the only non-musician there. But for me, this was an essential experience because it broke down the dichotomy between enrichment, you know, the sort of life affirmation you get from a challenging work of art or hiking a big mountain or anything like that. And then the enjoyment, the pleasure, of partying down with great people. That was the foundation of this idea behind a Group Muse. Basically uniting that experience with my experience using couch surfing. And so that idea started germinating around my junior year and into my senior year. And by the time I graduated, I knew that it is what I wanted to do. So I worked actually at the Boston symphony orchestra over the summer, but then come September. I moved back in with my folks and I started talking to anyone and everyone who would listen about this idea I had. Basically a way to turn this social character of classical music, which does have this inherently social character, because it's a performed art form that has to be experienced in real time, in real space. So you have to have this experience with other people, unless you're just getting a private performance or something. This inherently social character of classical music, which I had become convinced, had been holding it back because of the culture of the concert hall and actually using that character-- that's social charact to maybe make it the form's greatest asset because after all we are living in an age of increased atomization and I think the degradation of local community ties. And so maybe this musical experience could be a way to bring communities together. 
So the first Group Muse was in January of 2013. I sort of laid out the idea and I asked anyone in the crowd who here wants to host the next one. And a bunch of people raised their hands. And two weeks later we had another one a week later, we had another one. By June of 2013, I'd been joined by my first co-founder Ezra Weller, also a Newton boy who actually I went to elementary school with. And then by September of 2013, I was joined by my second co-founder Kyle Schmolze, who had been a very, very close friend for over a decade. And once the founding team fused, we were really off and running. Pretty soon, we were having four or five Group Muses a week in Boston. Within a year after that New York was calling.
So I moved to New York to expand the project to New York. And then Kyle moved to San Francisco. That was four years ago that we had our first Group Muse. And so now we're national and finally figuring out how to
Joe Taylor: [00:07:46] expand this project to every community that wants it and can support it. So tell me a little, a bit more about the, what you've learned from turning this idea, which was very organic, which was about these shared social experiences and turning them into a platform that you're appealing to musicians who are going to come and perform and get something out of this experience that they might not be getting out of their current day-to-day life, whether they aren't performing in concert halls yet, or maybe just at the early stages of their career. And an also for organizers. What are you learning about how organizers are doing to get their needs met by using your platform? 
Sam Bodkin: [00:08:31] Ultimately, this is a process of trial and error. We try so many things all the time. The vast majority of them fail once in a while, something works a little bit, and then we do more things like it. Again, most of those things fail, but yeah one of those or two of those initiatives might work a little better. And over the course of years, you end up getting something that can really sustain itself. But I don't think there's any quick shortcut to simple trial and error. We do spend a great deal of time talking to our community members. We solicit feedback after every event.
We have, you know, a very proactive approach. To contact and community members whenever there's an emergent problem. And in terms of the value, add the different stakeholders that we are trying to appeal to. We have a complicated marketplace, really. It's three sided, it's the attendee, it's the performer and it's the host.
And so it's challenging, but it also forces us, I think, to simplify and to reduce our value propositions to the most universal maxims that we can possibly think of, you know, to make the value proposition one, that whoever you are, you can see the weight, substance and necessity behind. And so we never use words like, you know, yeah, this is high art that you are obliged to engage with because it makes you smarter and more refined. We never say that kind of stuff. We never, we avoid terms like refinement for us. It's about beauty, right? Because who doesn't respond to beauty, this music is characterized by beauty. There it is. We use words like depth, substance connection, warmth. These are the notions that I actually do think underpins humanity's age old obsession with the creation of art. I do think it comes from this need to connect and to channel the divine or the mystical or the irrational or the religious, whatever you want to call it.
I do think it is an inalienable facet of human existence, both on a society-wide level and as an individual. And so we are constantly trying to refine and simplify what. We are offering now the actual content doesn't change, but how we talk about it does over time, ideally get simpler, get more obviously appealing and resonate  with peoplw in an era where, you know, this music that has been so long marginalized, culturally really does have something to offer. You know, it is replete with beauty and depth. It has lasted the test of time. So it has this kind of, this heft in this robust fortitude, that I think. You couldn't really say characterizes a lot of the cultural artifacts of today, you know, the reality TV stars and the top 40 hits and even the material objects that we use that are useless within a year or two.
Joe Taylor: [00:11:50] Calling back to something I heard you say earlier, this is a form of art that was not originally intended for the arena or the concert hall. And as we've observed it in contemporary popular culture, this has turned into something that often becomes an elite experience. And yet these are mostly works that work composed and performed for small groups in small residences. What do you have to do to help audiences feel comfortable with the idea of what they think might be a weird juxtaposition of an art form they're not accustomed to seeing or hearing in a small intimate space? 
