Announcer: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland.
Dr. Lisa Belisle is a physician and editor-in-chief of Maine, Maine Home+Design, Old Port, Ageless, and Moxie Magazine. Love Maine Radio show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 349, airing for the first time on May 27th 2018.
Today, we speak with Matt Chappell, the owner and operator of Gather Restaurant in Yarmouth, and Ari Solotoff, a lawyer with the Portland firm, Bernstein Shur, who has a background in non-profits and the music industry. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: Matt Chappell owns and operates Gather Restaurant, a neighborhood eatery in the heart of Yarmouth’s Village. As a proud native Mainer, Chappell has intentionally pursued ways to make Maine the focus of his restaurant. Thanks for coming in today.
Matt Chappell: You’re welcome, glad to be here.
Lisa Belisle: Thank you also for all the food that you have served to me and my family over, how long have you been in business now?
Matt Chappell: We’re in our sixth year.
Lisa Belisle: That’s kind of crazy to think about.
Matt Chappell: Yeah, yeah, and I do see your face regularly. It’s nice to see you every week.
Lisa Belisle: That’s right. I think that during this winter’s snowstorms we’ve even been, maybe, sometimes the only ones there, or not that many other people around us, which goes to the point that you guys have really made this a gathering place in all sorts of weather.
Matt Chappell: Yes, well, that was the idea five, six years ago. I had been in Yarmouth for probably 15 years at that point and had been to a number of establishments, all good ones, but I felt like Yarmouth was ready for something a little bit different, a little more neighborhood-y food that was Maine-based food. We didn’t have that in town at the time.
Portland certainly had their share of it, but Yarmouth did not at the time, and the space was just calling for being a gathering place, a gathering spot. This old Masonic Hall had a history of being a community space. I’ve heard all the stories. Every month someone comes in and says, “I remember when …” It’s all the way from dance recitals to the candy shop that used to be there, the voting that happened back in probably I think the ’50s or ’60s, it was a place to vote.
I haven’t heard much history of the Masons. That’s perhaps a little more secretive, but all the other things that have happened, it’s a really cherished community space. Now it’s a restaurant, and it gets activity all day long.
Lisa Belisle: You also have a son who works there with you. He’s a senior in high school now?
Matt Chappell: Yeah. His name’s Silas, and he’s been there probably about two of the five years as a busser and now he serves once in a while, but also still buses, helps out in the kitchen. He seems to be drawn to the kitchen more and more these days. I think he likes the environment, the energy. A lot of young kids do. It’s, I think, oftentimes their first job and they’re surprised that work can be fun.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think that’s something that we put out there in this world, that work is work? Work is something that shouldn’t be enjoyable, that you’re allowed to go to school up to a certain point. Then you need to get a job and you need to work, and it’s supposed to be difficult for the rest of your life.
Matt Chappell: I’m not sure about that, but I do know that creating a work environment that people enjoy being at was not a mistake. I have heard people comment about other places they’d been that have not been enjoyable. Either they arrive at Gather, or they’ve been there long enough to realize that what we’re trying to create is an upbeat and positive environment, especially in the kitchen.
I’ve worked in a number of kitchens over my lifetime that often, are run by grumpy chefs that like to bark at everybody. I avoided those people as best I could, and didn’t enjoy working for them myself, so I assume other people didn’t either. I think what we’re doing, and I’ll paraphrase what my chef has used as a term, we’re creating a work family. That’s how he refers to it. He used that term the other day and I thought it was a really interesting term. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s what we have, extended work family.
Lisa Belisle: Which is good and it’s also important, especially in your space, because it’s an open kitchen. If the people are sitting down below in the restaurant, and they’re looking up above, they’re going to see whether it’s happy or sad or angry people who are preparing the food that they’re going to be eating.
Matt Chappell: Yes, that and if your server is going to get barked at in the kitchen, they’re going to carry that all the way to your table and that’s going to influence the experience that you have as a customer. There are all kinds of reasons to create a more positive work environment.
Lisa Belisle: I haven’t noticed a lot of turnover at your restaurant. There are many of the same people who are working there and seem happy to be working there for, I don’t know, almost since the beginning?
