Top 50 JAzz Blog

Monday, September 20, 2010

"The Jazz Entrepreneur-Threat or Menace" by Steve Provizer

Blogmeister Chris R. bemoans the lack of entrepreneurial spirit among local jazzers. I more or less demur.

There are musicians out there exercising the old entrepreneurial spirit and bestirring themselves to various exotic gig locales and this is surely a better strategy than bemoaning one's fate while passively waiting to be discovered. But does it mean that all or even most jazz musicians should scurry from their caves and try to sell their wares to the unwilling masses?

Let's acknowledge that there will forever be a gap, nay an incipient conflict, between the dispositions of the Player of the music and the Seller of the music. God bless the child that's got both sides, but that's Halley's comet rare.  I mean, look at the ultimate fruition of the entrepreneurial spirit: our friend Wynton M. His skills in both are high, but the psychological result and cultural impact are, well, mixed. Maybe success doesn't inevitably turns anyone into a-god help us-"spokesman," but once cast in that role, it takes someone with the singular spirit of Coltrane not to fall into the divisive ego trap laid by jazz flackery and the media.  

I myself wandered for years in the Twilight Zone inhabited by so many jazz musicians. In a scenario that may be familiar to many of you, every half-assed musical money-making scheme ended in semi-disaster and narrowed the already small distance between me and the guys with the butterfly nets from the local loony bin. Now, I am predisposed to pontificate against the middle path.  Either go ahead and hustle your ass off, or spend your time getting real good at what you do and trust that your audience-or maybe a Seller-will find you. No bemoaning of fates allowed.

Explicatus Addendum:
In "Unions and the Fame Myth"  I wrote about the need for musicians to take matters into their own hands. But that's energy put to a different end. Unionizing has a different upside. It doesn't mean you get to eliminate the middle man, but it may mean that you'll be able to weed out the pimps. 


Jason said...

I would argue that there is a lot of ground between the "pimps", as you call them, and musician/entrepreneurs that are taking advantage of all the ways the internet allows us to get our music out to a wider audience than ever before.

In fact, I'd say that the example you give of the musician who "spend[s] your time getting real good at what you do and trust that your audience-or maybe a Seller-will find you" has never been less likely to be heard than he is now. There's just too much music out there, and too many people working hard to get heard.

The middle ground, as you call it, is my whole world. As a working musician it is precisely this place in which I find myself. And there's nowhere I'd rather be. I am not beholden to a label, manager, PR department, ANYONE but myself. Sure, I have to do many things that a musician with all those folks does not, but I'll take 100% control of my destiny and my artistic output any day of the week. It may mean working harder and longer, but I'm not afraid of that.

And I'm not the only one. Dave Holland, Darcy James Argue, and many, many others have realized that they can take all facets of their careers into their own hands and be quite successful.

The jazz entrepreneur is not as rare as you make him out to be. We're simply musicians who have taken charge of our own fates...if that's a threat and/or a menace, then I guess you'll just have to be terrified. ;)

Steve Provizer said...

Jason, more power to you for carving out that space. No doubt the shading of my post can be explained in light of my own failure to succeed at what you seem to be accomplishing.

I will say that Dave Holland got off to a pretty flying start-having established himself by age 20 as one of England's premier musicians and playing with Miles and all. Darcy James Argue positioned himself well-N.E.C., BMI workshops, various grants and represents the small apex of a large pyramid of musicians who try to go that route.

I'm not saying that resignation is the desired alternative. I am suggesting that jazz musicians should reevaluate whether a rugged individualist approach is the way to go. It may simply perpetuate a system that doesn't seem to get the best results for the most people.

Jason said...

I know that the path of the entrepreneur is not for every artist. Many artists don't want to travel that road for any number of reasons and that's cool. We all have to find our own way.

My point is that the musician/entrepreneur is in a unique position to push his career forward at this particular time. Those who have spent some time cultivating the skills needed to self-market have reaped many rewards. And while it's true that folks like Holland and Argue are not 100% DIY, they are shining examples to the rest of us of how to use technology to our benefit. And I can name dozens of musicians I know who are making a great living AND making the music they want to make...if that's not success I don't know what is. Why that should be a threat or a menace is beyond me...

