THE BIGGER PICTURE
An Interview with Sara Lucas
Published by Siena Oristaglio and Karina Vahitova on October 3rd, 2016
Sara Lucas approached us in September of last year to seek advice on an upcoming Kickstarter aimed at funding a tour for her music collective, LADAMA. Excited by her work and by the project, we did a series of workshops with her and were ultimately thrilled to see the campaign succeed. A few months after the completed tour, we sat down with Sara to discuss her experience with crowdfunding as well as her relationship to her community, the internet, and the business side of making music.
SO: What do you want people to know about your work as an artist?
SL: I'm a teaching artist that's dedicated to accessing the expression of humanity within each individual in the communities that I engage with musically. As a composer and performer, I strive to channel beauty in the original, personal, and community creation of sound as it defies movement and time.
SO: I see two different aspects to your work here: the educational aspect and the performing aspect. Do you see them as separate endeavors?
SL: They're interconnected. I believe facilitation is a valuable tool when you're working with an ensemble. Though I have a solo project, I find great gratification working within an collaborative framework. When working within my ensemble, I, like the other members of my group, facilitate amongst ourselves. This is the same process that I use when working with youth to write music. So yes, those two aspects of my work are connected in terms of process, regardless of the product or outcome.
KV: I believe the best teachers are those who are constantly learning, and who actively engage in a symbiotic relationship with their students. I'd love to hear you describe what LADAMA is for those who may not know.
SL: LADAMA is a collective of women musicians from four countries: Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and the United States. We are Mafer Bandola, Lara Klaus, Daniela Serna, and myself, and we function as a professional music ensemble and as a group of teaching artists. Our work together is based around the idea of facilitating others to create music and sound in an exploratory manner. It is those tenants that we use to write our own original music, perform it, produce it, and hopefully use it as a way to travel, conduct more workshops, and play more performances.
SO: We met you because you ran a Kickstarter for LADAMA that we consulted on. How did you use that platform and what did it enable you to do?
SL: Prior to doing the Kickstarter, we had been awarded four grants to conduct a South American tour but we still had a funding gap. Crowdfunding allowed us to close that gap and travel to all of our own countries to write music and record with youth within our own personal communities. In particular, this campaign allowed us to offer free performances by our ensemble during the tour.
KV: LADAMA's work is very socially engaged — it's the type of project that we love seeing artists crowdfund for because it allows a community who believes in a project to support it and get involved. Can you talk about the process of engaging your community for this project?
SL: The actual act of engaging a community through crowdfunding was really effective in the United States, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. In all circumstances, regardless of whether or not folks could donate, we were able to engage our communities through the process. By using social media, we connected to a lot of people who might not have otherwise known about LADAMA. Additionally, it was wonderful to meet people along the road who had backed the Kickstarter.
SO: What was it like to meet backers in person?
SL: It was great. I knew many of the backers in New York. We ended up having six shows in New York in two weeks and I know that our campaign brought people to those performances. It helped in particular in Brazil as well. When we played a festival during Carnaval in Recife, the sound guy showed up — the sound guy!— and I found out he had given to our Kickstarter. That was really exciting.
SO: I love to hear about artists connecting with people through the internet and then having those connections translate in person. The financial part of the Kickstarter is an important piece of it, obviously, but I think artists sometimes forget about how powerful the community engagement aspect can be.
SL: Exactly. The campaign totally worked for us in that regard. The Kickstarter built a lot of excitement for the in-person events.
SO: How did you see that play out?
SL: The Kickstarter created "buzz." We were our own publicists for the three weeks leading up to playing in New York. Even though we had six shows in two weeks here, there were a number of repeat attendees — some went to two or three shows and then told their friends about us. Our penultimate show at National Sawdust, for which we had partnered with Found Sound Nation and collaborated with students at El Puente, felt like the result of other attendees and Kickstarter backers spreading the word. El Puente is an incredible organization in Williamsburg with an after-school arts program that revolves around peace and social justice. National Sawdust is a new and unique artist-run music venue that provided a residency for LADAMA to work with El Puente. We felt privileged to have access to their extensive community and El Puente’s which brought families, artists, and social justice activists together for our collaborative night at National Sawdust.
Prior to doing the Kickstarter, we had been awarded four grants to conduct a South American tour but we still had a funding gap.
KV: As LADAMA, do you plan to continue to engage the internet in future endeavors? How do you feel the internet could help to support your goals?
SL: Definitely. Being in four different countries, the internet is all-important. We could not have accomplished what we have without it. We use web-based apps and email to communicate with each other. I don't think there's anything particularly innovative that we're doing that goes beyond social media engagement right now.
SO: And your mailing list, I assume.
SL: Yeah, although that’s still in it’s beginning stages. I'm sorry.
KV: It's funny when artists apologize to us for being "bad" at their mailing list. They know how much we love a good mailing list.
SL: I will tell you this: in New York, people prioritize reading their emails. In South America, there is the added layer of relying on and utilizing apps and, in some ways, it's done in a more sophisticated manner than what I’ve observed here. It’s possible that in Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela, our audiences were more actively engaged on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter than in New York.
SO: It's a blend, then — depending on where a show or event is, you'll read that community and determine the best channel with which to reach them.
SL: Yes. We have many discussions about this in our group because Lara, Daniela, and Maria are active internet users in very diversified ways. It’s good for us that we all specialize in accessing community spaces using different aspects of the internet. I tend to focus on the website as I enjoy working on it more than say, interfacing with Facebook. Maria is great at social media — she is a master at using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat to build her music career. Daniela runs a video blog interviewing musicians and artists in Bogota. And Lara gives Skype percussion lessons specializing in the music of Northeastern Brazil.
