An Interview with the New York Music Co-op
We talk with members of the New York Music Co-op about the benefits of being part of a worker co-op, how they got started, and how they've been adjusting to the new realities of social distancing while continuing to grow their business.
Josh Davis: So we're here today with some members from the New York Music Cooperative and maybe to start us off, we can just go around one by one, say your name and where you're located in the city there. What borough you're in, maybe and what you do at the co-op. Nathaniel, you want to start?
Nathanael Koenig: Yeah, I'll start. I'm Nathanael. I'm a guitar instructor for the co-op. I do a couple other instruments, but that's my main thing. I'm also the treasurer, I've been all the bookkeeping and stuff like that. And I'm in Brooklyn.
Josh Davis: Stav, you wanna...?
Stav German: Sure. I'm in Brooklyn, too. I'm a voice teacher and a part of the board member. I'm the secretary and event manager - oh, "coordinator".
Josh Davis: Ray?
Ray Gehring: Sure, I'm Ray Gehring, another guitar instructor at the co-op, and I am in Brooklyn. Kings County. At the beginning of what is called Long Island. And there we go.
Liz Hogg: I'm Liz and I'm the newly appointed general manager. So I do a little bit of everything, answering emails, social media, figuring out the Web site, sending invoices. I'm also gonna teach guitar here and there, and a board member now. And I live in Brooklyn as well.
Josh Davis: Is everybody in the co-op in the Brooklyn neighborhood or do you have people all over the city?
Nathanael Koenig: Yeah, we're all spread out. It's just all the board members happen to live in Brooklyn except for Julian, I guess he moved to the Bronx. It's all spread out.
Josh Davis: So can you guys talk just a little bit about how your co-op got started? How old are you, or how old is the co-op? And what led you to to forming the co-op in the first place?
Nathanael Koenig: We started a little over a year ago. So it all started because I was frustrated with my work. I think a lot of musicians share that frustration, that we're all always kind of getting ripped off by people, you know, whether it's club owners, or other music school owners. There's always someone just kind of stealing your money. So I was having kind of a dispute with this place that I was a contractor for, that I was teaching with and I just got really frustrated. And I was hoping to find a better work environment. And I've always been interested in worker cooperatives, so I reached out to one of the co-op groups in New York, in the city, called NYC NOWC. It's the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives. And I asked them if there was a worker cooperative of musicians or music teachers, because I wanted to find something better. They said there wasn't, but they had a bunch of resources and they basically said, we can help you start one if you want to. So I just went for it. I didn't really know what I was doing. I was a little naive, but it worked out. We got lots of good help and that's kind of how it happened.
Ray Gehring: And to piggyback on that, when I saw that Nathaniel had put out an ad on Indeed, as soon as I saw the headline, I said to myself, "God damn it, I've had this idea for 20 years. Here comes somebody..." I mean, honestly, it was like somebody had stolen it from me. "What the hell is this?!" And so immediately I had to become involved because I've been involved with cops my whole life -- my parents, too -- and I worked in one as a paid staff. So, I'm so glad he took the initiative because obviously, I hadn't yet, and then the rest of us came in.
Nathanael Koenig: It kind of grew. Like I said, musicians are used to dealing with that, and there's not a lot of good work or opportunity. So once there is something out there, people kind of come to it.
Stav German: Yeah, I moved from Israel two and a half years ago, and I moved straight to New York, and I was a voice teacher before, and the situation in Israel was pretty similar. The studios have so many expenses and at the end of the day, their teachers hardly get paid. So I was searching for a job here and I was very surprised to find out that it's the same and even worse in New York: the percentage that you actually own as a teacher from what the clients are paying. And as soon as I saw Nathanael's ad, I was like, "OK, I want to be in on that." So we kind of stuck together. Julian -- that is not here right now -- Nathaniel, Ray, and I was there from the beginning. And we are still on the board.
