Michael Korie: Frances and Emily, what kinds of projects are you currently up to and what do you look forward to in the future?
Frances Pollock: I am primarily an opera writer and currently have a number of operas that are making the rounds with a number of companies this year. I’m currently developing a new work called Salt with Emily as my librettist. We are developing the work with the Midnight Oil Collective—it’s one of the six founding projects—and it’s a very exciting story that I’ll let the librettist tell you about.
Emily Roller: Salt is an adaptation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah set on a college campus. It explores the divides and the “burn it down and salt the earth” mentality that are so prevalent today, but it’s framed in stand-up comedy that then develops into an opera. It is not your typical opera, but we’ve been really excited about working on it.
Michael Korie: Well, that sounds innovative. Speaking of innovation, what is the Midnight Oil Collective and how does it augur a new way for writers and composers to get their work produced?
Emily Roller: The Midnight Oil Collective is an investment, development, and production company that centers artists as exclusive shareholders, so we’re entirely creator led. We take projects from inception all the way through to fruition, supporting them creatively, administratively, and financially. The whole thing is built on cooperative economics. But instead of asking our artist-shareholders to invest financial capital, we are asking them to invest creative capital in the form of a portion of a project. We then collect the work, leverage our collective portfolio, raise funds, and share profits. The model essentially combines the principles of cooperative economics and venture capitalism.
Michael Korie: How did the idea for the collective become a reality?
Frances Pollock: We started meeting in May 2020 during the pandemic because our nine founders found ourselves simultaneously under-employed and with a lot of time to consider that unemployment. We were collectively concerned about the fact that we had very little agency in the shutdown of our industries, and we started to meet regularly to talk about ways artists could take back agency. That included not being cut out immediately once our field had trouble pivoting during the pandemic.
We’re a really diverse group of artists—directors, actors, composers, writers—and we are all interested in creating different types of art. Some of us are creating operas (like Emily and me), some of us are creating TV shows, plays, musicals, and an education business that one of our members was interested in creating. And this was interesting because it showed the breadth of what the artist could do, right? So often an artist is sort of pigeonholed for creating in one field, but artists can actually do all sorts of things.
As a collective, we already had a sense that money tended to favor those who had resources and the challenge that we set for ourselves was to see if we could figure out a way for an artist to create without having to come from a monied background or having to take on work that subsidized the art that they really wanted to make. So often art is subsidized with teaching or with taking commissions that [artists] don’t fully believe in, and that is really heartbreaking. So, what we decided that we actually needed was a business education, and now I’m a doctoral student at Yale University, and in the Fall of 2020 I applied to Tsai CITY, the business accelerator at Yale. We also applied for a business accelerator that’s more community-based in New Haven called Collab. We were accepted into both, and through the mentorship and resources that both of the accelerators provided us, we started to get a sense of how we might begin restructuring the financial models to put artists back at the center of project development.
Currently there are nine shareholders, so that means that there are nine artists who have been through our incubation process and now hold management power within the company.
Michael Korie: Emily, how important is it for artists to understand the business side of our industry, and does the Midnight Oil Collective actually provide an opportunity for them to gain financial literacy?
Emily Roller: I’m so glad you asked that question. It’s incredibly important for artists to understand the business side of things. I think a lot of times we’re told in various MFA programs or educational programs, “Oh, you’ll get an agent, somebody who’ll handle the business side. You focus on the art.” And it would be very nice to be able to do that. However, you lose a lot of power when you don’t at least have a basic understanding of how the industry functions. For commercially successful works, for instance, the vast majority of the money does not go back to artists. It goes back to wealthy individuals who have invested in it.
I think a lot of people don’t fully realize that or don’t feel like there’s anything that they can do about it. But by getting a basic sense of the means of production in the arts and by comparing that to the means of production in start-up tech companies, we can start to see that the arts world is behind. Our contracts are extremely complex. They slow the process down, they slow down innovation, they make it very difficult to move forward with work, and they often result in artists losing control of their projects—not getting to choose collaborators, for instance.
By gaining a basic understanding of how it works, artists can really drive their own projects forward and see their vision through exactly how they want to. We provide what we’re calling an “accelerator” as part of our year-long incubation period. The curriculum is modeled largely on accelerator programs that we’ve taken part in. We discuss business structure, investing versus loans, what equity means, etc. In our field, we always use “equity” to mean fairness or something close to accomodation, but equity in the business world means ownership. Having a strong understanding of what it means to have ownership and what it means to give up part of that ownership puts artists in a much stronger position.
