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Open Letter to the UK Jazz Community Pt IV – No More Sidemen!

April 23rd, 2009 | No Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

photo of Steve Lawson and Michael Manring on stage together at the Brookdale LodgeAnother thing I touched on in part II was the issue of ‘sidemen’ who have no sense of ownership of a project. This is a big problem when a large part of the cost of any particular gig is paying the musicians. If only one of you is doing the work to get an audience, but four of you are getting paid for playing the gig, something’s wrong.

So, my suggestion is that band leaders need to stop thinking in terms of ‘sidemen’ when booking players – stop hiring people just to play on the gig. This works well all round – when we start thinking like this, we end up having the opportunity to bring a whole lot more to a gig than just playing – we bring with us an audience, some marketing ideas and a whole load of enthusiasm.

Everyone needs to spread the word about the gig – I’m amazed at the number of musicians out gigging music they don’t appear to have any faith in at all. I just couldn’t do it, at least, not for the kind of money available on British Jazz gigs!!

We really need to start believing in the music we play. I don’t release music I don’t love, I don’t play with people who make music I’m not committed to, because I HAVE to be able to tell people honestly what I think of it. Playing well is not enough. For way too long, musicians have behaved as though there are loads of people out there just waiting for them to release something, and all they have to do is put it out, email a few friends and it’ll be fine. That’s bollocks. Think about the number of adverts you see for a new pop record. Think about how many of those records you STILL can’t be bothered to go and listen to. It takes a heck of a lot of talking to get people to even bother to listen to what we do.

So, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but my next suggestion for UK Jazzers is:

  • Think twice before hiring any musician who doesn’t have a blog.
  • Ditto for Twitter.

It doesn’t have to be some elaborate thing. It can even be just on their myspace page. But they have to be actively promoting it, updating it with gig news, recording news, details of media that’s out there online, whether it be video on youtube, photos on flickr, or albums that the other members of the band have recently been playing on. If the people in your band aren’t doing it, get ’em onto it. It’s really not enough to have one person in a band ‘doing promo‘ – this isn’t promo, it’s much bigger than that.

Bottom line is this – none of us can do this on our own. It’s not a competition. There’s way more potential audience than there is music right now, and we need to work together. So get writing, getting blogging, get Tweeting, and start letting the people who might love your music know that you love it too!

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  • Patrick

    OK, I don’t get this – why only hire guys who have blogs? I can see why musicians might want to have a blog – it finds a new audience, it offers an intermediary-free form of distribution, but as an audience member, I go to see musicians to hear them play: that’s how they express themselves. I don’t care how they write – I don’t care if they write. I care how they play.

  • Chris Bestwick

    Hi Steve

    I’m definitely with you on the idea of musicians taking ownership of, and feeling pride in, the projects they’re involved with. (As to whether you can persuade some less-enlightened jazz front-men to treat their bands as more than hired hands, that’s a different matter.. :)) As I tried to say perhaps a bit long-windedly in an earlier response, in practise I think this can involve playing in fewer, better projects and situations and turning the other stuff down.

    I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as making blogging/tweeting a hiring requirement, although I appreciate your point! I think that even in this social media world it may still be possible that a less web-savvy band member could do his/her publicising more effectively in other ways – promoting your band’s gig dates on a big tour with another band for example, or slipping the band’s name into a radio or print interview.. (Is this Web 2.0 heresy? :))

    Not to take away from your argument at all, it crossed my mind that one possible jazz gig situation where the “everyone needs to be equally involved” idea might not apply is when you’re hiring someone very much better than you as part of the process of learning jazz.

    I think this can sometimes be the case for example when you have a young and/or less experienced house band who’ve landed a decent regular paying gig and are booking different guest front people. In those situations the benefits in experience and learning they get from playing with a really good player could make up for that player’s perhaps not promoting the gig so enthusiastically.

    This mental digression aside, I’m enthusiastic about your enthusiasm and ideas!

    “Jazz-man is born free, but everywhere he is in function bands..”

  • Steve

    hi Patrick,

    I don’t think it should concern you as an audience member. But it does concern me as a band-leader, if the people I’m paying to play on a gig aren’t doing what they can to bring in an audience. There just isn’t a big enough residual audience in UK jazz for the gigs to ‘just happen’. We need to work at it, and one person trying to pull a crowd for 4 or 5 people to play to is too much. It’s not going to work.