I would also argue that being an entrepreneur is not necessarily a "rugged individualist" approach. Here in Seattle there is a grow collective of young jazz musicians who are operating with an entrepreneurial spirit that is community minded. If you'll forgive a bit of shameless self-promotion (entrepreneurship???) I just wrote about some of them here:

New York Times: Seattle's Jazz Scene Could Be Model for Other Cities

These folks (myself included) are using our entrepreneurial spirit to boost the whole community, not just ourselves. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed!

Obviously, I'm siding with Chris R. on this one. Call me an idealist, but the successes we are seeing from the musician entrepreneurs is helping raise the visibility of jazz, which can only be a good thing for all of us.

IMHO. ;)

Steve Provizer said...

Quick reply-

I look forward to reading your piece. Seattle seems to be in a different place than Boston and I'm sure there are many reasons for that, although I'm ready to be called on even that perspective by Bostonians. Hey, I even know some people here who are community-minded and gig a lot. People do try to support each other by going to other people's gigs, but unified actions are rarer. With so many musicians and fewer and fewer gigs, it's understandable that people don't see the wisdom of collectivizing. This may be a mistake.

And, it's ok to agree with Chris. It happens to me a lot.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

This came out of a conversation I had with Steve about what utter ridiculous mini entrepreneurs the Gen X indie rock idiots were.

They took it to ridiculous extremes and still do even though their scene is toast now cause kids want dance music dj scenes for now and kids drive rock music.

Seattle is like no other American city. When I lived there I'd chat with friends about why Jazz was so prominent.

Seattle blue bloods who run the place are hilariously insufferable classical snobs and there is a scene in 5 Easy Pieces where Jack Nicholson sums it up well in a dinner conflict.

My sense is that Seattlites who showed up to build bombers for Boeing in the war brought Jazz fondness from all corners of America. Quincy Jones and Ray Charles spent time there. I'd run into"Q"'s relatives on the bus.

Since World war two, a whole tier of affluent people who like jazz has cohered and it's a place that came to be less impacted by Great White Music's control of resources.

Jazz has a nice middle ground it barely bothers to work that is a blend of thoughtful cooperation and collaboration with a dash of biz.

But really, many of the crew I try to help snipe each other, constantly in terror that their neighbor might do better than them. Don't even get me started on specifics as it's real ugly.

It is mainly a New York problem as I see a nice maturation going on up here as if they outgrew the sniping.

I know this guy Ed in the DC area who is trying really hard to build a gig exchange network.

He's great. If every city had an Ed, it would be a lot better because he is willing to help people without caring that much what's in it for him.

That is the key.

Matt Lavelle said...

Yet more evidence that NYC is Eating itself,.and Folks in other places have found a way to hold on to our Body and Soul,.

Can I get a room in Seattle?

EricDoberman said...

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by tchochkes..."

Steve Provizer said...

Eric-I'm somewhat puzzled. Howl;yea, but is that a reference to excessive personal acquisition supplanting a group orientation?

EricDoberman said...


It is my reply to this observation from CRR:

"This came out of a conversation I had with Steve about what utter ridiculous mini entrepreneurs the Gen X indie rock idiots were."

Not that I am ashamed of my Ducky Boys comb or TAR matchbook, of course.

Chris said...

Sniping is certainly a problem in NY...but I've seen it as a problem everywhere...the sniping in Chicago is often's part and parcel of the politics of any scene.

William Parker had a really great line about envy....I'm paraphrasing...Lots of bass players want to be Dominic Duval...Dominic Cuval wants to be William Parker...William Parker wants to be Ron Carter...Ron Carter wants to be Oscar Pettiford...Oscar Pettiford wants to be Jimmy Blanton...Jimmy Blanton wanted to be Koussevitsky...envy just makes you want to be someone never can so you should stop worrying about it and play.

Matt Lavelle said...

I myself have only wanted survival as a place to start.I know many musicians who let this battle destroy them.Some are still in NYC,.some have vanished.For some reason I can't walk away to an easier life,.go figure.I could break next week or in 2025.

Survival should always come first,.but I know people who put music BEFORE that,.

Everybody has their own limits,.NYC can help anyone find theirs.

Being famous and rich,.you can't take it with you.Your music is what you leave here when your gone.