Sam Bodkin: [00:12:35] I mean, I think that definitely providing some historical context really does help and we encourage musicians to do just that we don't require it because some musicians don't want to do that kind of thing.
I think the simplest and easiest thing you can do is just try to  instill these cultural values and these norms that we have been fostering since the very first Group Muse, as in, you know, it's BYOB, you sit on the floor, talk to a new friend. We encourage hosts to welcome all of their guests. And actually if you just set up this space and the social dynamic, so that it's comfortable and welcoming, the music just fits right into that.
You know, one of the interesting things that happens at Group Muse. As you walk in and you're told to arrive between 30 minutes and an hour before the music begins. And here's sort of milling about chatting with people, maybe having a beer with someone and talking about the game or the weather or whatever people talk about.
And then 20 minutes later, You're sitting at their feet and they're blowing your mind on first violin. And you didn't even realize upon talking to them that first time that they were this virtuoso, that they had this capability of creating something of such staggering beauty and they were better at that than, you know, you've ever been at anything in your life.
And I think that really does break down this barrier that characterizes, I think to an extent contemporary classical music performance, which is kind of ,like, you know, you're at an art museum and you're not allowed to touch the art. You know, you're allowed to listen as long as you clap at the right time.
Try not to cough during the movements, make yourself scarce, for the most part. I think there are a lot of great organizations who have recognized that as kind of a social shortcoming and they've tried to address it, but these are large institutions and change happens slowly at that level. So I think that the social character of the experience definitely contextualizes the listening experience.
And so we actually don't have to do that much work in that respect. As long as people feel comfortable, they feel like they can be themselves. They can laugh, they can have a beer. It really, does most of the work for us. I'll also say that you're quite right. A lot of this music, especially chamber music though, is often written for the aristocracy was intended to be performed in these small scale settings. And so, you know, if you go to a 3, 4-500 person concert hall and you're 200 feet away from these unamplified instruments, the power is going to be lost over that distance. And when you sit down two feet from it, the dynamism and the electricity of it, the fact that you can see that sweat, you know, gathering on the cellist brow as they just dig it into this huge instrument. It's so evocative, immediately evocative, that I think a lot of people just kind of forget the pretensions of other that they have associated with this art form because it's just dry jaw-dropping and it's happening two feet in front of your face. So I think it pretty much takes care of itself. 
Joe Taylor: [00:15:55] One of the other trends that I personally like to keep track of is this wave of new discovery around an ancient idea behind patronage. The idea that we're in an era now where artists are relying more and more on audiences for direct support in the form of cash and other things. It used to, I think, be the expectation that if you are a classical musician, you would go to work for a symphony or maybe you would get some steady work in a Broadway show band, or you would constantly be making most of your money doing weddings or things like that.
Tell me a little bit about the experience you've had with directly facilitating payments to musicians. Are there musicians that are starting to make this a part of their routine income stream? Is that what you'd like to see for the platform? 
Sam Bodkin: [00:16:49] Absolutely. Yeah. So we are always kind of walking this line between the need to support musicians, robustly and meaningfully and accessibility.
So we have at each event, this sort of mandatory minimum contribution is $10. That's so that we aren't excluding people who can't comfortably afford to pay more than $10. But at the same time, we're always trying to drive home the point that you should be paying as much as you can afford. And if it's worth $30 to see world-class musicians play three feet from your face, well, then that's what you should pay.
We do intend to make this a central facet of the livelihoods of young musicians. I would say at this point, there is a handful of musicians for whom this is a very meaningful and regular income stream. But ultimately our scale is too small at the moment. You know, we put on between 25 and 30 concerts a week, which is a lot, you know, for a bootstrap startup but it is ultimately not. And, and it's spread all over the country. So it's ultimately not yet at the scale that I think it would be net would be necessary to really support these players full time, but we're moving toward that direction. And I think one of the models that we're most excited about, even though we've yet to start experimenting with it, hopefully we will this year, is trying a sort of micro patronage approach. As in, you play at a Group Muse, the crowd is given two options to pay 10, 20, $30, whatever they can afford or to pledge to give you as a musician or as a local ensemble, three, four, $5 a month. And the idea behind that is that it is sometimes hard to put a price on great works of art and to say, this is exactly how much this is worth to me.
That's not an easy thing to do. What you can say is, I can afford to give $5 a month to something that's important to me. And I think it's important that this string quartet continues to make the cultural fabric of my community. Beautiful, deep, robust, vibrant. And I think that actually patronage does work for the arts, it's a model that makes sense. And yet, because it's so non diversified at the moment and has been historically as well, it really depends on the largest and generosity of a few individuals who end up, kind of, having, you know I would say, disproportionate influence on how the culture of the concert hall evolves.