Michael Korie: It’s interesting that you mention artists’ ownership of their work, because the Dramatists Guild is all about people owning their work, as opposed to film and TV, where artists do not own their work and are regularly thrown off their own projects. Thanks to the Guild, that cannot happen to playwrights, composers, lyricists, and librettists. But you’re quite right that because of our business ignorance, our indoctrination to “just let the agent handle the money issues,” we don’t get the full picture. With increased financial control and input, artists can gain leverage with producers. They essentially become investors in their own works, and with that comes creative control.
Frances Pollock: You quite literally become an investor in your own work, which is what’s exciting. By collectively leveraging our work together, we are literally invested in each other’s projects.
If I wanted to create a work that wasn’t necessarily going to provide a huge economic return but had a lot of worth in other ways, like social capital or cultural capital, then I’m allowed to do that and we can still fund it, because other people might be creating more commercially viable work.
I want to emphasize that we never cut into the artist’s portion of the work. So, if you were to join us, Michael, and you had this very commercially successful work, you would still make what Michael Korie would make off a very traditionally successful work. What we have done, however, is we’ve leveraged the artist investment portion to pool our resources, to pool our projects, and to make sure that we’re invested in each other’s projects by holding equity in them.
Michael Korie: How does the collective model affect producing companies and organizations? Usually, they keep a tight lid on the finances of a project, an information blanket covering everything. How do they respond to working with artist as co-producers?
Frances Pollock: We’re not trying to take jobs away or to make people’s lives harder; in fact, all we’re trying to do is make a healthy ecosystem.
Michael Korie: A producer typically says, “Leave the money to me.” Now you’re saying, “No, I want to know about it. I want to vet the budget and I want to see what all the parties gain out of it.” How does that go over?
Emily Roller: In early meetings with nonprofit organizations, people have responded really well, because it’s nice to have somebody else take care of the money. The producers’ heart is in making the project happen. If artists come with their own funding, nonprofits are able to think about things like creating consortiums. It relieves a burden.
Michael Korie: Nonprofits fund their seasons through corporate, foundation, and private giving as tax deductible write-offs. Does your collective change that model, or is it closer to what is known in the theatre as “enhancement funding?”
Emily Roller: It does build on this enhancement model. But what’s really nice is if a nonprofit were to invest with us, they would receive not just a portion of the returns of the project that they’re involved with, but of our entire collected works. It’s a smarter investment.
Frances Pollock: I want to jump in on that from your previous question, Michael. A producer working in the traditional commercial theatre model has an almost impossible job to create a return for their investors. The statistic is that only one in five Broadway shows recoups, so four out of five times, producers are going to investors and saying, “You’re about to set your money on fire.” Through this model, because we’re hedging the risk against all these other projects, you’re no longer having to go to investors in that way. You get to hedge your risks against a collective of 30-50 other projects, which is significantly better odds and, furthermore, they’re not just in one sector. They’re not directly competing with each other. They’re in film and television and musicals and operas and plays, so this is such a better and safer model for people to invest their money in.
Michael Korie: Back to the nonprofits, where works generally have three stages of development, a process that takes years. In opera, for example, first comes the commissioning phase where sponsoring companies have to seek funds to get the ball rolling. Then, if they elect to develop it, they apply for development funds a year or two after that. Finally, if you’re lucky, you get to production funding, but then you run into the back log of other productions that are on the front burners while you’re on hold. Your project takes five or six years to reach an audience. Does the MOC model speed things up?
Emily Roller: Yes. I think a lot of what slows projects down is funding. With MOC, we’ll have funds available to distribute to artists. We’ll be able to say that if an artist completes the incubation and gets their project structured, we will have an immediate round of development funding ready. Then, as the project hits its goals—which is entirely in the artist’s hands—we’ll have funding to back an actual production. This can expedite the process significantly. In the old six to ten-year development process, not only is the idea getting more stale, it limits who can participate. There’s burnout. Lots of talented artists cannot afford to hang around and participate long enough. We really want to streamline that process.
