A sound investment

Artistic director of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Stephan Meier on how crowdfunding is backing new music

A sound investment
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (Credit: Robert Day)

It is the season for giving... and for those who wish to avoid the annual haul of music-themed trash, there are ways for classical music lovers to give a little, and gain a lot.

Crowd-funding is now a key tool in the fundraising kit of ensembles and organisations, both as a way of increasing balance sheets and in its ability to engage audiences in a meaningful, and enjoyable way. But, with the explosion of opportunities to invest in music, it’s a challenge to stand out from the crowd.

In 1991, long before the word ‘crowd-funding’ had even entered the lexicon, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group invented Sound Investment, a way to engage music enthusiasts in the funding, and development of new music, and to create a different kind of relationship between composers and their audiences.

The premise of the scheme is simple: ‘Sound Investors’ buy ‘shares’ of £150 in a newly commissioned work; they follow its progress, attend rehearsals, get to discuss the piece with its composer, and enjoy the premiere in the knowledge that they have helped in its birth. Their names are added to the score in perpetuity. Many then choose to do it all over again... and again (over 60% are serial ‘investors’) and over the years, there has been a startling range of works from the cream of composing talent to choose from: quartets, ensemble works, concertos, music theatre, even a work for 1,000 shouting voices by American composer David Lang, appropriately titled Crowd Out. Behind the scheme’s success is the thrill of heading into the unknown: 'the drug' as regular Sound Investor Michael Squires, puts it, of active engagement with music. Taking the plunge without knowing quite what you will get at the end.

The world premiere of David Lang's Crowd Out (in 3 minutes) from BCMG Videos on Vimeo.

In many ways, this encapsulates the unique appeal of crowd-funding: the notion that you can be a small, but crucial part of the whole. And it perhaps explains why so many classical crowd-funding initiatives have followed in the wake of Sound Investment, with the model adapted by ensembles in the UK, and worldwide. Leading ensembles such as the Monteverdi Choir and Aurora Orchestra have financed ambitious recordings in this way. New music has also benefitted: Brooklyn-based Bang On A Can’s People’s Commissioning Fund, founded six years after Sound Investment, has resulted in abundant commissions for emerging composers. In Germany, as in many other countries on the continent, the system has been copied in numerous ways and places. It’s the same in the UK: over the years, music lovers have been encouraged to buy small chunks of a score (or 'Buy a Bar' as London Music Masters put it in their 2011 campaign), or gift new music to a friend or relation (Britten Sinfonia’s Musically Gifted, has helped fund works by composers including James MacMillan, Nico Muhly and Mark-Anthony Turnage, and such is the enjoyment, many donors now choose to keep the pleasure of the ‘gift’ for themselves). And whilst the money is not easily won, the enthusiasm and willingness to give is there. To date, BCMG Sound Investment has raised over a quarter of a million pounds and helped fund 88 new commissions by leading and emerging composers.

Money, though, is only one part of the equation. Meaningful engagement is key, and as crowd-funding develops in the future, it is this element, coupled with ease of access, that will be crucial to its ongoing success.

Honesty has to be at the core of any crowd-funding initiative. You have to want to involve people in the process, and the incentives you offer must add true value, not necessarily in material terms, but in the ability for people to experience music in new, and exciting ways. Sound Investor Anne Fletcher puts it nicely when she says: 'I love the first rehearsal, with the sense of rapport between players and conductor, the nervous pride of the composer, hearing the effect of minor (and occasionally major) adjustments. I also greatly value the sense of belonging, of equality of esteem that leaves me free to express an opinion from the depth of my ignorance.' And composers often respond in kind, whether through unbidden, personal letters of thanks sent to each and every investor by Judith Weir from worldwide performances of her Sound Investment commission Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, or enjoying the company of investors as the work they supported, and they themselves, toured Europe (as in the case of Continuum by Colin Matthews – who describes it as 'a relationship like no other').  The success of the scheme is also reflected in the burgeoning audiences at our home, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, where Sound Investors regularly make up 25% of attendees.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of BCMG Sound Investment, we also look towards the future; our challenge is to both nurture the enthusiasm of our existing ‘investors’ and develop new champions of our work. In a changed economic environment, there’s a need to be flexible in the range of opportunities for investment and our pricing structures, and to make it easier to invest by harnessing ever-changing technological advances and widening the dialogue to those further afield. And we must continue to look for ways to provide fresh insights into composers, and the music of today, so that those who are yet to invest might be encouraged to do so in the future. However, at its heart, Sound Investment is a rarity: a pioneering idea that remains as fresh today as it was a quarter of a century ago. The fact that it is supporting the music of today, for all our tomorrows, with all the inherent excitement this entails, keeps us, and our ‘investors,’ on our toes. If you want to stand out, it’s a good place to start.

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group celebrates the 25th anniversary of Sound Investment at CBSO Centre, Birmingham on Saturday 10 December. Thomas Adès conducts a concert that includes the world premiere of a new Sound Investment work by Francisco Coll, and SI pieces by Simon Holt, Gerald Barry, Richard Baker and Zoë Martlew. 


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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