    So as a way of musicians thinking about who they hire in terms other than just ‘how to they play?’ I’ve suggested making sure they are doing their bit. The reason I’ve used blogging as a benchmark is it’s free, it’s easy, it doesn’t require a huge following, it doesn’t say they need to be ‘famous’ or have access to some kind of specialist knowledge. They just need to be actively inviting people to be a part of the music they are playing, and telling them about it. That’s not a tricky thing to do at all.

    It’s also not a ‘rule’ – I’m not about to start telling anyone who they can and can’t hire. The point is, there just isn’t the room for us to be complacent about how we reach out to the people who may well love what we do but aren’t about to stumble across it accidentally. If I’m playing a show, everyone I know should also know about it.

    In a nutshell :)

  • David

    I agree with Patrick, being a good musician doesn’t make you a good writter. I personally think that when hiring it is important that the person share the enthusiasm to play the gig and do his/her part of promotting and helping the band to put the gig together. If he/she writes or not, that’s not up to me, if she/he uses twitter that may not be a problem, may they are too busy gigging and promoting gigs on their network to be able to use all those things and write blogs.

  • steve

    There are certainly other ways of doing promo. But I’d suggest that it’s a matter of both/and rather than either/or.

    You don’t have to be a ‘good writer’ to have a blog. It can just be news updates. it takes about 10-20 minutes of your time a week. Don’t take me as an example of what a musician’s blog should be like – I’m a pro journalist and teacher as well as a musician, so writing comes very naturally. Posting gig and album updates, and brief reviews of friend’s CDs doesn’t take writing skill. It’s just a demonstration of a commitment to help build knowledge and excitement about the music you’re making.

    But hey, if someone wants to go design and print gig flyers then go and stand on Oxford Street handing them out instead, be my guest… 😉

  • Gordon

    I’ve enjoyed these open letters greatly. Although not a jazz musician (an aficionado), I am involved at the edges of Edinburgh’s traditional music scene and can see many parallels between the two genres. My comments reflect this, so apologies if this seems off-topic.

    There are lots of informal pub gigs or sessions for us, paid at a far lower rate than I see quoted here. The session scene is the seedbed for bands and collaborations that blossom, flourish and fade against the demands of the need to make a living.

    The scene is small, cross-fertilization is common, people guest on each others projects and so forth. The audience is also mostly specialized (more so in England) and frequently very knowledgeable. They get the music.

    There are many differences as well (mostly cultural, recognition of self-value and social context), but there is some evidence that those who have embraced social media are getting the word out about their work. Those who have not done so risk remaining marginalized, regardless of their expertise.

    I am particularly intrigued by the recording and sales ideas you put forward. For example, a rough tape I recorded years ago was copied and passed around freely (with my consent). It raised my profile and I was thinking of putting it up for free download as it was never intended as a commercial project, but maybe I’ll add a “donate” button as well so that people can pay me something if they feel like it.

    I play in a ceilidh band, we have a gig next month in a great venue with a full strength line-up and were thinking of recording it. Our music thrives in relaxed social situations, so maybe we can do something more with it.

    One downside to your model is the idea that everyone pulls their weight on social media sites to promote a gig or project. Even with many free web tools out there, not everyone is equally up to speed with them and I suspect that it will tend to fall to the most able person to do promo.

    Or maybe that’s just the people I happen to play music with. 😉

    Thanks for your thoughts. I’m still digesting them!

  • John Goldsby

    I love all of the insights that I get from your blogs and posts, Steve. From the way you describe it, UK musicians must be much more online savvy than musicians here in Germany—many of whom have minimal to no web presence. I guess that’s old-fashioned, and it does seem that the older generation of players is less likely to adapt. But, some of the best players I know have no interest in being online. That’s probably hard to imagine for others who are online often or constantly.

    I am very picky about which blogs I read (I read yours!), but blogs are like musicians—the best ones stand out. The web will certainly be flooded in the next few years with more and more players writing about what they do. I will keep reading what is engaging and interesting, but there is a point of saturation . . .