Michael Korie: So many artists have a family to support, a landlord, kids to put through school, and, in order to survive, the art goes by the wayside and promising careers get curtailed. How would an artist go about getting involved in MOC or starting a similar group themselves? What kind of investment do you have to bring, and where is the money going once it’s invested?
Frances Pollock: In order to make these seismic shifts to our industry that correct the imbalance that has kept the artists exploited and disenfranchised for all of these years, we need an extraordinary amount of resources. Simultaneously, this model actually can’t be done if you put traditional hedge fund folks or investment financial people at the helm, because they are the primary benefactors of a profitable show. What we’ve designed and cultivated is a system in which the artist remains in control of the finance.
The reason that it hasn’t been done before, to be honest, is because it takes an extraordinary amount of resources. Right now we’re working with the Yale Innovation and Entrepreneurship Law Clinic, and they are helping us structure ourselves legally. If an artist wants to start a similar venture, first of all, they should come talk to us. We can point them in a similar trajectory. The thing about cooperative economics is that cooperatives help other cooperatives, so we would love to see more of these collectives pop up, because we know that we would be able to help and invest in them as artist supporting structures.
Emily Roller: We are planning on sharing a lot of the material that we’re using to educate ourselves. We’re going to make it publicly available because, as Frances said, the more people who structure in a similar way as we are, the easier it is to shift the industry, right? This isn’t just about a company. It’s about a movement we’d love to start.
A lot of people participate in writers groups. I have had one for many, many years where we meet weekly and share work. The benefits of a group like that is that it gives you a deadline and people to bounce work off of. But we think those groups can evolve into their own cooperatives with just a little bit education on how to do that. One of the big parts of our mission is trying to help other artists organize.
Michael Korie: So you’re saying that theatre artists can also use this as a model—any kind of artist, right? Does the collective decide as a group where the funding is going?
Emily Roller: Yeah, it’s a democratic process, and all shareholders have a say in the governance.
Michael Korie: Sometimes when artists get involved in self-production, there’s an attitude: “Oh, this is a vanity production. Those are wealthy people producing their own works that ordinarily wouldn’t get produced.”
Frances Pollock: I think the idea of a vanity project is hilarious. If you have a small business and what you do adds a lot of good to the world, no one calls that a vanity project.
Michael Korie: Right.
Frances Pollock: Instead of trying to think about our projects through the traditional lens of artists raising their own money or self-producing, what we’re doing is trying to invent a pipeline in which artists are treated like small business owners with a guaranteed mechanism to take their project from inception to development to production and with guaranteed channels of funding along the way. Furthermore, we just want artists to remain in the driver’s seat so that they can steer the project, making sure their vision is fully realized. I’ve been on projects, and I’m sure you have as well, Michael, where like it’s sort of like the rug is pulled out from under you. All of a sudden you don’t have that much agency or say in what happens next. So yes, there is a self-production component [to MOC], but we are using that self-production component with cutting edge VC practices and cooperative economics—real industry-shifting mechanisms—that could completely change the way that we produce art.
Emily Roller: And, each cohort or investment group is also working on each other’s projects. They’re all incredibly talented artists who are investing their creative expertise. I think that “due diligence” can also help keep a project from too much navel gazing, right?
Michael Korie: I guess there must be a limit to how many artists can be in your collective, but, as you said, there could be many satellite collectives. That number is limitless.
Frances Pollock: Yes.
Emily Roller: There’s a limit for each investment group, just to ensure that each share is still worth something, but the idea is that part of the profit will go to seed new groups. We can reproduce, almost cellularly, with new projects. Growing in this way means control and power don’t get too centralized, which makes us flexible and innovative.
Michael Korie: You mentioned that one of your founding principles was to reach diverse artists of limited or modest means. How does an artist who lives from project to project follow this kind of a model?
Frances Pollock: The main reason we started the collective is we recognized that resource is a problem in our field. People who come from family support or family resource or personal money [are] usually the ones who can take the next steps in getting their projects seen. We make sure that we’re not doing that. We don’t ask for an economic capital buy-in like you would if you had to go to an expensive program or attend an expensive education. We just ask an artist to come with a really great idea.
We are only limited by the rate that we can grow our own investment groups. We don’t want to make promises that we can’t stand by. I think the way an artist from anywhere starts to grow is to find collaborators—a group of people who have a bunch of projects that they’re excited about—and start developing them together. Once you do that, you may want to reach out to a group like MOC, then we can start to help you structure in the same investment way that we have structured ourselves.