Matt Chappell: I do have some originals. I have four that still work for me out of, I think I have 20, 22 employees at any given time. Yes, there are some people that have been there since the beginning, and some have left and come back, so that’s encouraging. Some have met their spouses and gotten married and had babies, so that’s exciting, although I make it a rule not to employ husbands and wives or spouses and girlfriends or boyfriends. It’s not a good choice. The relationship falls apart. I still need both of them.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, I think that’s probably fair. I would also think that, especially as people’s families mature, it could be that it would be hard to have people working in an evening shift if you end up with small children, for example.
Matt Chappell: Yeah, well the restaurant business, except for the kitchen, it’s often a part-time gig. A lot of the people I employ on the floor, servers, they have other pursuits in life and that’s what makes it interesting. I’ve got woodworkers, I’ve got people that make leather bags for a living, I’ve got photographers. Let’s see, there is always an interesting story that’s coming through the door from an employee. That’s just how you have to make it work. It’s a supplemental income, it’s not a career. They have other pursuits.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think that more people are getting into the food service industry and staying in it longer?
Matt Chappell: Actually, in the kitchen, we’re finding the opposite, that there are fewer people getting into the culinary arts, and it’s harder and harder to find the staff that you need. A lot of that is driven by the fact that there are so many restaurants and hotels competing for a small pool of staff that it’s just harder and harder. Back to my point about creating a positive environment, that is one way that we retain people.
It’s not just through salary and benefits and pay and all that. It’s, “Do I want to work here? Do I want to get up and come to work every day? Is this something I’m looking forward to, or am I dreading it?” We’ve all been there, right?
Lisa Belisle: Yes, I think anybody who’s spent any time in the work force probably has been right there. You’ve also made a conscious effort to create a space that is welcoming for families with small children.
Matt Chappell: Yes, right, which was really just like the restaurant, driven out of my own personal interest and need. I have two boys and remember going out to restaurants with them, and wanted to. The places that were welcoming I wanted to go back to, and the ones that gave you the sneer, you typically didn’t go back to. It’s challenging. You don’t want to create too much of a romper room scene for the other people that don’t have kids.
We’ve created a little corner that has a table with books and coloring and quiet toys, nothing loud that makes noises. Young parents like to come and sit at the tables nearby. They can have a conversation amongst themselves while the little ones play. Sometimes it can be too much, and you never know what that’s going to look like because you don’t often know who’s walking through the door.
Typically, it’s manageable, very manageable. I probably get more comments about that, that we’ve created a space for them to feel welcome, not just tolerated but welcome and comfortable, as much as the food and the service.
Lisa Belisle: When I am there I often notice the parent, grandparent, child dynamic and I think that’s nice, that you are bringing in small extended families, and they can all find their spot and enjoy an experience at a restaurant.
Matt Chappell: Right, and you’ll notice that there are no TVs on the wall either. Obviously people are going to bring in their own devices, and use them if they want, but I find if you put TVs on the wall, it’s just an instant draw to your eyes, and all of a sudden you’re not paying attention to the people you’ve come out to eat with.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I’m actually a fan of that. I know that people who maybe are following sports very closely would have a different view.
Matt Chappell: Some want the game on the wall.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, but I think that’s true. It’s not just paying attention to the people you’re with, but also the food that you’re eating, which we’re not always as good at, perhaps, as we might be. It tends to become, for some people, just a means to an end. “I’m hungry, put food in. I’m not hungry anymore.” You’re very careful, from what I can see, to provide some food that’s appealing. It’s comforting, but it’s also creative, it’s local. There are a lot of different things people get out of your menu, I think.
Matt Chappell: Yeah, it is a mix to appeal to a broad audience. You made the point earlier, it could be the five-year-old, grandmother and Mom at the table, and they all have different palates and interests, what’s on the menu for them. We do our best to have enough, but not too much. I don’t want a big, five-page menu. I don’t think customers do, either. You get overwhelmed with choice, but you have to have enough there to satisfy people.
We’ve been, I think, successful at balancing the things that you mentioned, comforting food but also creative and tasty. One thing I’m seeing lately a lot more of, is an interest in non-meat dishes. I say non-meat instead of vegetarian or vegan because it’s typically people that aren’t either one of those. They’re not vegetarians or vegans. They’re just people who’ve said, “I don’t want to have meat three meals a day, or even seven days a week. I want to take a break from that on any given day.”
