Music and Labor: A Groupmuse Perspective

  • Sam Bodkin

In December 2020, one of our Art & Labor issue editors and curators, Brenton Weyi, sat down for a virtual interview with Sam Bodkin. Sam is the founder of Groupmuse, a platform that supports the hosting of chamber music house concerts (called groupmuses) nationwide. His conversation with Brenton touched on a broad range of topics, including the early days of the startup, pivoting in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the organization’s decision to become a worker cooperative. You may listen to the full recording of their interview with the SoundCloud link provided above. The following passages are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity.

On the origins of Groupmuse:

Brenton: Can you share the story of how Groupmuse started?

Sam: Absolutely. I became obsessed with classical music during my freshman year of college. I packed my iPod full of the stuff and was just pumping it into my head at all hours. I decided that I wanted to devote my life to expanding the listenership for this art form. I found that many people think they can't understand classical music; they can't see themselves as classical music listeners because the music has become saddled with the connotation of the concert hall and a culture of privilege. Classical music needs to confront that and situate itself in the modern world.

After college, I fell in with a group of musicians who were studying at the New England Conservatory, and they used to gather on a regular basis in an apartment in Allston, Massachusetts. It was really quite an amazing thing to go to these evenings with some of the best young chamber musicians in the world, listening to one another play their hearts out. It brought together these worlds that had felt so separate: the world of inner enrichment, the life of the spirit and the mind, AND having a good Friday night, getting drunk, laughing, the whole thing.

So that was the inception of the idea for Groupmuse. Couch surfing was another major inspiration. The year before I got into classical music, I took a gap year and traveled all around the world on the generosity of strangers who were willing to share their space. Groupmuse is really a combination of those experiences I had in Allston and couch surfing. We can build joyous, beloved community in living rooms around the country by sharing some of the greatest aesthetic accomplishments of Western culture. The first groupmuse was in January of 2013. I was joined by my first cofounder, Ezra Weller, in June of that year, and then by Kyle Schmolze, my second cofounder, in September.

On Groupmuse’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift to online performances:

Sam: In January of 2020, we organized 204 groupmuses in one month alone with 76 groupmuses just in the city of New York. And then in February 2020, we had our biggest revenue month ever. Then, of course, we all know what happened in March. We canceled every groupmuse. In a flash, we raised twenty-five thousand dollars as a part of a relief effort to support musicians who had been affected by Covid, and we dispersed that money to our musicians who'd had groupmuses canceled. So that was a wonderful moment where the community really showed what it was made of.

Then Groupmuse made this transition to the online world, and that has actually been remarkably successful. Our model is that it costs three dollars to RSVP, and that money goes to Groupmuse to offset our costs. And then, at the actual event, you're encouraged to give to the musicians as generously as you can, but ten dollars is the minimum. We have always managed to pay musicians respectably, especially considering that they can program anything they want and really share this music on their own terms. But, especially in the online era, we really came into our power as one of the most robust ways for musicians to make money at a time when the classical music ecosystem as a whole is more or less in freefall.

On empowering musicians and creating a 21st-century model for experiencing classical music:

Sam: A huge challenge during this pandemic is that it's hard to scale out acoustic music so that people can be socially distant and still have an evocative experience. The big institutions and concert halls, which have all the power, just can't make the changes that are needed at this time. What we're looking at right now is an ecosystem of musicians–a labor pool–that creates incredibly great art but is disempowered. Institutions are monopolizing the patron rolls, keeping the listserv, keeping the resources, and putting it all back into the concert hall, putting it into the administration. When municipal ordinances state that crowds of fifty or more people cannot legally gather, when the concert hall is legally obliged to close, the musicians aren’t given access to the patron rolls. They don't have access to the big mailing lists that might make it possible for them to have a fighting chance to create communities of their own through Zoom or YouTube. I want to be clear: I have a lot of respect for the large institutions, and without them, classical music would not have survived the 20th century. But it's not the 20th century anymore. It's the 21st century. And I do think that there's a growing recognition that we need models for sharing classical music that are rooted in a sense of empowerment, a sense of musician autonomy, a sense of resilience and interconnection, and a less fractured, more integrated cultural ecosystem.

On becoming a worker cooperative:

Brenton: Let's dive in a bit more into Groupmuse’s organizational structure. Groupmuse started off as a public benefit corporation, and now it’s a cooperative. Could you explain the journey from one to the other?

