TED Conversations

Jon Austin Tomlinson

Founder, JATMusic

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What if music was more than art? Could albums and musicians work together to promote the issues of the world and fund the volunteer work?

What if music was more than a pass-time? What if albums lead to something bigger? Music connects people around the world and proves that politics will never separate us completely. War and poverty and corruption don't stand a chance when the people know and fight for what's real. Music is a chance to unite and address the world's faults. Anybody can create art and spend money for objects; why not for the sake of our people? The idea is that we can create a non-profit organization that can put together artist's works in order to raise awareness about the water crisis, the aids crisis, the favela crisis, the human rights crisis. To build a nonprofit organization to fund volunteer opportunities around the world. The point is not that our music alone would attract people or donations to help, but perhaps it could grow and tap into the fan base of many other music groups both local and more widely known and create some momentum for the communities that need it. What do you think of the idea of using albums and music as more than a profit-based endeavor, in order to stimulate and encourage social change?

Honestly I think creativity can be put to use towards promoting and raising funds for social change by every human in every way, not only through music. Creativity is our gift, and basically the whole point of this conversation is the idea that we can create things in our minds not for ourselves or our images but for our people as a whole. A single song can be created from nothing in our mind and put out into the world by the right people to create a lot of change.

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    Dec 11 2013: well, you know music is often used for social causes already, right? What is different about your idea here?
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      Dec 13 2013: Thanks Greg for the tip! I extended the conversation. I am happy to say that I am aware some music is used for social causes already, and I have seen the impact of a popular music figure proposing support for social causes to his fans, like the TedTalk Bono: My wish: Three actions for Africa.

      I think it is a great thing and very powerful coming from a popular musician. But I am talking about not just one musician supporting the cause here and there, what if we could develop an entire organization, somewhat similar to a production company, or a record label, in which every album/song's profit was put towards funding volunteer work in communities abroad?

      I am a musician myself, and I am considering putting an album together to help fund a volunteer trip to Thailand in 2016, during which I will be working with a program called Opened Minds in a Child care facility, teaching, or working in healthcare for children. But I am nobody, not famous. If I were to not stop there, and continue adding music works from my friends, from other successful musicians in my university, and maybe one day more popular music groups, I think there is a potential to generate a lot of funding for a lot of volunteer work around the world.

      In the end, our work would be noticed publicly by the organization's reputation (incentive enough for some music groups to contribute a song or album), people would enjoy donating or buying the music to support the work, and maybe we could even organize volunteer trips ourselves.

      It's different that other musical social movements I think only in that we would be teaming up for the single cause, utilizing the skills of many musicians, instead of asking a single musician alone to donate all of his earnings to a cause.

      Is this wishful thinking, or is there something promising in the idea? Why won't it work?
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        Dec 14 2013: well, I can think of some possible objections, although I'm not in this world of music and charity so it's hard to say how strong they are. For one, could enough musicians afford to give their time and effort away to make enough money to justify the effort? Aren't a lot of musicians poor, so they need the extra dollars themselves from the musicmaking? Then, also, could you sell enough to outweigh the costs of setting up and maintaining the organization and actually collect substantial charity dollars? Then, thirdly, maybe musicians like to contribute on a spot-by-spot basis, and perhaps having a permanent charity label would take away some of the specialness of it? It might have that effect on the public as well where they'd be going "oh, there's that label again, what a bunch of goody two-shoes," whereas with one-off efforts you might not get that. I'm not saying any of these are valid objections, jon, just to think about.

        When I was growing up, I loved music and played it a lot. One problem I have with music as I get older is I'm more aware that me playing it might bother someone else, I live in an apartment and I'm afraid it would bother the neighbor to have to listen to my music. Headphones are pretty difficult. If you have headphones with a wire, it's hard to dance with them on. Whether you have a wire or not, it's hard to lie in bed on your side and listen to the radio with headphones on. Plus I like to switch back and forth between stations, and that's hard too with the headphone wire getting in the way.