If I leave a Movado,.SOMEBODY's going to take it.

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

Ok, one more time...

Jason--in your comment you write

And I can name dozens of musicians I know who are making a great living AND making the music they want to make

my questions:

a. "Dozens", as in dozens plural? 24? 36? 48?

b. How do you define a "great living"?

c. How would you describe the music made by these dozens of musicians (who are making a great living)?

A little later you write

These folks (myself included) are using our entrepreneurial spirit to boost the whole community, not just ourselves. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed!

When you say the use of an entrepreneurial spirit boosts the whole community, how does this "spirit" actually do the "boosting"?

Is that community the community of dozens of artists making a great living, or the community beyond?

gerardcoxblog said...

I'd be really curious to hear about the history of musician-owned nightclubs, and how that has tended to fare overall.

It seems to me that with the jazz venue infrastructure so threadbare these days, that the most significant way a musician could be an entrepreneur is in starting their own venue or joining with others in a partnership to do so.

Ahmad Jamal had a club...Rashied Ali, others. I'm wondering if the sacrifices involved in running a club leave no room for being an artist. The ideal is you run the club so you can control the variables in how a venue is run and thereby provide yourself and your friends with an artist-friendly venue. BUT....whether there's any time left over.

Steve Provizer said...

I'd say it's a time-honored tradition for jazz musicians to toy with the idea of owning a club.

Whatever I said in my piece about the difference in skill sets should be magnified by a factor of 10. This is licensing, personnel, rent/upkeep, customer service, lawyers, accountants...Of course, having enough dough to be a partner in a successful place run by a savvy, honest business person-that's something else.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

Buck Clayton owned a ballroom in Shanghai in the 30s according to various sources. Lewis Porter confirmed it when I asked him.

More recently, Fred Anderson ran the Velvet Lounge in Chicago up to his last day with help from Dan Melnick, another low profile and quiet wonder of advocacy.

I realize as I enter yet another bunch of performance dates for Boston area artists in the All About Jazz calender that these peeps can't even be bothered to do basic stuff like that when when it's free and easy.

And I discovered from my work at AAJ as the data gnome that people in Boston use it intensively to find out what shows are scheduled here. The data doesn't lie.

So Michael Ricci and crew makes a site visited by 8 to 9 hundred thousand distinct ip addresses where up to 12 million page reads occur and these wrecks can't even be bothered to post their own gigs in a skillful and timely manner.

Hint: Basic smart lead time is 6 weeks.

So while the excesses of idiot indy rock merch tables can be easily derided I'm talking about incapacity to grasp the most basic details of presenting a show, selecting a date and a site, having the free resources to let people know like an e mail list and so on.

The gallery here is a renta space. It is all DIY shows and there isn't much evidence that renters even get that booking a useless monday or tuesday has rarely been known to work particularly when the decision is made on the fly a week or so before.

Rob doesn't care, their checks still clear.

When I was the booking agent for stupid rock bands at the Middle East, it was like night and day. The bands not only knew what day of the week to ask for, they'd even bicker over slot positioning on a 3 or 4 band bill. They were after the perfect slot time, usually around 10p.

rob chalfen said...

While I do care if their checks clear, since that's the only way I can keep the place together, I also care if folks get turnout - and try to do what I can to help - but in the end the talent has to put it over the plate. I kinda feel that eventually, a rising audience pool will float all boats, but it could take a few more years. Meanwhile, there's a bunch of promo cues at the end of the Outpost Producer's Handbook:

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

I know you try and provide them with a wealth of information but they rarely read it and it would suck for you if they wised up and only wanted the prime dates.

We both have also seen interesting good turn outs on odd useless days, particularly if Matthew Shipp is involved.

You do what you can to lead em to water but if they ain't drinking, what is one to do.

They also over book themselves. How can folks miss them when they won't go away?

Kevin Frenette figured out the 'less is more' rule and had better results. The rest think Metro Boston can really cough up adequate humans to sustain these monthly, poorly scheduled and feebly promoted things.

But then, I think some just like it as a rehearsal workshop and audience is a bonus.

Anonymous said...

"(...) envy just makes you want to be someone never can so you should stop worrying about it and play."

