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Play Together: Chicago record label’s creative way of giving back

The social impact record label pairs musicians with artists for a unique collaboration while the proceeds from record sales, art sales, concerts and more are invested into after school art and music programs throughout Chicago.

Play Together co-founders Aneesh Kudavaralli , Kasey Gandham, and Jessica Tenuta are photographed on Sunday, June 23, 2019, in Chicago.
Play Together co-founders Aneesh Kudavaralli , Kasey Gandham, and Jessica Tenuta are photographed on Sunday, June 23, 2019, in Chicago.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Over the past decade, Chicago has been the incubator for a number of over-achieving startups from Groupon to Grubhub and most recently the health tech hub Tempus. One of the most exciting new entrants is Play Together. Co-founded by the husband-and-wife team of Kasey Gandham and Jessica Tenuta along with friend Aneesh Kudavaralli in late 2018, Play Together calls itself a “social impact record label” that changes the way that music is released and the purpose for doing so.

The model pairs musicians with artists for a unique collaboration while the proceeds from record sales, art sales, concerts and more are invested into after school art and music programs throughout Chicago.

The first collaboration, pairing whimsical indie rock band Violet Crime with painter Julius Bautista, benefits Intonation Music, a group that serves children ages 6 to 17 in Chicago’s underserved communities by providing after-school music instruction and opportunities for performance. Violet Crime’s first record on Play Together was released in June with a release party at Bottom Lounge that featured Intonation students.

Visual art from the first collaboration of Play Together, a music label that pairs musicians with visual artists for each release, is photographed on  Sunday, June 23, 2019.
Visual art from the first collaboration of Play Together, a music label that pairs musicians with visual artists for each release, Sunday, June 23rd, 2019.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“We view ourselves as a big product of the Chicago ecosystem,” says Gandham. “With Play Together, we wanted to create a more sustainable way of creating and building a creative community and tie that community around investing in the next generation of local artists.”

Gandham (also the bassist in Violet Crime) and Tenuta (a painter) met as undergrads at Illinois State University where they studied education, which led to the launch of their first incredibly successful startup Packback before they even graduated.

The “ed tech” platform uses AI technology to support “online discussion software that’s used in colleges and universities to help students be more curious in the classroom,” says Gandham. He and another Packback co-founder Mike Shannon appeared on the ABC program “Shark Tank” in 2014 and were backed by Mark Cuban who invested $250,000 in the program early on.

“Today we’ve raised over $10 million in capital to date and over a quarter million students across the U.S. have used our service,” says Gandham of the company that now has 80 members.

With Packback fully grounded, he and Tenuta wanted to find another way to give back.

“We feel really fortunate we were able to have chances to pursue art and music; not everyone has that opportunity,” says Tenuta. “In Chicago in particular seeing the way funding has changed in the CPS system, seeing the school closures and arts programs being cut, a lot of that is the space where students develop intellectual confidence and creativity and interact with their world. We wanted to do anything we could to help cultivate those spaces for students at the youngest possible age.”

Initially the couple had the idea to simply donate money to CPS schools. “But something about writing a check didn’t feel good to us.” says Gandham.

Adds Tenuta, “We realized the hubris in that — if there are so many organizations that are doing the hard work of partnering with the schools, building amazing music programs like Intonation Music, we didn’t want to fragment the environment. So we take the capital we produce with Play Together and invest it into those already amazing groups.”

She adds that future collaborations could be with Young Chicago Authors, After School Matters or Foundations of Music.

With no knowledge of how to run a music label, Play Together has acquired a notable team of advisors, from Aware Records founder Gregg Latterman (who discovered John Mayer) to Sooper Records’ Glenn Curran and Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. They’ve also recently initiated chats with Chance The Rapper’s management team.

“They attribute a lot of hip-hop artists’ growth and rise in Chicago as a direct result of after-school music and writing programs; as such, we are looking at literacy and poetry programs and pairing with a hip-hop artist for a collaboration next year,” says Gandham. “We are very intentional about how we put those together.”

Of the unique concept to combine art and music in one platform — Bautista listened to Violet Crime’s music to create prints that are sold at shows — Tenuta says, “It started out of a conversation around the way that visual artists oftentimes have a very shareable or tangible product they produce that goes at higher price point but struggle with distribution. And on the flipside, bands are playing shows all over the city and bringing folks to shows, but besides ticket sales there’s not a way to deeply engage with fans, with the rare exception of bands that take off. We saw the opportunity for artists to support artists and then are able to take the excess and put it towards the cause, pulling in the next generation.”

Find more information at playtogether.co.

Selena Fragassi is a local freelane writer.