        Those might be my hesitations, Jon. Do you have any answers for any or all of them? I do think it's great that you want to help people.
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          Dec 14 2013: The video posted by Salim is an excellent example of how even world-famous musicians are willing to spare their time and effort for a worthy cause.

          I have also found in my personal experience that when you are writing music for a specific cause, you are more motivated and powerful in your delivery.

          I don't believe music should be about money or fame. Music is very powerful and I believe we should be utilizing it more often for the bettering of the world.

          To answer your questions with a few ideas, (which I as well can't say how strong they are yet,) I think that it doesn't matter, honestly, exactly how much money is raised for any cause. The fact that any money at all can be put together by the sheer creative effort alone of an individual is an incredible gift we own as humans, and with that comes incredible opportunity.

          If any musician likes to contribute on a "spot-by-spot basis," having a permanent charity label would not take away from their being special, because it would not work as a traditional record label. The organization I am proposing would allow musicians to contribute to the album and cause, (similar to the conglomeration of musicians put together for the show in Madison Square by Harrison except in an album and not a show (which isn't to say we couldn't put together live concerts one day),) and it would allow them to contribute on a spot-by-spot basis, if they desired. We could have musicians contributing one song, or maybe a full album, or maybe many albums and many shows, (seeing that the organization would attempt to raise awareness for multiple issues over a period of time.) This way even the poorest musician could muster up at least one song to contribute to the cause, and who's to say they wouldn't be even more widely appreciated for their contribution than if they had gone about releasing the same song solo for themselves.

          I appreciate the feedback, I am happy to bounce around these ideas with you guys from TED.
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          Dec 14 2013: To combat the public brushing the organization off as just another charity act would be one of our biggest challenges. We would constantly be fighting to raise awareness about the incredible importance of some of the issues we would be fighting. It would take a lot of effort on our part, but I for one am happy to put in the effort, and I can only speak for myself, but I think that with the right combination of songs/musicians/albums/or shows, people might realize that the issues are real, and they can ignore us if they like, but we are not working to get them to like us, we are working to raise money for a cause.

          I also think that the fact we are fundraising through music allows for those people who want to contribute to the cause to donate/buy the music, but also those that don't care about the cause are able to still contribute if they just want to listen to the music alone.
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        Dec 14 2013: well, looking around on the net, I do see some orgs that sound similar to what you are proposing. For example here is one run by the band Linkin Park: http://www.musicforrelief.org/page/about-us And reverbnation's program: http://www.reverbnation.com/musicforgood. I would imagine there are other similar programs. I often hear that before you start a new org, or new research, you should see if anyone has already started that org, or done that research. So you might look around to see, Jon.

        Are the two links different from what you are proposing, Jon?

        It seems to me the org would have to be successful at raising at least somewhat substantial charity dollars or musicians wouldn't want to be associated with it. Why donate your music if it's only going to raise a few dollars and hardly give any help?
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          Dec 15 2013: Appreciate the advice.

          The difference I can see here is that Musicforrelief is specifically for natural disaster relief, whereas what I am proposing would be to support the water crisis (the 780 million people with lack of access to clean water,) the aids crisis (and diseases that can be treated easily with simple over-the-counter medicine that kill more people than you would like to imagine,) the favela crisis (in places like brazil and south korea wherein the population is impoverished and often controlled by drug lords with no support from the governments to restructure or rebuild), and all other acts of war on humanity that only seem to occur because the world seems to turn a blind eye to it.

          Reverbnation does a good job of splitting profits between musicians and the issues of their choice, but it is less about the cause and more about the musicians, and allows them to each "pick a specific issue and split their profit half half with it," which as you may guess may not be as powerful or direct as an entire organization raising awareness and funds to fight a single issue at a time.