You know, I think, if you've got, a beautiful concert hall and your wealthiest benefactor says, I'll give you $30 million, but I want a huge chandelier to me, dangling from the ceiling. Well, you pretty much have to pay, play ball because that's how you are going to pay your bills. And yeah, you put up a huge chandelier.
Maybe the young folks come and say, Oh, this scene's not for me. This is just too fancy a vibe, but ultimately you're not answering to them at the end of the day. So we are really turned on by the possibility of a kind of crowdfunded micro patronage tool that we manage through Group Muse and then musicians are empowered to create their own opportunities and cultivate their own listenerships and then potentially one day leverage those listenerships to help them as they, you know, try to deliver on their career ambitions.
We're not there yet, because like I say, the scale is too small and our team is too small. It's still just a three person team with one web developer. But in little ways, It's already begun to happen. We have some players who play two, three Group Muses a week, and one, it is a major source of income for them. But also this becomes a crowd that they really get to know, they build relationships with folks that they meet at these group muses and they say, Hey, like if you liked this program, maybe you could host me at your place in a couple of weeks, because I would love to share this with your friends.
And so just by virtue of the fact that we're creating that potential for organic relationships to develop between musicians and members of the musicians community. These trends have already emerged. And the question is of course, how to best codify those impulses and make them easier and make them more lucrative for musicians and that's gonna take a long time to get that right. It's a delicate thing, but it's definitely one of our medium to long-term ambitions, a very important one, in fact. 
Joe Taylor: [00:21:53] Now you're operating in a space that for the past a hundred years or so has typically been the province of non-profit organizations, institutions, government organizations. And taking it back to the idea of a startup that's facilitating these things. Are you speaking with investors? Are you looking for grants? How do you look to leverage what you've built and scale the platform? 
Sam Bodkin: [00:22:20] We took a bit of private investment and then we ran a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $140,000. But we are not actively raising money at all anymore. We are not applying for grants. We're a profit seeking entity. We're not a nonprofit. The were hardly profitable though. Actually in the last couple of months, we have turned small profits, but we also radically underpay ourselves as zealous entrepreneurs are want to do so. So if we were to pay ourselves competitively, we'd still be deep in the red, but we're getting there.
The way that we monetize is kind of two-fold. One, we charge people $3 to RSVP to events, that money goes to Groupmuse and also ensures that they actually show. So if you want to go to an event in two weeks, you put $3 down now and then come show time, you'll actually go. Because even though $3, isn't much, you went through the process of taking out your credit card, et cetera.
So that's one way that we make money. But if you do at the math, it doesn't actually amount to all that much, certainly not enough to grow and to hire. The other way we make money is only just really materializing in full force. Now it is basically as the promotional arm of local classical music institutions that want help moving tickets and bringing young blood into the concert hall.
So we are provided with tickets by institutions that like our crowd and then we sell those tickets back to our users at a major discount and that ends up making us a considerable enough some that we may probably in pretty short order by the end of the year, even, be hiring one or two more people and having the sort of requisite resources to really expand. We are very conscientious about taking too much investment capital because we know how this goes. You know, if anyone is going to get squeezed, I mean a lot of money changes hands at Group Muse, and the easiest way to maximize our profits would be to squeeze our highly trained labor.
And we just really don't ever want to be in a position where an investor is pressuring us to do that. We really are an utterly values oriented organization. We watched to have Group Muse, be making enough money to grow and hire and thrive for sure. But ultimately what we want to be doing is serving the community of musicians and serving the community of.
Art and culture and community seekers in our active cities. And we don't want to be serving investors. Like I say, we do have a few small scale investors, all of whom are fully on board with the mission. So it's not as though, you know, that those types of people aren't out there, but the sort of the logic of venture capital does not cohere with our mission necessarily. So we are trying to do it our own way and are actually having some pretty significant success.
Joe Taylor: [00:25:43] So before we wrap up, tell me a little bit more about what it takes for you to launch Group Muse when you get into a new market. It sounds like you've got a little bit of a hybrid between boots on the ground and relying on your local folks to actually get things organized.
Sam Bodkin: [00:26:01] Yeah. Just last week we're preparing for the launch of Group Muse, Los Angeles. And what we did was we sent out an email to our user base there, which was surprisingly large, despite the fact that we've never had a single Group Muse in Los Angeles. And we said, we want to bring great news to Los Angeles. We know you guys are interested, here's what we need to build this community. We need committed hosts. We need to host who don't just want to have a one-off, you know, a fun party for their friends whom we'll never see again. We want people who are interested in building a robust and durable community by making a commitment to Groupmuse, and to the local arts and culture scene to host every month or every three months. And if that's you, we want to meet with you. We're going to be in town for 48 hours. Please hit us up. And that's what we did. And we met with more than two dozen amazing, wonderful people who are just buzzing with energy and enthusiasm for this idea. And that is really how it's taking shape in Los Angeles and how invariably, it'll be in new cities. Depending on hosts who want to make this  a part of their lives and a part of their communities. Like I say, it used to be more oriented around the one and done host launching Boston and then New York and San Francisco was very elbow grease oriented. There was a lot of pavement pounding.
