Open Letter To the UK Jazz Community, Pt II – do more recordings!

photo of John Lester and Theo Travis live at the 606 jazz clubSo, as I said in Part 1, the UK jazz scene is producing some outstanding music, but

  • Doesn’t seem to appreciate itself and
  • Doesn’t seem to have done much thinking about its future or even its place in the ‘present of music’.

I suppose I ought to define what I mean by ‘the UK jazz scene’ (should’ve done this in the first post, but still) – my thoughts here are based on conversations with a wide range of musicians, interactions with venue bookers, reading the jazz press here and talking to the people who run the labels. It’s all anecdotal, in that I’ve done no quantitative research, but the trends within my observations are pretty conclusive – the exceptions to them are there, but very rare…

Anyway, the UK jazz scene is, by and large, dominated by a culture of dependency and despondency – musicians record CDs with small record company advances, the label puts the CD out and feels lucky if they recoup. They then do a couple of short tours a year funded by the Arts Council and make their regular gigging money playing standards in pubs with Sunday lunch time resident rhythm sections. In a nutshell.

As a result, there are a lot of downhearted musicians around, and that generally negative feeling is self-perpetuating, as people fail to talk positively about their own albums, expecting labels to do it for them…

As is obvious, that’s not a healthy business model, and it certainly misses all that is great potential-wise in the online music environment. So, my first point is:

  • Jazzers need to realise they are at a MASSIVE advantage in the new music environment.

It’s all because of where we’re starting from. Here the first huge reason:

  • We can play well enough to not need to take 3 weeks in the studio just for the bass parts. Jazzers are used to playing live, and playing well live, so recording what we do is pretty cheap and easy.
  • No-one’s making it big. Well, OK, Jamie Cullum and Courtney Pine have probably made some sensible money somewhere along, but I don’t see many UK jazz players looking to them for inspiration. Most would prefer to make it on ‘their own terms’ rather than having to “cross over”, stylistically, into something more palatable to Radio 2… So because no-one’s made it huge, there isn’t the huge myth of success around it in the UK that there is in the pop world. (it does, however, foster the idea that you have to ‘do America’ for your music to be worth anything, but that’s another post…)
  • There’s a pretty close-knit scene, where the musicians know each other well, are already self-organising to a degree and are used to playing on each other’s records.

So, with that in mind, here’s my first suggestion for making the new music environment work for all of us:

  • I’d suggest a moratorium on charging for playing on recording dates, and instead start by doing “swaps”. Ideally, there should be a LETS scheme – Local Exchange Trading System – for jazz-monkeys, where we have an alternate way of measuring the trading that goes on.

At the moment, recordings are largely a loss-leader, and far fewer of them get made than should really be out there. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be some sort of contractual terms that define what happens if the record does really well (it can be worked out by way of publishing percentages, if that works for all involved), just so no-one’s getting ripped off.

There are various benefits to this:

  • Musicians start to feel like they are a part of ‘the band’.

I’ve heard so many stories from singers and band leaders about the nightmare of hiring musicians who just don’t give a shit. They turn up, play the gig, go home and grumble that it’s only £60. Did they try and bring any friends? Is the gig listed on their website? Did they email or call anyone to tell them about the gig? Of course not.

  • You can ‘pay’ the players involved, but pay them in CDs to sell.

Jazz is one market that still has a fair amount of CD-listening fans. They certainly aren’t ‘the future’ of where things are going, but at jazz gigs, the CD table can still be a great way to make the gig financially viable. If musicians were paid for recordings in copies of the CD to sell, it would populate the CD tables at jazz gigs with more than just the music of the headline player, but they’d still be making enough money from them. No-one’s going to sell a CD at a gig that they have to pay £6 for wholesale, if they can sell one that cost them £2 to print themselves. Without the CDs being effectively ‘free’, they aren’t going to get sold. So give them to the players. It also means that the musicians then have more incentive to start their own online shops, selling CDs off their websites.

Shuffling small amounts of money round the jazz economy by paying musicians for recordings is currently part of what’s stifling the creation of music. Payment in ‘swaps’ and in CDs to sell means that people can still benefit from having a bigger audience, but are now rewarded even more for using that bigger audience to tell people about the records they are on by other people. It makes the start-up cost of releasing a record much lower (if you’re pressing CDs at £2 each, 20 of those is £40, which translates into £200 for the person playing on a the gig if they sell each one for a tenner…) but money can still be made. The lower start up costs means we can be more creative in how we think about what we’re doing to reach our audience, without having 5 grand to recoup before we’re out of debt.

We really need to get more music out there, record more, experiment more, collaborate more and spend more time promoting eachother’s music.

In part III, I’ll look more at what venues can do to help this along.

For now, please feel free to write mini-reviews of any records by UK jazz artists that you particularly like in the comments:

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