          What these organizations tell me is that it is possible. I like the devil's advocate you are playing, Greg, keep them coming.
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        Dec 15 2013: Well, Jon, one problem with shifting from one cause to another might be that it takes time to "get up to speed" on an issue. If you were to do AIDS for two years, then water crisis for two years, then favela problem for two years, in each case you would spend several months of each two-year block just learning about the issue, deciding where to target your money, and so on. Is that kind of inefficient? And then at the end of the two-year block you'd get out of that field and all the time you spent developing contacts in that field and learning about the field would somewhat be wasted in that you wouldn't use it ongoingly. I suppose that's why most charities stay in one field of helping. You or I should look around to see if there is any charity that shifts focus in a major way fairly often the way you are proposing doing. But you see the issue?

        An advantage of doing it your way, shifting from interest to interest, is that the people in your organization wouldn't get bored, plus you would all learn a lot about a wide range of human situations.

        I really like Reverbnation's idea of splitting the profits, really, making music is a lot of work and if musicians aren't going to get all the profits, they should at least get some?

        You're right, I am playing devil's advocate. Better to think through the problems in advance? I totally admire you for wanting to help people.

        If you are ever looking for a cause right here at home, one thing might be to work with prisoners who are trying to transition to life on the outside. There's a lady named Colleen Steen who writes a lot on ted conversations who did that, it seems like important work.
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          Dec 15 2013: I agree with you here that switching issues every two years could be inefficient.

          Well, imagine we got together with some of the popular local radio bands in my city, Houston. We inform them of the water crisis and ask if they'd be interested in contributing to the cause with a single song or more. We would put all of the songs together, release it as an album for water, mark each band that each song is contributed by, and open sales/fundraising/donations for the cause. Donors get the album and perhaps other band experiences (like meet and greets or even live shows for the cause.) The album itself would never go off sales, and even if we did perhaps release another album for a different issue, (or maybe the same issue with different popular musicians,) all of the albums would be available in the same place, and perhaps the larger we got, and the more fan bases we tapped into, the more people would stumble across the original albums.

          Perhaps it is not that we switch from issue to issue, just allow people to donate/contribute/buy albums for different issues at the same time. (Of course we would only start with a single issue, and if at any time we find the courage to step up for another issue and do a show for another issue, I think we could maybe get the support of an entire different crowd that may be passionate about the other issue.)

          So, exactly the way reverbnation allows for donations/support to up to 10 (or more) charities at the same time with the same site/organization, we would be doing the same.

          Although, I am still against the profit of the musicians.. When I dream of this organization I imagine it as a non-profit organization. I understand musicians time is valuable and maybe they don't have a lot of money and need to market their work for themselves, but the incentive for them to contribute with us would be that, 1) they will tap into a much larger fan base audience than just their own (every other bands' that contributes) and 2) for the world
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        Dec 15 2013: Well, Jon, one point you made seems really different. You said that this would be a good effort even if you didn't make any money to contribute to whatever the cause is the record is supporting? Except I thought the whole point was to make some money to contribute to some cause?

        My impression is that when most people contribute their time, effort, music to a cause, they would like the payoff of knowing what they contributed actually helped. If your organization got the reputation of collecting donated songs, putting them out, and making no money to contribute to charity, I would think even small-time musicians would be reluctant to keep contributing songs. I would think it's even more true with big-time artists, that when they give they want to be associated with a "winning" charity that actually uses what the artist donates to make the world better. Everyone likes a winner?

        If you agree with me that you want your org to actually succeed at generating charity dollars, then the question is can you do this? I don't know. You only see the occasional charity album come out, wasn't there one called No Nukes, and then We Are The World, and there was one for the West Memphis Three. But when you think of the 1000's of albums that get released, the number of charity albums is pretty small? What does that tell us? Well, for one thing, a lot of musicians want, and need, to make money off their music. Musicians have bills like everyone else. So they may be willing to give some music away, but they need to make some money from some, or most, of their music. So it might be hard for you to get donated music? This may be true even with small-time musicians who have day jobs, they need or want that extra music money?

        Are you in the music community? What percentage of musicians can give away as much music as it would take for your organization to stay in business? And then, you also have bills.....
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        Dec 15 2013: ....are you going to run this organization for free, but then you're going to have to work at some other job to make money, and in your free time you'll be running this org, man, are you sure you won't burn out?