We’ve been working on coming up with dishes that are non-meat dishes, that are creative and different and fun. I would say, and would admit when we first opened, we just did the typical pasta. We’re going to satisfy the vegetarians with that dish, and that’ll be fine and we’ll move on to all these other fun dishes. Now, we’re really thinking through what are some non-meat, whether it’s the lentil falafel that we do, or the tofu golden bowl that is flavored with nutritional yeast or brewer’s yeast.
I’m fortunate to have a great chef, Colin Kelly, who’s a meat eater himself, but has come around and realized that you can do some really fun, interesting things with a vegetarian dish. We’re working on more of that right now, because the demand is just growing.
Lisa Belisle: I appreciate that, as somebody who eats fish, a pescetarian. There are often more options available for me, but still not as many as if I ate lamb and duck and beef, and all the other options that people who do eat meat have. When I go to your restaurant, and you have a warm kale salad with falafel, which is something that I will sometimes get, or you will have really nicely done Brussels sprouts, it’s good because it doesn’t feel as if it’s the poor cousin to the meat dishes.
I mean, I buy just as much as somebody who likes a hamburger. I like to have things that are flavorful and filling and nutritious. I think it’s nice that we have gotten to this place in our food culture where this is happening.
Matt Chappell: Right, yeah, it’s not just about omission, not just removing the meat and saying, “Well, that’s a dish now that’s vegetarian.” You’re going into it saying, “All right, what are things we can use to make a really flavorful vegetarian dish?” It’s fun, it’s a new, exciting challenge. Of course, we’ve been at it for a little while now, but you have to keep it fresh.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about trying to stay with local purveyors of foods during the winter. How does that work?
Matt Chappell: Well, you’d be surprised, actually. Our commitment is to spend at least two thirds of our dollars on food based in the area, not just when we can or when the season lends itself to it, but two thirds. We really, right from the very beginning, stake in the ground, “All right, this is what we’re going to go after and we’re going to measure it every month and maintain it.”
Obviously some of the biggest things are your protein. Pork, beef, fish, all those things are available year round. We work with local farms and Harbor Fish to source those things. That’s a big part of that nut, if you will, and available year round. On the produce side, you’d be surprised at how effective farmers are at storing vegetables.
I’m still getting really good carrots. We just got our last delivery from Merrymeeting Farm in Bowdoinham, and David is very good at storing those kinds of vegetables so that they are perfectly good in November and then the same in February. There are those examples. There are also a lot of people that are growing things, as you’ve probably heard, in hoop houses or there are greens that are available.
I’m trying to think, lots of root vegetables coming down. We have a farmer from the county who makes deliveries weekly, potatoes and turnips come from down there. Of course, you’re more limited in the winter in what you can do, but there’s a lot more than you would think in the winter time.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, I think I’ve been eating a lot of really delicious beets lately in restaurants like yours and yours, that are interested in doing local food.
Matt Chappell: Yeah, yeah, people love beets.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, which is funny because-
Matt Chappell: They store well.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, and they’re very nutritious. It’s funny, because probably seven years ago, beets weren’t as popular, and Brussels sprouts weren’t as popular. We’re seeing foods that our grandmothers used to grow, maybe our mothers. I don’t think my mother-
Matt Chappell: Parsnips, celery root, there’s quite a bit. Sometimes those are intimidating vegetables when you’re in the supermarket. “Well, what am I going to do with that?” In the commercial kitchen, we just are able to do more with it, with the devices that we have, the equipment, whether that’s high-powered blenders, there’s just more that you can do with it and of course, more time put into it than go to the grocery store to make dinner.
Lisa Belisle: How about your community table? It seems like that was a very intentional choice, because it’s a long table and there are a lot of people. I’ve seen it in different delineations, where you sometimes know a big group of people that are meeting, sometimes it’ll be a little party, sometimes it’ll be one group at one end, one group at the other. Why did you decide to do that?
Matt Chappell: Well, similar to the intentional choice to not have TV, I was looking to encourage face to face interaction, and sometimes that was between people that hadn’t met before they even arrived at the restaurant. Now, we don’t sit people shoulder to shoulder and force you to have a conversation with the people next to you. We give you plenty of room, but if you decide to have a conversation it’s available to you.