Splendidly put, Chris! -- That's what I do: I don't care anymore if I want to play like this guy or that great, I just don't think about it, and play.

Tomorrow for example, at 12 p.m., we - "The Action Trio For Unintentional Music" ('Intentionless' would be better if this very word would exist in English), will perform acoustic improvisations, and live electronics to, and with texts of Meister Eckhart, and music of Johannes Ockeghem.

No jazz intended, not even music in a conventional way; anyway, it's great fun; and I have no problem at all to leave the blues at the front door of the church we will perform.

Concert Ad -- Cologne Music Night 2010

Chris said...

Wow.....texts of Eckhart.....I wish I could hear it. I love his work....really sophisticated for a medieval writer and should never have been suppressed.

Minim said...

Interesting article and comments. One thing that I would like to add is that 'success' is not a black-and-white issue and Dave Holland and the starving penniless musician are two extremes on the spectrum.

There is plenty of scope for musicians to make a living playing music they enjoy without ever having the big record deal or global fame - Jason Parker, who commented above is a perfect example of this kind of musician: He loves what he does and he makes it pay for him.

On my own blog PlayJazz I often talk about the need for musicians to promote themselves, but more than that I want us all to be playing music we believe in - as that's got to be the starting point for everything.

The problem with the idea of 'spend your time getting real good at what you do and trust your audience - or maybe a seller - will find you' is that, for many musicans, that involves an endless round of pick-up gigs playing standards with scratch bands whilst working on their own playing and waiting to be discovered.

Even if you're a great player, a 'seller' hearing you blow over Autumn Leaves and Girl from Ipanema is unlikely to want to promote you because you don't really have a 'product' to sell. Talent and ability on their own are not saleable - there are plenty of talented people out there.

On the other hand, if you determine to make the music that inspires you and dare to be original and innovative then, even if you are relying on being 'discovered', at least you are presenting something a seller can contemplate selling.

Talent and ability on their might not be saleable - but talent plus ability plus originality in a suitable package starts to look like something that could be worth promoting.

Bottom line: If you want someone to sell your music for you, you need to make some music worth selling.

Anonymous said...

@Chris -- The WDR3 radio station did a little portrait of our trio. It can be heard HERE. -- They'd broadcasted it yesterday, ca. two hours before we started our performance.

The actual recording took place in the living room of A. Wagner, the man behind the computer. The interview is in German of course, but the sound samples (recorded on the spot) are international, so to speak.

Steve Provizer said...

Minim-Thanks for your comment. I recently discovered and like your blog.

I would say that your "music worth selling" is just a restatement of my "getting real good at what you do." In fact, I don't propose it as a solution, but as an alternative, as the idea of 'worth selling' or 'good' is subject to many interpretations and, especially in this economy, no ticket to 'success' (see below).

On the other hand, those who have a decent day job have a choice. They can concentrate on developing their own thing and actually choose not to do the endless rounds of pick up gigs you mention. The day gig notion has traditionally been maligned by jazz musicians, but I think it needs to be reevaluated; or, re-esteemed as a positive choice.

Finally, while we know that success is usually measured crudely in our culture($), we still have to give it serious consideration in calculations of how we unwashed poor can spend our time. If my pieces in general try to do anything, it's to give some kind of perspective on how a musician can calibrate that word 'success' for him or her self.

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

Is all music the same, in as much as how easy (or hard) it is to sell?

Is ii-V-I easier to peddle than "Shwe owei cwded leehdas" or whatever you want to call that music where notes are arranged in a "meaningless" sequence?

Are those musicians playing "Shwe owei cwded leehdas" who aren't getting over bad promoters/entrepreneurs/capitalists/internet users/all of the above, or do they face some challenges that people playing ii-V-I don't?

Is it a level playing field?

Is "Shwe owei cwded leehdas" even music, or is it an entirely different commodity all together?

There is plenty of scope for musicians to make a living playing music they enjoy without ever having the big record deal or global fame - Jason Parker, who commented above is a perfect example of this kind of musician: He loves what he does and he makes it pay for him.

a: What is "scope"?

b: How would you describe Jason Parker's music?

Bottom line: If you want someone to sell your music for you, you need to make some music worth selling.

Music worth selling according to who? Based on what?

