Lessons in Building Community by a Working Board

The Seattle Poetry Slam LIVE! CD was one of my favorite projects ever. Even though the technology to create, sell, and distribute audio has evolved exponentially, the project provided timeless lessons for building support, showcasing a creative community, and board leadership.

The Seattle Poetry Slam LIVE! CD, 2000. Cover by Susan Anderson

The Seattle Poetry Slam LIVE! CD, 2000. Cover by Susan Anderson

Word of Mouth

I don’t remember who initially had the idea for the CD, but it people started talking about it. At the time, The Seattle Poetry Slam was organized with a cooperative board operating on consensus. We were all volunteers, aka “a working board.” We all agreed to move the idea forward, and starting working on the next steps.

Project Scope and Pricing

To get an idea of what support and resources we’d need, we needed to plan the project and get cost estimates. One of our board members had a background in music, so he was a natural to help us network for recording, printing, and CD design.

Formalizing Support

With our project plan and budget in place, we applied for a small project grant from the county arts commission. Again, one of our board members had experience in grantwriting, and she took the lead on our proposal.

The arts commission awarded us support. That commitment provided us the credibility needed to secure contracts with vendors, and solicit additional funding.

Contracting with Vendors

In this step, we relied on the references our board members received from their personal networks. A board member contacted vendors, and brought back price quotes. We carefully compared services offered, cost, timing, and references. We made sure all agreements were in writing – it’s a common sense business practice, but one that can be easily overlooked when working on a small-scale project.

Curation

At the time of this project, the local poetry slam was already in its ninth or tenth year of weekly open mikes and poetry slams. We opened a call for submissions

Releases

We prepared releases for licensing the performances. One of our board members had a friend who was an attorney. If you’re not connected to someone, the New York lawyers for the arts program keeps a comprehensive list of volunteer lawyer programs and other resources across the country.

Distribution

Several board members took responsibility for bringing copies to local retailers, which included tracking sales and inventory.

Now v. Then

It’s funny now to think of how much of this project would be done differently today. Some aspects that might be different now:

  • Format – we could eliminate the expense of CD pressing by delivering digital downloads
  • Curation – without the limitation of 70 minutes (the maximum time for an audio CD), we might be able to include more writers
  • Fundraising – crowdfunding would likely be a large part of our strategy
  • Recording – today, everything about the recording could probably be done and mastered an someone’s smartphone
  • Distribution – selling digital directly to the consumer would let us build on the relationship, as opposed to never knowing who purchased from a record store

However, despite the changes in technology, many of the underlying principles will always apply to successful projects:

  • Creating a project plan and budget
  • Determining interest and feasibility
  • Due diligence on vendors
  • Written contracts, releases, and licensing agreements

Final Thoughts: Mentorship and Board Leadership

Reflecting on this project now, I know a big part of our success was owing to the leadership of our more experienced board members. They acted as mentors, they reached out to their networks for recommendations and for fundraising, and they led us through the decision-making with the principle of community-building always in mind.

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