Taking what they’ve learned from both the live music scene and their respective gigs in tech, a pair of local musicians is looking to provide a permanent place for music-minded people to connect and play together.
Tom Illmensee and Morgan Huff, longtime bandmates whose professional careers have centered on software design, are looking to establish Orbital Music Park, a practice space aimed at people who play music recreationally but don’t identify as musicians and want to learn and play with others.
The duo, who have played together for years in groups such as Frog Legs and Boneanchor, started a capital raise for Orbital in September with a goal of $600,000 to fund the concept, which ultimately would involve a 20,000-square-foot warehouse filled with recycled shipping containers that would be used as practice spaces.
They’re initially hoping to raise at least $50,000 to pay for a smaller, garage-style space that could serve as a prototype that could in turn attract more investment.
The concept would continue 90-minute jam session-rehearsals the pair has been leading at Art Works, providing their tutelage as needed while also stepping back and allowing participants to rock out. Attendees are asked about their ability-level and interests, and Illmensee and Huff put their names in a database that groups them with others who share similar skills.
Illmensee said a goal is to connect people who play music with others with similar interests so they can benefit from a group dynamic without feeling like they have to be part of a particular music “scene.”
“We’re just mixing people together who would never have found each other or played together,” said Illmensee, most recently a user experience and design director with technology platform Prezi. “This is textbook customer discovery, customer development work, except the novelty with us is we’re actually making music with our customers.”
Illmensee said suitable practice space can be hard to come by for musicians and groups, let alone for non-musicians looking for a place to jam with others. Such options became fewer when the former Garbers building in Shockoe Bottom – for years used as a practice space for local bands – was purchased this year for an apartments conversion.
“You find bands playing in storage lockers, without any air-conditioning,” Illmensee said. “The options for physical space are pretty bad.”
While providing a place to play, Illmensee said Orbital Music Park would also maintain an instrument library that players can pull from, along with his and Huff’s oversight and advice as needed or requested from participants.
Illmensee said he and Huff are examples themselves of the benefits of working and playing with others. Having performed together in groups since 2001, he said he and Huff, both 45, are applying what they’ve learned in music and tech to their first attempt at a startup.
“One of the things that Morgan and I like to think we bring to the table as startup cofounders is the ability to improvise,” Illmensee said. “Our musical style has always been based on this telepathy where we can make things up on the spot, just listen to each other and build off each other’s ideas pretty quickly.
“Now, because we’ve been in software design as professionals for such a long time, we sort of fused what we learned as musicians together for so many years and smashed that up with what we’re learning building software.”
Illmensee and Huff, a senior developer with VCU University Relations, began the capital raise with help from Justin Laughter, a fellow musician and intellectual property attorney whose clients include local rock outfit GWAR.
While attendees at the Art Works sessions have been asked for donations to put toward the effort, and the Orbital business model includes a monthly membership fee and flexible fees for renting spaces and instruments, Illmensee said the concept will require support from investors who aren’t afraid of trying something new.
He said he’s approached at least three local investors so far and received feedback on their approach that prompted them to focus on the smaller, $50,000 goal first.
“Our vision is a physical space where adults – anywhere they are on their musical journey, any musical style – can level up their musical abilities playing together,” he said. “The novelty here, in 2017, is it’s not software; it’s physical space, which I guess makes it an unusual startup.”