If you work in the arts in Boston, you know Justin Springer. He is what one might call a great connector, his work centered on inspiring activist movements through nontraditional marketing. He connects with his city one person at a time, developing relationships by personally inviting people to engage with a multitude of arts and cultural activities happening across the city on any given night.
Justin didn’t always know he wanted to be an entrepreneur. As a kid, Michael Jackson was his inspiration and music was his passion. He started his career in the music industry promoting bands by touring across the country, and organizing club nights. While fun, the job quickly lost its shine. Justin felt like there was no purpose in his work, and realized that was important to him. He made the transition to marketing, where he dealt with bosses taking advantage of his intellectual property and experienced difficulty getting ahead with no college degree.
Justin felt frustrated and went through a series of losses; he battled depression, trying to figure out what was next for himself. Then one day, the turning point came: while sitting in a park with his newspaper, he read that Donna Summer, the Boston-born late, great Disco Queen, had passed. “No one was really talking about it,” Justin said. That thought inspired him to collaborate with Jeremiah Burke High School in the Grove Hall area of Dorchester, where Summer had gone to high school, to create a large-scale model of the idol in her memory. Thus Justin’s first program, Dream Builders, was born. That is also when he began to understand his purpose. “You never really understand what you can do with your art until you try,” he reflects.
From there, Justin participated in FutureBoston’s (now known as EpiCenter Community, led by another ArtsEmerson Community Curator, Malia Lazu) Business Accelerator program, where he developed his ideas for nontraditional marketing. Justin says, “It gave me confidence to move on and start my business.” Today Justin and his company, Outside the Box Agency, approach marketing by strategizing through guerilla marketing techniques, delivering the unexpected, and covering the whole city with messaging.
Outside of his marketing work, he also facilitates events as part of Boston Unplugged, a live music benefit that has been around the city for ten years, and B.R.E.A.D (Boston’s Racial Economic Activated Dialogue). Justin believes we need more programs for musicians and poets, particularly for people of color. He chooses his clients carefully, identifying those who will bring value back to his company –an important aspect of which is giving back to the community and serving unmet needs for our most vulnerable populations across the city. Justin aspires to build his company where his team feels appreciated, their work is purposeful, and they have the vision and opportunity to build.
Justin shared with us his ideas on why it’s important to create in Boston and the opportunity that lives within bringing Boston Unplugged to ArtsEmerson.
What is your relationship to Boston as an artist?
I truly believe we are all artists; we all have a God given gift of creation. Boston has built the artist in me; here is where I learned I can create and where I aligned my purpose through my art, which is bringing people together. I have had success planning music events in other cities; there are more platforms and people were more used to the arts. In Boston, it is only recently that more quality artistic spaces are opening. We have great talent, but we have not had the opportunity to showcase and share it. I won’t give up on planning in Boston. It feels special to be a part of a movement that is new. Our talent in Boston is only now beginning to transcend globally, especially in Hip Hop. When I was growing up, there were only a select few artists touring because we didn’t have the spaces or institutions that supported the growth of artists.
How does your art making intersect with ArtsEmerson?
I love how ArtsEmerson is bringing their art to Roxbury, Dorchester, all across the city, really. ArtsEmerson builds bridges, but I am building a bridge that ArtsEmerson doesn’t have and that is the intersection of music, social justice, and entrepreneurship. In our communities, people are spending hundreds of dollars to see Jay Z, but if people choose to spread their money out they can bring their families to see several different things. We need to create avenues for Bostonians to discover the arts in their city. When I worked on marketing for ArtsEmerson’s production of The Trip to Bountiful , people took a chance, and engaging in that experience changed their lives. People often rely on movies; theatre is not historically accessible or affordable, people need artistic options. If you bring someone to a play it can open the world for them. By bringing Boston Unplugged to ArtsEmerson, we are able to provide a high quality, affordable music experience that directly gives back to the community by supporting a local non-profit. Because of our partnership with ArtsEmerson, Boston Unplugged can invite Bostonians to experience new artistic expressions.
What is Boston Unplugged? What is the purpose of Boston Unplugged?
Boston Unplugged is a live music platform that features emerging talent. Our goal is to provide a platform not only for the musicians, but also to promote organizations that are doing important work in our city The ticket sales from Boston Unplugged go directly to support a local organization and in our marketing for the event and during the event we bring awareness to the organization’s work in the community. Often these amazing organizations don’t receive the recognition that they deserve, but through Boston Unplugged we are able to celebrate them.
As a curator, how do you choose artists/musicians for Boston Unplugged?
Often we choose musicians that are aligned with our values and utilize their musical platform to inspire. We look for musicians that stand for something outside of selling their music; they are active and engaged change agents. Of course, we also want musicians, who are going to give you a great show! The universe often puts things together for you and in my search for artists they usually come to me. Many times artists come to me and say ‘I have this cause that I want to support’ and other times artists are inspired by our work and create their own events where they raise awareness. Boston Unplugged creates a synergy of giving and good karma.
There are so many excellent organizations out there, so many I am not even aware of, yet. Some, of course, are close to my heart like Elevate Boston run by community member Frank Farrow. Frank makes a personal investment in the young people that he works with, and that is inspiring for anyone who encounters him. He puts in overtime and I hope Elevate Boston only continues to grow. They were the obvious choice for our first Boston Unplugged event at ArtsEmerson. My hope in highlighting Elevate Boston was to demonstrate Frank’s investment in his community and the young people he works with. I believe we were able to do that.
What is next for Boston Unplugged?
I want to build our in-house team and create more sustainability. I want Boston Unplugged to live on. Ultimately, I want to create a music revolution and activate artists’ minds to consider how they can be advocates for social justice, how they can make positive impact in the world. We are all here to give service. If my tree bears fruit and my neighbor doesn’t have fruit, I will share with my neighbor. That is the philosophy behind this work; everyone from musician to patron has the ability to contribute.
What are the future aspirations of Boston Unplugged? How does Boston Unplugged open new doors to audiences?
Our relationship with ArtsEmerson is vital for us to develop and grow our audiences. The spaces we are working in enable us to create a bigger, larger scale production, and it is in a location where we can draw people from all over the city and invite all different cultures to join us. We want to pack the Paramount (ArtsEmerson’s mainstage 600 seat theatre) one day with our work and also inspire other event planners to replicate the model.
This interview was originally published on the ArtPlace Blog .
All photos by Craig Bailey Prospective Photo