One Love, One Heart. Let’s get together and feel all right….Playing for Change Exec gives me the scoop on the company that reinvented Marley and the musical community.
A breath of fresh air in a stilted industry, Whitney Burditt is the real deal. She’s Co-President of her own company, humanitarian extraordinaire, and a blonde bombshell. She sat down with me and told me about the organic process and sacrifices it took to build Playing for Change from the ground up.
Although she kept a tight lid on her personal solution for health care and Obama, she gave me the backstage view to the global community they’ve created between musicians worldwide and the incredibly powerful impact it’s had universally. (Scroll down to the bottom to see their video of Stand By Me from the award winning documentary “Playing For Change: Peace Through Music”).
Whitney Burditt: Playing for Change was created to connect the world through music. We started out to record street musicians and make a documentary about them across the United States, and as we travelled around with a little mobile recording studio we realized that we could start to connect these musicians to one another, via our travels.
Alister & Paine: It’s spiraled into a huge phenomenon now.
Whitney Burditt: We just went with the flow and realized that we could really show people, through music, that we’re all connected. We wanted to show everyone’s similarities as opposed to their differences. It seems to have really struck a chord with people.
Alister & Paine: No pun intended, haha. I know you and Mark Johnson were the master minds behind everything. Where did the flash of genius stem from?
Whitney Burditt: Mark came up with the idea when he was living in New York and working as a sound engineer. He was on his way to the studio one day to record Paul Simon. In the subway he heard these monks singing, and he stopped to listen. He realized that he was experiencing one of these crazy moments that never happens. Everyone in the subway had stopped to listen to these monks. People from every socio economic background, every ethnic background, men, women, different ages, every spectrum of humanity was focused on these monks. In that moment he realized that the music he was hearing on his way to the studio was better than the music he was going to the studio to record.
There’s been between about six or ten of us for the last eight years and our technology has gotten better but we’re still capturing moments that would normally be passed by. As for the musicians, now a lot of people know Grandpa Elliot, a musician playing on the streets of New Orleans who is currently with the Playing for Change Band.
Alister & Paine: Oh, I know because I’m a big Grandpa Elliot fan. I actually went to New Orleans recently and was looking for him everywhere until someone told me he was on tour in London!
Whitney Burditt: Hahaha! He has been playing on the streets of New Orleans since he was 6 years old. He might be one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard play. He loves it, and it shows. You can hear it in his music, the purity of where it’s coming from, and that’s what makes musicians special. They’re doing it because they love it, there’s no wall there and there’s no studio making them sound good, they’re just that good.
Alister & Paine: There are two separate organizations, correct? What are your roles in the two companies?
Whitney Burditt: There is the Playing for Change Organization where Mark and I are Co- Presidents. Then there’s the Playing for Change Foundation which is a separate entity of which I’m the Executive Director, and that was formed out of a desire to give something back to the communities we were traveling to.
Mark and few members of our crew were in Nepal and went to someone’s house for tea. Their host only had one teabag, so they cut their one bag of tea into fours so that each person could have a little bit. It was all they had. People were giving us everything, sharing their stories and their music. We wanted to help, and there was resounding cry around the world in these communities that they needed to be able to continue their musical traditions.
We decided to launch a foundation to go back into the community and offer resources for music education. We built one school in South Africa and broke ground on a second school recently. This is just getting started. The possibilities are endless.
Alister & Paine: Were there any barriers to raising capital for the company?
Whitney Burditt: In every way! It was such a huge challenge. We raised the capital for the first film from friends and family. We completed our first film, sold it to the Sundance channel and then said ‘We want to do it again. We might have a bigger idea here.’
It’s not just one film, it’s not just one CD, it’s a movement that can change the world. This is our life’s work.
We’re getting to the point where it is in the black and we’re pushing forward. We kept our overhead really low and we all took a lot of losses along the way personally. We all did a lot of this out of the goodness of our hearts. We just pushed our way through and tried to keep ourselves true to the project. It ended up standing on its own because of the integrity we had maintained throughout. It’s been a long road.
Alister & Paine: What’s been the biggest obstacle thus far?
Whitney Burditt: There’s just so many times where you just want to stop and cut your losses. Always ‘Is there enough money to keep doing this? And how do we keep doing this?’ You just put the work ahead of the money. We made it work when it shouldn’t have worked. For us it’s always been about making it happen. That’s probably not the best thing to say, business wise, but we would do anything to keep going.
Alister & Paine: As an entrepreneur, what is your political standpoint? What’s your view of Obama these days?
Whitney Burditt: Ohhh. Is it okay to say I’d rather not say? Well…
We are big obviously on change, and Obama has influenced our organization in a positive way. We’re big supporters of Obama but I hesitate to say anything as we just like to stay away from any political affiliations.
Alister & Paine: Sure. You deal with so many impoverished communities, and obviously healthcare is horrendous in some of those nations, but I was curious what you think about the health care in our own nation right now. What would your personal solution be?
Whitney Burditt: Oh! Haha…gosh. That’s a really hard question.
Obviously, I’m not a big fan of what we’ve got going on but my personal solution…ohh….if its okay with you, I’d rather not say.
Alister & Paine: No problem. What’s your candid take on women in the workplace? Especially being in a dominantly male music industry.
Whitney Burditt: I’ve been the only woman in our organization for years now. As a woman it is a challenge for me not to become too male in trying to get things done. It’s okay to remember to be female as you’re doing your work. Being successful doesn’t mean we have to adapt and become more masculine or more aggressive in our energy.
Alister & Paine: Do you have any advice for struggling companies or startup businesses in this recession?
Whitney Burditt: Try and always go back to where you started and the goals and ideals you had then. Remember who you are. That’s always been an important thing to us here at Playing for Change. We’re still that little group and when we get together and we know who we are we are so strong.
Alister & Paine: Does it still scare you being a fairly new company in this economy?
Whitney Burditt: Oh yes. I mean, it’s always frightening, but the thing that we’re realizing here is that if we continue to bring something that makes people feel good about the world around them we have something that is never going to end.
There’s no limit to the musicians and talent out there. If we can stay true to sharing that with other people that work is always going to be there. We just have to try and trust that it’s going to continue and we’re going to be able to continue doing this. It’s a gamble, but it’s worth it.