How a Music Conservatory Has Found the Money to Grow

The Silverlake Conservatory of Music is located on the eastern end of Sunset Boulevard in a modish district of Los Angeles called Silver Lake. The cozy 800 square feet of space the conservancy calls home is located in an early 20th century Moorish building that sits on a historic corner called Sunset Junction where Sunset Blvd. and Santa Monica meet. It’s the heart of Silver Lake, home to a bustling café, a restaurant, and several other small shops.

Founded in 2001 with the modest mission of facilitating basic music education for youth in the community, the humble abode has become a mecca for over 700 of the area's brightest and most talented young musicians, offering private and ensemble lessons at a reasonable cost, granting scholarships, and providing free musical instruments and free lessons to over 200 students in need, and operating a yearly summer music camp at a nearby elementary school for 300 children.

The conservancy is a 13-year long project of Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary, and co-founder and conservatory dean Keith “Tree” Berry. The conservatory is an example of the impact that a celebrity's dedication and generosity can have on expanding an organization, says Director of Development Suzi Hoffman Kipp, who came on board two and a half years ago with the mission of expanding the conservatory.

“The idea that we would relocate to a larger space and expand our services has been part of the plan since the very beginning,” says Hoffman Kipp, and now it's about to happen.

Hoffman Kipp, a Georgetown graduate and a former immigrant rights community organizer and political fundraiser, is a longtime local and the mother of three sons, including a teenager who grew up taking lessons at the conservatory. She says even before she became involved, she saw the organization as a great tool for bringing the community together and welcomed the opportunity to become part of a project that has integrity and a very clear mission of simply providing music education and resources to young musicians.

Every week, hundreds of students attend the conservatory for private or ensemble instruction from a lineup of professional teachers and musicians. The overall teaching philosophy emphasizes personal growth and low-stress instruction. 

“Flea has said over and over, 'I’ve been saved by music thousands of times,' (referring to the trouble he used to get into as a teen), and he wants to give others the same opportunity and experience,” says Hoffman Kipp. With fee-based instruction bringing in 60 percent of the organization's annual budget, band members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers have personally covered the operating costs of the conservancy for the past three years in an effort to facilitate the expansion.

Using an event-based fundraising model, Hoffman Kipp says in the last two and a half years, the organization has raised over $5 million. And as one would guess, the fundraisers are awesome. A recent star-studded gala featured intimate performances from musical artists Bruno Mars and Rufus Wainwright, and attendees could bid on works from acclaimed artists like Ed Ruscha and Shepard Fairey in the silent auction. The event drew a who’s who of the Los Angeles creative scene and brought in over $1 million, which has become the standard for the enormous yearly galas that always includes a lineup of some of the biggest names in music.

“A lot of people give to this organization because they have seen the integrity and the consistency of the work Flea has put into the conservancy,” says Hoffman Kipp. “It’s inspiring, and people want to be a part of it.” But huge galas and concerts aren’t the only thing that brings the money in. The conservatory has smaller fundraisers year-round that tend to mix with conservatory events. Neighborhood caroling is planned for the holiday season and raffle tickets will be sold for prizes. The most valued prize: a new bass guitar signed by Flea.

“I liken fundraising to educating people,” says Hoffman Kipp. “Music enriches children’s lives. I tell people about how music education for kids has all but disappeared in schools, and it has an impact."

With a full-time staff of only three people, the organization has kept its overhead low, relying on a trusted team of longtime consultants to steer the conservancy’s mission and a stellar board of directors whose job as primarily been to bring in donors.  

The conservancy is about to begin the first phase of its long-awaited expansion, according to Hoffman Kipp. The conservancy has been eyeing the property next door for its new home for years, and is now caught up in a battle alongside other neighbors against the present owner/ developer who would prefer to build 310 units, including 16,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor in an area that has become over-popular with condominium and apartment developers lately.

Flea has appeared along with other concerned Silver Lake businesses and residents at town hall meetings to protest the development, or at least to get it scaled back, and has made an above-market-rate offer to the developer, who so far has refused to sell even part of the land.

“We are hopeful as an organization that we will get the property for our permanent home,” says Hoffman Kipp. "The plan comes up for public comment on December 15th, but if we don’t, our new space will definitely be close by.”

The expansion will bring new studios and a new performance space. They plan to double the population of the students served and triple the number of scholarships offered. Ensemble lessons, choir, camps, and music instruction will all take place in 7,000 to 8,000 square feet of a newly built, state-of-the-art facility.

For Hoffman-Kipp, having witnessed firsthand the impact the conservancy has had on so many young people, the prospect of increasing that impact is incredibly exciting. She says the only thing that she hasn’t loved about her job is seeing kids turned away due to lack of space or the number of scholarships. But that’s all about to change.