Groupmuse, the Boston-founded startup that organizes classical music house concerts, has announced a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise $100,000 to grow its operations and staff. The donor tiers range from “keep Groupmuse close to your heart” for $1, to “be like an emperor or something” for $10,000.
BMInt spoke with Sam Bodkin, the Founder and CEO of Groupmuse, about the organization’s past successes and future plans.
SB: Boston was the birthplace of Groupmuse and Boston made Groupmuse possible because it has the ideal conditions for something like this. It’s a city with a deep and honest love of great culture, it has world class institutions, and there’s a bone-deep commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the soul. I mean, look at the Boston Music Intelligencer! It grew straight out of the Harvard Musical Association, which was once in talks with Wagner to produce Parsifal! That’s heavy duty stuff! And to top it off, it was one of the first outlets to cover Groupmuse, when we were in our absolute infancy!
But even with all of that pedigree, Boston also has this new-fangled innovation streak, and it’s a small city. So something like Groupmuse was really able to take root. I’m hoping in Boston we have a strong showing of people to come out and support this Kickstarter. I think Groupmuse is essential for our culture, which is on a precipice, and cities like Boston can show the way.
BMInt: What have been the major success for Groupmuse since its first coverage in BMInt back in 2013?
We have well over 25,000 uses, well over 1,000 Groupmuses over the years, we sold out a 600 person Groupmuse this past summer with Symphony Fantastique and a circus—it was packed to the gills. We now put on MassiveMuses in Boston, New York, and San Francisco. We have had group muses featuring leading lights like Conrad Tao, Matt Aucoin, Kim Kashkashian, Ben Beilman, the Naughton sisters, and members of the Borromeo String Quartet. Names don’t get that much larger than the names that we have.
How is the company structured?
It’s a privately held company owned mostly by COO Ezra Weller, a web guy Kyle Schmolze, and me. A few anonymous investors have small stakes. The staff is listed here.
So what has been your greatest challenge?
Raising money was certainly harder than anticipated. I was out in San Francisco and attracted a lot of possible investors, but when it became clear I was steadfastly dedicated to the mission of classical music, it ended up being a bit of a liability. It prevented us from raising the sort of money I think we would have been able to raise if we had been more flexible with our willingness to abrogate the mission. But I’m glad I didn’t make any agreements I wasn’t able to put myself behind. We would have been under pressure to produce quarterly figures, and not maintain control. We were able to maintain some money though private investors—people who got it and loved it and didn’t want to change it—but in terms of generic San Francisco venture capital, it became clear pretty much immediately that we would incur substantial risk by taking on investment.
Why would an investor be tempted by Groupmuse if uninterested in classical music?
They were taken with our traction, with the extent to which we were able to get large crowds of people moving with basically no resources. There are so many buzzwords that surround the project. It’s the sharing economy, the locavore movement, and nobody knows where the next big thing is coming from. So there is just this sense that when someone is doing something really special that other people don’t fully understand, they need to be paid attention to. It was just too much on the line. It’s a delicate thing. If we alienate our user base because we grew too far from our roots, the magic is dead. If we alienate the musicians, the dream is dead. So it emerged as a foremost priority of mine to be a steward of the mission as things grow.
So you are turning to the core Groupmuse community to crowd-fund the project through Kickstarter. What is your plan and where will the money go?
The goal is $100,000, but we’re hoping to exceed that substantially. We need $100,000 just to keep the lights on. We have a team of five, we crossed 1000 concerts, we put on 70 concerts a month, and that’s only growing bigger. The demand has gotten to be so enormous, we have 50 new cities that want to grow Groupmuse communities, and our staff is stretched too thin. We just have 5 people. To have it be an institution, to be an essential facet of a city’s culture—the only way to get Chicago to that level, and Seattle and Washington DC, is if we get a bigger team. So to that end, the 100,000 goal is to keep the lights on. Every $100,000 after that is another city that we bring to the level of Boston, San Francisco,and New York. The simple answer is the money is going to go into staff.
What is the longer term plan? How will Groupmuse sustain itself?
I’ve spent so much of the last year raising money for this project, so when this is done, I’ll finally be able to focus all of my personal energies on sustainability. The website has been developing handsomely so we can now ticket concerts ourselves. For a few concerts we’ve experimented with paying to reserve a spot, and at large events we charge $20. That’s how we make money. I think the magic sauce will be monetizing our most active users in some kind of low-cost membership model. If we had 7,000 users paying $5 a month, it would be profitable.
Can it also foster creative growth for the art form?
We have this open platform that empowers musicians basically to do with it what they want. To give you an example, this past September we had a Rite of Spring dance party. There was a full symphony orchestra playing Rite of Spring in its entirety, and we had 200 people there freaking out like pagans. There was a crowd-surfer, but the music was still central and I was told by a number of people that it was a truly transformative moment for them. They had never truly given themselves to an experience in public like that. We have an open minded crowd and such a degree of flexibility of what we can ask of our users. The classical music establishment has by-and-large been extremely supportive. We are the crucial missing piece: we build the crowd. The rising tide lifts all boats.
Do you think many Groupmuse members will eventually move on to being traditional concertgoers?
It’s definitely opened people’s ears and made them more amenable to classical music. That’s half the battle. But Groupmuse is a lifestyle. For some people it has become a central aspect of their social lives. They will go to Carnegie Hall for very different reasons. Groupmuse is as much about seeing the people you want to see as it is about opening your mind to new music. It’s definitely supplemental or complementary. We’re grooming people to be the next generation of classical music supporters. You only need to have one or two really positive experiences with Beethoven to be open to the local symphony orchestra when it comes knocking. But really we’re about creating a community for unabashedly positive experiences that people delightedly engage in. There’s a need to be with people and get lost in something together. You’re sitting on the floor with people you don’t know listening to this music that is so beautiful and deep, and when it’s over, you’re all friends.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the project?
We’ve made an investment in our brains and in our souls. This is an all-important moment in the life of Groupmuse, and maybe Western civilization—or all of civilization. Just joking, of course. Or maybe I’m not, listen, I don’t know, it’s been a long day.