The Future Of Funding

If music wants to be free, if we need to imagine and access new audiences outside of our traditional models, and if the growing tension between the local and virtual spaces is only further accelerated and amplified by the lurking contagion, how do we ensure the continued creation of music and the viability of a profession as a musician? We may not be able to continue to rely on market structures for its underwriting. There may be a conclusion for the music industry as we know it on the near horizon or rolling closing credits, a ride off into the sunset that doesn’t just end with a mosey out of sight, but rather a spectacular finale as it is consumed in the blazing fireball of this new future.

I have recently found myself in conversation with many non-profit arts and culture organizations and I find myself repeating the same advice over and over. Don’t let your organization get in the way of your mission. Meaning, this thing you have come to understand and love, this way of operating, your procedures, your metrics, your programs, those things are only there in support of your mission. It is the fulfillment of your mission that needs to survive, not necessarily your organization. Your organization is what is there to support the work of the mission; the mission does not exist to funnel money to the organization. Yes, healthy organizations and smart programming is what helps us get to our respective missions, but many non-profits might need to face the fact that the mission may be better served by handing over the programming to another entity, or through a complete restructure to better serve the mission against a dramatically changed context. The same goes for businesses and institutions outside of the non-profit sector.

How then do we sustain the mission of the making, distributing, promoting, preserving and engaging with music? From my perspective there are three structures of funding that enable the production of new music and continued livelihood of musicians. The first is what I will call the patronage system. This is the most ancient of all, and while technically all three systems I outline are some form of patronage, I use this term in its more traditional definition. This is private patronage, or individual and individuals patronage. It is the crowd-sourced album on Kickstarter, the Patreon monthly support or Bandcamp subscription model. And now it is venmo links on Instagram live streams and commissioned Zoom performances for an audience of you and your friends. It is also the trust-funded boutique label that can afford to take risks, or is being run out of someone’s basement with minimal overhead and fueled by sweat and passion. It historically was also the major indies, and the indie majors, who had managed to build a deep sustaining catalog with a couple irresistible and unquenchable classics that helped underwrite investments into new and risky ventures. A&R decisions at this scale have become more and more risk-averse and are only signing those “sure-things”, those bands and albums with wider pop-sensibility, versus something that they just simply love and want the world to hear. No accusation coming from me, but it is worth saying out loud because I suspect Matador is going to release less Matmos styled music, Sub-Pop isn’t running out to sign another Wolf Eyes. 

The second system of music funding is what I will call the corporate support, or sponsorship model. This is already occurring with music licensing for commercials, television and film but is evolving into a kind of cause marketing, building off of the model of Red Bull and their direct investment into the creation of new art and music. You will still likely continue to see more accessible and more audience friendly acts being licensed or directly supported through cross-marketing strategies and brand awareness campaigns, but  the occasional left-field head scratcher campaign will launch, say when Taco Bell decides that Death Grips would make for a great spokesband for its new deep fried nacho balls. However, these investments are likely to default to those things that while providing the aura of edgy, still sit nicely within the larger pop sensibility of the moment. My memory might be playing tricks on me, but the last time I went to SXSW, maybe 2015, I swear I saw a Charmin Toilet Paper stage. I can’t even imagine the shit-music that played on that stage. Too easy.

Finally, and the form of support I find most compelling is what I would refer to as foundation support. I admit, it gets a little blurry as many foundations are private foundations, set up by individual patrons both living and long since passed. This would align it more with the patronage model, but I think the difference here is organizational and missional. A private donor might have a particular passion or interest, but it is unlikely that it is articulated in the form of a missional objective in its allocation of resources. Whereas a foundation (private or otherwise), makes grant decisions based upon strategic plans, board retreats, by-laws, and executive leadership. Foundations are slower moving beasts too. Their decisions are more calculated and process driven, or at least undergirded with protocol and mechanisms of accountability and reporting. Foundational support might look like grant-funded albums and residencies and commissions. It might be an intersection between music and some other funding priority be it investment into particular communities, causes, or sectors. It might be motivated by economic development or social cohesion. Regardless, it does provide an opportunity for musicians. It opens up possibilities as it won’t necessarily require cost-based metrics or an end product that reflects industry expectations or needs. 

As the music industry continues to shift and mold to the demands of streaming, and as it becomes more and more difficult for musicians experimenting on the edges of genre or commercial appeal, my hope is that these foundations will increase their investments into ensuring the continued creation of new and adventurous music and those individuals making this music, and provide localized and globalized networks of support.

– Michael Kaufmann


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