It’s also a very versatile table, because I can have a big group of 20 or I can have three groups of four, but I’m not moving tables around, I’m just moving chairs around. It’s also a nice feature as you walk into the restaurant, and it says something about who we are. I can’t move it, though. It’s so big that I can’t really move it, which makes it challenging sometimes.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been doing this particular thing in your life, you said, six years.
Matt Chappell: Yes, the restaurant.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been in this industry since you were 14.
Matt Chappell: Well, I started as a dishwasher in Kennebunk at age 14, and stayed with the restaurant gig for, let’s see, probably 15 years, until my late twenties, I think 29. At that time I was interested in starting a family and I didn’t think it was the best job to be trying to do that because you’re working nights, you’re working … I wasn’t in the front of the house, I was in the kitchen, so I chose to get out at that point.
My interest and passion for food and all that never left, so coming back to it felt very natural and I was at a different place in my family makeup where I felt like doing it was something I could pull off, and it’s proved to work pretty well.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of the things that you’ve noticed in your evolution from dishwasher to kitchen to front of the house and owner?
Matt Chappell: Well, obviously in those early years I was an employee working for somebody else in only one side of the business. I think back then I really enjoyed working for people that were teachers, chefs that wanted to pass on their knowledge. I really like that, I learned a lot, things that I still use today. I still work in the kitchen at Gather, prepping during the day. It keeps me close to the food and the people that are in the kitchen. I like being around food.
As an owner you really had to see more than just what was happening in the kitchen. That was challenging, I think, that part of the evolution, understanding what was happening on the floor, the flow of customers and the impact on the kitchen. All those things were relatively new and important to understand. I had enough experience on the customer side of things, just understanding customer needs, that it wasn’t too far for me to understand what people needed walking in the door.
Lisa Belisle: Is this something that you hope that your own children will continue? Is this something that you see as a family business?
Matt Chappell: No, no, I don’t. I mean, if they choose to ever get into the food business, I would encourage them to pursue whatever they enjoyed, things that get them excited. If that happens to be restaurants and food, then sure, but I did not start this to create a family business to pass on or anything like that. That wasn’t how I was brought up, either. That wasn’t unfamiliar. Go out and try different things, find out what excites you and then go from there.
Lisa Belisle: Talk to me about the importance of music in your restaurant.
Matt Chappell: Well, let’s see, Maine being the focus of the restaurant, whether it’s the food or the vendors, the art that’s on the wall, it seemed logical to plug myself into the music community. I’m not a musician, but I like music and I plug myself into the very local music scene in Yarmouth or the area around Yarmouth. It seemed like a natural fit.
I just think atmosphere-wise, live music, as long as it’s done right, as long as it’s an atmosphere thing where you can still have a conversation with the people you came to eat with, it really just elevates the whole experience for me. I’ll tell you, even for the staff, they love to work on nights when we have live music, because it’s just a different feel, it’s a different energy. There’s a flow to how they’re moving around the floor and how they’re feeling. Hard to describe, I guess, but music is hard to describe.
Lisa Belisle: I notice sometimes, that when we’re there, I think it’s usually Wednesday nights that you have music?
Matt Chappell: Yes, we have a bluegrass brunch on Sundays, so we always have live bluegrass music on Sundays. Then once a month on Wednesday nights, we feature an acoustic act. Sometimes that’s one person, sometimes it’s two or three playing together. That’s from 6:00 to 8:00.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I appreciate your cooking for me, for my family, on the nights that I don’t want to cook and even nights I wouldn’t mind cooking, but I just want to go to a nice place with my friends and family. I’ve been speaking with Matt Chappell, who owns and operates Gather Restaurant, a neighborhood eatery in the heart of Yarmouth Village. Thanks so much for coming in today and I will see you back at Gather very soon.
Matt Chappell: Excellent. Thanks for having me.
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Ari Solotoff is a lawyer with the Portland firm Bernstein Shur, who has a background in non-profits and the music industry. Before becoming an attorney, he was the youngest executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Thanks for coming in today.
Ari Solotoff: Delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.
Lisa Belisle: Now, am I right in understanding that you came to Maine for the Portland Symphony Orchestra job?
Ari Solotoff: Yeah, that’s exactly right, in 2006. I interviewed and was recruited to come serve as the symphony’s next executive director. I was 26 at the time, and had only been to Maine once before, when I was here for a music camp in Weston, Vermont, when I was 10 years old at a camp called Encore/Coda, which still exists, and came back here to Maine, interviewed, and was offered the job, and was delighted to come.
