More Than the Sum of Its Parts
Q&A with Shaya Lyon in Chamber Music Magazine
By Charlie Kaplan
In this special installment of Tech Chamber, we turn the tables to spotlight the work of Chamber Music Magazine columnist Shaya Lyon, who’s built an innovative new fundraising tool for ensembles and organizations called Dots.
Chamber Music readers know Shaya Lyon’s coverage of emerging technology for chamber music professionals, from virtual collaborations between musicians to DIY website fixes. But did you know she’s an entrepreneur herself? Lyon founded Seattle’s Live Music Project in 2014, dedicating herself to helping classical music listeners find performances of the works they love. Now she’s revealing her latest project, a new tool for organizations and ensembles to raise money from their supporters called Dots.
Dots allows arts organizations to break up their fundraising objectives into a familiar schematic: the chairs of an ensemble. Groups create a digital map of their ensemble or organization in a series of dots and then share a link with patrons who finance any seat right on the website. Donors can pay to support the oboe chair, or the viola, or the artistic director… and watch as fundraising goals topple. As chamber musician and LMP communications lead Megan Ihnen explains: “These dots are the people; these dots are the lifeblood of this organization and why we’re here in the first place.”
I had the pleasure of talking with Shaya and to learn more about Dots, the Live Music Project, and how musicians can use new technology to finance their work into the future. Our conversation was edited and condensed in collaboration with Shaya and Megan.
Charlie Kaplan: Can you give me a quick story about how you got interested in music and how you got involved with music professionally? I want to hear the genesis here.
Shaya Lyon: I’m a very casual musician. I took piano lessons as a kid, and grew up listening to classical music at my house. It was always on in the background.
When I was in my 20s, one of my siblings dumped a huge lot of MP3s on my laptop. A lot of it was classical. One of these files happened to be this beautiful piece — violin and cello with orchestra. I was trying to figure out from the metadata on the file: What was this beautiful music? I figured out that it was the Andante movement of the Brahms Double Concerto. I found a video in black and white from the late ’60s or ’70s of [David] Oistrakh and [Mstislav] Rostropovich playing the piece.
I was taken with their communication during their performance, and how they looked at each other with this longing, beautiful gaze. I thought it would be really, really cool to be in the room for something like that.
Living in New York at the time, I went to the Carnegie Hall website and looked around for [performances of the piece] there. I looked at Lincoln Center. I failed to find a performance that was happening in the future and not the past, and realized there was no great way to actually just look up a piece of music or even a specific composer and find all of the upcoming performances of that piece. My background is in technology — basically designing and building tools for people to find and share information within communities. I worked in the private sector for 10 years doing that.
Technologically, that was not a hard problem to solve. I started thinking about what tools would help us achieve that goal — being able to sort of stalk our favorite piece of music.
That’s how the idea for Live Music Project came to be.
CK: Let’s then go back a little bit because now we’re talking about the Live Music Project. You are working in the private sector, Shaya. Then what precipitates the change? How do you then transition into working on Live Music Project?
SL: It was that moment that happens when you’ve been in your career long enough that you’re hungry for a bit of autonomy and you have enough experience to maybe strike out on your own. I always just really wanted to build something.
I started to think about who would use a tool like this, because it answers a very specific need: “I know the composer that I like. I know the piece of music that I like. I want to go places and hear that. I would seek that out.” I wondered, “Does anybody think that way?” I started asking around. There were a few people who sounded like they were music aficionados and they really knew what they wanted. They loved the idea of having a tool to be able to find their favorites.
Originally, the idea was to collect the concert information from several major orchestras across the country. I didn’t know that there were many, many orchestras in each city.
A few years later, I moved to Seattle and met one of my neighbors, a man in his 80s who plays trumpet with a community orchestra. He invited me to come to a rehearsal. I had never been to a community orchestra. I didn’t know what a community orchestra was. It was great!
So I started asking them about audience-building, and someone told me, “We don’t really need to promote our concerts, we just really like to get together and play. We’d be happy just having our family in the room.” And their marketing person was like, “That’s not the case.” [Laughter] “No, of course we want to reach audiences, and we’d love help.”
Their concerts were free. Their whole season was free. I started to think about all of the music in Seattle that is accessible to people who have time limitations, need-to-bring-children limitations, financial limitations. Then, on top of that, personal aesthetic limitations. “I like stuff, but I can’t find it. How do I find it?”
When I hear about barriers to the arts, I don’t often hear about the information barrier. But in a way, access to the arts begins with access to information about the arts. So LMP makes it possible for people to find this music.
CK: Now talk to me about this next evolution, which is fundraising. How did you come across this idea and can you tell me a little bit about the path in?
SL: I got involved with a music organization that works with kids and adults, and I was sitting in on board meetings so I could learn about what they needed help with and to possibly contribute ideas through Live Music Project. They had a conversation about fundraising, and they were talking about $1,000, $10,000, who to ask. I could see people in the room thinking: I don’t know who — or how — to ask for $1,000.
I live in Seattle, at the heart of Amazon, where people drop $60, $80, $100 at a bar without thinking twice — people who also probably don’t necessarily have the time to think about philanthropy, but would be totally excited to enable a student to play.
