“I love starting things. I love the challenge of building something new that really works,” says Matt Peiken, longtime arts journalist and founder of a new online hub for Minnesota classical music coverage, MNuet.com, which is set to launch September 4.
One look at his work history in recent years, and Peiken’s entrepreneurial drive and professional restlessness are both evident. He was a staff arts writer with the “St. Paul Pioneer Press” for 10 years, five of which he spent reporting primarily on local classical music, dance and visual art. After he took a buyout from the newspaper in 2007, he was hired by the Walker Art Center to be editor of “Walker,” the institution’s eponymous, nationally-distributed magazine. (I should mention: In my capacity as editor for mnartists.org, a project of the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation, I worked with Peiken occasionally during his tenure there.)
When he left the Walker nearly a year later, Peiken struck out with his first entrepreneurial venture: creating the online video series, “3-Minute Egg.” Over the course of the series’ run, Peiken self-produced 330 web-based video shorts, distributed on his website, through social media and via opt-in email subscription, supported in part by donations and sponsorships, but financed largely out of pocket. For the near-daily videos, Peiken covered local visual artists, musicians, actors and filmmakers — covering stalwarts of the scene and emerging, independent artists alike. The series proved popular enough to garner him a deal with Twin Cities Public Television, for which he produced 26 half-hour episodes of “3-Minute Egg” that aired on TPT.
As happens with so many worthy projects, though, both his money and steam ran out, and Peiken left the project after a year-and-a-half to take a day job as a regional editor for AOL’s Patch.com.
Peiken says he loved the work of producing the video series, but “I just couldn’t monetize it.” He realized he’d need backers for such a project to work – or even better, an actively involved community with a shared stake in the arts coverage he wanted to produce. He explains, “I realized there’s no way I can raise enough money in advertising alone to keep a project in an online medium afloat. So, I looked at Minnesota Public Radio’s model of membership, and I wondered, ‘Why can’t ‘membership’ include organizations?’”
He goes on, “I’ve always focused my work on entities and art and people that weren’t getting enough attention. I see in classical music an area that’s not getting enough attention.” Indeed, the Twin Cities are lousy with internationally known musicians and classical music institutions – Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Opera (both Knight Arts grantees), Rose Ensemble, American Composers Forum (and its label, Innova Records), Zeitgeist. And that’s to say nothing of the proliferation of small and mid-sized early music and classical ensembles in the area.
“We have all that,” Peiken says, “and yet no media organization around here has a staff writer dedicated to covering the classical music beat any more; the coverage is all farmed out to freelancers. Major media outlets might broadcast some concerts, but there’s no one really reporting on the scene — you can learn about what the major players are doing, but you don’t get context, and you certainly don’t hear much from individual artists.”
Peiken’s ambition is to knit these disparate local classical and new music organizations — large and small, world-renowned and emerging — into a bona fide community. By chipping in individually, as members, to support a discipline-specific but shared resource like MNuet, he says, they can collectively foster in-depth arts coverage to fill the gap in current media, and also share audiences, promotional resources and hard-won expertise.
“By my estimate,” he says, “we have 60-some classical music ensembles and nonprofit organizations around town; if I can inspire these groups to invest in MNuet, I have a secure funding base not dependent on the [uncertain advertising revenues of the] old legacy journalism model.” MNuet member organizations chip in an annual fee on a sliding scale: ranging from $15 for students to $500 for larger organizations. Many of the Twin Cities’ landmark classical music institutions have already signed on as MNuet members (including all those mentioned by name above).
Perks of membership include having one’s event listings and press releases polished and included in a comprehensive local classical music calendar Peiken has created. He’ll also be producing new videos on the work produced by MNuet’s member musicians and organizations, in the vein of his shorts for “3-Minute Egg,” as well as a weekly, interview-based podcast, “Whole Note,” which will feature conversations by players and administrators on relevant issues and trends shaping the local classical scene. Peiken says he won’t be writing music reviews or original articles to start, but that, in addition to the exhaustive performance calendar and multimedia work produced, he’ll aggregate and post links to pertinent music criticism published by other media outlets around town.
In addition to the online component of the project, Peiken will curate “Etude a Trois,” a monthly live showcase of brief performances by three MNuet member ensembles and musicians, followed by audience Q & A. The launch party for MNuet is the first such showcase, with a line-up including acclaimed chamber ensemble, Accordo (an occasional octet comprised of the principal string players from Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra); Minnesota Opera teaching artist Bergen Baker; and a brass quintet from the Dakota Valley Symphony.
For now, Peiken’s not looking to make his living with MNuet. He’s got other projects – freelance video commissions and a new, Kickstarter-funded documentary, “Faith Forward” – keeping him busy as well. He says he’s launching this classical music web resource, largely, because he just can’t leave alone the puzzle of finding a new model for funding and producing arts journalism. “For me, it’s all about the process of discovery: launching something, but then meeting the challenge of keeping it in orbit. Up to now, I just haven’t had the endurance or the investment behind me to do that, but with MNuet, I feel like I’ve finally got all the necessary pieces in place. This time, it’s not just me, alone: I can lean on the members.”
And the value of their support, he says, lies in much more than the dollar amount of each MNuet-member contribution. “Everyone’s struggling – no one, large or small, just has cash in a drawer to draw from any more. Every penny is spoken for. So, having this group of organizations, each willing to invest $500 to be part of this effort — it shows me that they want this to work, too, that there’s a need for what MNuet offers. It’s a real jolt of belief and support in what we can do together, and it introduces some meaningful accountability into the equation: I know what writing a check right now, in this economy, costs these organizations and musicians, and I’m accountable to each and every member to make good on that investment.”
So far, MNuet monthly showcases, “Etude a Trois,” are scheduled for Tuesday nights — September 4, October 2 and December 4 – at 7 p.m., at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. Find more information about both the performance series and the launch party: www.mnuet.com/event/etude-a-trois-mnuet-launch-party-and-performance/.
While the website doesn’t officially launch until September 4, you can already find information online about membership, the classical music calendar, as well as a few videos: www.mnuet.com.