In 2013, Groupmuse launched as an app to help you put on live classical concerts in your home. It was the height of the app boom, and outlets from Wired to the Wall Street Journal praised Groupmuse as the AirBnB or the Uber “of classical music.” Those comparisons read differently now—but Groupmuse was never trying to undermine an existing industry through race-to-the-bottom economics. Instead, it hoped to essentially resurrect the salon concert. Ten years later, I spoke to founders Kyle Schmolze and Sam Bodkin about the sense of musical belonging, the economics of living-room concerts, and expanding from Western to world classical music.
VAN: Groupmuse has been around for ten years now. What have you learned?
Kyle Schmolze: One of the big lessons on my mind recently is that certain types of communities are difficult to scale. We’ve spent a lot of years trying to grow as much as possible in order to maintain ourselves as an organization financially, and we’ve never found that the type of community we want to build has any shortcuts towards growth. Any of the shortcuts we’ve found would not be within our mission. There’s this common phrase: growing at the speed of trust. Groupmuse does that because it’s people inviting each other into their homes, and then people attending a show, deciding they want to have a concert and inviting people into their homes. It has to spread through trust. That’s a reality that I’ve been fighting for 10 years. I’m finally at peace with the idea that Groupmuse is a slow, steady, and long-standing thing; that we couldn’t kill it if we tried.
Sam Bodkin: The first thing that comes to mind is this relentless emphasis that we’re fed through mass media culture that people no longer have the appetite for the sublime, the beautiful and the deep. The success of Groupmuse as a grassroots project has given lie to that whole story. People actually have a deep longing for beautiful things that speak to long traditions of intricate creative work, that build on themselves over generations. It’s just a question of how it’s contextualized.
And that indeed people like classical music—which Groupmuse is no longer specific to—but you could say the same for a lot of forms of historical music. A lot of the listening experiences that go along with an old art form have baggage that doesn’t actually speak to the music itself but to the economic conditions that allowed the music to survive. And I think those structures can be alienating to a rising generation of culture seekers, but when you strip them away completely and just say, “We’re gonna have a jazz combo in a living room” or “we’re gonna have solo Bach in some basement or kitchen somewhere,” that’s when the music is really allowed to sing on its own terms. When it’s decontextualized from the gilded trappings of the concert hall, people respond really well to it.
What would you say to somebody like me who has had their most profound musical experiences in the gilded concert hall?
Bodkin: I’ve had transcendent experiences in the concert hall, but there’s no case that needs to be made to me, because I already love the music so deeply. I don’t need to be convinced. I just need to sit there and receive. For a lot of people, when they go to see live music, it’s about this feeling of belonging to the zeitgeist: Mick Jagger will say, “Philadelphia is the best city on earth,” and it’s like, “He’s talking about me and my city and we’re all in this together.” It’s about this feeling of belonging and it being a vibe.
I don’t want to put too much emphasis on classical music—though it is where we began—[but it] has underinvested in that sense of everyone belonging. Rather, it lets the music speak for itself. People who love this music are like, We don’t have to make a case for Beethoven. Beethoven is a supernova. Just be in awe of it. If people already love the music, then the fineness of the experience, the rigor, the passion, and the genius that has been brought to rendering this performance can shine through. You’re not like distracted by, Am I gonna talk at the wrong time? Have I dressed the right way? All these things that make a person self-conscious, as opposed to being a purely receptive state.
Schmolze: I live in the U.S. and the U.S. is a country that has chronically underinvested in the arts, and that has a variety of structures that prevent the arts from propagating healthily through many of its areas. My ability to access musical offerings in the concert hall usually relies on either a small group of hyper-wealthy people giving away a ton of money to keep a certain concert hall in operation, or a $65 ticket for me to go to a standard venue. And there are lots of areas where that’s not the case; there are places where access to the concert hall is actually pretty high, and a lot of people can get these offerings, but the Groupmuse structure is infinitely scalable. It can be five people sitting around in a living room. It can be 250 people in a warehouse. As we build the culture of showing the community how to generate its own cultural offerings, it creates this resilience of access.