Michael Korie: When artists are coming up through the ranks, there’s a support system among them that perhaps disintegrates when real-world competition enters the picture with a limited number of slots for new work to be produced. This could change that whole aspect.
Frances Pollock: Absolutely. Structurally, you need each other rather than fighting over scraps of resources.
Emily Roller: Right, and everybody is incentivized. If anybody does well, everybody does well. In a collaborative field, it makes so much more sense to incentivize collaboration than to make it a competitive thing, which can be detrimental to the work.
Michael Korie: Do you know of any other collectives such as yours?
Frances Pollock: We know that there are lots of movements that are reimaging the creative economy, people who are trying to solve this problem, so we’re smack dab in the middle of this great reckoning with what money means in our field. And this reckoning is not art-specific; it’s taking place across all industries right now. It’s exciting. From an investment perspective, we’ve heard of people trying to start funds, and a lot of the funds have been successful and lucrative, but an artist-managed fund is quite different, and that’s what makes our model so appealing. At the end of the day, the artist is the benefactor of the investment portion of their work. You can’t have the traditional financial types that lead funds. You must have artists at the helm. We’ve been studying this for a year-and-a-half now, and we haven’t come across anything quite like this.
Michael Korie: Maybe we can make up a fictitious example to show how it works. Say Salt has already been done. It’s a great success, and you decide to do a sequel, Pepper. Right now, it’s just a germ of an idea and you want to bring it to the Opera Theatre Center of Pennsylvania, or whatever. How much money do you want to invest in Pepper, how does that work, and what do they stand to benefit?
Frances Pollock: That’s a great question, and I like breaking it down into concrete examples. Obviously, you’re not going to write Pepper and put it on its feet at the same time. You’re going to need some space to do the dreaming, the research, the drafting, and so forth; you have to write the thing. So, what Midnight Oil Collective does during that time period is we give grants to our artists and we say, “Take this money and support yourself while writing Pepper.” Our goal is that we are trying to pay for you also to go to these incubating workshops so that you can actually start to see this material up on its feet.
Once Pepper is in the development phase, then we give seed money, which is so you can make a prototype of Pepper, you can hold your libretto readings, you can make your recordings so that you can take it to Philadelphia. That’s generally in the realm of $20,000 to $30,000 that we immediately place in the project to make sure that you can create these materials. From there we’re looking to back the production, and that’s when you’re starting to get into the tune of $500,000, $1 million that we want to make sure we’re putting behind the production in Philadelphia.
But MOC’s relationship with Pepper doesn’t end at that first production. We want to see it go as far as it wants to go. So, does Pepper want to go on tour? That’s going to take another $3 to $5 million, and that’s okay, because we’re structured as a for-profit investment entity and because Pepper is structured as an investment vehicle. All of these rounds of investments can be managed by the artist, keeping the artist in control. MOC can go out and raise the money that it would take for Pepper to reach its next step, if there is a next step, because there are so many shows that get to production, they’re fabulous shows, they receive fabulous reviews, and then they just sit on a hard drive.
Michael Korie: Let’s suppose Pepper was one of those shows that did have a successful birth and toured the nonprofits and then went for-profit. Say a Broadway producer decided to remount it commercially. How would the collective benefit? Would they be an actual producer of that?
Emily Roller: Yes, depending on the capitalization costs, we would be a producer or co-producer. If it’s successful, a large portion of the producer and investor share of the proceeds would go back to our collective, which would be then distributed amongst artists.
Michael Korie: So then this model would cover anything from a one-person performance gallery show to a grand opera or a big musical.
Emily Roller: Yep.
Frances Pollock: When you think about the way that businesses are built—Uber and Airbnb and Facebook and Tesla—we’re talking about businesses that exist on scales that dwarf any musical production. All we’re doing is saying a musical is a small business, and in order for a small business to incrementally reach its next steps, it just has to have access to capital; it has to have access to resources. And so, if it needs to go to the West End and it needs to raise $3 to $5 million, that’s okay. That’s a pittance compared to the $600 million that it would take to get a Tesla up and running.
Michael Korie: It’s kind of refreshing to hear you talk about a work of art as a small business, because I have often thought, I am spending five to six years building this thing, then it opens, and sometimes it’s shut down in one night. Would that happen to a restaurant? No. It would be allowed to find its way. So, I really love the idea of artists standing up for their own creations.
