Jim Lockridge, the founder of Big Heavy World, in the non-profit’s studio in Burlington on Nov. 15. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

BURLINGTON – Do you play music? 

If the answer is yes, Big Heavy World, a Burlington-based music nonprofit, has some more questions for you — lots of them. 

The nonprofit, which has its own radio station and an archive of Vermont recordings, is surveying Vermont musicians with the hope of compiling data that will show the economic impact of musicians and give them more sway with decision makers. 

BHW has hired a British company called Sound Diplomacy to ask the state’s music community what they think would best help them succeed, such as more co-working spaces, support for events and performance spaces, or assistance in marketing and promotion.

One aim of the detailed survey – paid for with a $5,000 United States Department of Agriculture grant – is to obtain data about the industry that music promoters and others can bring to the table when they are talking to policy makers and grant makers.

“Civic leaders make an assumption that music stands on its own in the context of nightlife,” said Jim Lockridge, the nonprofit’s executive director and founder. “It’s like, ‘the bars have it covered.’”

Money for music

Music, like other areas of the arts, needs a constellation of support including local rules that enable venues to hold performances and programs that encourage new musicians, Lockridge said. For example, he’d like to see entities like the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing use Vermont-made music in its publicity campaigns.

“If society isn’t offering avenues for exploration and development of young people in relation to the arts in a way that embraces their interests, the arts don’t have a farm team,” he said.

The Vermont Arts Council and other groups do provide support to the music industry. Lockridge is part of a Chittenden County group that is working on the Arts Council’s Creative Network, a collective of organizations promoting arts and culture. 

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But music, particularly live music, doesn’t get as much serious attention from policymakers as other forms of art because it doesn’t produce something tangible, said Nicole Nelson, of the popular Burlington band Dwight & Nicole.

“As a visual artist, I might have a painting that I sold for $8,000,” said Nelson, who is also on the Arts Council board. “As a musician, I play for 100 people and most of them cried, most of them danced, and they went home glowing and buzzing… what is the value of that? Let’s break it down and look at it.”

Nicole Nelson of Dwight & Nicole. Photo by Luke AwtryNicole Nelson of Dwight & Nicole. Photo by Luke Awtry

The survey will come in handy as musicians apply for grants from any arts entities, she said. Grant applications often require artists to show how they will contribute to the community through their work. 

“That’s really hard to do as a musician,” Nelson said.

Data for change 

The data will also be valuable when Lockridge or others talk to state policymakers. One example where legislative action could help musicians is cancelling Vermont’s sales tax on event tickets, said Alex Crothers, co-founder and owner of the concert venue Higher Ground in South Burlington.

The tax “puts Vermont as a cultural region at a disadvantage in comparison to any other state in New England,” said Crothers. Often, bands set the ticket prices, so venues like Higher Ground must deduct the tax from that price, he said.

“In Burlington, a 9% sales tax comes off that ticket,” Crothers said. In South Burlington, it’s 7%. “It ends up being real money that comes off the potential gross of the show.”

Alcohol rules that don’t allow wholesale discounting and local permitting are other areas that need to be changed, said Crothers, who is working with Burton Snowboards to create a mixed-use arts hub that includes a concert space at Burton’s warehouse in Burlington.

“The culture of Burlington has been supportive in us potentially doing these moves, but we have a cumbersome permitting process in this state,” Crothers said.

Joe, a street musician from Marshfield, plays fiddle on State Street before the July 3rd parade in Montpelier. Photo by Roger Crowley

Lockridge has sent the survey to the 800 musicians on his mailing list, and the Arts Council is helping spread the word. Lockridge hopes every person in Vermont who creates music will participate, whether they make money at it or not. After creating an archive of about 5,000 recordings of Vermont music, operating a radio station that plays Vermont music 24 hours a day, and running a podcast that has featured more than 500 Vermont artists, he knows a lot of them.

They run the gamut from teenagers to senior citizens who create and perform hip hop, rock, instrumental, classical, non-western, traditional, folk, metal, hardcore, and everything in between. Lockridge hopes Vermont’s independent musicians, be they bluegrass violinists, members of choirs, or others who aren’t on his list, also take part. 

“Everyone who considers themselves a participant in the music sector is included,” Lockridge said. “Your input is valuable.”

Worth the time

The survey will be open until the end of the month. Then Sound Diplomacy will crunch the numbers and report back with findings.  

The survey is long and detailed; several musicians commented that they had started it and then left it for later, daunted by the detailed nature of the questions. Shain Shapiro, CEO of Sound Diplomacy, said he knows the survey takes a lot of time.

“But it’s the only way for us to get the data we need to provide recommendations and impact to convince a lot of non-music entities, which is the point,” Shapiro said. “We have used iterations of the survey elsewhere and we do get pushback against the length, but it’s the only way to make the survey data hold up quantitatively.”

Shapiro said in other cities where he has worked, survey findings have led to regulatory changes such as easing restrictions on street performance, ensuring music is recognized as a business when designing workforce development strategies, supporting the creation of new music infrastructure, and improving broadband, public transportation, and tax incentives.

“We need to recognize our value across all ecosystems, not just our value to ourselves,” Shapiro said. “Better legislative and regulatory conditions can elevate the impact and role of music in our communities.”

Among other things, Lockridge would like Vermont to create its first state music office – an entity that promotes local musicians and educates the public about Vermont music.

“It’s a fertile platform for economic development,” he said. 

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Anne Wallace AllenAbout Anne

Anne Wallace Allen is VTDigger’s business reporter. Anne worked for the Associated Press in Montpelier from 1994 to 2004 and most recently edited the Idaho Business Review.

Email: [email protected]

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