What Happens When Creators Invest in Creators?

As writers and actors continue to strike, the Midnight Oil Collective is testing a collaborative approach to funding the arts

October 2023
Ben Wrobel
In partnership with:
Futureproof Studio

Natalie Brown, composer and playwright, strides in front of her audience with the composure of a born performer. At twenty years old, she's been on countless stages – but never anything like this.

She’s standing in front of a crowd at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking, a startup hub nestled inside Yale’s campus. The building is all glass and sharp edges alongside the stonework of Yale’s academic buildings, just down the street from the School of Music where Brown takes classes.

Brown is pitching her theatrical venture – a sung-through version of Ntozake Shange's 1975 original choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

This is not her typical performance. It’s a pitch competition led by the Midnight Oil Collective, an ​​investment and development company developed by artists with the needs of artists in mind.

Shortly after her presentation, Brown tells the audience that she wants to bring the play to New York City for an “industry reading” in front of Broadway investors – but she needs gas money for a van to shuttle her cast down I-95. “Our goal is to bring the production to a regional theater or opera house… maybe the Met, but that would be so crazy.”

“Midnight Oil Collective turns making art into making money” writes the Yale Daily News. It’s a good summary, but it also only scratches the surface of what this unique organization is looking to accomplish.

At the most basic level, the collective is an incubator for early-stage creative economy ventures, helping artists like Natalie Brown bring their ideas to fruition. They work with playwrights as well as artists in a variety of other disciplines, creating TV pilots, animation houses, and music studios. But that’s only one part of their grander vision – to upend the way that art gets funded, and who owns the end result. 

Formed in 2020 in the midst of a pandemic that was brutal on artists, the collective is seeking to build a radically new model for investing in creative economy ventures. Their business model combines the logic of venture capital with the ethos of cooperative economics. They use a peer-driven investment model to decide which artists receive support and funding from the collective, a stark contrast to the opaque and distant decision-making models employed by large production companies and studios.

They are also structured as a cooperative, owned collaboratively by the artists in the collective, with all of their investees taking part in the upside of the fund’s investments. The goal is to have a pathway that allows artists to retain control.

After two years of rapid growth and maturity, they have decided to raise a venture capital fund. They now have an ambitious vision to raise a multi-million dollar fund in the next year – and much more after that. It’s all part of their vision to rethink arts funding.

As Midnight Oil Collective COO and creative writer Emily Roller says, “We want to create an alternative to the path where artists get absorbed by Disney or some other conglomerate. That means providing the tools, support, and funding that the artist needs to drive the project through – and ownership of the final product.”

Or as she and the rest of the collective’s members often put it, in more simple terms: “We are creators investing in creators, working toward a world in which liberated creators liberate creation.”

A False Narrative

On the evening of Natalie Brown’s pitch, Midnight Oil COO Emily Roller kicked off the workshop with some select words for the scions of the creative economy – some of whom were in the audience listening.

“Our storytellers and creators have long believed a false narrative,” she began.

What started off as standard welcoming remarks seemed to turn by its own volition into an impassioned speech; or rather, a sermon. Roller is the daughter of Southern Baptist preachers. Her art is writing fiction and creative nonfiction, including brutally personal reflections on being a liberal from the Midwest in the age of Trump. (“I do get a lot of feedback from people in my hometown,” she says.”) She was one of the nine co-founders of the Midnight Oil Collective along with her wife Frances, who is the group’s CEO.

On stage, Roller unpacked the dirty dynamics of the arts and entertainment industry. When the pandemic hit, she said, artists and creators were the first to lose their gigs and sources of revenue, which was already barely enough for them to get by. But for the founding members of the Collective, she said onstage, “the experience opened our eyes.”

She continued: 

“Our storytellers and creators have long believed that we have to starve to pursue this career; that we are lucky to get anything performed; that we don't have real jobs. All of this despite the fact that the average adult consumes 11 hours of content every day, and the arts, entertainment and media fields contribute more to the GDP than agriculture or food.
This false narrative has led to artists accepting truly unconscionable contracts; to artists giving up equity and control, selling their intellectual property to the first person who expresses interest; to shaping their work to meet the tastes of wealthy audiences instead of broad and diverse audiences; and to thank their benefactors for the opportunity to do so.
It has led to a field that the many cannot afford to participate in; a field that skews white and wealthy and male; a field that is losing out on the rich diversity of culture in this country at a time when we desperately need to protect our identities.”

The financial injustices in the creative economy mirror, and exacerbate, those in the economy writ large. And these injustices don’t just force artists to work for too-little pay; they also change the art itself. 