Liz Hogg: Yeah, what drew me to the co-op was the exact same reasons. I'm mainly a teacher, besides gigs, and I too was fed up with music schools. So I slowly built a private studio, which has been great, but I also like to have coworkers and feel like I'm on a team, and I'm not just on my own all the time. And I also wanted to do a job that wasn't just teaching all the time, because I have some other skill sets. So that's what drew me to it. If it was just another music school who needed a manager, I would not have applied, but the fact that it's a co-op is great, you know.
Josh Davis: And how long ago did you guys incorporate? When did you officially begin life as a co-op?
Nathanael Koenig: It was just about a year ago that it was official. It took a while, it's quite a process that we had, but I think it's officially a year ago. There's many months before that getting set up.
Josh Davis: So I guess you guys have actually already answered my next question, which is what you were doing before you got involved in the co-op. Maybe you can just talk a little bit about what has changed in your work life since forming the co-op and having this new way of working.
Nathanael Koenig: I think just all personally growing our student base. That's nice, you know. But I think we all kind of have the same goals, which is getting more independent work, more work through the co-op, and less contract work, because we are all still self-employed. So we we work for the co-op, we do gigs, we teach for a bunch of different schools. So it's just starting, but it's on the right path of working for these other music schools that are kind of ripping us off, and moving into that direction, growing it.
Stav German: I gradually migrate my private studio to the co-op because I enjoy having 'a back'. I enjoy having other people to collaborate with, to actually consult with on different aspects, and instead of doing all the administrative work for my business, I just do it with the co-op and through the co-op. So it's a lot of the spare time that I would invest before in advertising and in administrative work, I do the same, but only for the co-op. So not a lot has changed, it's just shifted.
Liz Hogg: Yeah, so what just popped into my head like an advantage of the co-op teaching wise, is something I get worried about sometimes is concerts for students, to organize all that, because that's something music schools supported. And the fact that there are so many different instruments being learned, we could easily have chamber concerts and have our students play with each other, which I think has just popped into my head.
It'd be really cool and would be another different aspect of the teaching part, because normally, you don't really have a pool of musicians to pull from when you're trying to put together a concert, which I've never even done.
Stav German: Yeah, that was my dream when we started talking about how the co-op was actually going to look like, before we incorporated. One of the things that came up was all the good things that studios and schools give their students, and gave us as teachers, and we wanted to create a home for that as well. So creating workshops and concerts and exchanging even curriculum ideas, and how to teach in different genres.
That was one of the ideas that the co-op could give us. And as a private teacher, you don't have all those resources. You don't have even enough diversity of students to create something like that.
Ray Gehring: Yeah, I think everything just works better as a group. It's all in the name: cooperative. Can you say any more? Every cooperative I have ever joined -- with the exclusion of property co-ops, which I really don't know much about -- people have been largely like-minded and easier to work with when you have the same goal, same understanding, same ethics, if you want to call that, and desire to be a part of the community in a bigger way. And maybe this just comes along with the territory of also being a teacher. But to me, it feels like I have to somehow broaden the range of the teaching, and through a cooperative you can do that, you can put on a workshop and it doesn't all fall on yourself. You have people there to back you up and to really make it a quality project.
Stav German: Ray, as you're mentioning being a part of the community, you can elaborate on what we do with the scholarship program.
Ray Gehring: Well, the scholarship program was probably -- if you're a co-op once again, in my opinion, you have a mission statement, part of that mission statement is to give back a percentage, if not the larger part of your endeavor, to give back to the community. Music scholarships are obvious choice for us, and it's as simple as understanding the economic need of some family, or child, or students or being told, "I've got a group of students who don't have access to music lessons. Can you get them cheap or free lessons?" And absolutely. We contact principals to say, "hey, is there a star student somewhere that could use trombone lessons, or could use whatever lesson? What instrument do they play and could they benefit?" So that's important. It just feels like that's the real mission of the co-op. However, we are a business and it has to be business first, co-op second. And that's hard sometimes for me as an idealist. I want to go out and do the co-op work. But yeah, enough said on my end. The scholarship program is central to who we are and it's structured in a way that it's inclusive of anybody that feels that they need access to it, from a sliding fee scale all the way down to they pay nothing.
