On an evening last spring, a small audience filling a Somerville living room listened to a young cellist and pianist perform Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. The playing was superb and the experience was enhanced by the intimacy and informality of the setting. It felt like the natural way to hear chamber music: not in a concert hall, but clustered around a piano in a home. The listeners belonged to the tail end of the college set—mostly older students and recent graduates in their first jobs. The performers were Zhou Yi and Yundu Wang, two NEC graduate students. Everyone present had been rounded up by Samuel Bodkin, the 23-year-old founder of Groupmuse, a local internet startup that connects classical musicians with listeners and private hosts. Since January, Bodkin’s company has organized more than 30 house concerts in the Boston area.
Neither the concept of a house concert nor the desire to draw a younger crowd to classical music is new. But Groupmuse’s guiding vision and financial model challenge the conventional wisdom about how classical music should be presented to the young and supported by the public.
The prevailing view is that young adults lack the knowledge needed to appreciate classical music and are turned off by the perceived stodginess of the concert hall. So the solution is to tempt them back into the hall through a few concessions—say, free drinks and a relaxed dress code—and then educate them in music appreciation and ultimately socialize them into the concert hall culture.
Bodkin, however, believes the problem is broader. “The reason why classical music has so little social cachet among my generation is because as a performed experience it presupposes a social scene,” he explains. “Classical music does have a scene, just not one amenable to young people.” And without that, he sees all attempts at outreach as essentially futile. Thus his ambition is nothing less than to modify the culture at large to sneak classical music back into a position of widespread social relevance.
Bodkin’s strategy is to use an online social network to create real-world social events built around the nucleus of a musical performance. This idea, he feels, addresses a need not met by other online services. “Facebook is ostensibly to connect people, but it’s all about your online persona—how you project yourself,” he argues. But “millennials are desperate for meaningful opportunities to connect to each other in the corporeal world,” and classical music could offer one such opportunity for connection.
Alongside this ambitious socio-cultural goal, Bodkin also wants to make a buck. Challenging the philanthropic norm of nonprofit arts organizations, he wryly notes that “classical music is where money goes to die.” With this in mind, he went against the grain and structured Groupmuse as a standard for-profit startup and not as a nonprofit organization. “The best way to ensure something survives is to make it profitable,” he says.
As a young company, the enterprise has a scrappy and informal feel without any hint of corporate trappings. At the start of the Somerville house concert, Bodkin gave a charismatic spiel introducing the music and reminding the attendees to each pay ten dollars into a shoebox. Then during the Schubert he sat to the right of the performers, closed his eyes, waved his arms like a conductor and occasionally hummed along, apparently transported. Unlike most younger classical music enthusiasts, Bodkin is not himself a performer and has minimal musical training. “I barely read music,” he says. “I stopped taking piano when I was 13 years old because I thought it was socially irrelevant.”
That all changed in December 2008 when Bodkin met up with Sebastian Bäverstam, a childhood friend and now a professional cellist, who played him the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of Beethoven’s Op. 133 Große Fuge. Bäverstam notes that the Great Fugue is “a piece that’s hard for people to get into because it’s crazy,” but hearing it was an ear-opening experience for Bodkin. “Within six months he knew all the repertoire I do,” Bäverstam recalls. “He’s the purest kind of listener—he doesn’t come into a piece knowing what to expect … he doesn’t have the technical point of view, so all he knows is how it affects him.”
Bodkin’s passion for classical music grew during the two years he spent at Columbia University where he majored in political science. He wrote his final paper on musical nationalism in the 19th century, a time when music, as he puts it, was “so wildly important it was literally shaping the map.” Bodkin adds, “if it can be that powerful once, lord knows it can be that powerful again.”
After graduating in 2012, he spent a summer working as a guide at Tanglewood where he made more musical friends and gained exposure to the establishment side of the classical music business through the Boston Symphony. But he became more interested in making something new from the ground up, so he began to think of forming his own organization. The following fall, he moved back to his parents’ home in Newton and started Groupmuse. His first action was to email 150 BSO and NEC trustees in search of funding. He received two responses, finding—not surprisingly—that cold calls are not an effective way to court investors.
Something productive did come out of those emails, however. One of the responders, W. Read Coughlin, offered to host the first Groupmuse at his home in Dedham. The event took place in January, and several more followed throughout the spring. By the summer, there was a Groupmuse event nearly every week, and sometimes more than one. Nearly all the events have been hosted at private homes but are open to anyone who creates an account on Groupmuse’s website and is approved by the host. The first hour of a typical Groupmuse is like a regular party, with attendees socializing and drinking. Then everyone sits and quiets down, and the performers present a substantial chamber music program in the living room. Afterwards, everyone resumes socializing and the musicians mingle with the listeners. It often seems that the shared experience of the performance spurs more meaningful interaction before the end of the evening.
But can Groupmuse work as a viable performance opportunity for professional musicians beyond graduate school? Bäverstam, who recently graduated from NEC and has played the cello for several Groupmuse events, says “you get paid $80 or $60 for an evening, that’s not a lot, but if it’s two miles from your house … that’s substantial.” Clearly this model can work to the advantage of young players like Bäverstam who have a great deal of freshly learned repertoire in their fingers. But it is not so apparent that later career performers will be willing to prepare a performance for a two digit fee, or that Groupmuse can support original programs requiring significant rehearsal. Yet Bäverstam still has high hopes for the long-term prospects of the model. “This [will] hopefully over time steadily become the bread and butter of the likes of the acoustic performer,” he says. “It is the only way I see classical music taking a drastic turn.”
Groupmuse, though, has yet to bring in substantial revenue because all the money that goes into the shoebox from the audience currently goes directly into the pockets of the musicians. Bodkin explains “we are still weighing a bunch of different monetization options. Right now, it seems that in the short term, we’ll do something like charge musicians a little bit to get paying gigs, and charge businesses to help bring crowds into their establishments.” Asking musicians to pay to perform—even if they recoup the fee at the end of the night—is likely to raise objections. When pressed for details, Bodkin adds: “or, to be honest, there’s a very real possibility that we might not charge musicians anything at all, and try to make our money selling drinks at the events. We’re gonna be experimenting a lot this year.”
Either way, Bodkin is no shark in the pool of Boston musicians. He is an ebullient talker and a smooth young salesman of music—a style of impresario quite foreign to the classical establishment, But beneath the surface is an obsessive love for the repertoire. Ari Borensztein, a pianist and early supporter of Groupmuse, explains “it’s like at some point something clicked with him … classical music dominates his life in a way that, for him, makes his life meaningful. He really does want people to have the same kind of eye-opening experience he did. He feels it’s just a matter of exposure … and other people can share that.”
Bodkin is less sentimental. “I just bought a burger because I want to buy a burger … and when Groupmuse is providing a legitimately quality service—why is it immediately written off as incompatible with the notion of profitability?” He pauses before adding “Muzak, which is shit, nobody likes, makes money—why not Beethoven?”