Making Community Leaders of DIY Musicians – the mission of PeaceTones

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Adam BerkowitzAdam Berkowitz is the Projects Coordinator for PeaceTones and the Internet Bar Organization. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, PeaceTones “aims to create a fair trade and community development business model that breaks down knowledge and access barriers to allow artists in developing countries to build viable and sustainable businesses.” Echoes’ Andre Calilhanna spoke to Adam about Peacetones’ work and mission.

What was the impetus to start PeaceTones?
Jeff Aresty, PeaceTones’ founder and president, is a professor of law and technology at the University of Massachusetts and several other schools. His vision has always been this larger idea of access to justice, and from that he founded the Internet Bar Organization, which strives to bring lawyers and anyone working in the justice field up to a certain level of technology know-how. The IBO’s mission is also to give individuals in developing countries access to technology tools, because Jeff believes through technology, there is greater access to legal capabilities.

PeaceTonesJeff and one of our board members, Dan Rainey, came up with this idea for PeaceTones, an on-the-ground initiative to economically and legally empower musicians in developing countries. Musicians were chosen because they have the ability, more than most any other profession, to cut through socio-economic boundaries and really speak to a population. The idea is if we work with musicians and get some of these ideas in their heads – making everyone accountable before the law and ideas of justice and equality – if these are topics musicians consciously advocate for, the reach within a community would be exponential.

Tell me about the latest project.
Our last project was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the summer of 2010. We devised a contest to incentivize as many musicians as possible to participate. We held a series of workshops and let people know that if you had original songs, we’d record short videos of you performing, we’d throw them up on YouTube and Facebook, and we’d have people vote for them across the world. This way we’d have people engaging in Facebook and new technologies to market their music to international crowds so they could win the contest. They’d have to jump right in to the new technology skills we were teaching them in terms of being DIY musician.

It was incredible, we had over 10,000 votes from all over the world, and our winner was this gentleman named Wanito. He’s been absolutely amazing, not only in the sheer beauty of his music, but in his ability to capture an audience, and in his message. He was named one of the 10 most influential people in Haiti last year, and he’s working with the Haitian parliament to be a youth ambassador of sorts. He’s been touring around schools in Haiti – and it’s just been an amazing ride to see what he’s been able to do.

It sounds like you’re really building community leaders wherever you’re going.
Absolutely, and as I said, we can’t think of any greater profession than musicians to do that.

So PeaceTones is trying to empower the musicians to better use this technology, and then as leaders, they are able to help others in their communities do the same?
Exactly. There are so many technology tools out there now for the DIY musician. We want to bridge that knowledge gap, and that gap is really an access gap as well. We believe that with access and a knowledge of how to use these tools, a musician in Haiti can get his music out to the world stage and can possibly create a sustainable income. In his local community, they might not have the resources to help sustain a musician, but on the world stage, there are communities with a lot more resources that might be willing to pay $8-10 for a CD, which means a lot to someone living in Haiti.

I see 90% of revenue goes to the artist, and 10% goes to PeaceTones to help enable your work.
Yes. The 90% is specific to album sales, so Wanito gets 90% of his album sales. But he also has to give a percentage of that to a community development project of his choosing. What he’s chosen to do is help refab some of the schools that have seen better times in Haiti. He’s helping them buy school books, give them a fresh coat of paint, and helping young people have pride in their educational institutions.

That’s how it has worked with all of our PeaceTones artists. In Brazil, the group took all of their money and took it to build a recording studio which they’re letting people in their community record at free of charge. Our artist in Sierra Leone chose to give his proceeds to a technology school to help people learn how to develop technology skills. The artist in Haiti (Balan) gave their proceeds to a maternity clinic in their local community.

One of the things we’re hoping to accomplish is to foster a sense of community, and to appreciate the merits of giving back to your community, and that these ties to your community are really lasting. When the artist benefits, it benefits the community as well.

Has Wanito had the opportunity to travel outside of Haiti and perform and get his message out to a wider audience?
Yes. As part of his winning the contest he came to Boston and he recorded an album with some professional musicians who had graduated from the Berklee College of Music, who were awesome, and who were blown away by Wanito. We also put together a tour around Boston and Massachusetts and New York. I think he’s in Miami right now, and he’s traveled there several times, as well. And he’ll be performing at the Haiti vs. Harvard benefit soccer game, where the Harvard soccer team plays the Haiti National Team as a giant benefit for Partners In Health. That’s on April 22nd in Cambridge, MA.

Have you determined what your next project is, or are you still waist deep with Wanito?
Still waist deep, but something that has started to develop as a result of his success and our increased visibility is we’ve had many artists coming to us saying, “I see what you’re doing, you’re absolutely amazing, can you help me, too?” We obviously can’t take all these artists on, but we’re finding some who present such unique opportunities and stories for “teachable moments” that it’s hard for us to turn away.

One of these artists, I can’t give too much away at this point, but one artist is a legend in his country. Everyone knows him, every household knows his name, and yet he hasn’t made a dime off his music because he wasn’t able to protect himself, he dealt with the wrong people who exploited him. Now he has a new album that he wants to record, and he approached us and said “you are the partners that I want.” This is such a compelling story for us, and we’re adapting our model and doing some things a little differently and hoping to have a compare and contrast story showing what can happen when you protect yourself and do things the proper way in terms of distribution and legal rights. But we are also focusing on our next keystone project which is going to be in Kenya, in Kibera it looks like, which is the largest slum in Kenya. Looks like that will be at the end of summer, fall.

This is all a learning process for us. A key thing we’ve learned with Wanito is, he can’t do it himself. We’ve given him a lot of DIY musician tools, but once you hit a certain level of success, you need to have some key partners around you. So we’ve been working very closely with Wanito’s manager, who we’ve basically incorporated into our ongoing mentorship, to give him the technology, educational, and legal tools to be successful. As we move forward, we’re going to expand our future workshops so it won’t be just musicians, but it’s going to include those involved in the industry as well, because we’re starting to realize there are more supporting roles for other individuals to play, and that if we can have more impact on the industry side, it will have a bigger overall impact.

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