Josh Davis: That's great. I really like to hear when people are putting those co-op principles into action and putting you right the center of your business. Can you tell me how many members do you have in the co-op right now, and how do you structure your decision making? How many of those members are on the board? How does that work?
Nathanael Koenig: Yeah. We have about 17 members right now. And we have five board members. And it's set up like typical co-ops. We have yearly elections. So, once a year we had a meeting where everyone gets together, and everyone votes for five board members who serve the rest of the year. There's a process for everything. If someone steps down, there's a process for selecting someone. If people don't like how the board is behaving, it's set up so members can petition to elect someone new. You know, it's just that we try to keep it as open as possible.
Ray Gehring: Oh Josh, I forgot to mention I'm -- I always forget -- the president of the board now, I guess. So you can put a "Mister" before that, if you don't mind.
Stav German: About the co-op structure, the members are the teachers and the musicians, because the co-op is also about creating gig opportunities. We're being approached. So the musicians that are teaching and gigging are the members. They pay a membership fee and then they benefit from the co-op doing all the administrative work, handling payments and marketing, and getting more and more students for them.
Ray Gehring: Tthis is funny that you say that we have been paid. I mean, Nathaniel, you and I and Julian have got what, two paid gigs or one? Two?
Nathanael Koenig: I think we did one paid, and one for free. For the Bushwick Food Co-op, we did a benefit concert.
Ray Gehring: Oh yeah, yeah. So in a way, the co-op is also a business or a chance for us musicians to work together too, and to get more offers. Somebody can hire the co-op and they can decide which type of music they want: chamber, jazz, rock. So that's also one great benefit for us that I don't think any of us talk about a lot because the central focus now is teaching. But it's nice to have that opportunity too.
Josh Davis: You've kind of already hit on on the services of the co-op provides the members, but can you just -- if I was a musician wanting to become a member, what would you be saying to me as far as what the benefits of membership are in the co-op?
Nathanael Koenig: I think the biggest one is shared advertising. That's our main goal right now. It's to get all the members new students. You know, we want to link up good students with good teachers. And it just kind of grows from there. It's great for teachers because no matter where you're teaching, you're paying some sort of fee, some sort of lesson is going back to the organization. It's nice knowing with the co-op, it's not like the co-op's taking your money. It's you're paying a portion of your lesson fee for more advertising. So it keeps keeps growing from there. So I think that's the biggest thing.
Ray Gehring: And I think that that sense of collaboration where you have people to have your back. You join the co-op, you have essentially all these these members who are there to support you as well. It's really not like the places that we've all mentioned we've taught before, that you are an employee or you're a private contractor and you don't really collaborate. You do, but it's your own efforts. And the co-op just instantly allows you a platform to sort of stand and say, "well, I would like to do this. Any other members wants to do this?" It's a place to also develop ideas and try to -- somebody has an idea of teaching theory on a boat. It's like, great, bring it into a bunch of people, maybe we can create some sort of co-op cruise. If you understand what I'm saying, it's a place for ideas, of even looking for more gigs as a co-op. That provides a lot to me as a musician, more so even than as a teacher.
Stav German: Yeah, I think it kind of sums it up when musicians wanting to be a part of the co-op, they can realize that the benefits would be the co-op takes on all the administrative work, all the advertisment. They will gain more students that way with only paying the membership fee, but not putting so much work into that. And that collaborative, the skies open, as they say. Whatever idea they might have, we have the resources. We have the manpower to try and pull that off together. So we can grow. We can grow because it's based on the members themselves. Whatever they bring to the table.
Josh Davis: So obviously the big situation that everybody is dealing with right now, this coronavirus pandemic. Can you talk about how the co-op has had to adjust to that and what you guys have been doing, how life has changed since that's been an issue?
Nathanael Koenig: Yeah, it's been a big adjustment. And, you know, not just with the co-op. Every single musicians in the entire world is having big life changes. None of us can gig right now, most of us can't teach lessons in person. So it's been kind of crazy in the music industry right now. But, you know, it helps having the co-op. Right after there was news that everything's shutting down we got together and had a meeting and a brainstorm. We decided to lower prices. We decided what's the best course of action for switching music lessons online. So it's been tough but we're adapting and we're making it work.
