Behind the Music

Nate Anderson founded Ear Candy, a non-profit, in order to provide music education to kids. Photo by Jessica Heigh.

Nate Anderson is anything but conventional.

With his endearing yet resolute go-getter attitude and his goofy sense of humor, Anderson has found a way to infuse imagination into everything from his aesthetics to his profession. But let’s not call it a job — this is a big bowl of fun with a drizzle of busy work.

Anderson is the laughing, curl-framed face behind Ear Candy, a Phoenix non-profit that provides kids access to music education.

“I can’t imagine not having access to music as a kid because it transformed my life,” Anderson says.

Though he’s not a musician, the experience of playing piano as a child “opened my eyes to how awesome music is,” Anderson says, adding that he always knew music was going to a part of his life in some way.

Anderson seems to be plugged in to tunes 24/7. He pauses the music broadcasting through Ear Candy’s basement office only so he can be heard on the tape recorder, even though his voice is one that inadvertently commands attention from across the room.

“I used to make mixes for people… I’ve always been ‘that friend,’” he says.

Mixes titled “Nate’s Tasty Tracks,” “Musical Morsels” and “Natertots” were what Anderson dubbed “ear candy.”

“It’s just delicious,” he would say. Six years ago, he slapped the phrase on his budding charity.

Photo by Jessica Heigh.

Since its founding, Ear Candy has merged Anderson’s passions for music and entrepreneurship. Through fundraising for different causes through musical events, Ear Candy has tightened its mission to music education. The charity utilizes a sustainable and community-driven model to address the growing problem of underfunding for music education and programs in schools.

The three-fold business model impacts youth by placing donated instruments into established music programs at schools that have already made a commitment to the arts, organizing backstage classes and music-based field trips — like a guitar-making tutorial or a Q&A session with a rock band — and partnering with organizations in the community for events.

Anderson, who hails from a Midwestern family of entrepreneurs, has a background that is neither wholly nonprofit nor music. He brings a totally different skill set, bursting with innovative ideas and creative marketing, to a “sector that’s been kind of boring for a while,” he says.

Ear Candy uses a “FedEx model” for instrument delivery in that each instrument is tracked so that donors know which school child was its recipient.

Anderson organized Ear Candy’s first two-month instrument drive, with 41 donations sites throughout the Valley, in late 2008. At the end of the drive, “I literally had this town home full of instruments,” Anderson says. He then navigated through Phoenix school districts to pair them with budding music enthusiasts. “Every single one of those instruments were collecting dust in someone’s closet,” he says. “It didn’t cost them anything to donate, in fact they got a tax write-off for it.”

Though Anderson has four full-time employees, for the most part Ear Candy is a one-man show.

“I’ll be here when they’re gone,” he says, laughing as he gestures to a lone student intern in the otherwise empty office.

Anderson says he really wants to show kids that “if you’re passionate about something, you can find a career near it.”

“You don’t really know who you are until you’ve given as much as you can give, and it’s crazy to see what comes back in return,” he says. “I love kids, I do. But I also really, really like being an entrepreneur… The time in my life that I’ve been the happiest is when I could just be 100 percent authentically me, and I could give every bit of what I’ve got to what I’m doing.”

Anderson has a rare, enviable charisma that is backed with substantial business smarts. “A lot of the concepts that [Ear Candy is] using are really the sound business principles that you’ll find in any successful for-profit entity,” he says, adding that many non-profit organizations do not use proven business models to run their charity effectively. Ear Candy, which is a 501C3 non-profit, follows a business model that Anderson says can “stand up to anything in the for-profit sector.”

Anderson plans to expand Ear Candy to Tucson and Flagstaff by the end of 2011. So far, the charity has predominately operated in the Phoenix area, but Anderson says he will be “branching out from the epicenter” to collect instruments in Scottsdale, Glendale and Avondale.

As for the long term goal, Anderson says Ear Candy aims to be a “client-service type company” that distributes event ideas and community awareness suggestions to satellite programs.

Anderson is business in the front, party in the back. This was never meant to be a job — when he loses sight of that, he pauses and remembers that he started Ear Candy because he wanted to have fun.

Reach the reporter at melody.parker@asu.edu