So Percussion: The Entrepreneurial Ensemble Shares Its Model of Success

The Yale School of Music community recently had the pleasure of welcoming Adam Sliwinski and Josh Quillen, two members of the red-hot percussion quartet, So Percussion, who talked about the entrepreneurial model of creating and running a successful ensemble.  Here is their take on collaboration, blending art and commerce and expanding the audience for classical music.

To get in the mood for reading this piece, you can log onto their website and listen to some of their iconic recordings of works by Steve Reich and David Lang as I did when I was writing this post!

Background and Mission

The group was founded in 1999 by four percussionsits at the Yale School of Music with the objective of being a full-time percussion ensemble.  This niche simply did not exist when the group was founded.  So Percussion’s mission is to expand the number of people who want to listen to percussion music. Adam emphasized that this big-picture idea gets them out of bed every morning. He further observed, “No one was asking for an iPhone and like Steve Jobs, we created something new.”

They adopted a culture of entrepreneurial thinking (a subject that is near and dear to my heart!) by following their dream and making it happen, being hopeful and optimistic and not taking no for an answer.  So single-minded is their commitment to being a full-time percussion ensemble that they have no Plan B! Accordingly, everything they do is in service of making this ensemble a success. The reward has been to create abundance—in effect, they created 4 new percussion jobs! 

They credit their success to good timing and good strategy.  They had a unique niche and while some people told them that they were crazy, their teacher at Yale, Robert van Sice encouraged them to form the group, observing,  “It’s not being done so someone should do it.  They also reached out to David Lang of Bang on a Can, who became the group’s mentor and advised them to act “as if it is going to happen”.

As for good timing, the music they were excited about-particularly that of Steve Reich and David Lang–was more important to the culture than they realized. They got their first big break thanks to a David Lang piece that they commissioned which was performed on a Composers’ Portrait Concert at Miller Theatre.  A New York Times music critic attended that concert and gave them a great review and this helped to launch them into prominence.

Today, their work includes
1.    Performing the existing percussion repertoire
2.    Commissioning composers to write new works for percussion
3.    Writing their own music
4.    Out-of-the-box collaborations, with groups like Ecstatic Music, Dan Deacon, Matmos and The National
5.    Residencies and teaching

In their work, they are committed to commissioning and performing good music and that motivates them more than making money.  In Adam’s words, “We balance art and commerce.  We prioritize art.”

Balance between Art and Commerce

One of the group’s founders, Doug Perkins, realizing the importance of understanding how to running an ensemble like a business, attended a summer business institute at Dartmouth where he learned the business principles that he then applied to running the group.  Doug’s advice was to be “super structured and do your business and then do your art separately.” The group also studied the models of other groups like Bang on a Can, Kronos and eighth blackbird and figured out what would work best for them.

Early on, each member of the ensemble became responsible for one area of running the ensemble’s business,-publicity, finance, booking gigs and grant writing- based on that individuals’ particular interests and strengths. As the amount of administrative work grew with the expansion of the group’s reputation and activities, the collaborative model in the business area has evolved to the point that today each member of the group has full autonomy over his area and speciality. In addition, because of the volume of the administrative work, they decided to prioritize their art and hired a managing director to whom they delegate the work that they do not have time to do.

Over the years, they have adhered to a number of business principles.  As a non-profit, they put all of the money they earn back into the ensemble.  As Josh observed, “That’s the reason for doing art and you make money to keep it going.” Health insurance was a must and they got it early on.

Other principles include:
•    Spend money wisely.
•    Spend less than you earn and be sure to save.
•    Use credit only to fund cash flow and not fund the business.
•    Insist on getting paid. 
•    Pay other people on time. 
•    Be too small to fail and diversify the sources of your revenues so that if one thing does not work out, you are not up a creek.

A lot of this was learned by trial and error and from being persistent. Their advice was to take control over how you influence events.  When faced with a challenge, they ask, “What do I need to do to make this happen?” and then they discuss what to do and take the actions that will move them ahead.

The Collaborative Model

So Percussion was formed as a collaborative non-hierarchal community with four equal members.  The group has adapted the collaborative model to the way they see the world:  instead of competing for a few narrow spots, they want to expand the musical terrain so that everyone is your potential friend.  In the new music world, they believe that there are many more people who are excited about percussion music so that there is a huge potential for growth.

In response to a question from the audience about maintaining friendships within the group, Adam explained that they are all close friends.  They collaborate artistically and have learned how to communicate respectfully and clearly in rehearsals.  A quartet is small enough for consensus and large enough to present relationship issues! It takes time to develop trust. 

This collaborative spirit has affected the way they have expanded their reach. After leaving Yale, members of the group moved to NY where there was already a large community of young musicians.  Adam observed that

“We were all in it together and we hooked each other up with gigs.  Cultivating these relationships was critical to getting started. “

The group values its relationships with the colleagues with whom they work to create a community of people with mutual alliances who together to expand the opportunities and audiences for music.  Adam and Josh reiterated that the people you know from school and from working together crop up all over the place so you need to foster excellent relationships. In Josh’s words,

“Be a good hang.”

i.e., get along with everyone, from the presenters to the production managers to your colleagues.

Audience Building

So Percussion’s audience is a mix of:

1.    The traditional chamber music audience where So Percussion is usually the “one weird thing” on a string quartet series.  Presenters are willing to take a risk on them because they know that the members of So Percussion are so effective at connecting with audiences.
2.    The generations under 40 who are passionate about music and do not know about classical music, such as the people interested in indie rock musicians like Don Deacon and The National.

For the under-40 crowd, both Adam and Josh advise classically trained musicians to assume that these people have not had the opportunity to hear great music and not talk down to people who have not been raised on the classics. In fact, this creates an opportunity to invite new people into your world as long as they are open. Adam and Josh both feel that audiences are smart and perceptive and will sense when they are being talked down to.  Adam advised young musicians who wanted to expand their audiences to learn how people in other niches of music talk about their music.  He suggested reading  Interestingly I took a detour from writing this blog post to read an article in pitchfork about the emerging indie/classical movement that is drawing a lot of the “under 40” crowd where So Percussion is drawing its audience from.

What do Adam and Josh say about speaking to audiences about their music?

•    Show your passion!  If you think what you do is amazing, you will get people excited.
•    Don’t talk down to your audiences and don’t tell them what they will be listening to.  Instead, give them information that will help them.

Those of us who were in the audience that evening left energized, inspired and excited about the future of music.  So Percussion is an exciting model of how to create something new that can expand the number of people who enjoy and listen to great music.

Now, back to my iPod playlist to listen to So Percussion’s recording of a work that they commissioned and is my current new favorite piece, Mallet Quartet by Steve Reich!