John Goldsby just tweeted a link to this article from the Wall Street Journal. It’s all about the falling audiences for jazz. A whole load of demographic stuff about who’s going to see jazz, and who now isn’t going to see jazz.
The problem with this is that any artist worth a listen doesn’t do ‘jazz gigs’. They play their own unique music. They play ‘John Goldsby music’, or ‘Miles Davis music’ or ‘Pat Metheny music’ or indeed ‘Steve Lawson music.
The ‘style’ might be jazz, but the intention, ideas and the 20/30/40/50 years of life experience that lead them to make the music they make are unrepeatable.
Thinking of what you do within the continuum of success or failure within a style is a sure way to alienate yourself from your audience. Whether or not there are people in my audience that have heard another solo bassist before, at that moment they are listening to me, means nothing. I happen to be on stage with a bass and some toys, but that’s where the ‘solo bass demographic’ should end. These are people who for whatever reason have connected with me and my music, and chosen to come and hear it.
Before they’ve heard me, I want to make a compelling case for checking out what I do, and make it findable wherever people who are likely to be interested hang out online.
I’m not looking for a ‘solo bass’ audience, or an ‘electronica’ audience, or a ‘new age’ audience. I want to be part of a process of letting people discover the story in music over and above the labels that we put on it. That requires a whole load of context.
What’s the one category of music that transcends everyone’s usual listening habits and leads to Coldplay fans buy orchestral albums, or blues albums, or medieval music? Film soundtracks! Soundtrack albums work outside of people’s usual self-defined genre preferences because they MEAN something. They have a reason for existing over and above the various weird psychological reasons for people wanting to listen to music that’s already popular in order to fit in.
A lot of film soundtrack albums are mostly instrumental, with a gateway-drug-vocal-track thrown in to entice people to buy it. Often the vocal track is the one that messes things up, thematically. No matter, at least people’s horizons are being expanded.
I don’t play jazz or electronica, or ambient music, or solo bass music, or whatever. I play Steve Lawson music. It may be taggable as those things – I don’t mind at all fitting into people’s categories – but it’s not what makes my music good – or not-good – that’s all about me saying what I have to say through whatever musical medium I choose to work in.
Look at the output of just about any artist that has lasted more than 15 or so years – Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Paul Simon, Tom Waits… even U2 – their music changes, evolves, sometimes isn’t even remotely definable as the same genre from one album to the next (especially in the case of someone like Metheny or Frisell) but the continuity is their vision, their voice, their intention.
I don’t love Bill Frisell’s music cos I’m a jazz fan, I love it cos I’m a Bill Frisell fan. When he stops playing jazz and starts playing country, the question of ‘is it jazz?’ is far less interesting than ‘is it good?’ or ‘does it connect with me?’ – it doesn’t have to: it’s OK to only like some of what someone does, to only connect with parts of an artist’s musical journey. But the value – and the potential audience – is a long way away from demographic surveys about how successful jazz or folk or metal or country are right now.
Connect. One potential audience member at a time, and make the resources available for those people to go and tell the story of what your music means to them. And you get on with making the music you can’t not make.
Question: Who are the artists you listen to that are most remote from the ‘usual stuff you listen to’, and how did you find them?