Quick, imagine a string quartet concert in a private home. Marble floors, vaulted ceilings, and uniformed servers with hors d’oeuvres platters probably come to mind. But this was rarely or never the case with the private concerts organized through the buzzy classical music startup Groupmuse, which matched musicians with music lovers — often younger than those in the typical Symphony Hall audience — who hosted casual, intimate concerts in backyards and living rooms.
But now, with Groupmuse rapidly approaching its second decade, a number of seismic changes are being implemented. First and foremost: The business is going cooperative.
Founder Sam Bodkin, a Newton native, majored in political science as an undergrad but fell “madly in love” with classical music, he said over the phone recently. Groupmuse was born from a combination of his experiences couch-surfing across Europe and fond memories of evenings at “Linden Hall,” an Allston apartment where New England Conservatory students would host combination concerts and house parties.
Groupmuse formed amid the startup boom of the early 2010s. At the time, Bodkin dreamed of riding the wave of financial success that prosperous startups promised. But reality eventually hit, Bodkin said. “It quickly became clear that an organization that concentrated profit in the hands of a couple people, like the standard startup paradigm suggests, would not work — and it would feel terrible. All these musicians put their lives and labor into creating amazing stuff.”
Transforming the company into a cooperatively owned venture has been a goal for a few years, Bodkin explained, but the pandemic provided the necessary push. As conventional concert venues shut down last spring, Groupmuse was quick to bring shows online. And the first few months were some of the most profitable the organization has seen. But as screen fatigue set in and temperatures climbed, audiences started spending more time outside. Bodkin watched that revenue dwindle.
“If we’re going to stay strong as an organization, we’re going to have to be candid about money,” Bodkin said. “Sometimes there are good months, sometimes there are bad months, and we’re really working hard to continue being in service of the mission.”
The company became a worker-owned cooperative in late 2020, offering shares of ownership to anyone who worked more than 20 hours a week for the past six months. (All six eligible employees opted in, with a seventh becoming eligible soon.) At present, the plan is opening up ownership to active musicians this summer — allowing them to allocate funds, share resources, and weigh in on organization-wide policies. In the meantime, a 10-person Musician Founding Council is laying groundwork for what the new phase of Groupmuse will offer.
Jamaica Plain-based violinist and founding council member Kiyoshi Hayashi started playing Groupmuse concerts in the early days, back when he was still a student at New England Conservatory. He got “hooked immediately” on the way it discarded everything he disliked about concert hall playing.
“It just made it ... all about the music and having a good time and really connecting to people,” Hayashi said in a phone interview.
When he cofounded the Rasa String Quartet in 2019, the group did its first concerts through Groupmuse. When the pandemic canceled all his gigs, Hayashi did online Groupmuse shows with his housemates, and he was amazed at the opportunity to connect with audiences worldwide, including those in Japan, California, and Chicago.
The goal of the founding council is to eventually be the voice of the musician-owners so that Groupmuse can better serve them, Hayashi said. “We’re really targeting musicians who aren’t necessarily taken care of by larger institutions. Who haven’t necessarily taken the traditional routes of getting an orchestra job or teaching position at a university. We’re seeing if we can provide this community that can give them the resources and whatever they need to thrive as musicians and as people.”
That might mean a gear lending library, or furthering their education in entrepreneurship and marketing — topics Hayashi feels are lacking in music school curricula. “I’m really pushing for Groupmuse to provide this education for all of these musicians and give them the skills to honestly have financially rewarding and meaningful careers,” Hayashi said.
It also means embracing music beyond the Western classical tradition. Previously, half of each Groupmuse concert had to be from the classical canon. At the beginning of this year, that was replaced with a requirement for “historical music,” opening it up to global music traditions as well as jazz.
“This change has really come from the musicians who expressed a little bit of annoyance at Groupmuse for being like ‘Hey, you didn’t program, like, Bach, for the first half; this can’t be a Groupmuse,’” Hayashi said.
But classical music remains the focus for the moment, since the vast majority of Groupmuse musicians are classically trained. For now, the overarching focus is helping artists recover from the pandemic, which has forced numerous musicians to leave the field or take extended hiatus.
“Classical music is in this moment of transition where it became clear how dysfunctional some of the patterns that have played out over the last century really are,” Bodkin said. “Musicians are really out at sea without a paddle. ... I think like in so many other aspects of our society, dysfunctions were laid bare and became un-ignorable during COVID. This is the moment where we can bring structural change to the classical music world.”
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.