It was like, okay, we've got a Group Muse next week. Who here from the crowd wants to host the one next week. Great. Who's going to host two weeks from now. Right? And so we were onboarding these hosts for these patients, seeing evenings that are always like incredibly positive and affirming experiences.
There I've truly never been to a bad Group Muse and often I go to mind-blowing great Group Muses. But the thing is that even if hosts express tremendous enthusiasm for the project and say they, in fact, do plan on hosting. Again, it's unlikely that space will be made so that we can fit into their lives in a regularized way.
That certainly does happen. But for more than half of hosts, that doesn't happen. So what we're doing now is saying, as we onboard new cities, we know what we need. Now we need committed hosts. Please be a part of your cultural community through Group Muse and that's a call to action that people have really responded to.
And it's been interesting because it marks a fairly definitive shift in how ideologically we conceptualize, how Group Muses works. Now it's more about supporting host and musician communities from behind empowering them, providing them the platform tools that they need and the verbiage that they need and less about, Hey, you, can you do this thing? It's a Group Muse do it tonight and it'll be really awesome for you and your friends. It's more about servicing your community at large, as a host, then having a fun night that Group Muse provides for you. So that is, and, and I think that that's necessary evelution because ultimately these are the notions that have always underpinned this project, the belief in the community, the belief in empowering others there's to create a world that they're proud of. So I am very pleased to see that this is becoming our sort of new strategic approach. 
Joe Taylor: [00:29:34] It feels like there's a very strong parallel to your growth and your potential to Airbnb. I remember when they launched as air bed and breakfast, it was very modest kind of operation. And the same thing happened. It really tended to lean into the folks that had the concept that this is something that they wanted to do but needed a platform, needed for this idea to be put on rails for it to be accepted. So thinking about Group Muse over the next 10 years, what's your dream for the organization? How many cities are you in? How many shows are you supporting per week? What does it look like a decade from now? 
Sam Bodkin: [00:30:16] We simply seek to bring this service, this experience, this community building initiative to every city and every town that is ready for it, which the only qualification is really like a population of classical musicians who are onboard with our mission.
So we want to be able to service every community that can benefit from us. And we really want this to serve as the platform that musicians use to cultivate their listenership and build an enduring following that can serve as the foundation for their entire career. And it's pretty simple how you might imagine that works, you know, on average, there's 30 people who go to a Group Muse.
If you're a, you know, a string quartet, Boom- there are 30 people on your mailing list, quote, unquote, mailing list. I mean, you know, it's managed through Group Muse, but you play 10 of those pretty soon. That's 300, you play a hundred of those. That's 3000 and on from there. And that becomes a crowd of people that only grows over time.
And they're the people in your community. There are people that you've had a beer with the people who are moved by what you do and care about what you do, because they feel a connection to you and your art. So that will forever be a dictating mission of ours to provide that service to musicians.
I guess you could say that we want to take classical music from its current position of kind of cultural marginalization and bring it to the center of culture so that we can remember how great and deep and glorious the artifacts of Western civilization are at their finest moments. To remember that kind of connection we have to our past to be inspired, to move into the future.
And ultimately, other side of this project is just providing people, unabashedly positive opportunities to come together and to share something. In a world that is just racked by division and, I think, a loss of  hope. And so this is really what we're trying to do.
We're trying to create, I guess you could say quasi sacred spaces for exalted moments of contemplation, but also revelry. And we want to create something that really challenges people to spend their time in enriching, but also life affirming, and joyous ways. 
Joe Taylor: [00:32:51] That's a great thought. Sam Bodkin, thanks so much for joining us on The Build.
Sam Bodkin: [00:32:54] Well, thank you. 
Joe Taylor: [00:32:56] The Build is a production of 2820 radio in Philadelphia. Our producer is Katie Cohen Zahniser. Our consulting and producer is Lori Taylor. Our production team includes Nicole Hubbard, Gianna Seeney and Gizzem Yali. My name is Joe Taylor Jr. Thanks for listening to The Build. 
Announcer: [00:33:14] Thanks for listening to this episode of The Build.

Joe Taylor Jr. has produced stories about media, technology, entertainment, and personal finance for over 25 years. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, and ABC News. After launching one of public radio's first successful digital platforms, Joe helped dozens of client companies launch or migrate their online content libraries. Today, Joe serves as a user experience consultant for a variety of Fortune 500 and Inc. 5000 businesses. Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

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