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Music Groups Turn to Fans to Underwrite New Works

January 21, 2011

When the Bay Area flutist Meerenai Shim ran out of interesting music to play with her chamber ensemble, she did not content herself with repeating existing repertoire.

She commissioned a composer to write something especially for her group instead.

Ms. Shim, 34, who makes a living teaching and performing chamber music, started a fund-raising campaign to pay for the commission using an online financing Web site, Kickstarter. The aim was to raise $5,000 for a composer, Daniel Felsenfeld, to write a 10-minute trio for flute, cello and piano.

Within six weeks, Ms. Shim had amassed $5,290 through contributions ranging between $15 and $250, from 130 donors.

Ms. Shim said that she expected Mr. Felsenfeld, who is based in New York, to deliver the piece by April and that she had made a commitment to play the work at the Trinity Chamber Concerts series in Berkeley sometime later this year or next.

“Looking for grants would have taken several years, but going the Kickstarter route was much faster,” Ms. Shim said. “I also now have a built-in audience of donors who might further their investment by buying a CD or coming to the concert.”

Her method differs substantially from the traditional system for commissioning new works. Typically, the artistic head of a music organization approaches a composer about writing a piece several years before its premiere and then hands off the negotiations to executives who raise money to pay the composer’s fee.

This system is standard among the world’s top-tier music organizations. The San Francisco Symphony finances most of its commissions, which cost up to $100,000 per work, through dedicated funds. Its latest new piece, “Uriah,” an orchestral work commissioned three years ago from the Israeli composer Avner Dorman with money from a symphony fund, will receive its world premiere at Davies Symphony Hall on Jan. 26.

But as a result of the rise of collaborative financing tools and social-networking technologies, the commissioning process has become more multifaceted.

“When I was a student, there was a sense of hierarchy among ways of creating music,” said Ed Harsh, the president of Meet the Composer, a support organization for the creation of new musical works. “The compositional world is a lot flatter now.”

The biggest shift seems to be happening on the financial front, partly resulting from the downturn in arts philanthropy.

“To get even a few hundred dollars, one often has to jump through multiple hoops, fill out paperwork and submit work samples,” said Sarah Cahill, a pianist who lives in Berkeley and has commissioned pieces by composers like Terry Riley and Meredith Monk over the last 14 years. “Sometimes it’s just easier to take that few hundred dollars from one’s own bank account.”

Arts organizations are increasingly looking to members of the public to bridge the philanthropic chasm.

Service organizations that support the commissioning of new works, like United States Artists and Meet the Composer, have established micro-philanthropy projects that allow individuals to contribute to funds for new works through online donations. Contributors typically receive perks like a free recording of the finished piece.

Meanwhile, Chanticleer, an all-male choral ensemble based in San Francisco, is establishing a “Commissioning Club” to help finance new works. In exchange for contributing to the fund, members get insider access to the development process.

The arrangement propagates a feeling of ownership in the creative process even for the smallest donors.

“When you have many people with a personal stake in the work, they get to feel like they are part of an event in the same way any moneyed impresario does,” Mr. Felsenfeld said.

Another development is that orchestras are more commonly entering into consortia with each other, particularly in the creation of large-scale works. For example, the Oakland East Bay Symphony recently partnered with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and San Francisco Performances, a Bay Area presenting organization, to commission a violin concerto by the composer Billy Childs.

“Collaborating enables us to help create new music for a nominal amount of money,” said Ruth Felt, the president of San Francisco Performances.

These consortia not only ease the financial burden on music organizations, but composers like them, too.

“What composer doesn’t want to have his pieces played in different settings and encountered by a variety of audiences and musicians?” said Mason Bates, a composer based in Berkeley who has written works for the San Francisco Symphony.

While well-established composers like Mr. Bates are continuing to win commissions from major musical institutions, the micro-philanthropy trend is undeniably opening up more opportunities for emerging composers.

But mid-career composers and those with respected credentials but little broad-based appeal might not fare so well in the current climate.

“My sense is that you go up the ladder a couple of rungs and then it’s a big climb to get to where the next opportunities are,” said Frances Phillips, the program director of the Creative Work Fund, a grant-making body that supports collaborative art projects in the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, at the crowd-funding end of the scale, life is far from easy. “I have to put in a lot of time and do an extreme amount of self-promotion,” Ms. Shim said. “Kickstarter isn’t a magic cure.”



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