We had the pleasure of meeting violinist Maia Jasper White very early on in our iCadenza journey; she was one of the first musicians we interviewed!
That meeting led to an ongoing friendship as we realized that we had attended the same high school and had many other things in common. Around the time we met Maia, she and Kevin Kumar were getting ready to launch their concert series, the Salastina Society. Over the years, Salastina has grown to be one of the most well-loved, intimate chamber music series in L.A. We couldn’t think of a better person to talk about the process of starting a series from scratch.
Hi, iCadenza readers! I’m delighted to share my thoughts on some questions Julia and Jennifer posed about “How to Start a Concert Series.”
Which Comes First? The Ensemble or the Concert Series?
The strongest answer I can give is this:
What comes first is having a clearly defined mission. Your mission depends on your artistic goals, and your vision for the organization.
What is your purpose in starting a concert series? How will it be meaningful and unique in your community? Is a pre-formed group, or core, necessary to your purpose? Why, or why not?
Your answers to these questions will resolve whether or not a pre-formed ensemble is a prerequisite.
Clarifying Your Vision
When Kevin and I started Salastina, we had known and played together for several years. We’d spent hours talking about what we each hoped to contribute to the musical landscape. It became clear that our tastes, callings, temperaments, and playing styles were simpatico. And we saw that we made excellent sounding boards for one another.
We became energized by the possibilities taking shape in our discussions. Over coffee one day, we finally rolled up our sleeves and decided to make good on our shared goals together.
With the reality of a series debut on the horizon, our ongoing conversation exploded. Elaborate production details we’d never before considered weaseled their way into our ongoing discussion. Seven years later, we are still asking the same questions. As the years go by and our experience grows, we continue to marvel at how interrelated all the pieces are.
The following questions are never fully answered. (I accept that I’ll never have all the answers for Salastina!) Rather, their ever-evolving answers guide the growth and trajectory of any dynamic organization.
Here are important questions to ponder when starting a concert series:
1.What is the role of music in society today? What could we offer that would be unique? Why does the world need what we have to give? How will we maintain vitality, vibrancy, and relevance over the long term? What of our own weaknesses can we foresee, and what can we do to strengthen them?
This is the most important group of questions. They relate to an organization’s Mission, Vision, and Values and, ultimately, its Strategic Plan.
2. What kind of music do we most want to present, and why?
This has become our Artistic Planning conversation.
3. How do we want to present this music in an effective and meaningful way? What concert production elements would be involved in that? Do we need to develop any other content (i.e. multimedia, verbal presentations) for performance?
These are all important elements of Concert Production.
4. Who is our target audience, and why? How can we reach them? What are their interests, and how can we serve them? Within our target audience, are there any influencers we should be aware of?
5. How will we fund this project? What help might we need, and what might that cost? Who tends to offer support for ventures like ours, and why?
These questions relate to Fundraising, Donor/Board Development, Budgeting, and other forms of Support.
Once You’ve Committed to Doing This, What Are Your First Steps?
Giving serious thought to the five questions above is, in my mind, the single best place to start — and to continue.
Production details you’ve likely never had to bother with before will grow like weeds. They will monopolize your time. You may wonder if it’s even possible to do both all the planning and all the playing at the foot of Minutiae Mountain.
Great things happen with proper goals, planning, flexibility, and support. Do not allow yourself to get buried by inevitably pesky and urgent details.
You may be familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix. It’s a productivity graph. It divides tasks into four categories, depending on their levels of importance and urgency.
If, like us, you work full-time outside of this passion project: you will likely get buried under Quadrant 1 (urgent/important). Try to make Quadrant 2 (important/not urgent) your new home as best you can. This isn’t just about planning; it’s about planning to plan.
Sometimes, there’s really only so much you can do. (More on that in No. 2, below.)
What Advice Do You Have for Someone Who is Just Beginning This Journey?
There are several things I wish I’d considered when Salastina was just starting out. At the top of my list:
1. Pay yourself before you pay anyone else.
It’s so tempting to “donate” your time in service of your goals. In the long term, all you’ll get out of it is a really polished halo from all the years you’ve spent shining it.
Projects are so personal to founders that we often feel we don’t need to be compensated. In our infinite goodness, we decide that the money would be better spent elsewhere.
But if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, who would do what I do for Salastina for free? Salastina would crumble.
The longer I hold onto not compensating myself, the more Salastina is bound up with me. From an organizational sustainability standpoint, this is not prudent. Salastina belongs to the community — not my saintliness.
Kevin and I began compensating ourselves in May of 2015 — 5 years after our first concert. (In hindsight, it’s silly that our top expense has always been artist fees. We even excluded ourselves from that!)
Since the day we agreed on an appropriate director’s fee, Salastina’s finances have remained stable. And our morale and accountability have both improved. Salastina is no longer just a “passion project;” it is also an actual job. Salastina is doing more and better work in the community because of it.
2. Be willing to delegate, and to let go of some control.
It’s naive at best (and grandiose at worst) to assume that you can do it all, or do it best. Your organization will suffer if you insist on doing everything yourself. It will be impossible for you to helm every last detail. Don’t overlook the value of what others have to offer.
Think carefully about what you, and only you, should be responsible for. Who around you can help, and with what? Don’t wait for others to volunteer. Think of what you need, think of who can provide it, and ask them for it.
