What Opportunities Came Out of New Music USA’s Merger?

Two organizations come together, bringing fresh perspectives to music makers and audiences.


New Music USA first caught my attention because of the amount of grants and opportunities they offer composers and creators of music and sound. Over the past year, the organization has emerged from a merger of two organizations, Meet the Composer and the American Music Center. Both have a robust history of offering dynamic support to American composers and sound artists.

The American Music Center was founded in 1939 to encourage, support and promote the work of American composers. Meet the Composer was created in 1974 as a program of the New York State Council on the Arts and grew into an independent, national nonprofit that provided grants and support for the interaction between the living composers and music audiences.  Merged together to share resources and staff and to strengthen the community of new music makers and audiences, they offer over $1 million in grants that support the creation and performance of new work; New Music Box, an advocacy and information platform for music makers; and Counterstream Radio, an online radio feed that presents the work of contemporary composers.

What are the benefits of merging organizations?

When carefully considered and executed, nonprofit mergers such as New Music USA’s can create opportunities for innovation. As arts nonprofits focus on streamlining their services, step up as advocates for their sector and the communities they serve, and work to do more with fewer resources, mergers can be a strategy for saving money and a platform for testing out new ideas and approaches.

In itself, a merger is not an easy recipe for innovation. A merger is a long-term process that requires a great level of commitment, a solid funding strategy and long range planning. The successful merger of Dance Theater Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company that created New York Live Arts was well documented, discussed and funded. After reading about this merger, which was covered on ArtsFwd, I was interested to hear from other organizations that had been through a merger process and whether that process had also been an opportunity for new thinking.

I spoke with Scott Winship, New Music USA’s Grants Director, about the impact the merger of the American Music Center and Meet the Composer has had on the two founding organizations’ programs and the communities they serve. While they are still in the process of assessing the merger and rolling out new programs, I identified three key elements from our conversation that emphasize how a merger, through organizational innovation, can bring fresh opportunities to art makers and audiences.

New Music USA's website
New Music USA’s website

A merger:

1. Creates a new organization, bringing new opportunities

Scott emphasized that the merger that created New Music USA was a merger of equals. “In this merger, it was important to preserve the core aspects of each organization,” he told me. “Nothing is going away, but we are gaining efficiency, responsiveness, and opportunity. Our largest opportunity is that we are a new organization and we have a chance to think about that means.” He also pointed out that New Music USA is able to offer more grants and opportunities to their community because of the combined resources and endowments, of Meet the Composer and the American Music Center and with a smaller, more efficient staff.

2. Allows organizations to clarify their principles and mission

Organizations that merge need to be very clear on what brings them together and what principles and values they share in order for the merger to be a success. As a new organization with a strong history and presence in the music and sound community, the merger enabled New Music USA to focus on how they could curate, promote and advocate for contemporary music through grants and media.

Scott identified several core principles that came out of the merger: “We found that the space we occupy is a virtual space, and we want to utilize that to be an asset to the artists and the work they are creating, and [to be] an advocacy machine for the field in general. The merger has brought a fresh perspective for everybody. Rather than dwelling on the history and legacy of each organization, we [can do] some fresh thinking and build off of this unique moment.”

3. Enables an organization to rethink their role in the field

Scott explained that Meet the Composer and the American Music Center’s grant programs were originally developed in the 1960s through the 1990s, and the merger gave them an opportunity to remake their programs and offer opportunities that are more flexible and responsive to the field today. There is a strong emergence of multidisciplinary work in the music and sound community, as well as an expanded definition of who a composer is and what they can do.

Scott pointed out that “Do-it-yourself is becoming a general model across the country. How one thinks about putting together and funding a work have changed, with advances in technology and social networking leading to unique collaborative and organic artistic expressions instead of artists trying to meet a funder’s strict requirements. I think [our merger allows us to support the shift] towards a natural state of being where people are just creating art.”

 While certainly an approach that must be carefully considered, the merger can bring a positive, fresh focus to organizations with strong legacies that are looking to combine resources and rethink what they offer to the field as a whole.

Have you been through a merger process? What has it brought to your organization?

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.

  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    This merger and its innovation potential is incredible interesting. After reading this blog, I’m left wanting to know more. What inspired this merger? Who proposed it? How much planning time went into this merger? Who was involved in the planning? What kind of staffing changes occurred? What was the roadmap they developed to create this new organization? Having never been through a merger before, I find the details of this transformation intriguing. I am interested in learning how an idea such as this was brought to life and the challenges that were encountered along the way from both a logistical and programmatic angle. It would also be interested to examine the similarities and differences between this merger and the New York Live Arts merger. I would enjoy reading more when their assessment of the merger is complete. We can all learn more about innovation by understanding the trials of others.

  • The concept of a merger is a big one. In the case of producing companies, co-productions are a less internally transformational option. Temporary partnerships also accomplish the three points you detailed. When the great recession hit in 2008, many not-for-profit theater companies made it through the downturn by co-producing. This model is especially good for bringing in new audience/opportunities and rethinking the organization’s role in the field. It can create unlikely alliances with companies to share future resources. It also takes the feeling of competition for audience out of the mix. If an organization seeks to accomplish some of the aspects of a merger without completely restructuring, co-presenting and producing is a great, less committing option.

    Some great examples of co-productions are:

    The single season collaboration between Flux Theatre Ensemble, Boomerang Theater and Gideon Productions offered three small theater companies an opportunity to pool resources and be in residence for an entire season at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens: http://www.secrettheatre.com/BFG_info.html

    The Public Theater is presenting “Detroit 67” in association with Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre. It’s offering a launch for playwright Dominique Morisseau in one of the strongest institutions in American and then continuing its at a smaller theater uptown. The effects have yet to be seen (the play’s currently running at The Public), but the possibilities for the smaller companies benefiting from the partnership is palpable.

    Some companies, like HERE and The New Ohio Theatre offer co-productions and subsidized rentals. These collaborations keep the lights on for the companies that rent buildings while offering a marketing and audience base to transient creative teams. In any event, it’s better than a small company straight up renting a commercial theater space.

  • Megan Ihnen

    One of the most difficult questions for the classical music community
    to answer is, “How can we stop scrambling for smaller and smaller pieces of the
    pie and somehow make the pie bigger?” How special, then, that Meet the Composer
    and the American Music Center were able realize that they could do more with
    their combined resources as New Music USA. As Mr. Winship mentions, they are
    able to brainstorm grant-making ideas in a way more aligned with the
    significant change in the arts funding landscape happening over the last 15
    years (i.e. the Kickstarter movement.) A merger of two historic organizations committed
    to disrupting the methods we have used since the 1960s can be terrifying for
    some. However, the new music field is hungry for that innovation and it is bold
    of New Music USA to make actual changes to take on that question of ‘how to
    make the pie bigger.’