Lisa Belisle: Where are you originally from?
Ari Solotoff: I grew up in New York on Long Island, in Great Neck. Then, when I was 15, I moved to California to Orange County, so from New York City to Surf City is what I usually say to folks, because I feel I can identify with both coasts in many respects.
Lisa Belisle: How does one, at the age of 26, become the executive director of a major symphony orchestra?
Ari Solotoff: Well, I became interested in music when I was about five. Both my parents are music teachers, so you could say that it was pretty much destined that I was going to have some connection to the music industry. I started out on the piano, and then started playing the oboe, a symphonic music instrument, when I was 10. Went on to play in a number of different youth orchestras, which was really … My community was the orchestra and symphonic setting.
It’s where I made so many of my great friends and connections through to today. When I was in college at UC Berkeley, I interned at the San Francisco Symphony in their public relations department, so I got started clipping articles about the San Francisco Symphony back before Google News existed. I had to clip out all the stories and paste them up and turn them into press packets that we then gave to the board and to the senior administration.
I had this amazing entry point into the other side of how music gets made, and that’s really the business side and the administration side. I found out that there was another way to be involved in music, and that was orchestra management. I went through an orchestra management fellowship program. There’s only one in the country that exists, that trains future executive directors of orchestras.
I was 22 at the time, and went to the Aspen Music Festival and the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, California, the Dayton Philharmonic in Dayton, Ohio, and then the Pittsburgh Symphony. All in one year I saw major symphony orchestras to small orchestras to summer music festivals. Then I landed my first job as Executive Director of the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra in Pensacola, Florida.
I was 23 at the time and the total budget for the orchestra was $752,000 a year. I’ll never forget that, because you could see every dollar come in and every dollar go out. It was amazing. We had a staff of two and a half, so I really learned firsthand what it takes to put on a string of and a series of concerts and to attend to an audience and to support musicians.
That really was a great start in the music industry, at least the classical music industry for me, so I grew from there. The way to move up in the symphonic music world is to move to a different city, because the larger the city, the larger the symphony orchestra, so you have more complex and interesting questions and challenges and a much larger artistic footprint, based on the size of the budget. That’s how I came to it. It was a unique experience, but really came about because of that internship at the San Francisco Symphony.
Lisa Belisle: Do you still play the oboe?
Ari Solotoff: No, I don’t play the oboe anymore. I’ve picked up the piano again. It was my original instrument. Oboe’s not one of those instruments that you have fun improv-ing around on. It’s so technical that if I were to pick it up today, I would probably be so frustrated with my capability that it wouldn’t be much fun, but I still stay connected to music in other ways and have since learned, gone back to the piano. I’m starting to get into electronic music production, which is really interesting to me, and of course, I go to as many concerts as I possibly can.
Lisa Belisle: Somewhere along the way, you decided to go to law school.
Ari Solotoff: Yeah, well, after Portland, I went on to become the Executive Vice-President of the Philadelphia Orchestra and went through an amazingly interesting, complex bankruptcy process with that organization. We really, to make a long story short, the orchestra kept operating and playing through a very complex legal process that kept the lights on.
I had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of attorneys who, I think, were absolutely central to keeping this $45 million, 120-year-old organization alive, and restructuring and using the law to really bring new life to the organization. I saw the power and the incredible role that a legal skill set can play in working with a creative industry and the music industry, and in that case, the orchestra.
I had been thinking about going back to law school for some time because it’s always been on my mind as I read through artist contracts and rental agreements and media deals. “There’s more to this story here, and I want to learn more about it.” I felt like the best way to dig into those curiosities was to go and get a law degree.
I came back to Maine. We wanted to come back here, we love it here, we wanted to raise our family here. Right after Philadelphia, my wife gave birth to our son, who’s now six. We wanted to raise William here, and at the same time this is a great place to go get a law degree at the University of Maine School of Law, knowing that this is a phenomenal legal community to root yourself in.
Went back and got my law degree, and then joined Bernstein Shur, where I’ve been able to focus on music and copyright law, and intellectual property. That’s been an amazing experience of putting together all of these threads, as we were saying, that pull your interests together and allow you to serve artists and creatives in a whole new way.
