“Bands, brands and fans,” says Lindsey Lerner with a practiced ease. During our conversation about her brainchild, Level Exchange, Lerner is quick to answer questions with well-rehearsed sound bites. This self-promotional acuity is not cynical or even overenthusiastic; Lerner is just that confident in what Level Exchange means to her and to the future of local music in Rhode Island. Level Exchange is an enterprise that curates up-and-coming local musicians and matches them with area businesses for a mutually beneficial showcase of ideas, art and product. Via a circuitous route that took her from Delaware to Bryant University and then to Social Enterprise Greenhouse (SEG) (“a network of business and community leaders who contribute time, expertise and money to create jobs and support positive change through social enterprise”), Lerner’s somewhat negative past experience managing musicians fed into a synergy that exposed a way to elevate both artist and entrepreneur. “I could not continue to watch struggling musicians wallow in this ‘pay-to-play’ atmosphere that continues to exist (in the local music scene),” says Lerner. “So, I began to look at what SEG’s mission was and how they helped new businesses get noticed and thought, how can we elevate both at the same time?”
Using the example of acts such as Roz and The Rice Cakes, who would create DIY events, Lerner tested her ideas using SEG as a launch pad. Instead of asking businesses to allow musicians to set up in a corner and provide “background music,” Lerner aggressively sought out a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby both artist and entrepreneur would share the spotlight in front of a paying audience who would learn about both. Bands were able to have a new audience hear their music, business owners got to explain their mission and audiences received a unique experience that was a perfect blend of entertainment, marketing and local education.
“We are challenging musicians and businesses to get outside of their comfort zone,” says Lerner. “It’s time to challenge that old ‘poor, starving artist’ ethos.” And, while traditional booking agents and music venues have provided some pushback, Lerner is indefatigable in her mission. “Bars and restaurants need entertainment. Musicians need money to do what they do. So, how do they find out about each other?” Lerner realizes that she has created a new dilemma – can music and marketing find a balance that doesn’t dilute either one? One of the answers seems counter to existing practice: charge more instead of less for Level Exchange events. While common wisdom dictates that cheaper tickets earn more by volume, Lerner disagrees. “I would rather see fewer patrons attending who actually are there to pay attention and hear the music and learn about the businesses than have a room filled with people staring at their phone half the time wondering what’s going on over at The Parlour.”
Now that the model has proven successful, Lerner is already looking to see how she can productize the experience and move it to other cities (Denver is a possibility, for instance). “Based on the Social Enterprise Greenhouse philosophy, which asks, ‘How can we impact the largest number of people?’, I now view myself as something like an Avon rep-slash-community organizer. The product is there, it’s solid and now it needs to be distributed to the widest possible market in order to take root and grow in each local market.”
The model is so effective, actually, that many audiences may not even realize that they are being exposed. Upcoming performances (see below) are slotted neatly into the upcoming PVDFest lineup and others occur at businesses that already have expanding audiences. It is an art and commerce relationship where the strengths of one balance the underexposure of the other. “We need folks to get out of their comfort zone,” declares Lerner. “Ask yourself, what does it mean to be local?”
Level Exchange events are held at locations as diverse as Foolproof Brewery and Flipp Hair Salon. A full calendar can be found at: levelexchange.co/calendar and include
- Shannon Corey and Katie & Brad Kleyla at Hatch Entrepreneurship Center, Sunday, June 5
- Eric Shane (Eric & the Nothing) and Allison & Kevin Guiliano at Flipp Hair Salon, Sunday, June 5
- L’Ocean Rhode & Mike Cunningham at What is Movement in Warwick, Saturday, June 18
Ticket prices vary as well as the perks and takeaways of each, but the promise is always the same: You will walk away as fan of both the brand and the band. Keep it local.