How often can I drag five friends to join me to the concert hall—maybe once every few months? I’m someone with a lot of privilege and access to these spaces. And I also have had a lot of incredibly powerful experiences there. And then [my friends] are like, That was awesome. And then they’re just going to keep doing their normal base socializing, which is meeting up with people and hanging out at each other’s houses. Here in the Bay Area, people don’t even really go to bars that much, because our third spaces have been so hollowed out. But how often can I get them to go to a house party where there’s also going to be live music and it’s a pay-what-you-can situation? Every weekend. That scales in all sorts of ways across different communities, and it creates a lot more access.
Groupmuse doesn’t focus only on classical music anymore; the term you now use on your website is “historical music.” What does historical music mean to you?
Schmolze: I wish we’d updated that copy before you read it. [Laughs.]
Bodkin: It’s been a topic of big controversy on the team. When we started Groupmuse, we had this mission commitment to Western canonical classical music. Our requirement was [a concert had to consist of] 50 percent canonical classical music, and then 50 percent anything the player wanted to play.
It wasn’t particularly rigorously enforced, but that was what we set forth. And then in 2020, with the murder of George Floyd, we, along with a lot of other institutions, were taking a deep look at ourselves and trying to figure out what kind of systems of oppression we were enabling and decided that this focus on Western style classical music was not in alignment with our values. We did a lot of work to talk about the Groupmuse experience and what made it special and indelible in ways that did not use words like Western, or canonical, or classical.
We arrived at this definition of historical music: One, you can trace its lineage back a century back or more. Two, it’s music that speaks to a lifetime commitment to your craft. And three, it’s intended for an intimate human scale: it doesn’t rely on industrial inputs to make the music, like stadium rock or EDM.
We no longer use historical music as a term, but it’s historically rooted performance. It’s in a ripe relationship with the past, and it’s not the you show.
How involved are you in the curation of Groupmuse programs?
Schmolze: We’re pretty highly curative around which musicians get approved into the system. They have to submit audio and video samples and have to answer questions [about programming and their relationship to historical lineages]. Once they’re in the system it’s trust based. There’s a checkbox on the site that’s like, “You’re gonna bring a historical context, right?” We’re not denying people’s programs. We’re not offering notes. That’s really unpleasant and dicey territory that we don’t want to get into. We used to get into it a tiny bit, back when we were more explicitly classical. Anytime someone would post a program outside [the requirements] we’d have to have this discussion. Do we ask them to change their programs? It’s always such an uncomfortable conversation, I’m relieved we no longer have to have them.
What are the criteria that would make you pass on a musician who wants to play for Groupmuse?
Bodkin: There’s definitely the technical side: if your capacity speaks to that long term commitment. That’s the easiest way to get a yes. We prioritize people who are looking to music-making as their primary source of income.
Schmolze: Katherine [Kyu Hyeon Lim] is a fantastic musician who runs our musician approvals. The impression I get is that the most common disqualifying factor is technical.
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According to your website, the mean fee you’ve paid out to musicians since 2016 is $160 (though rising). Are you satisfied with that as a fee for professional musicians?
Schmolze: Not really. I’d love for it to be more. The way we’ve organized Groupmuse economics is that in order to keep it stable and resilient, we built a culture of musicians getting paid based on what the audiences that are built can afford. And we make asks of those audiences. This is what we’ve been able to come up with, in a way that can’t be broken because grant money is withdrawn. We would love to be subsidizing that further. But right now [the musicians’] income is not coming from grants, it’s coming through the 15 people in the room.