The idea was to create an interface that people could use to sponsor a specific musician’s seat for a small amount — $25, $50 — and make it easy. Just click, put in your credit card information, and be done, that’s it. My idea was to represent the ensemble as a bunch of dots on a screen, so you can see that there are people, you can see there are multiple things on a screen and you can sort of see them sitting in a certain way, but you don’t have to, for example, know who the oboist is. Say you took oboe lessons as a kid and you’re attached to the oboe. You could sponsor the oboe and that will be enough for you to be connected to your oboist.
I got together with a friend and we spec’d it out and just hacked it together in a week and we hooked it up to a payment processor and the organization used it and raised over a $1,000 for a concert. We called it Dots. It was great.
CK: That’s amazing. What are some of the things you learned when you started to roll it out to people? How did you satisfy the feedback that you got?
SL: Once it became clear that Dots was something other people wanted, we built a version that could be used by any organization.
First, we took out the one-to-one, “You donate $25 to sponsor a seat, that person receives the money” component. Doing that led to a much more robust and flexible platform. It costs a lot more than $25 to support each musician in an ensemble! But if you abstract the seat from the person, and use it instead to represent donations to the ensemble, then you can launch a fundraiser for any amount, big or small, and the product will scale for that.
The ensemble’s campaign manager assigns instrument names to all the dots on the map, and chooses the dot sponsorship fee. The sponsorship fee is the same for every instrument. A school orchestra, could make the fee $25 or $50 — an amount that kids can ask a family member for.
There’s also a built-in donate-any-amount dot for each campaign, ostensibly so that people can contribute a smaller amount if they can’t afford the per-dot sponsorship fee. Regular dots can have only one sponsor, but donate-any-amount dots can take unlimited sponsors.
When our own campaign ran in the fall, we set the dot sponsorship fee at $25. We wanted everybody in the door. I really wanted to fill that map. What we noticed was that people were using the donate-any dot to give more than the standard sponsorship amount, not less. When someone wanted to spend a $100, they did it through the donate-any dot, instead of purchasing four dots. Which for me, as a product person, was like, “That’s not how you’re supposed to use that!” [Laughter] In hindsight, we realized it was easier for donors to make a single “donate-any” contribution than to go through the steps of sponsoring four separate dots.
It also meant that our campaign capacity was higher than we had anticipated. I had predicted that people would stop donating once the map was filled. That didn’t happen. People continued to contribute even after all the dots were sponsored.
Donors aren’t the only ones surprising us — we’re also seeing ensembles make creative use of the donate-any dots, like using them for a choral director so that the entire chorus could show their support for the director. Chamber groups can leverage the donate-any dots to encourage multiple donors to support a single instrument. We’ve also added composers to our own map, which is perfect for small groups doing big commissioning projects. It’s fun to see how ensembles are making Dots their own.
CK: If you were going to say, “Hey, this is a new thing we built — here’s how you use it,” how would you walk folks through how to employ Dots for their own ensembles?
SL: The best place to start is the demo campaign, “Banana Stand Symphony Fundraiser.” You can find it at dots.livemusicproject.org. Then, if Dots feels like a good fit for your organization, fill out the campaign setup form, and we’ll get you started.
CK: Talk these folks through the experience of when a campaign is live. What’s it like, and then how does it complete, and then how does it cash out for them? What is the culmination of the experience look like?
SL: One of the biggest joys is watching the dot map fill up as each instrument is sponsored.
Because the money comes through as it’s donated, and not at the end of the campaign, you can start and stop a fundraiser whenever you’re ready to do so. You don’t have to meet a deadline or fill all of the Dots to receive the money you raised. There’s also no fee to set up a campaign. The ensemble receives about 90% of the donations, 7% goes to Live Music Project to support our arts access programs and Dots, and about 3% of donations covers credit card processing.
It’s meant to be a low-stress, flexible-yield experience for people who have not done a fundraiser before.
Like any crowdfunding tool, Dots relies on an organization’s ability to reach out to its supporters. I know it sounds obvious, but we’ve learned through our own fundraising outreach that it helps to tell people about the work we’re doing, and why we’re raising this money. A deadline is also a good way to rally your staff and board around the campaign.
CK: Have you seen any good tactics from members of an ensemble adopting that fundraising part? What’s the best way, if you’re participating in such a campaign, to get folks involved?
SL: This is still very new. We haven’t seen a lot of examples from our community yet about how they’re doing that. Can I add a few tips for first-time fundraisers?
CK: Please, yes.
SL: When I got my first challenge from my board to raise $10,000, never having raised a dollar for an organization, it seemed really daunting. Something that helped me with that was to break down what that looked like in a year, which is, like, $27 a day. That felt reasonable. I made small asks and reached the goal in just a few months.
A few years later, when I was designing Dots, I tried to reinforce the idea that you can raise a daunting amount of money by breaking it down — which is not new to crowdfunding, but if you’re fundraising for the very first time, and you can see it in that way, it’s a lot less scary. The key to that is: you have to have an ask that you are comfortable making. If you’re trying to ask people for $100, and you’re not comfortable with it, you won’t do it, and you won’t raise anything.
Our communications lead, Megan Ihnen, likes to say that the dot map itself is not the new concept here, as a way to see your progress toward a goal. It’s that you can see it in a way that connects to the goals of your organization. These dots are the people; these dots are the lifeblood of this organization and why we’re here in the first place. You don’t have to be a development director to put Dots into place. You just have to have a goal. Here’s a tool; let us help amplify the important work that you’re already doing.
This post was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of Chamber Music Magazine, which is dedicated to the art and business of small ensemble music. Reprinted here with permission.