Sunday, January 12, 2014

Jazz Connect Conference Unites the Jazz Community at APAP NYC

On Thursday January 10th and Friday January 11th the Jazz Community got together to meet, renew friendships  and attend a series of panel discussions on the state of the music industry and jazz music in particular. The conference, held at the Hilton Hotel in NYC,  was sponsored as part of APAP (Association of Performing  Arts Presenters) NYC 2014 event and organized by Jazz Times magazine and the Jazz Forward Coalition. The theme of the conference  “The Road Ahead” with many of the conference panel discussions dealing with topics that are particularly relevant for musicians, producers, record labels, journalists and media experts operating in today’s increasingly morphing  entertainment and performing environment.

As a member of the Jazz Journalist Association and a freelance journalist specializing in jazz, I considered it a good place to connect with many of the artists whose music I listen to, to meet with fellow writers to discuss concerns and outlooks and to generally take the pulse of the industry. I was only able to attend the conference on Thursday, but I got to sit through several interesting presentations that were of particular interest to me.

“Engaging the Jazz Media Gatekeepers” was a panel discussion that was that sponsored by the Jazz Journalist Association,  with JJA President Howard Mandel moderating a panel  consisting Monifa Brown from Shanachie/WBGO, Newark, NJ ; Evan Haga from JazzTimes; J. Michael Harrison from WRTI Philadelphia; Hank Shteamer from the print weekly TimeOut  New York.  The concept is that  media professionals, like journalists and radio hosts, are gatekeepers between the musician and his ultimate audience. The panelists, prodded by moderator Mr. Mandel, revealed the process they use when they choose to promote a particular artist or album on their outlet. The discussion was broadly attended by musicians who were interested in getting insight into how they might improve their chances of having their music covered by the media. Some of the suggestions that came from the discussion seemed obvious. The general consensus from the panel was that with the sheer volume of label and self-produced material received made it virtually impossible to program or feature anything but the most compelling material. Clearly the subjective taste of the gatekeeper was a big factor in whether or not he or she would feature any particular music on their outlet. As Monifa Brown of WBGO said, try to target a presenter who might be sympathetic to your particular type of music; i.e. don’t send cabaret vocals to a hard bop aficionado as it most likely won’t be played. With stacks of music waiting to be opened, how does one choose which to look at and in which order? 

Several of the panel members confessed to looking for "name" artists when hunting through submissions as a way to cull out potential choices. Clearly having an artist of the stature of a Joe Lovano or a legend like Billy Hart on your album gets the gatekeeper's attention. If these guys are playing with this artist then maybe I should take a listen. I confess to being influenced by the presence of an artist that I already like on a new offering, but that leads to another question which was unfortunately never addressed at the conference. Does popular opinion within the insular jazz writing and radio community work to the detriment of uncovering new artists that deserve to be heard?  How do new artists or even established artists who remain on the periphery get the necessary exposure they need to become part of the discussion? Do new artists need to align themselves strategically with the artist du jour or an established legend to receive adequate ink and frequent air play? Is this a viable strategy for an artist provided he can remain true to his creative spirit? How do we as the gatekeepers ensure we are inclusive enough to continually expand the exposure of deserving artists?

Only speaking for myself, I try to listen to each and every artist whose music that I receive, whether or not they are known to me. If it is sent to me then the least I can do is take a serious listen. It can be a daunting task to give the music its fair share of listening time. There is many an instance when a piece of music doesn't immediately strike my fancy, but upon careful repeat listening I discover something that makes it worth the second effort. 

In this information age where we limit ourselves to  140 characters to get our point across, where people have little or no time to read in depth writing about national policy let alone jazz music how can an artist make enough of an impression to gain an audience? These are some of the perplexing issues that face new jazz artists.

Another panel discussion was titled “The New Paradigm for Record Labels” and was moderated by Jim Cuomo of Entertainment One Distribution with panelists musician Dave Douglas, of Green Leaf Music;  Jana Herzon from Motema Music;  musician Greg Osby of Inner Circle Music; Seth Rosner of Pi Records; Denny Stilwell of Mack Avenue Records and Oliver Weindling of Bable Records.  

This discussion was centered on the way the music was being delivered with streaming and downloads taking and increasing share of product placement over hard copy cds.  Artists who have formed their own labels like Dave Douglas and Greg Osby were finding that many of their listeners prefer the immediacy of downloads, using them as an entry point to the artist and his music.  It was noted that many of the younger audience have never used a cd player. Despite the fidelity issues of various media players, young people prefer downloads for their portability and space considerations. A resurgence of vinyl in record production was discussed, but it was clear that it is a tiny part of  overall sales and it has greater penetration in the European market where fidelity and cover art seemed to be of greater concern.

The effect of Spotify, the on-line streaming music service, was also discussed with most panelists deciding that the trend was inevitable. As to whether or not the overall effect on the music industry and the artists in particular was positive or negative, the sentiment was that it remained to be seen, but the consensus was that the artist share of the revenue had to be increased to a more sustainable share for it to be good for all concerned. 

I caught part of an inspirational address given by Wendy Oxenhorn from the non-profit Jazz Foundation of America, speaking passionately about the work she and the foundation has done and continues to do for elder jazz musicians who have fallen on hard times. Ms. Oxenhorn welled-up with emotion as she recalled once  finding the late saxophonist Cecil Payne, stubbornly but proudly living in seclusion, barely eating. Realizing his peril she  finally convinced him into accepting some help. I confess the story almost brought me to tears. Clearly the Jazz Foundation is a labor of love that needs to be supported by all of us and Wendy’s tireless work will be sorely missed as she is stepping down as President.

Between these and concurrent panel discussions, the conference was a great hang. I got to meet many of the musicians that I have listened to and written about and the feeling of community was palpable. The final panel that I was able to attend was held by the JJA in the afternoon.  I  met face to face with fellow members to discuss how we as a writers, educators and advocates could expand our effort to support the music. We discussed how we could continue our association with jazz educational institutions as a viable means to bring the appreciation of jazz to a younger audience.  It was agreed that we should all make efforts to raise awareness of the music locally by promoting Jazz April, the upcoming month of April as Jazz Appreciation Month and April 30th 2014 as International Jazz Day.

At the conclusion of the day I came away with a sense of being a part of something that was quite extraordinary, a community of people who aspire to create, preserve, promote and proselytize a very special music. A music that transcends boundaries and unites us all by raising our awareness. An awareness that we are all members of the human race and that creative expression is something that needs to be actively nurtured if we are to ever to reach our limitless potential as part of that race..

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