From the Field: Chamber Group Finds Success as For-Profit LLC

Burlington Ensemble
Burlington Ensemble

Michael Dabroski, Co-Artistic Director of Burlington Ensemble, reached out to ArtsFwd last month to let us know about his success with a new innovative for-profit chamber ensemble model.  With the recent introduction of hybrid Benefit-Corporations in New York State and all the buzz about “edge-perts,” we thought his story of partnership between a for-profit group and non-profit organizations in his community would be intriguing to ArtsFwd readers.  Here it the story in Michael’s words:

Burlington Ensemble LLC

Based in Vermont, Burlington Ensemble LLC (BE) is a unique for-profit professional chamber music group that serves non-profit organizations and benefits the community. We partner with non-profit organizations to produce fundraising concerts where 90% of the proceeds benefit the partner organization.  In turn, the non-profits promote the concerts, enticing a demographic that supports the goals of the organization, but may never otherwise have attended a classical chamber music concert.

Founded by myself, a violinist, and violinist Sofia Hirsch, BE is the result of many years of experiential learning at summer music festivals, music conservatory, founding and directing chamber music ensembles, observing how arts are managed and sustained, and interacting with community.

Our Model

Burlington Ensemble 90/10 PosterBE serves the needs of local community year round in part by “concert fundraising” for six non-profit organizations between September and April as part of its “90/10 Series.”  By splitting the revenue 90% to the nonprofit and 10% to BE, the series raises thousands of dollars for the organizations and builds audiences for BE. We also produce a series of seven “Summer Serenade” concerts in July in scenic venues that serve to fundraise money to pay musicians. Business sponsors pay BE to promote services and strengthen community, which in turn, their support helps pay musicians to perform the “90/10 Series” and “Summer Serenades” concerts. Burlington Ensemble LLC also produces “Special Events” geared toward emergency relief concert fundraising and artistic excellence.

Our business model employs private artistic ownership and management, direct niche marketing and program differentiation, financial viability and sustainability, multi-level collaboration, high quality artistic production, and measurable program outcomes. No other for-profit classical musical ensemble, course or textbook resource exists in the United States to our knowledge. Our model provides a seed of hope for these musicians to organize musical events to allow them to perform, give back to community, and earn a living.

Why a For-Profit?

In a traditional non-profit 501(c)3 corporation, the Board of the Directors, not the musicians, “own” the corporation, thus creating a terminal relationship for the musicians, an inherent division between artistic and administrative leadership, loss of artistic program control, and increased administrative expenses (executive director, development director, marketing director, office secretary, etc.). The pace to produce occurs much slower as if music is held hostage to a volunteer staff of Board of Directors.

Similarly, classical musicians too often engage non-artistic or non-musical professional staff to coordinate their musical program outcomes. This relationship is dependent, requiring an immediate administrative expense prior to implementing artistic program. Again in the case of non-profit organizations, the ratio between greater administrative costs to program or artistic expenses is disproportionate making the business unaffordable. The music “export” often suffers or is eliminated.

LLC Advantages

Because the LLC model does not permit the receipt of restricted “large” tax-deductible financial contributions made by individual donors, it is safe from these types of contributions and individuals who participate by dictating artistic outcomes (i.e. strings attached).  The LLC allows for musicians (i.e. owners) to create artistic programs without interference from members of a Board of Directors who might otherwise have other agendas or particular interests to develop their artistic initiatives. Artistic freedom.  The LLC protects “contracts” with community collaborators and artists from Board members who pledge or make intent promises but fail to deliver or followed thru with tasks and commitments.  The LLC model allows its owners to manage artistic fees, venue contracts, and expense allocation swiftly and without waiting to seek permissions from layers of staff and Board of Directors.

Burlington Ensemble January 7, 2012 concert:

Challenges

We develop new audiences for classical music regularly, but extra time is necessary to convince traditional, old guard chamber music supporters about the Burlington Ensemble LLC paradigm. Ironically it takes more time to explain that our administrative expense allocations are low via collaborating with beneficiaries to help advertise our product. Likewise we explain that program expenses for musicians are higher in order to produce professional performance. Unfortunately a “non-musical” Board of Directors and staff have long legitimized or codified arts management operating structures that are currently not cost effective. We must encourage and allow for the many musicians in this country to take control of their outcomes, abilities, and need to perform.

Burlington Ensemble ConcertSustainability

We strive to manage Burlington Ensemble LLC with limited liability and minimize risk throughout our model (collaborations, artistic performance, etc.). We are mindful about “risk/reward.” There are approximately 4,000 non-profit organizations in Vermont that are potential collaborators (i.e. beneficiaries who perform public relations and ultimately build a new audience base). Community support, public gatherings and benefit efforts always remain newsworthy and important, music providing an optimal vehicle to deliver that message. Our brand must be linked to progressive, gifting efforts of the highest quality.

A Model for Large Orchestras

It is more apparent today than ever that traditional arts organizations lack the imagination and creativity within their management structures to minimize risk and produce the highest quality art. The inherent desire to lead an arts organization, regardless of organizational size, must generate from an artistic source coupled with a skill to be frugal. Too often as audience sizes and media coverage increases, and inspired donors increase giving, it is management that consumes this surplus by hiring more managers and paying for more exorbitant production costs that ultimately will prove unsustainable in a down economy.

Twitter: @BTVensemble
Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/burlington.ensemble
Web:  www.burlingtonensemble.com
Contact: michael.dabroski@gmail.com

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