Bang on a Can: Inspiring Innovation for Today’s Music Entrepreneurs

Photo Credit: Lisa Bauso

Last week, I had the privilege of participating on a panel examining the music powerhouse, Bang on a Can,  as a case study in successful arts entrepreneurship. The panel, a Career Development session for composers and other musicians, was sponsored by the American Composers Orchestra as part  of the Underwood New Music Readingsa program that discovers today’s brightest orchestral composers and commissions the winners to write a piece to be performed by the ACO.

My fellow panel members were 2 of the founders of Bang on a Can, composers David Lang and Michael GordonBoaC’s Development Director, Tim Thomas, himself a composer and singer-songwriter, and was moderated by Frank J. Otericomposer advocate and co-editor of New Music Box.

To me, Bang on a Can exemplifies successful arts entrepreneurship whereby the founders took a big creative idea and actualized it to create value for society in the form of their music institution. What stands out for me in the case of Bang on a Can are 3 things:

  1. Bang on a Can represents a utopian vision for creating a music world dedicated to innovation without labels and boundaries;
  2. The founders embrace a mindset that encourages taking a risk and trying things out; and
  3. The organization has a strong value system based on kindness and community.

Let’s examine the fascinating story of the founding of Bang on a Can is fascinating to see how these 3 elements emerged.

The Founding of Bang on a Can

Michael and David met at the Yale School of Music, along with the 3rd founder of Bang on a Can, Julia Wolfe, when they were all composition students of Martin Bresnick. The conventional “wisdom”  in those days was that no one would ever listen to the music that these composers were writing.  Similarly, performers were told not to  bother with new music since there was no audience for it.

Moreover,  the composer world at the time was divided into the “uptown” or formalist, academic school featuring composers like Milton Babbitt and the “downtown”school, with composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass who eschewed the strict dictates of the Uptowners. A corollary of this division was that a Downtown composer would never be seen at an Uptown concert and vice versa.

This was the world that these three composers entered when they left Yale and came to New York.

They had a different and more utopian idea about music , where geography and style did not matter and where the boundaries between composers, genres and audiences would come down. Instead, they imagined  a world where people would be hungry for innovative music, just as people sought out new art, new movies and new literature.

There was no system for them to plug their ideas into so see if it was really true that no one would listen to innovative music.  They decided to create a new musical experience and invite both Uptown and Downtown composers as well as their friends who were making interesting music to a concert.

The event was a 12-hour marathon hosted in an art gallery in Soho in 1987and was a smash success!

As they write on their website:

“Their idea was simple: instead of sorting music by style, genre, or venue it would be more powerful to group music by innovation, finding the rebels in each musical community, the restless creators not content to leave conventions unchallenged. Putting all of these fresh voices back to back on one gargantuan concert would allow the audience to experience the excitement of the innovation and breadth of vision. Their first Marathon, in the Exit Art Gallery in Soho, featured appearances by such leading lights as Steve Reich, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros and Milton Babbitt, alongside music by young composers whose musical voice had no home.”

In essence, the founders wanted to create the world that they wanted to live in.

How did this new idea come into being?

Michael had played in a band in college and both he and David had produced concerts. Moreover, they were both students of Martin Bresnick and they had experienced a marathon started by Bresnick called “Sheep’s Clothing” of which David was a member.

“It was a really wild extravaganza and everyone brought pillows and sleeping bags. So there was a kind of spirit that preceded this that set the tone for us.”

Kronos Quartet was a huge inspiration, as were Steve Reich and Philip Glass, both of whom had created ensembles to perform their music.

They even had a mission statement that they worked out a year before the Marathon to look for music that pushed boundaries. This has been the guiding principle of Bang on a Can ever since.  And while the idea of what is innovative versus what is conservative may change over time, the principle of being innovative means that Bang can stay fresh and true to its mission, to which they remain faithful 31 years after the first marathon.

To get the full picture of Bang on a Can in an earlier incarnation, be sure to read Frank J. Oteri’s marvelous 1999 piece in New Music Box

Bang on a Can Today

Fast forward to today.

They are still doing it and more!

  • The Marathon is a yearly event, eagerly anticipated in the new music community.
  • The Bang on a Can All Stars—which arose when people outside NY wanted to hear the Marathon and it was easier to send 6 of their star performers, rather than to recreate the festival– tour around the globe.
  • The composers host a summer festival at Mass MOCA, fondly known as “Banglewood”.
  • They publish music under the Cantaloupe label.

As Bang grew more successful, they decided to hire great people so that the 3 composers could keep the focus on writing music.

Indeed, everyone at Bang is a musician. Witness Tim Thomas, our fourth panelist, who spent his early years in New York touring with a band, working on social justice, writing grants for the Brooklyn Museum and ultimately arriving at Bang in 2004 where he remains because he, like the rest of the staff, loves it.  Tim in particular loves working with brilliant, creative people who need help which he provides in the form of fundraising—a job which he describes as “common sense” when you feel the passion that he does!

What makes Bang on a Can unique?

It’s hard to distill the “secret sauce” of Bang on a Can’s success but here are a few elements that contribute to the uniqueness of this music institution:

Vision and Mission:

You have 3 composers who share a common vision of a Utopian music world founded on innovation that has the potential to change the world. And they have an agreement that the 3 co-artistic directors must agree on everything, from musical choices to grant applications.


They continue to push the envelope and seek out the innovative, rebellious voices and to try things out that meet their definition of innovation.


They have a community where people are kind to each other.

They are best friends (Michael and Julia are married!)

They have created an inclusive  community.

Create the World You Want To Live In

So for all you budding entrepreneurs out there, have the courage to create the world that you want to live in and embrace these 3 elements.

  1. Get clear on your vision of the world that you want to create.
  1. Adopt the entrepreneurial mindset to embrace your passion to proactively try things out and make them happen.
  1. Find and align with the values that best represent the principles that guide you on your creative journey.