Groupmuse resurrects the living-room concerto with the help of the Internet
“I mean, of course, I knew Beethoven, but he was just some dead dude who was important because important people thought he was important—his actual contributions were largely unknown to me. But then I heard this piece and it was so fundamentally at odds with everything I had pre-conceived about classical music,” Bodkin recalls. “Within six months, I decided that I would devote my life to the cause of classical music.”
Now 25, Bodkin is CEO of Groupmuse, a startup that’s working to bring young audiences to classical music by taking it out of the concert hall and directly into their homes. In the two years since Groupmuse launched, the website has facilitated more than 400 free living-room chamber concerts at which the musicians get paid via audience donations. Musicians who have participated say the extra money is nice, but what’s truly gratifying is playing for peers in a house party environment where drinking, socializing, and even air-violin and -cello are encouraged. The only rule is no talking during the performance.
“The reality is these concert parties have been happening for 500 years, but I decided that this is the way young people should be introduced to classical music,” Bodkin says.
Bodkin speaks from experience. In between studying political science at Columbia University, he would head to Boston to hang out with musician friends who attended the New England Conservatory of Music. Their idea of a good time usually involved live music, and Bodkin says he was often the only non-musician at the informal concert parties they’d throw. “For me, it was revelatory,” he explains. “It had a life-affirming, soul-enriching quality that only the masterworks of art can really impart. I was like, whoa, this is everything I want out of life.”
Inspired by these parties and his experience using the website Couchsurfing, which had allowed him to stay at people’s homes while he traveled through Europe, Bodkin conceived of Groupmuse. “Here I was getting my degree and surrounded by educated, intellectually curious young folks, who like me up until I was 19, didn’t know Schubert from Schoenberg and didn’t care,” he says. “And it was so funny to me because my peers, for sure, take pride in tackling major works of literature and going to museums of fine art, but when it comes to music, I found that the cultural caché primarily resides in obscure bands that no one has ever heard of as opposed to classical figures. So it occurred to me that it was a social problem that classical music was dealing with.”
After graduating in 2012, Bodkin moved in with his parents and spent the summer working for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, thinking he might end up in classical-music administration, but the tight job market led him back to the Groupmuse idea. “It was so hard to find a job, so I figured I would commit myself to Groupmuse full-time,” Bodkin says, adding that it took him four grueling months “gathering the strands of my soul” to believe he could make it happen. Enlisting musicians, both pre-professional and professional, was easy thanks to his friends at the New England Conservatory of Music, but Bodkin says finding hosts was the bigger challenge. In January 2013, some classical-music fans in Dedham, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb, offered to host the first concert.
Interest grew from there.
“Once someone comes to a few Groupmuses, they’ll see that anyone can host. If you have a huge parlor, we’ll bring a string quartet or quintet. If you have a tiny little studio apartment, we’ll bring a soloist and cap the audience at ten people. Anyone can have a concert in their home because it’s classical music—we don’t need amplification, we don’t need to plug anything in, everyone brings the instruments on their backs, all we need is a few chairs to recreate some of the great masterpieces that humanity can lay claim to,” Bodkin says.
Today, there are anywhere from five to ten Groupmuse concerts in Boston each week, with similar communities growing quickly in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City, where Bodkin currently lives. Events have also been held in Rochester, New York; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; Austin, Texas; Denver and Boulder, Colorado; Berlin, Germany; and São Paulo, Brazil.
“The most powerful advocates for the project have been young musicians at conservatories,” Bodkin says. “It’s an unforgettable experience because they’re treated like rock stars. Most of the folks in the audience have never listened to classical music before and they’re often hearing these pieces for the very first time and can’t believe that people their age are capable of relaying so intricate a masterpiece in front of them, in real time. And then afterward, there is socializing and the musicians become part of the party.”
Viola, violin, and mandolin player Matt Consul, who has performed at between 20–30 Groupmuses in Boston and New York City, says he’s met a lot of people he would never expect to see at a classical performance, “like so many college bros.
“It’s really accessible for everyone,” Consul says. “It puts the performer in an intimate setting that we don’t get to experience at lot. The audience gets to experience all the little subtleties that they wouldn’t see in a big hall.” The principal viola of the Discovery Ensemble, a Boston-based chamber orchestra, Consul also works part-time at the Juilliard bookstore and teaches. Groupmuse is another source of income. “It’s not like I’m going to get rich off Groupmuse, but it’s something. When I play them consistently, it does make a difference in my wallet,” he explains.
Bodkin says the money varies, depending on the number of performers and audience size. “The average haul is $200, which means that if it’s a string quartet, it is split four ways; if it’s a soloist, they take the whole thing,” he says. “But we’ve had soloists take home $450, so it really depends on the size of the crowd.”
Viola player Sergio Muñoz, who graduated from the New England Conservatory last year, says he found out about Groupmuse from a classmate: “He said, ‘Do you want to play a house concert? You can play whatever you want.’ You take chamber music in school and you have a quartet, but there were so many people I still wanted to work with and more pieces to play.”
Muñoz got hooked. After playing about 14 Groupmuses in Boston, from the Trio Sonata by Bach to an arrangement of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for viola and flute, he brought the concept to Rochester, New York, where he’s attending a master’s program at the Eastman School of Music.
“It’s regenerative within the community,” Muñoz says. “When you’re in music school, it’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re performers—our goal is to connect with people, not play with perfect technique in practice rooms. When I was stressed out during my senior year, Groupmuse was one of the things that kept me going. It has shaped the way I see my mission in society. We don’t have to make a case for music, we need to present it in a new way.”
Since Groupmuse doesn’t take a cut from musicians or charge attendees, the company recently launched a corporate offering, which brings the living room experience to the office environment. The fees are negotiated in advance and musicians are paid a flat rate.
To participate, create an account on Groupmuse.com and check out the concerts happening in your area. From there, you can attend, host, or offer to play. Musicians are required to submit YouTube links or list a reference who has previously played a Groupmuse event. “It’s just so we know that you’re a serious musician. This is not for amateurs,” Bodkin says.
As for Bodkin, he’s sticking with being a classical-music evangelist, rather than picking up an instrument himself.
“I’m the biggest music nerd who doesn’t play,” Bodkin says with a laugh. “But I think by virtue of the fact that I grew up outside the classical-music bubble, it gave me some really valuable insight.
“It seems like the rallying cry of the classical music world right now is that classical music needs saving, but if you talk to someone who doesn’t listen to classical music and you tell them it needs saving, they’re just going to give you a blank stare. Why should they save something that they don’t care about?”
Hopefully that will change—one Groupmuse concert at a time.