Chris said...

Bruno....thanks...I will check your link out...I wonder if my smattering of high school German will help me make sense of the interview.

Steve, I know that I deliberately decided to take day jobs early on for just that reason. My day job is creative and challenging, but it's music related and thus in a weird way pretty much compliments my playing. Also, I take the gigs I want rather than having to take dance band gigs and wedding gigs...or even worse...piano bar. Such gigs can totally kill your creativity. I prefer my teaching which enhances it. Only problem is that if I ever get the BIG TOUR I'm not sure what I could do...unless it's in the summer.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

The music selling stuff is thin on specifics Stanley, so I thought I'd return to the Boston reality of the 'Citizen' musician.

From my view in the catbird seat of the epicenter, no one here seems to give that much of a shit about selling anything or making money at performing and recording music. The idea would probably amuse most as a charming fantasy when not farcical.

Boston is almost as expensive as New York so everyone has some kind of day job and they do this for fun.

Jim Hobbs runs a music store,Mr Frenette has some media company job, Dave Bryant works at Harvard a bunch of people have teaching gigs and that's the way it is. Charlie Kohlhase may still be pulling shifts at a Record store. Jeff Platz takes care of pianos.

It's cool because they all do music for personal satisfaction and that's about it. Sure it would be bitchin' to have a career but so would winning the lottery.

It's amazing how congenial it gets when people get to stop giving a shit about having something to sell something.

That's how it was for a very long time before the 20th century invented a music industry.

Minim said...

@Steve - I know I'm probably talking semantics, I am a firm believer that 'getting good at what you do' must not only involve developing your own personal playing skills - a trap which many jazz musicians fall into and end up feeling unappreciated and frustrated as a result.

I totally agree that 'success' requires a totally personal definition. For some the day job will work, for others it's got to be all or nothing. All that matters is that we pursue our own version of success - not what we think we 'should' be doing.

Minim said...

@Stanley Jason Zappa - valid questions, let's see if I can explain:

Is it a level playing field? No, and it never will be if you define that as there being is an equal potential audience for all music.

It probably is easier to sell ii-V-I than it is "Shwe owei cwded leehdas", just as it's easier to sell radio rock than ii-V-I. I'm not sure what point you're making with that question?

Having said that, I think that the internet has made the playing field more level than it has been at any time in history.

If you are into "Shwe owei cwded leehdas" music then the internet means you are no longer reliant on getting somebody to decide that they can make money out of promoting that music and deciding to take a chance on you - you can record and promote it yourself.

For minority musics (and minority sub-genres of minority musics!) this should be incredibly liberating. There might not be enough money in your music for the Big Boys in the industry to give you a second glance - but there is every chance that you personally can make money out of that music given your potential audience is now everybody in the world who is online and likes "Shwe owei cwded leehdas" music.

By 'scope' for musicians to make a living, I mean that there are opportunities to sell yourself and your music directly to venues and audiences without requiring access to the gatekeepers or the kind of capital investment that made artists of the past totally dependent on promoters and record labels.

Knowing what I know of Jason Parker, I would describe his work as music that he loves to play. What 'genre' it is isn't relevant, all that is relevant is that he is playing the music he believes in. What's more, he's making a living at it.

Finally, 'music worth selling' - according to who? According to the people making the music.

Whether you plan to market yourself or your want somebody else to do it for you, that's going to require you to promote yourself in some way: it's going to need you to stand up and say to somebody else 'listen to my music' or 'come to my gig'.

It's a hell of a lot easier to do that when you believe in the music that you're making.

It's hard enough for musicians to promote themselves at the best of times, without feeling that what you're selling is a bit lame.

This is why I'm always arguing passionately that jazz musicians need to get off the treadmill of playing standards at scratch gigs and start working on something they passionately believe in.

Of course, if what sets your musical soul on fire is playing Autumn Leaves on scratch gigs then that's the course you should pursue with all your efforts.

However, personal experience tells me that there are many, many musicians out there who aren't inspired by that kind of music making but it's the only kind of performing they ever get to do.

It's normally comes down to fear or a lack of confidence, but the alternative to taking charge of your own musical life and sticking your neck out to play something that inspires you is to remain stymied and frustrated forever.