Thursday, September 26, 2013

We Can Do Better

Jazz is a living music. If it's not being played somewhere live, then it's essentially dead. I have written about how as Jazz moves into academia, we must make efforts to ensure that jazz doesn't end up like classical saxophone: as an almost exclusively academic pursuit. The challenge is great: Jazz music hasn't been popular for more than half a century, live music competes with the internet for our attention, and the terrible economy forces folks to stay home instead of going out to spend money. 

When I started playing professionally in the late 1980's, there seemed to be much more interest in live music than there seems to be now. Although anybody playing jazz in the modern era is going to struggle with large numbers of folks who have little understanding of bebop and swing, in my youthful days there were gigs happening almost every night; between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., I could do pretty well financially. Some of the gigs paid more in the 80's and 90's than they pay now. Furthermore, even as a relative novice, I almost never had the need to do what is quite often disdainfully referred to as a "door gig." 

What is a "door gig?" Simply, it's when there is no guarantee for the band; you get only whatever money comes in at the door, which is oftentimes actually a percentage of the door( the venue takes some of it. This can vary.) Showing up for work without knowing if you are going to make any money can suck; can you imagine a doctor showing up for major surgery and being told, "Sorry, but you only get 30 dollars. It was fun, though. Let's do brain surgery another time!" The door gig takes the risk away from the venue and puts it on the musicians. Sometimes, this can be better than a guarantee; when you consider the paradigm of the club that gives you a small guarantee and then pockets the profit, even when there are huge crowds, then a percentage of the door means the band can get more more money if more people come out. However, if no one comes, then you don't get paid at all. No matter how fun it is to play music, if you are a professional musician, it sucks to end the night with nothing to take home, especially if you have been doing this for a few years, and even more especially, if you remember a time when you refused to do door gigs because you didn't need to do them.

I remember when the shift occurred in New York City; at a certain point, it seemed as though there were two kinds of gigs: restaurant gigs which guaranteed payment, and door gigs which didn't. The restaurant gigs came with issues like having a dress code, having to play for 5 or 6 hours and having specifically timed breaks and limited food options, and also being told to play quieter even though the conversation of the diners was already drowning out the music. The door gigs were situations where you could play whatever you wanted, but you couldn't expect the venue to do anything to get people to come to the gig. In fact, it seemed like there were some door gigs that were almost like scams; for example, some gigs would say you only get the door after the first 10 covers. I remember doing one of these, and because I was so wrapped up in worrying about the music, I couldn't actually count how many people had come to the show. The lady at the door said, "only 10 people came, so you don't get anything." It seemed like there were more than ten people there, but I was too tired to argue over nickles and dimes. After a bunch of experiences like that, I stopped doing door gigs and just tried to make the restaurant gigs more interesting. Sometimes, those gigs could be just as fun as the "playing" gigs. Of course, those gigs started to pay less and less, even as the restaurants got more and more crowded and the menu got more expensive. You can stop greed....I mean, progress......

Now that I have a day job teaching jazz at Portland State University, I can do door gigs and not worry about the fact that I couldn't make a living from these kinds of gigs. I can do them for the love of playing music. However, this is in some ways a short term solution: in the short term, I can feed my family, and I can play my music regardless of demand. Cool, right? Well, the problem is that I'm actually less motivated to publicize my gigs or to try to get people to come out and what have you. 

This brings up the issue of whether this is even my job at all. I think that, especially in today's world of social media, putting your gig on Facebook is the least of what you can do. You can make posters, call or text your friends, send out a press release, try to get the radio stations to interview you, etc...You could pay for ads or hire a publicist, but that's probably way more money than you want to spend, especially for one gig. How much more than that can we do? Also, you could try being a really great musician that people are interested in hearing, or you could try to present your gig as a "special project," or even a "tribute" to some great jazz legend (PDX Jazz does a lot of these.) Or you could have more people in your band, which equals more friends who will come to the venue, hopefully. 

What often ends up happening is that whomever can convince every friend they had from middle school on and every extended family member to come out every time they play will be the successful ones. If you spend all of your time shedding, and have a small circle of friends and family who also have a life of their own, you can't expect them to come out every time you play! (I used to do OK at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. when my Dad or Mom would really organize folks to come to my performances. But I did a lot of gigs with local singers who were secretaries by day; they would invite the entire office to their gig once a year and they would pack the place. So this was the beginning of what I thought was an imbalance. The really good local musicians who played on the scene regularly couldn't draw a crowd at Blues Alley; but the amateur folks could do really well with ticket sales. So the amateurs would get repeat bookings while the professionals would end up working at Twins Lounge. That's a whole other story....)

But what if people STILL don't come? Can we not look at the venue itself? Is the venue a place where people go regardless of who is playing or not? Even though "jazz" gigs can be distinct from "restaurant" gigs, many of the "jazz" gigs take place where food and beverages are served. These aren't just performance halls; these are "clubs" or "lounges" that also have music. Without music, these venues would have no other way to draw folks other than their food, or their drinks, or their atmosphere, or what have you. Just like musicians are being told, "you need to figure out how to get folks to come out," restaurants, bars, and lounges also have to figure out the best way to "build a following" as in a regular clientele. You need to have a place where folks want to go and feel comfortable. You need to get a good reputation in the community. 