When an artist signs a contract, they quickly lose control of the work. And the work ends up getting catered to the taste of those with money. As a result, art is catered to the tastes of the patrons – whether that’s film and TV studios, theater trustees, or music executives.

“I know so many writers who are Black and are, like, I just want to write a rom-com – that’s where my heart is,” Roller says. “But all they can get commissions for are stories based in trauma. That’s catering to a certain narrative that is catering to certain tastes.”

And this skewed viewpoint has far-reaching ripple effects. You’ll often hear members of the Midnight Oil Collective repeat a phrase attributed to Kamilah Forbes, executive director of the Apollo Theater: “Art influences culture, and culture dictates policy." The TV we watch or the music we listen to determines who is seen as beautiful; how we understand history; how we interpret current events.

On stage at the pitch event, Roller paused and scanned the row of artists preparing to present, including Natalie Brown. “It’s time for more efficient, accessible, equitable and sustainable development pathways. It's time for a new story.”

Not Your Typical Revolutionaries

The Midnight Oil Collective might never have gotten together if it wasn’t for Covid underscoring just how bad things had gotten.

The eight artists who initially launched the Collective knew each other in various ways through Yale. Between the group there’s a composer, three writers, four actors, two playwrights, an opera singer, and a music historian (that’s accounting for multi-hyphenates).

They realized they faced common barriers – they all struggled with what Roller calls the ‘gatekeeper problem’. It had always been a discussion in the background. But the way Roller puts it, Covid’s effect on the art scene made inaction impossible. When the pandemic shuttered the creative field entirely, there was a sense that something was different. “There was a sense that we could never go back to the old ways.”

After a series of conversations, they wrote a manifesto about how the arts world was going in the “wrong direction” and what they would do about it.

They also produced a slick short film, Midnight Oil Collective: Chapter One. It’s an odd but compelling video, in which the seven initial members of the collective set out to re-stage an earlier conversation about changing the way art is funded. It’s the kind of conversation that has been seen around college campuses since time immemorial – a group of friends riling each other up about what’s wrong with the world and what they could do about it. Only, most of the time the conversation doesn’t lead to the group of friends forming a formal cooperative.

The initial members of the collective created a video recreating their initial conversation that led to forming the organization.

That decision to form a cooperative was an important early juncture. They reached out to the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and got their paperwork in order.

“We knew there’s this outdated nonprofit patronage model, and there’s an equally inefficient commercial model, so we said, can’t we try something different,” said Roller. “Systemic problems require systemic solutions.”

With their structure formed, it became time to start investing. The first iteration was simple: they would each produce a work of art, and everyone would invest in each others’. Each artist would get a piece of the pie. The next year, they launched an incubator, and created an application process for any artist in New Haven who wanted to apply.

As they expanded the vision, they also created new mechanisms to ensure their model stayed participatory. For instance, they vote on who to accept into the cohort with a participatory process. Every member of the collective votes on program applicants. They decide as a group which artists are invited to submit their full materials. 

“We do one unweighted scoring round, then get together and talk,” Roller says. “We look at the average score and the range, we want to make sure that if somebody loved something we paid a little extra attention.” For each artist they do a recorded interview where at least three of the collective’s members have to be present.

Artists who are selected for the cohort are trained to think like a businessperson. They fill out a lean canvas business model, and identify a minimum viable product.

“It’s not always the most romantic work, but it’s work that artists have had to do going back to Shakespeare,” Roller says.

In the summer of 2022, Midnight Oil Collective launched their second full cohort. This time they feel like they’ve cracked the code. “It was this third iteration where we really knew what we were looking for. We knew what didn’t work. And we knew a lot more about how to communicate with the artists.”

They’ve made several investments. For each one, they put $30,000 into a project. The artist gets a 20% stake for that $30,000, but at the same time, they get a stake in the fund as a whole.

By summer 2021, the Midnight Oil Collective was growing fast enough that Emily Roller decided to quit her job as a public school teacher to become COO. It was partway through the second cohort that the MOC board started to talk about launching a venture capital fund.

“Originally, that was three or four years off down the road,” Roller says.” But by sheer commitment they had created the basic building blocks of a VC fund. They now had a big enough pool of ventures to analyze. They had reviewed nearly 100 business models for early-stage creative ventures, worked directly with three dozen of them, and made 10 investments. They were becoming a development company, and an investment firm. 

“Our lawyer said we could do it, and all of a sudden, we were doing it.”