This may include seeing to it that your organization has a fair, effective, and structured division of labor. Over the long term, this will help you realize where there are gaps in your organization’s functioning. Those gaps will inform any employment opportunities you can create for volunteers, interns, or employees.
In your beginning stages, I’d also recommend considering a fiscal sponsor. (At the time of writing this, ours is the Pasadena Arts Council. Though we will someday apply for our own 501c3 status, this arrangement currently works well for us.) This will take some of the burden of non-profit paperwork and upkeep off of your shoulders.
The Arts Council collects 6% of our revenue. We feel this is an appropriate price to pay for the work they do on our behalf. We are then able to spend our time doing other things for Salastina.
3. The sooner you learn how to ask for money (and swallow your distaste for it), the better.
Remember that philanthropic giving gives donors something, too: an opportunity to live their values. Remember that philanthropy means “love of mankind.” Be open to the humbling generosity of others.
Asking for money takes a lot and, understandably, many find it distasteful and agonizing. Educate yourself at your own pace. If you’re really having a hard time with it, try to find someone who’s more natural with it. If that person believes in what you are doing, get him or her on your team.
I should note that there’s a movement these days towards “not going nonprofit.” I wouldn’t recommend it. But that is an article for another time.
4. Do not underestimate the necessity of educating yourself about how to run a business.
When Kevin and I first started, we subconsciously clung to a naive credo: “if you build it, they will come.”
We didn’t understand why, for several years, it felt like we were starting over every time we had a concert. In the beginning, our understanding of what it was that we were building was narrow. We were so in love with our own artistic vision that we were convinced executing it properly (read: musically) would be the one and only prerequisite to World Domination.
We had started from the ground up, but didn’t know the first thing about Strategic Planning. We had no proper blueprint. We were winging it. It was like trying to build a house by putting a Monet in a dark corner somewhere.
To be sure, we learned a ton as we went along. All the same: consider enrolling in an educational program.
In 2014/2015, I took a life-changing course at the Center for Nonprofit Management. It felt like wiping a thick layer of naivete and ignorance out of my eyes. I emerged with a fuller understanding of where Salastina needed to go, and how to get us there. I only wish I’d taken the course three years earlier.
If a course is too big of a commitment, I’d recommend you read The Cycle, by Michael Kaiser. You could also consider working with a consultant on specific projects as they come up. This kind of work can be a fantastic investment in your (and your organization’s) growth.
At the very least, talk to people who’ve done similar things. See what they have to share with you. And keep these conversations open. You never know what may come of them down the line. You can even email me! (And why do you suppose I’m being so candid in my advice? Hint: it’s not just for the karma points — though those are nice, too.)
5. With all this in mind: pay attention to other arts organizations in your community.
Take regular stock of organizations that got off the ground around when you did. What might account for any differences in your trajectory and success?
What’s working for others — and what isn’t? Who’s attending, and why? Who’s donating, and why? Talk to attendees and donors to more fully understand their motivations.
Are the PR materials an accurate representation of what the organization offers? (In other words: is it “as advertised?”) Why, or why not? What social media posts do you find compelling? Which generate the most engagement, and why?
You can take what you observe around you and apply it to how you’ll run your own series.
6. Keep track of your audience members.
It took us years to come up with an infrastructure by which we keep detailed records of who is attending our concerts. Don’t assume that if you simply produce amazing art, your audience will be so touched that THEY will take the initiative to keep track of YOU. Do not leave this up to them!
Don’t let someone come to your concert, enjoy it, and then forget about you — simply because you didn’t follow up with them, and their already full lives moved on to other interesting things. That would be a shame and a waste. And it happened to us for years, effectively stalling our growth.
Who knows where we’d be now if we’d kept better tabs on audience members from day one?
How will you keep track of walk-ins? How can you add your ticket buyers to a database of email and snail mail addresses in a quick and efficient way? This is how you build your family of both audience members and patrons.
If you are keeping good records, you’ll see revealing patterns emerge. Do certain people attend only certain kinds of programs? (Why might that be?) Do others buy tickets exclusively at the last minute? (Maybe you should nudge them as concert dates approach.) Have you “lost” a regular audience member lately? (If so, maybe it would be a good idea to email them personally to check in — perhaps with a special offer of some kind.)
This data is priceless as you build your business. I think this is where the term “grass roots” applies best — and in a way you can apply to your growth.
And lest I sound too “spreadsheet/data”-ish: my point in all this is that audiences are made of PEOPLE. How can you build a lasting, meaningful, and growing relationship with your audience if you don’t even know who it’s made of?
7. Don’t expect to hate the admin side of things.
You might be surprised by how fulfilling it is to build your own organizational culture. Remember that the strength of your mission and your programming create an upward spiral. Everything about your organization comes down to your mission — even the grunt work!
I’m constantly asking myself why we do what we do. Why it matters; why it’s vital. Salastina is our ever-evolving answer to these questions. Seeing how it enriches others’ lives is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my own. In this sense, running Salastina has had the benefit of making me a better and more complete musician.
What Are Your Questions?
Do you have specific questions about starting a concert series?
What has been your biggest challenge?
What have you learned that could help others?
Leave a comment below.
Maia Jasper White is a chamber musician, teacher, orchestral and studio musician, and musical entrepreneur. This versatility and the variety it brings enrich her musical life.
Outside of Salastina, Maia’s chamber music performances have brought her around the world. Highlights include trips to Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Israel, Canada, and Turkey.