Live events have all but stopped in the past few months, leaving musicians and other performers with limited options to connect with their fans and earn money.
For Simon Tam, founder and bassist of The Slants — a band likely best known for their legal case that went to the Supreme Court of the United States over the rights to register their name as a trademark — seeing all their future bookings canceled gave them an opportunity to focus on their nonprofit work. Tam explains why and how in the Q&A below.
How have you conducted business in the past?
We’ve been touring and performing for the past 13 years — most of our business was conducted on the road, performing and speaking at events around the world. In addition to performing in more traditional spaces for a band like music clubs and theaters, we also made appearances at unconventional events such as anime conventions and law schools. When we weren't touring, we focused on writing and recording music in the studio and working with local organizations to strengthen their efforts in community engagement.
What immediate effects did stay-at-home orders have on you?
When lockdowns hit, we felt an immediate impact on our work — all of our scheduled events were canceled or postponed indefinitely. There was so much uncertainty; we couldn't even make plans for future touring nor could we get into the studio to work on other types of projects. Like many others working in the performing arts, there was a disparate impact in that we couldn't qualify for most of the economic relief programs. There were some emergency arts grants made available to artists, but most of the money was claimed quickly and couldn't really serve as a replacement for our income. Most people also weren't buying merchandise because they wanted to save any disposable income for emergency situations. Thankfully, each of the members of the band had other income, savings, and work that we could pivot to.
What changes did you make to adapt to our current situation?
Rather than focusing on retaining an old business model, we decided to refocus our work into our larger vision of making an impact. We used our resources to build up the 501(c)3 nonprofit work of our band: The Slants Foundation. We originally filed the paperwork for this in 2018, but the first couple of years were mostly strategic and spent recruiting a board as well as working on a theory of change. Over the past year, we decided to change this by launching it in a big way so that we could really live up to our mission of changing the world through the power of art. We wanted to provide resources for other aspiring artist activists who were experiencing similar difficulties that we faced when our band was first getting started.
“The greatest works of art only get completed with intention, persistence, and a willingness to take a risk.”
As artists ourselves, we knew firsthand the challenges that other creators were experiencing and the hurdles that traditional arts funding models unintentionally create when working with performers. I worked with our board of directors to streamline applications processes for applicants to make things easier to navigate, more transparent, and less bureaucratic. We also built mentorship into all funding so that artists could receive comprehensive support, develop a network, and create more sustainable practices for their career. We were able to do this work remotely with board members serving across five states and two countries.
We're still writing songs and creating content for the band, but those projects don't have any immediate deadlines now. Instead of working in real-time in person, we've divided up workflows by allowing each individual to write/produce parts for their songs in documents and files in a cloud-based system. It has allowed us to be more efficient than ever!
What were the challenges in implementing these changes?
The board of directors is composed entirely of volunteers. As such, it could sometimes be difficult to have everyone respond quickly to emails and messages — especially since they were dealing with their own respective challenges during this time as well. In addition, working on a nonprofit creates additional steps required for reporting purposes that aren't there in our band's normal workflow.
What have been the results?
This year, we helped fund over a dozen Asian American artists who are using their work to address increased discrimination faced during these times. We've also been able to fiscally sponsor another organization that is providing scholarships and mentoring to women and non-binary individuals. The nonprofit organization has been receiving great press and it's attracted new donors, volunteers, and supporters as well!
What have you learned through adapting to a remote environment?
Challenging times and limitations often provide opportunities to innovate. We often assume that the set systems and parameters that we work with are permanent, but that's not the case at all. If a full-time touring band can change course to launch a nonprofit organization that is overturning traditional arts systems, then I believe just about anyone can find other ways to do the work — especially the work that we are most passionate about.
What advice do you have for others who are trying to figure out this new way or working?
Sometimes it's a good idea to take a step back and imagine what we would do if we were starting over. What would it look like if it were easy? How would we do things if we knew what was coming? What would we change? Often, we're the biggest hurdle to our own progress. We can often work around systems (and society) by creating new paths to get where we want to go. I often recommend that people should adopt the perspective of artists: begin with a creative vision in mind of what you want to create. Then, step-by-step, one note or brushstroke at a time, create that work. The greatest works of art only get completed with intention, persistence, and a willingness to take a risk.