#DigitalSkeptic: A Model for Breaking the Rules and Making Money in Music

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Justin Timberlake might want to take a national tour time-out for a nice long chat with Tim Munro.

"Everything we do is about creating a personal relationship with the audience," Munro said as he explained to me his unlikely, Digital Age music business success story. See, he's the flutist and co-artistic director for Eighth Blackbird, the Chicago contemporary classical music sextet that counts Bill Clinton, The Edge and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche as fans and collaborators, respectively.

The articulate Australian, and his fellow Oberlin College & Conservatory grads, do what most musicians -- classical or otherwise -- can't: Make real money singing, writing or making art with a very simple business model.

"We are not talking down to you," he said. "We are playing our guts out with this great music. And we hope you love it."

Munro and Eighth Blackbird earn in the lower seven figures annually presenting passionate interpretations of -- get ready for this -- essentially unknown contemporary classical music works. They really do support a staff of six and tour 220 days a year performing work such as Steve Reich's Double Sextet, David Lang's These Broken Wings and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. I for one look forward to attending their gig down at Manhattan's The Kitchen in February.

In the process, Eighth Blackbird has earned the street cred of its hard-core musician peers. The ensemble has taken down three Grammys and its members perform routinely in the world's greatest venues, including Carnegie Hall and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, and teach at three music schools, including the nearly impossible-to-get-into Curtis Institute of Music in Center City, Philadelphia.

"My girlfriend says I am niche famous," Munro joked. But he follows up modestly: "We are on solid financial footing, which is very rare in the post-Digital-Age classical music business."

Breaking the classical rules of the Information Age
What's all the more virtuosic is that all this business upside soars smack in the face of the so-called iron rules of the Information Age music biz. First of all, the splashy, large-scale live productions that are supposed to make up for lost CD revenues are anything but golden in today's tarnished classical music business.

"That traditional model of selling entire season subscriptions is changing," Roberto Diaz, president at the Curtis Institute, told me over cheese and grapes after a performance this past summer at the Bay Chamber Concerts in Camden, Maine.

"It's a challenge now for even the biggest arts organizations to fill those seats."

Diaz explained that in spite of musical arts organizations performing the greatest of human masterworks -- remember, the "corporate rock" of classical music is Mozart and Brahms -- there's been a catastrophic drop in patronage and funding in live music events. Of many examples, this year no less than the New York City Opera announced that after 70 years it would end operations due to lack of money.

Eighth Blackbird's survival tactic, Munro said, has been to evolve the classical music performance formula on much smaller, subtler ways.

"It's very simple what we do. We play the living bejesus out of a small number of pieces," he explained.

By focusing on a laser-tight repertory, Eighth Blackbird not only memorizes the music they performance - which is unheard of in chamber music -- they, without exaggeration, perform each piece or 150 or 200 times. And Munro say that's where the magic lies: "Those pieces become extensions of who we are."

It's the humans, stupid.
Listen up, investors, to exactly what Munro said happens next that really puts food on the information age table.

"We know the music so well," he said, "it becomes tools we can use to reach through the darkness, both digitally and on stage, to break that fourth wall with the public."

And that all means that as much as we investors are dying to pin our hopes and dollars on the magic-seeming tools such as Pandora ( P), Twitter ( TWTR) and LED lighting to eke out the pennies in what people listen to, read or watch, the fact is the only tools left worth betting on are the human artists crazy enough to throw themselves at their own humanity like Eighth Blackbird.

New software, online platforms and live event technology have their place. But only in moderation. What really pays the bills is carving out a niche.

"This repertoire becomes tools we can use to reach through the darkness, both digitally and on stage, to grab the audience," Munro said. "And shake them as hard as we can to remind them what it is like to be alive."

That experience of renewal is what people will pay for. And where the profits will be found. And the information age's Highway to Hell becomes a Stairway to Heaven,

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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