Lisa Belisle: I love what you’re talking about because we often don’t think about all the different pieces that enable music and the arts to exist and to thrive really. It’s not as simple as guy or girl gets a guitar, goes to a bar, plays music, people pay, it’s all good. I mean, there’s a lot of layers, and especially now with the widespread distribution and music in so many, different forms, trying to understand what all that means, and keep the artists functioning. That’s a much bigger deal than it ever once was, I think.
Ari Solotoff: It’s profoundly changing as we speak. Literally, the role that a musician, a graphic designer, a photographer, a writer can play, not only locally but on a national and an international level, because of the capabilities that exist from a technological perspective, it’s extraordinary. When you put that together, if you focus on the creativity, the fact that a musician is really … Their central and primary goal is to make great music, or a photographer to take great photography.
The question is, what’s the infrastructure that needs to be behind them so that they can do what they do best, but also earn a living while doing so, and hopefully have an impact on their audience, on their community? Why would you go through that process if you weren’t able to share your music or your art with your community and with your audience?
The question is, how do you build that infrastructure in a way that’s going to not only sustain you now, but also help provide monetary compensation down the road when it comes time to either licensing your work or entering into different types of arrangements that allow as many people as possible to see and hear your work?
Today, particularly with music, the fact that you can release your music from Portland, Maine, and have it heard around the world is extraordinary, whether it’s through SoundCloud or through Spotify or Apple Music, the distribution capabilities are incredible. Once you recognize that, it really changes the paradigm from what used to be really a label on top and really puts the artist on top and says, “Okay, who you want on your team?”
Well, a lawyer’s just one part of that team. There’s a manager. You might have a publicist, you might have a booking agent, you might have a marketing and PR component to it. Every conversation that I have with an existing or potential client in the creative space is, “Who’s on your team?” It starts there and from there we can really think through the strategy.
I mean, I think of a musician as a startup. You really are, you’re building a business, you’re building a brand, you’re building a distribution mechanism, you’re taking your product, and you want to get it out to as many people as possible. Looking at it as a business is what excites me about the work, and I think for me, particularly in today’s world, the possibilities are endless in that respect.
Lisa Belisle: I imagine it would be very helpful to have a background yourself as a musician, because I think there are different ways of thinking that often occur in different areas. If you are familiar with the musician’s way of thinking, and not all musicians are exactly the same, but there may be some patterns that you’re familiar with, then maybe you can help interpret things in a way that makes more sense.
Ari Solotoff: I think every project starts with a vision. What are you hoping to accomplish artistically? Then from there we can back into, “Well, what are the pieces you want to put in place? Who is this going to be delivered to as your audience? How do you hope that this is actually going to generate income for you?” It really starts with, “What are you trying to do artistically?”
That definitely comes from understanding, having played an instrument, having sat within an orchestra hall and thought through what it is to attract an audience to something that you’re doing creatively, so yeah, absolutely. I love that part of it. It’s the fun part, is the going to the concerts and seeing the end product, or seeing somebody’s work on the wall as a photographer, or writing in print. That creative output is what we’re working towards, and I definitely identify with it.
Lisa Belisle: It’s an interesting time to be creative, because there are so many ways that we can be creative and immediately put our work out there. What I have noticed is that sometimes it’s easy to believe that because it’s easy to put the work out there, it’s easy to be creative in the first place. I mean, I write for the magazines, and it’s a lot of work. I mean, to put 1,600 words on a page or pages, it’s an incredible amount of time spent, amount of creative energy.
I think it’s similar for musicians. I mean, what comes out is maybe 15 seconds from the beginning or the end of a radio show that actually took some effort, but because it’s so easy to have something put up on Facebook, Instagram, SoundCloud, sometimes we are discounting that in a way that maybe we didn’t before. Would you agree?
Ari Solotoff: Yeah, there’s something of a value gap between the amount of time and work that goes into producing something that is artistically exciting, musically exciting, and then just something that anybody can produce in an amateur setting. How do you distinguish between those? I think it really is in the process and the being deliberate, and really digging into the details of your craft.
You notice it, you can see it when a musician or a photographer or a writer has really gotten to the bottom of that particular creative question that inspired them in the first place. I love reading stories, I love watching how musicians do their work. There was a great article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about the life of an indie artist, and how are they succeeding today.