Frances Pollock: Our industry is one of the greatest exports in America, and our industry is collectively worth $900 billion a year. That’s more than agriculture in this country, and so little of that is controlled and finds its way back to artists. I mean, you think about a show like Hamilton. Hamilton is a billion-dollar enterprise at this point. It is making the original investors millions of dollars. What would happen if that money went back to artists and seeding new art? It would be game-changing to our field.
Joey Stocks: Agreed! As an employee of the Guild, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that shows like Hamilton, Chicago, Wicked, Aladdin, and other first-class productions of musicals and plays written by Guild members do give back to artists by paying assessments to the Dramatists Guild. Those funds have kept membership fees low without an increase in over ten years and have kept this organization providing uninterrupted services throughout the pandemic. I realize the point you’re making is a little different, but in a manner of speaking, the contributions of DG members produced on Broadway demonstrates (to a degree) how the idea of your collective not only works but succeeds.
Michael Korie: What else would you like our readers to know about, and where can they seek further information?
Emily Roller: Yeah, I was going to say it’d be great if you want to follow along, we have a website: www.midnightoilco.com. And there’s a newsletter you can subscribe to that comes out every two weeks. If you are interested in education materials, which we will make public in the late spring, I would definitely encourage you to sign up to the newsletter and keep tabs on what we’re doing.
Frances Pollock: And one of the things that has given me a lot of agency and empowerment is this investment portion, so if anyone is interested in investing with us and exploring these models, please contact us, because this is an exciting field with a lot of potential in a market that’s pretty unexplored at this point.
Joey Stocks: As you all were talking, I thought about when 13P formed and reimagined the self-production model back in 2007. I’m remembering it was founded by playwrights (as opposed to musical theatre and opera writers) who are traditionally taught that their job is to sit alone in a room and write a play. And then it’s somebody else’s job to go make that play happen. I get the sense that the message many college undergraduates and graduates come away with is: write a play, get an agent, they’ll take that play to the right people, and then you’ll have success. And if it’s not successful, then you got the wrong agent. I may be oversimplifying the narrative, but it seems to be a common belief among dramatists: let business people take care of your business. 13P put some of that agency back in the hands of its artists.
Frances Pollock: We’re very inspired by 13P. That was definitely a name that was thrown around almost daily at the beginning of our process, because what they did was so revolutionary in collectivizing and making sure that their work was produced. We were heartbroken that they stopped at one show per playwright. It was so cool. Why not take that energy and make it something that’s sustainable?
Joey Stocks: Right. And the next generation of collectives—I’m thinking about The Welders in Washington, DC—tried to improve upon the 13P model by having different cohorts come in once everyone in the previous cohort had their single production. But they, like 13P, use a nonprofit economic model. It’s interesting that Midnight Oil Collective is building a completely different model than we’re used to thinking about as artists.
Frances Pollock: Right.
Michael Korie: It’s also interesting that you’re not all theatre-oriented. I suspect that the theatre industry is so proprietary of itself that it would rather lose money than let an “outsider” in. Maybe this model will be more successful precisely because it has a broader umbrella.
Emily Roller: Yes.
Frances Pollock: Recently, we saw Dana H. on Broadway, and as we were walking in, there was a man from Netflix who was like, “Oh, they pay me to go see all the shows so I can tell them which ones Netflix should buy to stream on their site.” So, whether we like it or not, these changes are happening and people who can’t come to New York still get access to Broadway shows through streaming sites like Netflix. I think that imagining ourselves as bigger than just one sector is going to be important for us to create a better way of creating.
Emily Roller: And imagining our work as more than a single production but as a business that has the potential to have a life after that is super important.
Joey Stocks: One last question. Since we’ve been primarily focused on productions, do you imagine the collective could also help fund publication and/or recording?
Frances Pollock: Absolutely! The publishing industry is in the midst of major changes, and it is becoming more and more viable to publish independently. Publishing collectively makes even more sense. In fact, one of our incubating artists is beta testing a publishing model. And yes to recordings. Potentially licensing as well. All of these aspects will be built into each project’s business plans and can be funded through different funding rounds. Technology is making it easier and easier to enter into these different areas.
Joey Stocks: Thank you.
Michael Korie: Thank you both.