Artists in charge – Riot Ensemble

Riot Ensemble has tried a business model where its musicians also hold administrative roles. Founder and artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum shares the successes and challenges of this approach.

Midway through 2020, an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) that pointed out that – during the severe economic distress of the COVID-era – businesses could learn a lot from nonprofits. That’s because nonprofits routinely work under the financial pressure and scarcity that has newly faced a vast array of industries. Amid other advice, the climactic point of the article is that organisations must “decide what is essential, and focus resources on that”.

Though the strategies in the HBR article offer some paths forward for businesses rooting out previous inefficiencies, the question is: what should nonprofits who now face even greater financial pressure and scarcity do? Do we similarly have areas of inefficiency? What “adds value prudently” to an arts organisation? Since we’re here in International Arts Manager magazine, let’s ask this question in a pointed and concrete way: what percentage of an arts organisation’s budget should be paid directly to artists, and how much should go toward dedicated support staff?

The model

As a founding member and artistic director of Riot Ensemble, I consciously modelled our organisation on a new trend of artist-led new-music ensembles popularised by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), in America.

A Riot Ensemble planning meeting
A Riot Ensemble planning meeting

It seems normal to us that an arts organisation might have a CEO/artistic director who is also an artist in the organisation, but ICE took this further, placing ensemble musicians within roles that are often viewed as specialist roles for administrators. In our first decade, Riot has similarly employed just one part-time administrator, while the main support roles (production, communications, touring, education and fundraising) have been held by volunteer performers from within the group. We have no clashes between ‘management’ and ‘artists’ because the management are the artists. This doesn’t just mean that Riot could work at cut-down rates in our earliest years – though there were moments when such flexibility was important to our development – but that the artists themselves could take decisions about accepting or declining projects based on the type of ensemble they wanted Riot to develop into.

Long hours, low pay, quickly changing job descriptions and a disconnect between the support work and the art being made all contribute to heavy churn within administrative roles at arts organisations. But Riot has never (yet) had to retrain an administrative hire in an existing position, and the institutional knowledge our support staff have accumulated has only grown and contributed to our foundations as we seek to grow further.

I have observed two primary drawbacks to this structure, both related to efficiency. The first is whether you really want your performing artists to be doing these things. Do you really want your viola player to be developing a website? The second question is what happens if a mistake is made. If a flight is mis-booked and a player is stranded at the airport, who bears the emotional, financial and structural costs?

Riot Ensemble Structure
Riot Ensemble Structure

Riot’s entire first season (2013-14) cost GBP13,000 (€14,500) to produce. If a concert budget within such a series is mis-projected or poorly managed, the ramifications are addressable. By 2017, Riot was putting on single concerts which cost more than double this, and our most recent season will surpass GBP200,000 in expenditure. Operating with a poorly constructed budget and cashflow could not only grind our operations to a halt but could also expose our trustees to legal action.

Is it because of this that few organisations have maintained such structures as they grow? While I do not have a historical view of this, the three largest new-music ensembles in the UK – the London Sinfonietta, BCMG and Aurora Orchestra – spend roughly as much money on their administrators and offices (40.9%) as they pay directly to musicians and composers (42.1%).

The future

To-date, Riot has raised and spent nearly GBP500,000. More than 65% of this has gone directly to our creative artists (performing musicians and composers). Meanwhile, less than 10% of our budgets have been spent on support staff and administration. Our most recent accounts show a budget of GBP152,362 of which 61.2% was spent on artists and only 6.5% on support staff. As Riot aims for a period of significant growth over the coming decade, do we really want to bring these two numbers into total equality? This is both a question of practicality and values, and we have taken some of the downtime in this past year to land on a few answers that we are using to guide our own decisions.

Instead of deciding ‘as managers’ what a player should be doing, we are seeking to develop the roles our musicians inhabit along the lines of what they want to be doing. Of course, every job has elements we prefer, but if an artist truly detests booking flights, then it is inefficient (and downright foolish) to continue requiring them to do so. Meanwhile, it would be equally detrimental to stop an artist-administrator from spearheading the redesign of a website when they are truly interested (and capable) in doing so. Many support roles have elements which are equally creative to any performance position, and we have found that a non-professional performing artist can bring fresh and inspiring suggestions to the table in these roles, and that they are capable of developing into strong professionals in their own right in these positions.

Aaron Holloway-Nahum © Justyna Skwierawska
Aaron Holloway-Nahum © Justyna Skwierawska

The most obvious example of this generally involves accounts and finance, but we might also return to the website redesign: while our player was able to direct this process and was hands on in creating large swathes of the website, they did not have the technical knowledge to oversee the domain transfer or coding tweaks/customisations to the ‘theme’ we used. Rather than see this as an all-or-nothing exercise, Riot employed a freelance designer to handle these elements, and entrusted our artist to manage it.

An important point about this 10% number is that it does not come close to capturing the amount of volunteer support work that has been poured into Riot by our artists. I would not be exaggerating to personally count 1,000 volunteer hours per year of the ensemble’s existence so far. This is not just personally unsustainable, it is inefficient and unprofessional: the quality of work required in all areas of our operation has increased manyfold since our inception, and the time and accountability required in its execution surpasses what any volunteer could provide.

With this in mind, Riot applied for and allocated more than 30% of our eventual grant as a debut Ernst von Siemens Foundation Ensemble-prize winner toward our support staff. This has meant one new (freelance) hire, but more importantly that we have begun to consistently remunerate the artists in our support positions. This lays further groundwork for the future, and allows us to clarify and codify their job descriptions while auditing and cataloguing the additional work we will need covered. Whether this can continue to fuel our growth and effectively scale with us as we seek our ambitious plans over the next decade remains an interesting experiment to be seen!