The trajectory of what I thought my life in music would be is not very much like what has happened, but it’s not all bad news. In fact, what the jazz tradition has demonstrated over the years is an uncanny ability to address all kinds of challenges—social, economic, artistic—in order to advance this living music. The current state of the music “business” has stopped more than a few people I know, but as a creative person, I will continue to find ways to play and hear the music that I love.
Once upon a time, the norm was that major labels signed and cultivated artists they believed would last. The artist was recorded in a big, beautiful studio and promoted by the in-house team who was well connected to the powers-that-be. The tab was running and the hope was that the expenses would be recouped by the label in album sales. More often than not, the artist made a very small percentage of sales but might be lucky enough to have some tour support from the label, and their careers developed with time and exposure. Many strong relationships were built and plenty of great music was recorded and released this way, but there was more to the story.
Years ago, I read a book called Hit Men that chronicled the music business as a daunting tale of corruption, immorality and greed. Although it depressed many who read it, I found it liberating because it made me realize for certain that there was no rhyme or reason to the business. If I wanted to keep playing, I would have to use creative energy to stay in the game as well as to play the music. I identified myself as a “lifer,” who would play music no matter what happened in the business.
Enter technology. New world. New game. Few rules. The Internet, where the production and distribution of music is undergoing change, is still basically the Wild West. Most music is available for downloading (free or purchased) or may be sold by someone who has nothing to do with the artist or a record company, so young music lovers have come to believe that music is free. They may never buy a CD in their life; their music is downloaded or “shared” (a.k.a stolen), and there are very few rules in place for how it is distributed on the web. Record companies have sued the fans and royalties aren’t being paid. The world is upside down! Apps and technology now rule the culture more so than music. How can a musician make money anymore?
With the Internet as a global distributor, artists can find the people who like their music and service those fans on a more personal level. Instead of a record company telling them what will sell, what they should record, or with whom they should be recording, artists get to make the music they want and in their own time frame. Likewise, the fan is not being told whom they should listen to or purchase. In a strange way, globalization has brought us back to grass roots. The thing that will make people want to have your music is that it speaks to them. The people who love music will be surfing the web, looking to discover something great. If you can provide that for them, they will tell their friends who will tell their friends who will tell their friends. It will be the music that will get people’s attention. And they will support you. Just like the old days.
I find this an inspiring idea, but it does leave many unanswered questions. For an established artist with a fan base, folks can easily find you. If you are just emerging, you may have to negotiate a number of possibilities, like how to record your music—which takes funding. The Internet has created new and interesting ways to do this. There are several sites through which you make a pitch to friends, fans and strangers about funding your project. My favorite is Kickstarter, where you set a monetary goal and a deadline to fundraise your expenses through pledges from people who want to support your effort. You can offer perks at different levels. Donors can be as involved in the project as much or as little as you want them to be. People can get advanced copies or exclusive offers for various levels of donations or go hear some music with you, come over for dinner, or anything you invent. If you don’t reach your goal, nobody pays, which is an excellent incentive to get the word out. The only cost is Kickstarter’s cut, which is 5 percent. You can also put a PayPal “Donate” button on your website and fundraise through a PayPal account. Get creative!
Distribution no longer favors the business side. Now you can distribute your music from your website and from indie sites like CD Baby. No longer at the mercy of whether your label (if you had one) has good distribution and can get good placement in record stores, you will have to do what you can to be heard. Once again—get creative.
Streaming is likely to be the future of music, but will most jazz fans, who love to own whole collections of their favorite artists, settle for whatever is streamed to them? Hard to say, but the majority of even jazz fans will come to hear what they know through the Internet and streaming. Music Choice, Sirius and other subscription-based music sites have whole channels with different styles of jazz, from traditional to bebop to big band to avant-garde. Some sites have samples of tunes with links to Amazon to buy them. Everyone is trying to figure out the new game plan, and I don’t think it’s in place yet. Be bold if you have the stomach for it. The more we can embrace the changes, the better chance the music has of being heard and appreciated by new audiences.
In a perfect world, musicians don’t have to think about anything but music. Someone else takes care of recording details and touring details and distribution/sales details so the artist can be free to create unencumbered. This world is pretty far from perfect, so if you want a life in music, I hope you can find it in yourself to be as involved in the details as you can. Optimism, improvisation and willingness to explore new possibilities help, too!
Claire Daly is an award -winning baritone saxophonist based in New York City. She travels the world playing music, teaches at Jazz at Lincoln Center MSJA, Litchfield Jazz Camp and privately , and improvises a life in creative music. Currently , she is writing music to be premiered at the Juneau Jazz and Classics Festival in May 2011.
Photo above (did not accompany this article in DB) by Antonio Monteiro.