Last night I attended the Madison performance of Little Big Town, an alt-country group whose current national tour is sponsored by Country Financial (which is where I got the backstage invite...thanks Sean). And in the pre-show chat for the sponsor's guests, they were asked about how they managed to endure as a band before they got their break. The answer, of course, was with hope, with scrappiness, and with day jobs. They would rent a cheap van to get to gigs. They would scrape and save and barter and borrow for their equipment. They would follow the same trail as almost any other wanna-be professional ensemble.
It just so happened that their trail led to a record deal, a national tour, a series of featured performances on broadcast television, and a series of hit singles.
Such rags-to-riches stories in entertainment always leave me wondering (because it's my job to wonder): What's the difference between this profitable band and the many nonprofits that tell a portion of the same story (the scrappy, resourceful, hopeful story)?
The answer, of course, is profit.
Little Big Town, and the thousand other bands and ensembles that make music together any way they can, are essentially nonprofits, until they're not. Just as Yo Yo Ma was a nonprofit enterprise until he wasn't. Or Kathleen Battle. Or Cirque du Soleil. They may not be formed as tax-exempt corporations, but they operate with essentially the same principals -- driven by passion and purpose, sustained by the act of making things from nothing.
In venture capital and equity investment, there is a magical moment when promise turns into profit, when founders or owners or early investors harvest the cash resulting from their early passion and productivity. It's called a 'liquidity event,' and usually takes the form of an Initial Public Offering or a buy-out by another company.
While its easy and convenient to label genres of music and types of performers as either nonprofit or for-profit, as commercially focused or community focused, neither is a particularly productive definition for what's really going on. Artists create work because they are compelled to create. Whether those creations find their way to a 'liquidity event' or not is a matter of the market, the moment, and the media that find what they make.