Interview with NYC Musicians Meetup Organizer, Part I

One modern benefit of technology has been the formation of local musician communities that meet online and in person to engage and create music. Meetup is home to the The NY Musicians Group, which claims some 600+ members. Joining the meetup is as simple as filling out an online form, and will bring you in contact with a diverse and energized group of people all exploring music in different ways.

We recently interviewed Phil Robinson, the organizer of the NY Musicians Group, to find out more. Because his responses were so insightful, we will publish them over a few days to let you digest them…

How long have you been organizing the NYC Musicians Meetup?

Two and a half years.

What size is the membership, and how many people go to the Meetup events on average?

Well, our page on the Meetup site indicates that 676 people have ‘joined’ our group.  That means that that’s the pool of people who’ve registered to receive our event announcements and who can RSVP for events.

However, the number of active members who we see in person is much lower; and is probably closer to 30 very active regulars, another 30 once-in-a-while members, and then a large pool, close to 100 who float around and come to our larger events or pop in every once in a while.  Others participate only online for the most part (eg. discussion forums, or respond to group announcements, etc.).

We hold anywhere from 2 to 6 events each month, of all sorts (open mics, workshops, open jams, networking nights, member showcases, etc.) and some are designed to be large events and some are designed to be small.  Our smaller workshops work well with 7 or 8 people present; our larger events, like the Central Park Jam, gets cooking with 40 to 50 people.

In practice, it’s a fairly fluid community.

Are the majority of Meetup members professional musicians or hobbyists?

(To answer your question, I have to introduce a third category.)

If ‘professional’ is defined as ‘primarily supporting oneself financially by playing music’, I don’t think we have too many of those, although there are a few.

Most members of the group have the goal of supporting themselves from their music, and take it that seriously, but are not at the point of being able to completely quit their day job… yet.  However, I’d hesitate to use the word ‘hobbyist’ to describe them, as it implies a casualness or a lack of seriousness or a lack of ambition.

Many of the members of the group (myself included) do understand themselves as engaging in an active career as an independent musician, but also still earn at least a portion of their income through other non-musical means as well.

And then, there are of course, the people who do view it as a hobby.

So, to break it down, I’d say it’s roughly:

2% professional musicians (supporting themselves through music)
48% independent musicians (still doing some non-musical work as well)
40% hobbyists (do it for fun and have no intention of earning a living from it)

What musical styles are well-represented in the Meetup?

You name it, we got it. Popular styles (rock, pop, hip-hop, r+b, punk, singer/songwriter, dance, etc.), more traditional styles (bluegrass, acoustic, folk, blues, jazz), academic styles (classical, opera), electronic, film composers, etc…

Hmmm, now that I think of it, I don’t think we have any country musicians.  Not sure why!

How often does the group convene?
We have anywhere from 2 to 6 events each month.

What types of Musician Meetups are there: open mics, social events, speakers, jam sessions?

We have:

  • Open Mic Nights
  • Jam Sessions
  • Song Workshops
  • Skills Workshops (eg. Group Guitar Lesson)
  • Networking Events
  • Recording Workshops
  • Member Showcase Nights
  • Member Gigs
  • Social, Fun Events (eg. Karaoke Night)

Is there ever an educational element to the events, whether in terms of music composition or
the business of music?

The vision behind the group is to create a community that serves itself, in which everyone pools their knowledge and skills in a way that each of us benefits from the experience of the others.

So, there’s a lot of education that happens along the lines of: someone shows up who knows a lot about A but not about B; and another person shows up who knows B but not A.  Most events are organized to give everyone a chance to say out loud to the group what it is they have to share and what it is they want to learn or get out of it.  So a lot of knowledge transfer (eg. business perspectives, music skills, etc.) happens organically.

Occasionally we are explicitly educational, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

How do the jam sessions work? What’s the dynamic?

We hold a three-hour jam session at a place which gives us a couple of rooms.  Each room is fully equipped with drums, mics, keyboards, amps, etc..

We have a jam facilitator/host whose job it is basically to keep everyone happy for the three hours—generally that’s not hard to do; people are basically happy to play and so long as the music keeps chugging along they’re fine.  The facilitator knows many songs and will often bring a bunch of songbooks to hand out—pretty standard repertoire, including lots of classic rock such as the Beatles; the kinds of songs people are likely to know.

Thankfully, it’s very easy to be inclusive of all skill levels in a jam— beginners are thrilled to be able to strum along to the chord progression; whereas more advanced players have the opportunity to stretch out and improvise more elaborate solos, etc…

It’s basically the facilitator’s job to make sure it’s as easy for everyone present to participate as they want it to be. When the group gets large, the members often split up into the two rooms, and each room might play a different style of music.

For the most part, it’s pretty self-organizing.

What should a musician attending the group for the first time expect?

Everyone is welcome, regardless of skill level or amount of experience!  We have an official host at each of our events, whose job it is, really, to make everyone feel welcome, especially newcomers.  Beyond that, every event is very different (depending on whether it’s a networking night or a song workshop).  The format of each event is well-described on our Meetup site.

The ‘MEET AND GREET’ nights are specifically designed to be welcoming to new members—there, we basically orient people to the group and the types of events we have and give everyone an opportunity to introduce themselves and say what it is they’re looking for and what they have to offer.  Afterward, when the weather’s nice, we tend to walk a couple blocks over to the park (in grand Village tradition) and have a fun jam/sing-a-long in the park.

Is the Meetup mostly fun and casual, or is it more networking / career-oriented?

It’s often both at the same time.  I’d say the majority of people come for a fun, casual time; however, you’re always meeting people and interacting with them at our events, so the networking aspect of it is going to happen whether you’re explicit about it or not.

Does the group have any affiliations or sponsorships from music industry businesses or venues?
We’ve built multiple relationships over the last couple of years, and in each case they arose organically as the possibility of a mutually beneficial arrangement became apparent to both parties:
Jam NYC (they give us a group discount on renting music studios for our jams and workshops)
The Baggot Inn (would give us time during their Monday nights to book our own musicians (before it was closed down))
Kenny’s Castaways (they give us time during their Monday nights to book our own musicians)
Papagena Productions (hold recording workshops for our musicians)
The Back Fence (would allow us to hold events while watching/chatting with veteran musicians and joining them on the stage)
Members are often willing to donate their services/businesses as well, for example members have offered discounted videography rates to other members, etc.)

Does the group ever have guest speakers from the industry?

We’ve done this only a little bit so far—we’ve had a recurring guest-star, an established musician who would spend some time with our group and field specific questions from our members.

Continue reading Part II of the Interview with Phil Robinson of the NYC Musicians Meetup