What you realize is that there’s an incredible amount of patience involved in this process, that you might take weeks and weeks or months to put together an album, but just because you’ve finished the album doesn’t mean it’s done. There’s so much more activity, mixing, mastering that goes into that finished product, before it’s actually been released.
I think there’s a definite relationship between the amount of discipline and dedication that you put into really refining your musical craft and the depth and the quality of the output on the other end. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more, that it seems so easy and yet there’s so much behind the scenes that goes into it. There’s a great book that I read about a year ago called The Song Machine, by John Seabrook. It really unpacked all of what goes into what we now know of as the pop music industry today.
You realize how many writers, how many producers, how many, different people are part of the process of hearing what we now think of as Top 40 music today. Not all of it’s necessarily great, but you see the work behind it and you realize, “Oh, my gosh, this is something that is worthwhile. It’s of merit and it has value.” If you put those three things together, I think that’s something that musicians have a lot to be proud of.
Lisa Belisle: I’m glad you put a word, a phrase, around value gap, because I think that, I mean, that really defines a lot of what people struggle with. I think it’s probably still an issue now, but at one time it was a significant issue, where music was being downloaded essentially illegally, and people were treating it as if it was essentially common property that they didn’t have to pay for. The idea that somebody would put so much work into something like a song that somebody else wouldn’t even pay 99 cents for or $1.29 or whatever it is now is astounding when I think about it.
Ari Solotoff: That was a remarkable moment in music history. At the same time that Napster was prevalent, the recorded music industry had something like 735 million physical sales in the US. That was the zenith, if you will, of physical sales. Here we are, it’s 18 years later, that was 2000, in the same week that Spotify announced that they were going public, Russ Solomon, he was the founder of Tower Records, passed away.
If you put those two things together, and then on the same evening, Rita Moreno gets up on the Oscar awards and talks about the universal language of music and what that means, you see, “Oh, my gosh, this is an incredible time in the music industry,” because suddenly people are seeing the value of paying for music. Spotify now has 70 million paid subscribers. That’s a drop in the bucket of what could be paid for.
The other side of this is that we as a community have, I think, a responsibility to acknowledge that when musicians come into our venues, they should be compensated fairly for that work. How do we value that? We value that by looking at the fee structure and by thinking about, okay, look at all the people who came into your venue as a result of this musical act.
If you’re using music in your venue, are you paying for that music just like you would pay for any other resource? I think this is an interesting time because streaming is so prevalent. It is a capacity to compensate musicians more fairly, but there’s still a gap there. It takes 252 streams to earn one dollar of income. That’s 252,000 streams to earn $1,000.
That’s an incredible amount of work that needs to go into generating that kind of income, which means that there’s a lot more, I think, benefit to looking at live performance, touring, merchandise. You see these other mechanisms by which musicians are branding themselves and earning an income. I think that’s part of the picture.
The other part of the picture is really musicians as ambassadors for social causes. I think this is a particularly important time for us to look to music and musicians as a way to translate what’s happening in the world. We see that every time that there’s a significant world event, we look to music as a form of helping us to understand what’s happening.
Lisa Belisle: Are there lessons from music that can be used in say the world of literature, writing, journalism, or the world of photography? Because as you’re talking about supporting musicians and their livelihoods, I’m thinking about the number of times that I go onto the New York Times website and read an article that clearly somebody put a lot of effort behind, and somebody paid to have written, and I get so many views and then I have to subscribe.
I don’t think we’ve quite figured it out, or I think about the number of times somebody talks to one of our Maine Magazine photographers and is like, “Well, can you just give me those photos that you took? I’m going to use them on my website.” There was payment for that. There’s effort and energy behind that, but it still feels like we’re in a place where not everybody recognizes that’s actually important to support.
Ari Solotoff: Well, there’s definitely steps that I think a writer and a photographer and a musician can take to protect their work. I see that as the very first step. It’s almost like if you build a house, you’re not going to just let anybody in your house. You’ve taken a lot of time to design it and construct it, so you want to take the steps that are necessary to protect that asset. Your photography or writing, that’s an asset. We can’t see it, we can’t feel it, but it is very much a creative asset.
