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  • Writer's pictureMarkdavin Obenza

Byrd Ensemble - III. Digital media, money, and our first break (2008-2010)

Updated: Feb 2

Other chapters from the history of the Byrd Ensemble:


DIGITAL MEDIA


In 2008, Facebook and YouTube were new. Only the young and trendy spent time on these platforms documenting too much of their private lives—that is, until our parents joined and ruined it for all. 


We were eager to jump on the digital media train and upload our own content. We hired local recording engineer Nathaniel Papadakis and a videographer (who shall remain anonymous) to record our performance at Holy Rosary in 2008. We were poor, so in exchange for the video, we agreed to participate in a music video as extras on a metro bus. Unfortunately, the videographer didn't hold up his end of the agreement and produced videos of only 3 songs from the concert, one embedded below.


Photo from 2008 at Holy Rosary Church, Seattle. Credit: Cameron Sharif.






Left to Right: Margaret Obenza (then Prezbindowski), Christina Siemens, Sarra Sharif, Teresa Clark, Orrin Doyle, Gary Cannon, Willimark Obenza, and Thomas Segen.


Nothing screams vintage than watching 360p resolution on present day monitors, but it was not all for nothing. These videos have made the rounds, racking up tens of thousands of views!




This performance was a notch better than our previous concerts. We sounded more mature particularly with the addition of tenor Gary Cannon and bass Michael Delos. They gave us the sound of wisdom we needed particularly in the men. I've said this before, but it must go on the record here that Gary Cannon has the best tenor instrument I have ever heard. Warm, easy high notes that ring with ease. Gary is a musicologist and music director. He hints at retuning to singing, perhaps after his preoccupation with Taylor Swift.


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FIRST BYRD KNOT

On August 23, 2008, Artistic Director Markdavin Obenza and Soprano Margaret Obenza got married at St. Ignatius Chapel, Seattle. The Tudor Choir, directed by Doug Fullington, sang at the wedding.



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MONEY


I thought that once we obtained our nonprofit status, donations would pour forth in abundance. This was not the case. I came to realize, many years later, that the people who support arts organizations are likely already connected to the organization—singers, friends, etc. In our 20s, none of us had money. And, no one we knew had money either.


 

...the main reason for paying singers is that it enables them to prioritize the work. It isn't paying the mortgage, but this token of respect is meaningful.

 

Other arts organizations had a robust donor base. It's true that it takes many years to develop a donor base, but it seemed that the directors and board of established performing arts organizations were already in circles filled with patrons eager to support the arts and we were the garage band with no resources trying to breakthrough. For a time, it felt like nobody cared.


But we were doing something different. We were forming a professional choir, one that pays every singer. Most choirs are comprised of volunteer singers (also known as community choirs) with the exception of the section leader here and there. Some of these singers pay dues and/or are expected to sell tickets to concerts. This is a much safer financial model to operate in—pay your director and admin and you are good.


More on this in a later chapter, but the main reason for paying singers is that it enables them to prioritize the work. It isn't paying the mortgage, but this token of respect is meaningful.


Our financial limitations forced us to operate with minimal overhead. We do not have an office, administrator, or other employees. I do most of the admin and artistic work. Only a year ago did I start receiving a salary. We did not have money when we started, so developing a donor and audience base took a long time. For many years, our core singers donated their time and efforts to the Byrd Ensemble which I (we) am so grateful for.


It was not an ideal way to begin a professional ensemble, but it made us focus on producing a high quality artistic product, and building our audience and donor base. Looking back, our financial disadvantage kept us from spending beyond our means and relying too heavily on donors. (I do not envy the organizations that are compelled to keep operating as they have been. A hard commitment to doing things "as they always have been done" is not forward-looking. High administrative overhead for the sake of 100 or so in the audience seems like not a good use of money. I prefer spending it on the best musicians, the very people who have the greatest impact on the quality of the artistic product.) Currently in 2024, we bring in around 150 people per concert—not a ton. But because of our budget, our ticket revenue covers about 70% of professional fees. This financial discipline has allowed us to operate sustainably for over 20 years.


OUR BIG BREAK


Photo credit: Willimark Obenza. Renaissance Singers, 2009. Left to Right: Joshua Haberman, Margaret Obenza, Thomas Segen, Willimark Obenza, Markdavin Obenza, Sarra Sharif, Orrin Doyle, Rebekah Gilmore



There was a time when our local newspapers like the Seattle Times covered the arts. Not just the big organizations—Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera—but smaller organizations like Early Music Seattle, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and the like. Unfortunately, the slow demise of local news over time has greatly reduced coverage of the work of smaller arts organizations. The advent of the smartphone, how it has shaped/gamed our attention, availability of free news coverage, social media—there are many reasons for this phenomenon, but in 2009, the Seattle Times showed us some love with a color photo and big article on the front page of the arts section previewing our Christmas concert in 2009, Christmas in Cambridge.


The moment the article published, we sold out Trinity Parish Church in 2 days. I get an email every time someone buys a ticket and my inbox was dinging like a winning slot machine at the casino. (In hindsight, we should have scheduled another performance the following day.) I remember opening the doors on concert day. I didn't see anyone right outside the door, but once my eyes moved further down the stairs I saw a line that continued around the block. We crammed over 400 people in Trinity Parish Church! (And started 20 minutes late—oops.)


This was the first time I started singing tenor. Really, the beginning of the end for my singing in the group.






Our first highlight video of the concert featuring excerpts and photos of the concert.



RECORDING


In 2010, we recorded our 2nd album, Christmas in England, an album of unaccompanied motets and carols. This would be the last time we hired a recording engineer. At the time, working with a recording engineer was the norm. However, we found it expensive. Recordings are different than live performances—they must be able to sustain many listens. It needs to be perfect, within reason (yes, I know this is a hot topic). This required many editing hours—$$$. In the interest of saving some money and seeing how perfect we could make it, alto Joshua Haberman and I would soon form our own record company.



Other chapters from the history of the Byrd Ensemble:

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