Without naming names, it's amazing to me that many of these venues would rather blame the musicians than blame themselves. If you own a venue and you are expecting local musicians to bring huge crowds all of the time, you are going to be sorry; if you book jazz, it just isn't popular enough to draw huge crowds.( If you want to book techno, or other really popular forms of music, then by all means do so, if that's the kind of venue you want.) But some of these places, not just in Portland, but everywhere, don't do everything that they can to make people want to come to their place. If you are in Portland, this is now a foodie town, and your food has to be able to compete with that. If you are in a funny location, and you don't have walk in traffic, that's not the musician's fault. You have to figure out how to make people WALK or DRIVE to your venue. 

A musician friend of mine recently posted this letter that he received from the proprietor of a local venue:

 "Hi. I have an issue with the lack of audience. I would've hoped that someone in your group of performers/musicians would've marketed the group playing. This has been two weeks playing to no audience. Are you expecting fans next week, because if not I would ask you to step down from performing any further at my shop. I don't have a built in audience. I count on the bands to bring folks in and that hasn't been done. Let's call a spade a spade." 

My musician friend sent it out as a warning to other musicians who would venture to perform in this venue. There are so many problems with this message, but perhaps we can also learn from this scenario in addition to being angry about this kind of message.

Of course, we also hate not having an audience. I'm sure my musician friend did the best he could to get the word out. And the side musicians on the rotation for this gig were some of the best known in Portland. Although that could be a problem in that if you are playing often in town, then it's not a special event if you play somewhere, so people are less likely to come down every time you play. On the other side of the coin, you aren't going to get famous out-of-town jazz musicians to play a door gig in your venue. So getting the best local guys is probably your best bet, UNLESS you want to go the "let's get a secretary who sings and has hundreds of friends who will come to her gig." That has pros and cons. That kind of mentality has it's limitations; eventually you run out of those people, and then you are left with the pro musicians, who have abandoned your venue in search of a place where they can play real music as well as listen to real music.

Also, the idea that the leader will market the gig is one thing, but you cannot expect the sidemen to do but so much in marketing the gig. That is not their job. They can post it on facebook if they choose. But in general, if you are asked to be a sideman, it's pretty beyond the norm to expect you to do any publicity. It would be different if it was a collective or some kind of band where everyone is an equal member. But in a situation like this, it's really on the bandleader. I couldn't imagine if every sideman gig I did, I was asked to hire a publicist and do heavy promotion. There's just no way!

The letter says: "This has been two weeks playing to no audience." Well, I hate to break it to you, but the regular weekly gigs sometimes take more than two weeks to develop into something. Sometimes it might take months. Let's look at the venue itself. With or without music, would you close up shop if you had little business in your first two weeks? No. It would suck, and you might try to figure out how to get more folks out, but you wouldn't abandon all the prep work you did to open your venue because you started slow. It is said that it takes three years of having a restaurant before you start to make money. Would you close after two weeks? So here, the venue owner is clearly short sighted.

Finally, the fact that they put all of the responsibility on the musicians is just bad. YES, we as musicians need to do better. AND FOR THAT MATTER, we the musicians-as-fans-of-the-music need to do better. We need to support the venues and the local musicians better. I make my own excuses; I'm busy with school or my own gigs, my son wants me at home, I'm too tired to go out, etc...Some of my music students, who I suppose are interested in a career as live performing musicians, never go to local gigs; at least, I've never seen them at any gig. I understand that some have problems with being underage for going into bars past a certain hour, some have transportation issues, and some have financial issues. I understand, but if there is a will, there's a way. Students need to go to some of these gigs not just to support a scene that they want to be a part of someday, but they also need to hear live music to learn from the pros, and also be a part of the scene. If people see you around at venues, they get to know you, they might let you sit in, and then if you are good, they might call you for a gig. This is what it means to "make the scene." Many of my students don't understand this at all. 

I also think that, while Portland has a better than most cities in America jazz scene, and a decent crowd for jazz, the jazz fans need to branch out and look at ALL of the jazz venues, not just Jimmy Mak's and The Mission Theater. Sure, lots of folks come out for the PDX festival and PDX events, but where are they the rest of the year. Jazz can't happen 6 times a year to be a jazz scene. I am reminded of when I asked someone if there was a jazz scene in Montreal. "Sure, there's a great jazz scene. We have the Montreal Jazz Scene every summer!" THAT DOES NOT QUALIFY AS A JAZZ SCENE! That's one time a year when a whole bunch of famous cats come to your city. What's going on the rest of the year?

Getting back to the letter; the owner of the venue takes no responsibility and has no long term vision for music in his venue. Even though it's a bit extreme that his letter was distributed publicly, did he think that musicians don't talk to each other? Indeed, I've gone to the venue to support musicians, because I actually thought it was a cool spot and I have been telling people that they should go there. I played there a few months ago and really enjoyed it. I don't know, I feel a little disheartened by the owner's attitude, and I'm feeling disrespected in solidarity with my musician friend who was trying to build something there. I still think it's a cool place, and I never say never; if they are willing to keep an open mind, it could actually be a great spot for jazz. But this kind of attitude doesn't make me want to go there, let alone perform there.

In order to be a jazz scene there has to be a community: we all have to do better. Musicians have to get people to come out. Musicians and students need to support other musicians and venues. Venues have to support musicians and do ALL that they can to make their place a destination. Jazz fans have to be fans more than a few times a year. I've already blogged about how music schools can do better. I can do better. You can do better. Let's not just point fingers, let's just commit to keeping jazz alive in the 21st century.

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