Stav German: Yeah. And we've spread our territory, so now we have some students from outside of New York and even outside of the United States. So that's been a blessed change.
Ray Gehring: Yeah it just suddenly became -- the whole business model changes for everybody, no matter what business that you're in, if you're client facing or customer facing. I mean, there's no time to think about adaptation, you just have to keep going with it. And it's nice to be a part of that co-op because we're all just seamlessly going right into it. Anything we establish in our business now, that helps us through the pandemic, will just simply build upon itself later. That is, good video lessons, good platforms. We can maintain our international students or our continental students through the video service, and then we can do in-home lessons. It just builds upon that. So to look at it objectively, COVID, this pandemic gives us a time to rethink -- a lot of people, businesses, musicians -- to rethink about what's really going to work in the future anyway. Because it's going to be heading this way. It always was, if that makes sense. It's really a good time for all of us because we can't just expect this world to be an open place for us to go travel and tour. We see what's happening around the world. So at some point, a lot of it's going to become video centered anyway. It's allowing us that opportunity to develop that part of the business.
Josh Davis: Were you guys offering video lessons before the COVID pandemic? Or was that something that you added?
Nathanael Koenig: Yes, we did offer them but I don't think anyone took video lessons before. No one really wants to do a Skype lesson if you don't have to.
Stav German: It's funny, when shelter-in-place started, we started discussing the correct pricing for online lessons, and should we offer packages, or should it only be based on one lesson at a time, because no one knows what's going on and when a vaccine will be available. And then we remembered, oh, we actually priced online lessons before we just never used that, because we didn't have enough inquiries.
Josh Davis: So, Ray, you had mentioned that you had quite a bit of experience with co-ops previously to getting involved with this one. I was wondering one, Ray, you said you'd worked for a co-op if you would say what co-op? Then, for everybody else, was this your first experience with with co-ops or was it something you had already been familiar with?
Ray Gehring: I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and we had a fantastic food co-op there. When I was a teenager, my parents along with some other people, started a cooperative called The Gathering Place, which was a place that served vegetarian food for the homeless and for people getting out of prison or homeless shelters etc, etc. So that was set up as a cooperative. And then through college, I continued shopping at the food co-op. I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to finish my degree. And Nathaniel also went to school there. That arguably probably has more co-ops per square inch than any other city combined. I don't know if you've been to Minneapolis, but there are more than 10 co-ops and I worked for one called Hampton Park Co-op for eleven years on staff, and also on the board.
So it's always been a part of my blood, and it's always been a great opportunity, because no matter how great your idea is, it's got to work with everybody. So it's an immediate check that you're dealing with people that share your common ideals, but everybody has a different approach. And I like to be kept in check. And a co-op is a perfect place for that. So that was my life.
Oh, I also volunteered in another food co-op in Minneapolis, while working at another. This was a block away from the music school where I went to college, and that was North Country Co-op. And anyway that's it. Yeah, so co-ops have been a part of my life forever.
Nathanael Koenig: For me, this is the first one. I've read about co-ops and I think over the years of getting frustrated with the music industry, I'd get more and more interested. But this is my first experience being a part of a co-op.
Liz Hogg: Same here.
Ray Gehring I came from hippie-dippy type parents. Well, they're not hippies, that's for sure.
Josh Davis: You'd mentioned that when you were getting started, you got some help from NYC NOWC. Could you just maybe talk a little bit more about what kind of services they offered to you? Did you take trainings from them?
Nathanael Koenig: You know, pretty much everything. We got a ton of help starting this out, and it probably wouldn't have been possible without it. Right in the beginning we got people together and we went to their location and they gave us kind of a big seminar. How they're organized and what our first steps were. They also linked this up with the Urban Justice Center to get free legal support, drafting our bylaws. That was incredibly valuable. We would have been 100 percent lost writing our bylaws and incorporating and stuff without a lot of help. After that, they've hired us for gigs. We've got a gig doing work at their events. They continue to have conferences that are helping. Like for the pandemic, they had a conference where they helped us sign up for the disaster relief grants and stuff like that. So, yeah, it's been a lot of help. They're pretty great.
