Building a Music Community
By Etan Rosenbloom, ASCAP Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • October 18, 2017
"It takes a village to raise a child," the old proverb goes. The same goes for music creation. Music, at its heart, is about connection, and community is implicit in the creative process. Even if the seed that sprouts into a song came from a single person, even the most DIY songwriter or composer relies on other musicians, producers, engineers, graphic designers, etc. to present their music to an audience – which, of course, is part of a musical family, too.
But how do you go about finding and sustaining a musical community? To celebrate their upcoming concert VI:FAMILY, we asked the LA composer collective The Echo Society how they have built their own vibrant creative family of collaborators and fans. Echo Society members (and ASCAP composers) Judson Crane, Eskmo, Nathan Johnson and Joseph Trapanese gave us the lowdown.
VI:FAMILY takes place over three nights and six performances, October 20-22, at an undisclosed residence in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Click here to find out more and order tickets.
At its core, the Echo Society is a small group of composers. How essential is having a stable, core group to building a community?
Nathan Johnson: I’ve found it feels pretty maddening to try to create something in a vacuum. We’re obviously influenced by those who came before us – those “upstream” from us, so to speak – but it’s incredibly important to be connected with peers in the community. When a friend accomplishes something, it’s like a bell that goes off. It feels so helpful to hear it and to remember that these things we’re all striving for are possible. It’s been really meaningful to have a a core group, or a "nuclear family." Especially as we’ve practiced (and it does feel like practice) being more vulnerable with each other. Vulnerability is easier with a small, trusted group because it basically amounts to saying “I don’t know what the f**k I’m doing right now.” When you realize you’re all sort of in the same boat, something about that can give you the encouragement to push forward anyway. There’s the simple fact that if you’re trying to do something new, by definition, you won’t know how to do it. It’s so helpful to have siblings with a similar history to branch out with into that ominous “newness” together.
How do you find the musicians, visual artists, designers, etc. that you work with?
Judson Crane: All of our collaborators are typically people we’ve worked with outside of The Echo Society project. Echo Society members are very active within the Los Angeles music and media industry and we’re always meeting new creative folks through our day jobs that we feel would be awesome additions to the Echo family. Musician contractors, instrumentalists, singers, visual artists, sound engineers…these are all people we have cultivated deep personal and professional relationships with outside of Echo. There are so many talented folks within arms reach in Los Angeles!
At what point do you bring someone into the fold, as opposed to handling it all yourselves?
Johnson: We’ve felt the most stress or dissonance during the times we’re most out of our depth…specifically in some of the practical elements of putting on a show. It’s really important to realize when we’re out of our depth. The Echo Society started off as a very DIY project, but even from the start, there were things we were never going to be able to do ourselves. Thankfully, we live in such an amazing city with so many mind-blowing collaborators. That’s one of the rewards of being connected to a community of like-minded people with different skills. From lighting designers to audio engineers to architects and producers and graphic designers…the seven of us carry the vision, but there’s no way we could execute without relying on our extended family.
Aside from talent, are there qualities that you look for in an artist that you're bringing into your creative community - whether The Echo Society or elsewhere?
Crane: It is important to us that collaborators have a desire to reach beyond their comfort zone and are really eager to make something unique...stretching the boundaries of what they might feel is expected. We feel this is a core principle to the group, that these works are one-of-a-kind, never heard before compositions and visual displays. We want to transport our audience and seek others who share that creative urge.
How do the seven main composers divide up responsibilities so that all of you feel involved in the process?
Johnson: When the Echo Society began, it wasn’t much more than a group of friends. Our personalities seem to be pretty compatible and there is a wide spectrum of interests outside of just music, so there’s plenty for everyone to do when we put on a show. Some of us tend to push to the front in terms of carrying the vision. Some feel more like the rudder, keeping us on course. In this sense, a family is probably a helpful metaphor to describe what we’ve grown into. We definitely fit into mother/father/sibling roles at different times. The interesting thing is that it has happened somewhat naturally. I think we’ve settled into the roles we’re most interested in and they tend to overlap in a harmonious rather than dissonant way.
Bringing in so many outsiders can be expensive. What kinds of funding models do you need to consider as you're building a creative community?
Crane: Our generous donors are a really important piece to the puzzle. Ticket sales alone don’t come close to covering the production cost of the event and so we look to individuals and organizations that can help us realize the intricately crafted vision that we have for the show. We’ve been so fortunate to have donors who share our community building message and grateful that there seems to be a significant demand for this sort of endeavor in LA. Each show has sold out as well as generating long waiting lists, and we make an effort to keep ticket prices reasonable (well below the cost of the show) so as many people can experience it as is possible.
How do you make your audience/fanbase feel like they're part of something larger than the group they're coming to see?
Eskmo: We hope the audience feels as though they are tapping into something that feels fresh and electrifying. For all of us, it's an exploration into something new for LA; the audience and Echo alike. Working with various collaborators for each show has been an integral part of building something larger than us. Inviting 14 guest composers for VI:Family was a very conscious choice in that direction.
Is it important that the folks helping you actualize your vision feel invested in non-financial ways? If so, how do you make that happen?
Joseph Trapanese: We want the Los Angeles community to be proud of its artistic achievements. LA is going through an incredible cultural renaissance, and that couldn’t happen without the passionate support of our neighbors. Just building the awareness of the artists among us is a massive challenge. We hope that by highlighting the work of LA-based composers and musicians we help to continue building this creative spirit. Even something as simple as telling a friend about our shows and the work we are doing is a huge contribution. We are proud of our city and its contributions to the arts, and we hope to share that spirit with as many people as we possibly can.
How do you sustain a creative community in between the "event" moments like a performance?
Eskmo: With so many people involved with Echo and everyone working on their own projects which range from music to charitable events art to film and dance, the connection just happens naturally. We all share what we are putting out into the world with each other. Originally, we started hanging out as a group seeing shows, sharing thoughts on music and art installations. This conversation just keeps going as we keep doing the same. As for the community that is created by having the events, we hope it continues to happen naturally. With 25+ guests over the course of six shows and working with so many dozens of talented local musicians, the branches keep reaching out. The opportunity for collaboration and new ideas to come about is truly awesome to see.
Do you find that The Echo Society's community-oriented style of organizing and creating has impacted the way you interact with the world outside of TES? Creatively, personally or otherwise?
Eskmo: I can only speak for myself, but yes, it certainly has. It has shown me how powerful it can be to collaborate with people. Within the act of collaborating, you have to let go of what you think the best option might be for any given situation, but in the end, a stronger vision appears because of the variety of voices involved. It has reminded me continually about the lesson of just letting things flow in their natural direction. Since starting Echo with the other guys, I have shifted my perspective with my own musical career, started a non profit that works with the deaf and hard of hearing community and worked on a new musical collaboration with one of our guests from our second Echo show (whom I had never met before). It has been truly inspiring.
The Echo Society is a Los Angeles-based non-profit artist collective led by seven composers. It gathers to inspire, challenge, and enrich the community through the creation and performance of new sonic and visual art presented during singular, one-night-only experiences. By highlighting new work commissioned from a diverse community of artists, featuring special guests from around the world, and presenting art in unpredictable formats, The Echo Society seeks to create connections within the Los Angeles arts community, while bringing both orchestral and electronic music to new audiences.
On October 20-22 in Los Angeles, The Echo Society presents its first three-day festival, VI: FAMILY, proudly sponsored by ASCAP. Click here to get tix and see the full performer lineup.