If you walk into a chamber concert organized by Groupmuse, you soon realize this is not your traditional classical performance. There’s clapping in-between movements of Mozart’s duo in G major, as well as whistling, drinking and sitting on the floor so close to the musicians that one risks getting jabbed with every note. But most importantly, there is a rare breed in the audience: engaged, iPhone-less millennials.
Groupmuse is a Boston-based startup that strives to attract new audiences for live classical music by re-imagining the traditional concert experience. Sam Bodkin, 24, started the venture in January of last year. Bodkin blames the stifling, severe traditional orchestral experience for turning millennials away from classical music concerts. He plans to make his business profitable by pairing musicians and hosts to create what he calls “chamber music house parties.”
“In what other form of music is the sincere instinct to express enthusiasm ever to be subdued?” Bodkin asked. “At Groupmuse we clap anytime we want to clap, even if it means in the middle of a movement.”
Groupmuse hopes to bridge the gap between audiences that are willing to pay for intimate, high-quality concerts with talented musicians who are looking for alternative performance opportunities at a time when orchestras face troubling demographic trends and graver financial worries. Donations are collected at each event and go directly to the musicians, who earn $150 to $500 on an average night. Groupmuse itself made about $25,000 over the course of the past year, Bodkin said, though it’s not currently making a profit.
Groupmuse fits within a long-standing tradition of entrepreneurial ventures hoping to find new formats to make classical music profitable, said Angela Myles Beeching, Director of the Center for Music Entrepreneurship at the Manhattan School of Music.
“Everyone is talking about how to make this traditional art form more relevant and ways to change traditional concert settings,” Beeching said. “The really smart thing about house concerts is that it takes away the business of renting venues and the middle management that comes with presenting any type of traditional concert. As a business model, it has a low overhead.”
Groupmuse represents an unprecedented opportunity to engage with a wider audience, said Julia Glenn, a 25-year-old doctoral student at the world-renowned Juilliard School and a regular performer at Groupmuse concerts.
“If something about the culture of classical music isn’t changed, the audience is at risk of drying out.” Glenn said. “The hope of Groupmuse and ventures like that is to give people the chance to get excited about the music, and give the music a chance of having a future.”
First-time Groupmuse attendee Garrett Kotecki said the event was described to him as “classical music for people who don’t want to wear a suit and tie.”
“I didn’t think it was boring at all, because they were right here in the room. It wasn’t a huge orchestra, far removed onstage,” Kotecki said. “I had never been this close to a viola and violin player. You can hear their fingers move, you can hear them breathe inhale and exhale in tempo with the music.”
Bodkin doesn’t want Groupmuse to replace conventional concert experiences at established symphony orchestras. Instead, he sees it as an entry point into the more traditional concert experience for a generation that he believes to be increasingly alienated from the genre.
“People should just go and get into the music and experience it on their own terms,” Bodkin said. “Then hopefully a lot of them will get really turned on by Beethoven, because, ‘Wow, this guy I heard about so much is actually pretty rocking,’ and then they go see the big show at Carnegie Hall.”