Ray Gehring: Yeah, that's how we were able to hire Liz.
Stav German: Yeah. And they linked us with our printing co-op that are actually my neighbors. So they help us with physical printing for all our materials. [Radix Media -ed.]
Josh Davis: Which printing co op is that?
Stav German: I call them the printing co-op, I'll have to find out.
Josh Davis: Great. So I guess my my last question for you is, for other musicians who were interested in doing this kind of thing, what kind of advice would you have for them? What words of wisdom can you provide to other people looking to get into this, after your year of being a co-op?
Nathanael Koenig: I'd say just find like minded people and just start. It's a lot of work, there's probably a lot of learning that you have to do. I mean, like me, I didn't know anything about starting a business or starting a co-op before this. But I think it's tough, but it's all manageable. So, you just got to get started. Find good people, find the help that you need and just go for it, really.
Ray Gehring: It does. It starts with one simple Google search, as it probably did with Nathaniel, too. And I did it 13 years ago: New York, any music co-ops of any kind, and there ween't. So your idea is, have a plan it for, number one. I mean, if you want to be a musician, you kind of should have a plan for how you're going to get better anyway.
But when you say what advice do we have? You mean as a musician or somebody that would like to follow the path of being a part of a co-operative?
Josh Davis: Either one. I mean, for musicians who are interested in co-opsm or just people in general interested in starting a worker co-op.
Ray Gehring: Reach out right away. Ask your friends, who do you know in a co-op and start from there. Don't go any broader than you have to.
Liz Hogg: And I'd say read the newsletters you're subscribed to. Because I was subscribed to a Spoke the Hub, and a lot of times I just want to ignore newsletters, you know? But I just make myself read them all, and then I saw this job opportunity. So, if you have connections, make sure you don't ignore them. And it's easy to just get overwhelmed by email and social media, but just focus and read things and stay interested in the people you know, and opportunities come up that way. During a pandemic, you know, when you don't expect anything to come up.
Josh Davis: Stav, do you have any words of wisdom to share? Oh, you're on mute.
Stav German: I'm just so embarrassed that I can't remember their name. Yeah, I really agree with what Liz said. You know, I want to get out of social media and I want to turn all notifications off. But every once in a while you find an ad and you find an opportunity that is super valuable, and you realize it only once you actually meet in person. It's funny, it always looks like catfishing at first, but just say yes to everything before you turn it down.
Ray Gehring: Well, that's because you can always say no later.
Stav German: That is true.
Ray Gehring: But you can't always say yes later.
Josh Davis: So if anybody watching this, or listening, is interested in connecting with you guys to get music lessons -- and you're now doing online all over the country and the world, it sounds like -- how would they do that?
Nathanael Koenig: You can check out our website. It's nymusiccoop.com, and we're active on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all of our things are just nymusiccoop.com.
Liz Hogg: The email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Josh Davis: All right. If there's any closing thoughts, anything that you didn't get to say that you'd want to say, now is your opportunity.
Ray Gehring: Well, thank you for wanting to talk to us. Nothing's more important than -- what's the adage? 'Whatever we do is most important to us.' So we're so glad when someone else really wants to know what we're doing. So. Thank you, Josh. It's nice of you.
Stav German: Yeah, and we hope to change, to gradually be a part of the change of how people see music education and treat music educators. It just started here with us saying this is what we need as musicians, and as a community, and as teachers, and maybe it will form a precedent in the future.
Ray Gehring: And the co-op's always here for free advice, too. People can write their frustrations, and we'll help them through, no charge.
Nathanael Koenig: Yes, definitely. If there's any, especially musicians that are looking to start a co-op, reach out to us and we'll help. You know, we're all passionate about the music we do. We're all passionate about forming worker cooperatives. And ultimately it'd be great -- you know, our dream is that every musician can band together, work together, so that reach out to us.
Ray Gehring: Absolutely.
GEO Collective (2020). The Sweet Sound of Cooperation: An Interview with the New York Music Co-op. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/sweet-sound-cooperation