Notes from #NUMUS18

NUMUS (short for “new music”) is officially called “a day-long event dedicated to the creation, performance, and experience of new music.” It took place over the weekend at Cornish College for the Arts on Capitol Hill.

It was a uniquely positive experience where I learned a lot and met some cool, new people. It was great fun and I highly recommend taking part next year.

First, I should concede that all of my knowledge of classical music could fit on a postcard. My music knowledge lies almost exclusively in the pop realm, and that’s what I spend most of my time listening to. I have seen Taylor Swift live in multiple states, flew to the Bay Area to see the first show in Kylie Minogue’s first-ever US tour, and once wrote a lukewarm take about how Britney Spears was my favorite musical artist at the time, and that take was only about 10% trolling. Had I been able to more accurately gauge the demand for K.Flay tickets, my answer to the invite for this event might have been different, but I’m glad I was there.

One thing I thought I knew about classical music audiences is that they’re generally older and, to borrow a line that has stuck with me for many years, “know what they like and what they like is Mozart.” That presumption, while unfair and incredibly reductive, is exactly half-true. This conference is for the other half of classical music listeners. John Cage (who has a history with Cornish) was a name I heard come up time and time again over the day. Fortunately, the stuffy, old farts that keep Benaroya Hall’s gold plated toilets shiny all had better plans, presumably the AM worship service at the Gerard Schwarz of Nazareth International Church. The attendees at NUMUS were almost without exception, younger, photogenic, and/or big thinkers.

After checking in, enjoying a bagel, and hearing some opening remarks from Cornish music chair James Falzone and the other members of the NUMUS leadership team (in that order), I had the chance to meet nearly all of the attendees at NUMUS. We all did. With a few dozen people in Cornish’s PONCHO Hall, we all were invited on stage for a round of “speed dating,” getting 3 minute “dates” with everyone to meet one another.

It was equally exhilarating and exhausting, especially knowing that us introverts were a large majority in this group. It was fun to meet so many people, briefly, and I was able to cram in enough knowledge for the week prior to not come across as a complete (but curious and game) moron. I told pretty much everyone that I was a local blogger who generally writes about pop music, and that literally everyone at NUMUS was a stranger to me. One of the out-of-town guests, Sarah Zwinklis of WFMT radio in Chicago, had the suggestion of inventing a different persona for each person, which would’ve been hilarious, if only to see how well I could keep about 700 different lies straight for an entire day. Everyone, though and without exception, was incredibly nice and welcoming. Only one person I thought was a bit presumptuous that his music now falls under the umbrella of my beat, but it was a very welcoming environment. If these people are music snobs, they did a very good job of hiding it.

L-R: Maggie Molloy, Leah Baltus, Sarah Zwinklis, Seth Tompkins.

The first panel of the day was called “The Other Side of the Inbox” and featured the aforementioned Sarah Zwinklis; Leah Baltus, Editor-in-Chief of City Arts magazine; Maggie Molloy of KING FM’s outstanding music blog Second Inversion; and KING FM’s programming director Seth Tompkins.

The panel dealt with how best to get media attention for your projects. I’ve been on a similar panel once and I think they’re very valuable because they’re about how people can get their music in front of people that can cover it and expose it to a (somewhat) larger audience. I was pleased to see that the panelists here share the same pet peeves as me (being contacted through social media, bad copy/paste e-mails). The consensus seemed to be to convey that your music has a story behind it that makes it stand out, and videos are preferable to just audio. Sarah Zwinklis pointed out that e-mails with words like “exclusive” and “premiere” in the subject line are likely to get her attention. It’s a tough game (though there seem to be more publicists in the pop/rock/hip hop/folk/etc… end of things). Seth Tompkins said “so much of our jobs is saying ‘no.’” He spoke of difference between KING’s radio listeners and the online listeners, with the latter being more receptive to new and experimental music. He said that about half of KING’s audience is over 55.

The second presentation was from Emerald City Music’s executive director Andrew Goldstein. The presentation had the feel of a TED Talk, with Goldstein attempting to show how he uses Human-Centered Design to attract classical music listeners to Emerald City Music’s events, in both Seattle and Olympia, at the moment. I was initially put off by his thesis, thinking the last thing I would want is to be marketed as a music fan the same way that I’m marketed to by Bed, Bath and Beyond as a user of towels. A few moments in, though, I was riveted. By the end of the hour, I was anxious to see when I could experience Emerald City Music for myself. It was fascinating to see his approach to branding applied to classical music, but when he spelled it out, asking people what they would want in a classical music experience, and then tailoring your shows around their input, feels revolutionary. But when the biggest names in classical music are unable to busk enough money in the busiest subways at rush hour to buy tickets to their own shows, some new approaches to marketing may be called for.

He said 89% of US adults say they have an appreciation of classical music, but only 9.8% actually attend concerts, and the key to reaching the audience in that median 80% is through understanding their worldview and what they like. He described his approach as 1. Identify targets; 2. Identify needs; 3. Build campaign/program; 4. Evaluate and adjust. One example he gave of step 4 in use is that Emerald City Music previously gave all of their guests a drink ticket when they entered the auditorium but when guests said that they didn’t like the process of getting one drink free and buying another, they implemented an open bar and actually found their beverage expenses actually dropped.

Anyway, I can’t wait to check out a show at Emerald City Music in the new year. Their new season begins in February.

The final thing I saw was the afternoon concert. It was a very avant-garde and experimental affair. Plus it was almost all percussion. My highlights were:

Melanie Sehman performs “Electric Speak! Junk for Me!” at NUMUS ‘18.

The first performance was from Bellingham percussionist Melanie Sehman of Bethany Younge’s 10 minute piece “Electric Speak! Junk for Me!” I had seen a video of someone else performing the piece on YouTube so I was excited to see what Sehman would do with the piece. It was a mixture of percussion from household objects, like blenders and coffee grinders, with some spoken word vocals.

Next was Texas percussionist Chris Sies performing Spencer Arias’s “Other Cities,” a twenty minute piece based on the experience of taking a walk in Seattle (it resonated with me because walking in Seattle is something I do daily). Arias watched on stage while Sies performed his piece, ready to intervene if anything went off-script.

I don’t have much to say about Storm Benjamin performing Andy Akiho’s “Stop Speaking,” but thought this photo is kind of cool.

Some random thoughts:

  • I found that I liked the pace of NUMUS quite a bit, compared to other music conferences I’ve been to. Most of the conference was in Cornish’s PONCHO Concert Hall, but they still allowed time between panels and concerts, often as much as half an hour, so nothing felt rushed.
  • By about 4pm, my brain was at max capacity, but I wish I would’ve been able to catch the afternoon panels and evening concert.
  • The speed dating idea was great because the conference was small enough that (almost) everyone could meet (almost) everyone else. I was relieved to find that I wasn’t the only NUMUS virgin.
  • I’ve run a music blog before, and it’s not easy. It’s especially difficult to run a good one, but KING FM’s Second Inversion is among the best I’ve ever seen. It’s focused, timely, relevant, and features new, interesting content daily. If anyone wants to start a music blog (though I don’t know why they would in 2018), they should see Second Inversion as exhibit A for one that is done right.

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