Bodkin: We’re not satisfied, obviously—especially with the costs of everything rising constantly. But there are ways we give musicians maximal liberty to present whatever music they wish, on the terms that they want. For a lot of musicians playing Groupmuses, it’s essential that they’re earning income doing it, but a lot of the drive for them is the gregarious, warm, and receptive audience. It’s conducive to relationship building, which is ultimately the cornerstone of making a life as a musician. That’s not to say we’re like, Oh, it doesn’t pay much, but you’re all good, because it’s going to be really happy vibes. But it might explain why we have some extremely top shelf musicians who are playing even if they know that they might walk away with $120 in their pocket at the end of the night.
Groupmuse’s non-Western classical concerts are grouped under the title Planetary Music Movement, which says it wants “to overcome the dominance of European classical music.” We’ve been talking about classical music as a pretty niche art form, so how do you see European classical music as a dominant art form against which the Planetary Music Movement is acting?
Bodkin: Classical music definitely is culturally marginal, but it still has institutional support beyond any other music form, in at least in the United States context. I think there are something on the order of 100 or 120 classical music organizations that have a six or seven-figure budget or more in the States. That represents a concentration of capital that’s specific to Western canonical music. The Planetary Music Movement comes from a desire to take some of those resources and make them available for any kind of non-commercial music that has been kept alive through devoted generations of music-making.
So you’re leaving pop music out of the equation? I feel like Taylor Swift could subsidize every orchestra and opera house in the U.S. and not even notice.
Bodkin: Yeah. We’re leaving pop music out of the equation and focusing on these non-commercial forms.
In 2022, you launched a decentralized autonomous organization blockchain token called Muse Token…
Bodkin: That was an offshoot project that I started with a worker-owner at Groupmuse who’s no longer with the project. We’re both still inspired by the possibilities there. But with the massive crash and bloodletting of the whole Web 3.0 movement over this last year, it basically forced the project into dormancy for the foreseeable future. It’s very removed from the Groupmuse context. I wouldn’t want to talk about it here, because it’s important that it not be strongly associated with Groupmuse, especially at this stage.
Why not? Because of the crash?
Bodkin: Yeah. A transformational technology, I think, was pirated by the most feckless and least desirable elements in an already broken economy. We don’t want to be associated with the looting and the thievery that is basically definitionally congruent with crypto right now.
In a Medium post from last year, you wrote that “if for the last decade, arts lovers had been buying and holding annual allotments of Muse Token, in addition to making their tax-deductible contributions, then this entire art form wouldn’t be in such precarity.” Do you still feel that way about it now?
Bodkin: I personally do feel that way. Again, I’m speaking in my capacity as Muse Token—this does not pertain to our work at Groupmuse. We haven’t talked about it for over a year at this point. [But] I still feel like [if instead of making] tax-deductible contributions, [arts donors] had been buying tokens that all these musicians were holding, and that all musicians, anytime Muse Token was purchased, saw an appreciation of the value of their holdings—I do feel that way. But the literacy is just not there, and now is not the time to make that case.
I read online that Groupmuse employees choose their own salaries with advice and emotional input from the other team members, is that right?
Schmolze: That was explicitly true for a good chunk of the pandemic. We ran out of money multiple times. Sam, me, and others forwent salaries and worked unpaid. We had to have really difficult conversations. It was this incredibly beautiful and powerful, if quite painful, series of conversations. And none of that would have been possible without our cooperative structure. This year, we received a small chunk of funding, which has been fantastic, and has allowed us to refill people’s hours.
Bodkin: We do our very darndest to have honest and transparent conversations about the finances. Everyone in the team is aware of this finite pot of resources and of everyone else who is trying to make a life doing this work. We really fostered this work community, this mission family. It’s a negotiation spearheaded by the individual and their needs, but it never happens in a vacuum. We’ve never been in a situation where it seemed like someone was making an untoward draw on our resources, because of our relentless emphasis on relationality and transparency. It would be really weird and unprecedented for someone to think of themselves as a free agent at Groupmuse, because our whole culture has been about relationality and the relationship to the big mission work. ¶
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