SO: When you say Maria is "great" at social media, what makes you say that?
SL: She interacts with the public. She posts regularly. She promotes other artists and their collaborations and is very generous in that way. Lara and Daniela do this as well. They promote young musicians and other female musicians that are doing incredible things. I think it's effective, when updating social media, to introduce others in your orbit. Don't just say what you're doing — say where you're doing it, who you're doing it with, and so on.
SO: How do you connect with the internet?
SL: I love the internet, in some ways. I use Instagram. I think I might be a mildly effective Instagram user. [Laughs.]
SO: What about Instagram makes it easy to use for you?
SL: I love photos. I don’t enjoy sending words out into the world unless I've spent an awful lot of time ruminating about them beforehand so I prefer images. I don't look at Twitter — hardly ever. Maybe I should? I recognize though that others use Twitter artfully, my favorite example being Teju Cole.
SO: Wait a second – there's no "should" here. In speaking with artists, so many feel like they "should" be using this platform or that platform. What we work with artists to do is build a relationship with the internet that feels healthy. In our courses, we talk about focusing on what works and feels authentic to you. Otherwise, it'll feel like a chore and you'll burn out.
SL: Like I said, I do like to work on our website. I have to forcibly not do it to complete other tasks. In particular, I enjoy writing for it. This also extends to writing grants. Just as I enjoy composing music, I also enjoy composing words.
KV: Having done both grant-writing and crowdfunding, what do you see as the advantages of each?
SL: One of the most helpful things you said to me, Siena, was that I should design the Kickstarter page like a website. As a result, it ended up not being much of a chore. And it was fun to edit the video — with the help of two wonderful friends! — though it was hellish to get it done in time. There is an advantage to grant-writing that remains in its process. Through the act of naming something so well-thought out, minutely detailed, and planned down the very last dollar, there is the possibility of executing a project that has been fully developed at the outset. With grant-writing, there is also an art to persuasive writing.
SO: True. There are also planning and persuasion factors in running a crowdfunding campaign.
SL: Yes, those were the easier parts of crowdfunding for me. The hard part was engaging with the internet in real time —18 hours a day for a month during the campaign! And also writing a script for the video.
SO: Is there a piece of advice that you would give on writing the script for a crowdfunding video?
SL: Less is more. Succinct, concise information goes far. Then I'd say, put yourself in the video and be very real, honest, and earnest.
SO: That's great. Let me ask you this: Is there anything that you've learned about the business of music, generally, that you wish that you'd known when you were starting out?
SL: Save. Save money. Save a little bit of everything you earn and then put it back into the next thing that you do. Constantly reinvest in yourself and your community.
KV: That's a great piece of advice.
SL: I feel like I just learned that last month. I hope I can start doing it now. [Laughs.]
KV: Well, it's on record now so maybe that'll remind you. If you could imagine a crash course that you'd want to take right now about something arts-business related, what would it be?
SL: Any ideas about organization would be helpful. I feel privileged to be involved in so many projects but how to organize all of the content and potential revenue can be challenging. Obviously, you want to diversify your revenue streams as a freelancer/creative artist these days. Most of the time, your sustenance will come from many sources. Learning how all aspects of one’s practice and work could feed into each other would be helpful. Simple organizational skills go a long way to understanding the bigger financial picture and allowing an artist to be independent.
Save. Save money. Save a little bit of everything you earn and then put it back into the next thing that you do. Constantly reinvest in yourself and your community.
SO: So, you'd like a course in how to see the bird's eye view of how different revenue streams can come together and support you in a way that's sustainable. Cool. We ask this question because we have our core curriculum developed and we'll be creating more elective courses soon. When we talk to artists about what their needs are, patterns start to emerge, and many artists that we've talked to have said similar things. This is not an uncommon feeling that you're expressing.
SL: I have friends who have received large grants and when they go to foundation meetings, they are handed a binder that shows them different ways they could use that money, as well as how other artists have used that money. These organizational methodologies of creating financial reinvestment and regeneration would be helpful to all independent artists. It might be as simple as signing up for mint.com, but I don't think it’s quite that.
KV: It's probably a combination of tools and resources that will help. Part of our mission is to research what those might be and provide them to artists so they can create that big picture structure for themselves.
SL: You know what's interesting? I caught up with a few friends recently. One of them works in “knowledge management” for corporations. The other consults with companies on how to improve their websites and they are both well-paid for their services. When I explained to them how LADAMA had done everything from the ground up independently, including engineering workshops, writing grants, designing curriculum, composing music, promotion, and building our website, they were really surprised. I thought to myself, these are skills that many artists cultivate for themselves that — beyond not hiring other people to do their work for them — they are using to merely sustain themselves financially. It's so interesting that as artists, those skills don't always translate into other lucrative revenue streams.
SO: It's true. So many artists have built immense skill sets but it's not translating into sustainable revenue for them. Our goal is to get information out there about how to connect those dots.
SL: Awesome. I can't wait to learn more from you guys.
Sara Lucas is a New York-based vocalist, guitarist, composer and youth facilitator. She is the co-founder and bandleader of internationally renown avant-pop band, Callers, and co-director and member of the international music ensemble, LADAMA. She has co-produced and released three full-length albums with Callers (Fortune, Life Of Love and Reviver), recently been awarded grants from the Augustine Foundation, Brooklyn Arts Council, and Performing Americas for work with LADAMA and is a OneBeat Fellow. As a teaching artist she is dedicated to accessing the expression and humanity within each individual and respective community that she engages with musically. As a composer and performer she strives to channel beauty in the original, personal and community creation of sound as it defines movement and time.