        Did you say music shouldn't make a profit? But then noone could support themselves as a musician? But for the person who wants to support himself or herself as a musician, you're going to take away a lot of their happiness if they can't do that? Plus bring down the quality of music, because noone will be able to devote themselves to music in the intense way people do when it's their means of livelihood?
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          Dec 15 2013: Good points! What I meant was by I prefer the musicians not make profit was that I preferred the profits of the donations go straight to the cause.

          I too believe musicians deserve to profit off of their music and allow them to make a living, and I'm not talking about taking that away from them, but I am talking about just the donated music.

          When I said that it wasn't important exactly how much fundraising we were actually able to accomplish, I was still hoping that we would be able to contribute a significant amount towards projects. I agree with you that if we continually put out musicians' music and earned no returns, the organization would be a failure. The hope would be that if people wanted the music, or if people wanted to support the cause, we actually could earn some donations from our music alone (not to mention concert shows and perhaps musician meet and greets in the end.)

          The fact that we do only see the occasional charity album does, I agree, show that musicians need to support themselves with their music and keep the profits for themselves. But imagine, of the 1,000 albums, which is closer to 10,000 songs, if each artist donated 1 song. That's 1,000 songs, and maybe a good 100 albums.

          Yes I am in the music community, and one thing I can say for sure is that it is very difficult to make any money with your own music. Most professional musicians earn a living by playing for bars, restaurants, concerts, or other gigs. It takes a lot of time and marketing to get a large enough audience to be able to put out an album and make a profit off of it, due to recording costs. I also know that many musicians that make a living playing covers (and originals) in restaurants or bars or shows, usually do have their own original music, (and yes they may make some extra cash by selling CD's or merchandise at a show,) but most of the time unless the artist/group is very famous, it's difficult to profit.
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          Dec 15 2013: A benefit from this would be that our organization helps artists build their potential audience, perhaps we could team up with university's like Full Sail (that already offers free studio recording for an educational experience for the students) and offer the musicians who are willing to donate and work with us for the cause a chance to have their songs recorded for free.
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        Dec 15 2013: thanks, Jon. Well, it seems like you should lay your plan out to musicians and ask if they would be willing to contribute their music to this proposed organization. If it were me, I'd try to talk to as many musicians as possible, and I'd be as honest as possible, pointing out both possible benefits and possible drawbacks. Not to grind it into you, but I think one should point out that possibly by donating they take money out of their own pocket, they're going to be thinking it anyway so put it out for discussion?

        You could ask reverbnation how successful their effort has been. How many musicians choose to participate, and how many don't?

        I can't remember how Linkin Park's org works, but you could ask how successful theirs has been.

        You could draw up a hypothetical budget and see if the finances seem like they will work out. Do you know anyone, or more than one person, with good financial knowledge, perhaps run the budget past them.

        You should also think whether your org is really needed. Maybe Reverbnation beat you to the punch, maybe there's only room for a few orgs like this? I would really research how many other orgs like this there are. But if you decide not to do it, there are a million other ways to make a positive difference. My brother's friend has a band that plays most of their concerts in prisons for inmates.

        I'm a little doubtful based on how few charity albums get released. Personally, Jon, I'm a little more for a hard-working artist keeping most of the money they make, it doesn't bother me if rockers end up in Beverly Hills. Why exactly do you care so much about poor people in other parts of the world? And if you're going to help, why not concentrate locally, what did you think of my idea of getting involved with prison inmates and seeing if you can somehow help some of them keep from re-offending? That makes everyone's lives better.
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          Dec 16 2013: Personally, I'm just sick of beverly hills in general when there are 780 million people in the world without access to clean water. Why do I care? Because children die at a rate equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every 4 hours, every single day.

          Thanks for your input, it has been very helpful. I don't see why I should not try on the off chance some musicians would not like to contribute.

          Have some faith! Anything we do, the musicians will be fully in on the plan, (including the possibility of giving their profits away.)

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