Sam: Sure. Actually, at first Groupmuse was a C-corp, the most conventional form of a startup. I guess I had dreams that maybe this thing would scale and be this big unicorn startup, making me a ton of money. When I was joined by my two cofounders, we were working in the trenches every day for a long time. As we labored together, Kyle and Ezra became my comrades and brothers in this process, and it increasingly felt wrong that I would own more of this thing that was totally a product of their love and labor, too.

We knew we ultimately wanted to be a worker-owned cooperative, but we weren't ready to go all in yet, so first we became a PBC, a public benefit corporation, which is kind of a hybrid. It’s a middle step, a legal formation structure whereby an organization, a for-profit company, is committed to a mission beyond the needs and desires of the investors. Investors can't sue you, saying, “You didn't maximize my return this quarter.” You have a larger mission, and investors sign up for that.

We became a worker-owned cooperative after Covid happened. Ezra left Groupmuse in February 2020 to pursue a new career path that had opened up for him. We were sad to lose him, but by that time we had hired a group of part-time folks around the country to do local organizing. We decided we needed to bring all the part-time people on full-time. Once they were full-time, we decided that we should start talking again about cooperativism and timelines, that we should put them on a track so that they could vest a true ownership and stake in Groupmuse, so that we could all be equals.

When Covid first hit, we were able to pivot to online concerts quickly, so April and May were actually two of our most lucrative months ever. We were able to put together huge online performances, where we'd get top artists, and sometimes five hundred folks would show up and split the tape with the musicians. We were high on the hog, and we actually gave everyone a raise. But then, as the pandemic continued, people got Zoom fatigue. Summertime came around; people didn't want to be inside. Our fortunes changed, and we started running out of money. We thought we might not necessarily make payroll. So we called the team around the table and said, “We're all family in this common purpose. We're not about to fire you.” We decided instead to have an honest and vulnerable conversation about the needs of the team. And that was the moment when we decided to become a cooperative as soon as possible, because we were having the hard conversation about money and resources, and we were all invested. So we all became worker-owners after that.

On the logistics of a worker cooperative and building for the future:

Sam: At Groupmuse, people choose their own salaries. It's true. Of course, resources are finite, and we're all highly transparent. If you want to change your salary, you have to get advice from everyone on the team. You do not need their consent, but you do need their advice and emotional input. By having a community practice of real, honest, vulnerable communication, people hold themselves to a high standard. We are not worried that a worker-owner is going to decide to pay themselves ten thousand dollars a month when we can’t afford it. It would just never happen because of the trust and love and coherent team culture.

Brenton: Has anyone raised their salary?

Sam: No one has raised their salary. People have diminished their salaries. Not everyone, but some people have renounced their salaries for a time, just because of life circumstances and because they care about Groupmuse, and more importantly: they own it. So they'll go for a few months without getting paid, if it means that this thing can continue to live. And we know that it's temporary. These past couple of months, our revenue has been back on it. So it's only going to be a matter of time. With coherent culture and a true community of shared intentions and common purpose, anything is possible. That's real resilience.

Brenton: How are decisions made? Do you need consensus? Do you need some kind of quorum?

Sam: It's evolving, because the team is going to grow, but right now there is a steering committee, made up of Kyle, myself, and Mosa Tsay, who is a wonderful cellist. The steering committee is the highest management body, but it is appointed and approved by the worker ownership. The buck still stops with the worker ownership, but the steering committee sets company priorities. Also, anyone can submit themselves as a member of the steering committee. You can self-nominate. So that's how the leadership works, but–for the most part–we do make decisions by consensus. People also have well-defined departments, and they are trusted to make decisions themselves.

It has felt so good to give Groupmuse over to six beautiful humans. Just imagine how it will feel to give it over to a hundred beautiful musicians, then a thousand beautiful musicians, then five thousand. We're in such a favorable position right now in the industry, having made this pivot with such vigor. Now a lot of the best classical musicians in the world are using Groupmuse as their platform. Last week we had Derek Olson and Jonathan Biss. We're in a position to become a dominant cultural force in classical music, and it won’t be by becoming just another extractive monopoly, but through our decision to become a musician-owned cooperative. Because classical music needs transformational, structural change.

We invite you to listen to the audio recording of Brenton and Sam’s full conversation. It spans an hour and forty-five minutes and touches on many more details about the inner workings of Groupmuse and their future plans. And don’t miss Brenton’s improvised poetry, which closes out their interview!