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Celebrating Impactful Businesses: Playing For Change (A Companion B Corp)

I’ve been following the Playing For Change (PFC) movement for almost ten years now, and if you haven’t heard of them—this is your chance. I promise your day will be better for it. Here is their first Video of Stand By Me. You will find their most recent video at the end of this blog featuring the Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston.

Playing For Change involves people turning the streets into a recording studio of sorts—seeking out inspiration, music, and, as stated on their website, “the heartbeat of the people.” You may have heard about them in the award-winning documentary “A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians.”

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with one of its founders, Mark Johnson, about what it’s like to be a B Corp (PFC became B Corp certified the same year Cove did, coincidentally enough!) and the vision behind this movement. 

About Playing for Change

Bernie: Mark, it says on your website that Playing for Change is a movement that connects the world through music. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

Sure. The business model started from me talking to a street musician I wanted to record. I asked the musician what would make this a great day. I wanted this to be an amazing experience for people so that we could come back. This was never a project like, let me record your song, go make money, and see you later. Instead, we had to really build a network. We had to look people in the eyes, understand how they make sense of the world, but also make them financially participate in the project.

In 2008, we released our first film of songs around the world at the Tri-Deca film festival, and that’s where we met the legendary Normal Lear. Norman owned Concord Records, which was distributed by Universal Music. Anyway, Norman came on as a partner, along with Howard Schultz (Starbucks), and we were able to produce our first album (“Stand by Me”). This album, made up of music from street musicians was top ten of Billboard. Now, the equity and royalties from this CD belonged to the artists themselves, and this album raised over a million dollars for the musicians. And that started to kind of create this business for us. We have these musicians that are in the videos…we want to give back to the communities…so, we thought: why don’t we assemble the best musicians who never met in the videos and create the Playing for Change band? And we’ll have them come and play a concert to fundraise to build our first school in South Africa.

Bernie: That’s amazing. So that’s how the Playing for Change band was formed?
Mark: Yes. The band is a ten-piece band from ten different countries. When we tour, we pay the band, so then they can feed their kids and send them to school and whatnot. So, really, we had these three parts of the project: We had the songs around the world, then we assembled those musicians to create a touring band, and then all of that was to raise awareness and funding for the Playing for Change Foundation, which now has 15 music schools around the world. And all of the schools are free—they’re all owned by the communities, run by the communities—we fund them that way they keep their own identity.

About Being a B Corp

Bernie:  I love your model. You know that I’m fond of using business as a force for good. I discovered that Cove and Playing for Change became B Corps around the same time.
Mark: Amazing. We played a concert in Oxford, and Jay Gilbert from B Corp and the other founders of B Lab, were in the audience. And they really were big fans, and they talked to us about what B Corp was and really it was amazing because it was finally being able to just become who you were anyway, which was wanting to do things with each other that could have a long-lasting relationship, and a lot of times business doesn’t work that way. So, this was a chance for us to really incorporate that same energy, do the right thing, treat people right, and everybody will benefit over the long term. And we found that B Corp was the perfect home for that.

 From the Streets to Sold-Out Concert Halls

Bernie:  So, the Playing for Change band, you mentioned they come from around the world. How does an engagement with the Playing for Change band work? What it does it look like?
Mark: The Playing for Change band is essentially ten different musicians from ten different countries. And for years, they’ve toured the world. So, in Brazil, for example, all of our albums go platinum, and they have the billboards of Grandpa Elliot—they treat him like Elvis. And we play huge concerts.
Bernie: And from these concerts, you’re able to give back to various communities?

Yes. So, for example, we met a gentleman in Brazil who wanted to build a school. And so he brought the band to perform at the opera house in Southern Brazil, and the band came in and we sold out, and then 100 percent of the revenue from that concert went back to the community to build the school. And then he went out and got it matched by other corporations in the community.

So, suddenly, this whole town has funding to build a school. This was a mortuary in the ghetto when we first saw it, it was horrible. It was a place where they would put the bodies of gangsters that were getting killed. Now, instead, it’s the most beautiful school. Soccer fields, girls playing Samba. And all of that was created by the community, for the community.

Bernie: Incredible!

So what the band is, is that tangible example of these videos right in front of you, where people get to see all these countries coming together and it inspires them to see that they’re a part of something bigger in humanity, and also that, yes, the world that has so many divisions, but it also has so many connections, and we need to focus on them.

The band also visits children’s hospitals and homeless shelters on every tour to remind people music is much more than entertainment.

 Bernie:  So how big would your biggest concert have been with the band in terms of audience?
Mark: Probably 20,000 people in Brazil.
Bernie: Wow.
Mark: Yeah, it’s crazy. I can’t believe it. They just love it, and also in Argentina, we just played there—that was about 8,000 people. So, the band is always touring the world—we just did our first tour in Japan—being the local ambassadors for this movement, reminding people no matter how many things might divide us, they’re never as strong as music to bring us back together.
Bernie: I think the combination of what you’re doing as an actual movement and the fact that you’ve adopted and embraced the B Corp model is so fantastic. There’s of course the certification that makes a transformation take place within the mind of the people that are actually in those businesses, where the focus is no longer inward on just “me”— it suddenly becomes the community.

Doing things this way takes the ego out of so much of it. And so many times in life as you get older, you really see so many problems are because people make decisions solely based on money.

And the B Corp is the perfect way to step back and make decisions based on humanity. Do you know what I mean? Money is part of humanity, but it’s not humanity.

Bernie: Absolutely.
Mark: And I feel like that’s been the biggest gift of B Corp—to give us and other people a chance to reframe the role they see business playing in their world. The only way forward is to inspire people. I am so inspired by you and what you guys are doing at Cove.
Bernie: Thank you Mark. And thank you for all the good work you’re doing and please send my appreciation to everybody at Playing for Change.
Mark: Thanks. Well it’s to be continued…

Hey, who knows maybe you’ll be able to see the Playing For Change Band in North Vancouver soon? Stay tuned!

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