Midnight Oil Collective Frances Pollock gives a keynote presentation at the Yale Innovation Summit in June 2023

Now the Midnight Oil Collective team is making a big bet. They are following the logic of venture capital to its extreme. How do the biggest VC firms become the economy – and culture-eating behemoths that they are today? By encouraging their startups to go big – fast – and following that logic themselves.

The math is simple: investing two hundred thousand dollars a year would help some artists get to the next level. Investing two hundred million a year would make a deep imprint on the entertainment world. It would be that manifestation of the world that the nine co-founders manifested in their “Chapter One” video.

And they believe the math makes sense. Venture capital operates on the logic of long odds. In a given portfolio, ten startups are expected to fail, while one returns money back. That’s not dissimilar to how film or theater investors create indexes of projects, spreading the risk. 

So far they’ve raised more than half a million dollars for their first fund. Their goal now: raise a multi-million dollar fund to expand their vision.

Will they succeed? Roller thinks so. She sees their model – leaning into diverse perspectives – as their biggest strength.

“The people who we criticize – people on the boards of theater nonprofits, or working at studios or production companies – they care about art, and they want to connect with audiences. But they don't necessarily have that lived experience to know how to.”

“Any group is going to have blind spots. So one of the very early things that we decided as a group was that we wanted to figure out a way to take advantage of diversity. We wanted to lean into the power of diversity.

A Larger Movement

Listening to the members of the Midnight Oil Collective speak about their work is eye opening. They seem to have their finger on something that’s inherently wrong with our culture, some sort of black hole that our culture has been sucked into. 

This skewed viewpoint helps explain why Hollywood keeps churning out Marvel movies and animated films that are hardly distinguishable; why jukebox musicals keep winning the Tonys; why music on the radio seems to all sound the same. 

It might seem like a battle that’s far too big to win, if not for the fact projects like the Midnight Oil Collective are popping up all around the country.

In New York, the Design Action Collective has built a worker-owned cooperative for graphic designers working for progressive organizations. Members collaborate on projects while supporting each other’s creative process. Another startup, Made for Black Culture, registers products made with Black creativity, likeness or influence on the blockchain. Their goal is to protect Black culture from commercial exploitation and cultural theft by getting ahead of appropriation and distributing royalties to Black creatives.

To map the many systems-level innovations that shift power to artists, the activist collective Make Justice Normal is hosting a research and art initiative called The Arisen. Through it, says MJN co-founder and artist Anjali Deshmukh, The Arisen will study the full journey that cultural assets take as it accrues in "value,"  through the process of making a given asset, to the entities that buy it, to the organizations that showcase it for sale. They’re documenting organizations like the Midnight Oil Collective and Made with Black Culture, and how they interact with each other. MJN launched last year to “rewire all systems to make justice the norm.”

“Our ecosystem view demands us to think in a non-linear fashion,” she says. For example, developing new revenue streams for artists won't address the fact that the places presenting art are also perpetuating injustice and that valuation systems for the arts are distorted. "We think the answer ultimately lies in addressing the wealth/power gap as a whole, but we can do our part in the arts by understanding how value is created and grows. By looking at where solutions are sprouting, we can design counteracting interventions within our power.”

The Midnight Oil Collective team, for their part, is also seeking to educate their audience, including traditional investors, about how another cultural economy is possible."

In early June, Midnight Oil Collective Frances Pollock stood on stage and delivered the opening keynote at the Yale Innovation Summit. The summit is an annual staple of the New Haven startup scene, and each year is organized around themes that are interesting to East Coast investors – climate, biotech, health. This year, Arts was added as a fifth pillar, with the Midnight Oil Collective hosting half a dozen panels and workshops on topics like investing in the creative economy and how to grow an arts venture.

“Raise your hand if you never thought you would find yourself attending a corporate innovation summit,” Pollock said in her opening remarks, to laughs from the crowd and plenty of raised hands. Midnight Oil Collective-affiliated artists roamed the campus of the Yale School of Management, easy to spot in their colorful clothes among the suits and Patagonia vests. Investors spoke with independent film producers and local record company founders about their business models.

It was a major validation of the collective’s work to position creative work as a pillar of the future economy. And it was fitting with the collective’s vision to evangelize their vision. Roller referenced this evangelical mentality in an interview she did shortly after she quit her job to focus on the collective full time.

"As much as I enjoy teaching,” she wrote, “I think that the opportunity to go all in with Midnight Oil Collective is one that I can’t let pass by. I’ll miss the kiddos, but I expect that educating will continue to be a huge part of my day-to-day work.”

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