SpokesBUZZ Embodies The Musical Side Of Fort Collins' Innovation Streak
Innovation doesn't have to be limited to constructs of science, technology and business – that's something folks in Fort Collins have figured out.
"I think you have people in Fort Collins who appreciate creativity in all forms," said Joyce Bedi, Senior Historian for the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. "And I think it comes out in super-turbos and improved batteries – and some of it comes out in pianos on the street and sculpture on every corner."
A large focus of that creative innovation has been spurred by Fort Collins' focus on music – the city is often touted as the land of "beer, bikes and bands." And if there's music involved, SpokesBUZZ is often not far behind.
"When you have a place of invention, what we're really talking about is a place with a really high level of creative people," Bedi said of Fort Collins, which the Smithsonian is highlighting as a 'Place of Invention.' "And that doesn't just go into invention and technology."
For SpokesBUZZ founder Dani Grant, innovation means microphones, not microchips. Guitar strings, not wires.
"While the revenue of a band does not necessarily equal the revenue of a widget, the cultural revenue is huge," said Grant.
It's a complicated idea because SpokesBUZZ breaks all the norms of nonprofit, marketing and promotion, Grant said. It's a group based on the idea that Fort Collins has some great music and more people need to know about it
"We are a promotion engine that, at the core of our organization, is an incubator geared toward talent development," she said. "So at the foundation of our organization we're trying to take really talented musicians, who we consider innovative small businesses, and teach them the ropes of business skills, to provide them with enough skills to advance in a very difficult industry."
When bands asked for help creating more inroads touring, SpokesBUZZ created BandSwap, an effort that brings Colorado bands to new cities, pairing them up with hometown bands. Then they shared the love by bringing those bands to Colorado.
“Working with the bands is kind of the nucleus of SpokesBUZZ," Grant said. "To us, that talent development piece is really important for an up-and-coming arts and culture city."
When the cities that SpokesBUZZ was swapping bands with asked about any business/innovation opportunities, the program paired up with local innovators, including E-Flux. The Fort Collins company created a way to accurately measure biodegradation rates in the soil at oil spill sites. As part of SpokesBUZZ's new "InnovationSwap" effort, E-Flux sent representatives to Nashville, which, in turn, sent innovators from Tarian Orthotics.
Not your typical music nonprofit, right?
Grant points out that having a very entrepreneurial nonprofit can be difficult for people to comprehend.
"We move quickly, we grow our programs fast," Grant said. "We went from a $95,000 budget in 2012 to a $250,000 budget in 2013, and in 2014 we reached almost half a million. That's how quickly this organization has grown and that's not the norm for a nonprofit."
The biggest example of that growth is the annual trek down to the famed South By Southwest music festival - the contemporary Mecca of musical innovation.
"Really SpokesBUZZ came from that question of, 'How do we make Fort Collins a music city?'" Grant said. "And the first step was heading to the largest innovative music festival in the world."
Their first year in Austin, SpokesBUZZ hosted five bands on one stage for one night in a bar. Six years later, SpokesBUZZ has continued to make Colorado heard amongst all the noise of Austin. In 2015, the program, now known as the Colorado Music Party, expanded to feature more than 120 bands, for five days and nights on two stages. It also collaborated with a variety of groups, including the Colorado Innovation Network and Colorado Creative Industries.
Colorado Creative Industries Director Margaret Hunt said Colorado’s showcase was all the buzz.
"It's interesting, I came to SXSW last year for the first time and I walked around town and I kept hearing 'Colorado' and 'Colorado Music Party' in peoples' conversations. And this year  the same thing happened," Hunt said. "I checked in at registration and a woman in line next to me was asked what she was going to see and she said, 'I'm going to the Colorado Music Party.' So, you know, it does create a buzz. People are taking notice and that's great – for us, for the state and for the musicians."
Innovations in music and in access to music are important in Colorado as an economic driver, she said.
"We're very interested in finding ways that we can leverage some state resources with public and private sector resources to create real opportunities for musicians and those employed in the music industry in Colorado," Hunt said.
At the 2015 SXSW, SpokesBUZZ created multiple avenues for band members and industry representatives to connect. Some were small; some career changing.
"The Yawpers were able to showcase themselves to three different labels at our showcase and then were able to go over to our meeting space and take some time with their manager/attorney to talk about the offers that they received," Grant said.
In the end, the band signed with Chicago's Bloodshot Records. It's a move that has brought the band and the state, a lot of attention.
As for what’s next?
"Who knows what next year will bring?" Grant said. "Every year, we reinvent (SpokesBUZZ programs) depending on what the needs of the community are."