The very first steps, and I see it all too often, great work happening and it’s never registered with the copyright office, which is the easiest first step one can take to protect their work. You ensure that there will be value, because it’s that much easier when somebody right clicks on a photograph and downloads it and puts it up on another website or on their blog to say, “No, I’ve actually taken steps to value my work, and you should, too.”
I think that’s a common issue that we see a lot for creatives is building copyright protection into their workflow as “Yes, you’ve taken all those steps to create your work. Well, just add one more. It’s a $35 filing fee with the copyright office and that really is absolutely central to protecting your work.” I can see the difference between those artists who have been diligent about those steps, the degree to which they’re able to monetize their work, and the degree to which that ultimately becomes a pension for them because they’ve taken those steps early on in their careers.
Lisa Belisle: Intellectual property is a relatively young aspect of the legal field, and it seems like it’s one that you’ve really had to hit the ground running to keep up with. What are some of the current issues that are being dealt with, within this area?
Ari Solotoff: Well, I think one of the primary questions in music has been the issue of sampling and how do I acknowledge and reference somebody else’s work as a musician without copying their work? I think that’s still being sorted out. I think we’ve learned a lot more, and musicians have learned a lot more about how to work with each other when it comes to using each other’s work.
The licensing industry has changed dramatically. It’s still in flux, it’s still very difficult to find the rights holder when you’re trying to use or engage with somebody else’s work. There’s not a universal platform for identifying the rights holder. We still have a way to go. Blockchain technology is going to a big piece of how that evolves in the future, where it will be possible for a rights holder to allow for a licensee to use their work, and every one of those different transactions will be registered in the universal blockchain.
That is literally at the nascent stage of that right now, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how that changes in years to come. I think IP as a whole has come a long way, whether it be copyright protection or trademark protection, we really rely on source identification, which is what trademark protection is and copyright to serve as the basis. I mean, every major movie production, every major commercial release of an album relies heavily on the ability to obtain copyright protection in that work.
I think our job is to help lower the barriers to protecting your work, to make it easy and then to make it possible for there to be as many licenses and thoughtful tracking of that information based on who you’re collaborating with, because this is a world of collaboration. That’s where creatives, particularly musicians, are so engaged with each other’s work. We need to make that process really easy, so yeah, it’s an exciting time.
You can see the threads of this happening around the world and in ways in which media and technology are really converging right now and how we work with artists to support their work.
Lisa Belisle: What do you think the most important thing that you could say to an emerging musician is when it comes to any of the things that we’re talking about? Because I know that a lot of musicians, well, all musicians I’ve ever spoken to have put a tremendous amount of effort into learning their craft. That’s part one, and now they meet you. What’s the thing that you say, “Do this first”? You talked about copyrighting. What else do they have to be thinking about?
Ari Solotoff: Well, first and foremost I’d say view yourself as the CEO of your own company. You are a business, you are a startup. As the CEO of Musician Company X, one of the very first questions that you ask yourself is, “Well, who do I want on my team?” You do that whether you’re a startup business … I think the same is exactly true for a musician. Who’s on your team? Being really deliberate.
I think all too often questions come from outside. Somebody might get a label offer from a label they’ve never heard of before and it’s so exciting that this label has shown an interest in you, and yet I think the very first question is, “Do I want them on my team? Is that the marketing distribution channel that I want to work with?”
I would turn the question around and really say, “How can you be deliberate about who do you want on your team?” Because I think that’s the most important question a musician or a creative, a photographer or writer, can ask themselves in who they collaborate with and who they work with. Then from there, is there a process for really thinking through … In the symphonic music world, we used to plan our seasons two and three years out.
What’s your plan for what your artistic output is going to be, not just two months from now or six months from now, but a year from now or two years from now? Because the really exciting projects that are going to come about, are going to come about because you’ve been working on them for some time. Then the legal piece and the business piece comes into play, because then we really have something to bolster and to support, because you have a strong vision for where you want to go artistically, and then we can put in place the systems, which is really where I feel I play the biggest role for helping to protect and monetize an artist’s work.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Ari Solotoff, who is a lawyer with the Portland firm Bernstein Shur, who has a background in non-profits and the music industry. It’s really been great to have this conversation with you, and keep up the good work.
Ari Solotoff: Thank you. This has been really fun.
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Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 349. Our guests have included Matt Chappell and Ari Solotoff. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page.
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