Niches Brew: Musicians Creating a Way Forward

Posted by: Dave Douglas on July 7, 2009 @ 8:54 am
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Music Business News, Music Technology

This is part of the series Jazz in the Digital Age at NPR’s A Blog Supreme.

Niches Brew: Musicians Creating a Way Forward

More and more folks in the music industry are singing the blues these days.

A critic lamented the lack of paid outlets for his writing and sheepishly admitted taking a gig with a jazz festival. A club owner sobbed over attendance and how the music is just not what it used to be (though he was still ornery enough to get snobby with those who did show). A booking agent grumbled that jazz audiences aren’t the same anymore and that he’s dealing with sub-par venues because they’re the only game in town.

If you were only to read the papers it would be easy to think the entire musical culture was about to collapse. True, times are tough, and not just in the arts. The economy’s struggling. Magazines, newspapers, and books: a combination of circumstances is cutting into their primacy. The good things they brought to the culture will be missed.

But looking a little deeper, this is a time of great opportunity. Not to be Pollyanna-ish about it, but new outlets are sprouting everywhere. It’s just that they’re different than the old outlets. They are in development, and many people comfortable with the old system can be impatient and dismissive of this alien intrusion.

Just a few brief examples. Without doing any real research these jumped to mind (again, it would be great to see someone actually do the research):

–Bill Shoemaker’s Point of Departure began several years ago to break away from the standard magazine format with in-depth commentary and discussion of music, often with the artists themselves as voices.

–Howard Mandel’s recent reporting at Jazz Beyond Jazz details new efforts by George Wein to reinvent the Festival model in the wake of JVC’s closing. Larry Blumenfeld, whose blog is hosted at ArtsJournal like Mandel’s, reports on post-Katrina happenings in New Orleans with a thoroughness that would never fit into the space he’s given on paper. And he’s making it count.
–The Obama administration’s active engagement with culture, and jazz in particular, bodes well. The National Endowment for the Arts looks to be getting a sizeable stimulus, meaning additional support for all sorts of cultural activity.
Smalls, the Greenwich Village jazz club, recently mounted a live, streaming webcam, with live audio and video of the shows. With artist approval, the shows stream world-wide, expanding the audience for both the club and the bands, and are occasionally archived as well.

Artists and musicians have always had to invent new categories for what they do. Take the example of Thelonious Monk, who basically invented a new category of “piano player/composer” by synthesizing many of the sounds that inspired him. Nothing like him had ever been seen before, and by being a groundbreaking bandleader, composer, soloist and conceptualist at once, he created his own career. Before Monk, that job description simply didn’t exist. Like Monk, most musicians’ incomes come from diversified sources.

The rest of the industry will need to adopt some of that agility. Everyone will need to reinvent ways to survive on the work they do.

This might seem hard-hearted or callous. It’s not meant that way at all — it’s not even coming from a tough-love vibe. I mean this in the most positive, constructive spirit.

I mean quite sincerely to suggest that everyone, artists included, will need to create new contexts for their work. While it’s no fun to see people turned out of economic systems that have been working for them for decades, it won’t do any good to sit around and rue the glory days of the 1990s. This is the hand we’ve been dealt, and the entire structure around the music will have to adapt, just as artists always have.

It will take new categories to fit the good work that people do.


In that sense, maybe this change is no different than the ones that have come before. Musicians have always created new ways of presenting, creating and perceiving music — and by extension, music business. A musician like Miles Davis participated in five decades of reinvention. New recording formats several times transformed the documentation and distribution of music. People have always heard about and discovered new music in novel ways. Each generation finds a new way to get involved.

But I do feel that this era is somewhat different. Whatever the way forward is, it’s going to have a digital component. People will need to get used to that idea and what it means, because the toothpaste is never going back in the tube. The question is: how to tap the possibilities this new age has to offer?

Find new ways to do the work, whatever it is. If you want to do it, the outlet is there. Granted, it takes ingenuity and hard work. But if it’s a labor of love, as it is for most of us, work should be no obstacle.

In that respect I scare myself by agreeing with the work ethic to which certain FOX News commentators pay such lip service. No one said being in the arts should be easy. It’s the competitive atmosphere that has always made New York the music Mecca it is; scrappy individualism is the most American of characteristics. (But don’t worry, I probably don’t mean that the way Sean Hannity does.)

Yes, you say, that’s all fine and well. Blogs are fun. But how do we make some money? (First, change out of your pajamas …)

Aha. So now we’re asking the question that many agree the music industry should have started taking seriously in the late ’90s. But didn’t.

Interested in my own take on where the music industry is going? Visit A music company more than a record label, we’re recording several artists (other than me), releasing DVDs, CDs, MP3s, lossless FLAC files, sheet music as well as posters, artwork and more. Because of the fluidity of the web, our bundled packages of music are infinitely flexible. Our blog follows music events, artist thoughts, trivia, music industry ramblings and random links.

Our entire music catalog can be streamed at the site. We don’t see the damage in people being able to hear the music for free. We don’t see major effects of piracy or bootlegging. In our experience, if people like the music they are going to want to buy it in their preferred format, from the source if possible, and not at exorbitant rates, but fairly, and faithfully. We’d love to record and release more music, but we’re being patient, creating the system as we go along. To serve the music.

I’m not saying this just to shill for my own company. I’m merely pointing out that as voices all around the Web bemoan the loss of the old system and the lack of a replacement, I find myself in the same position as so many musicians I know: creating the new system as we go along, as a matter of musical survival.

I’m not purporting to have the answer. Each business model serves the music it frames differently. I’m just a musician making music.

But this has become an interesting part of making that music. And I do think the rest of musical culture will have to eventually come along.


A few questions for thought:

–As a listener, how satisfied are you with the current alternatives for finding music?

–Do you think that digital files will ultimately replace physical objects? If so, do you think there is a way out of this culture of free all-digital information?

–Do you agree that musicians are creating viable new systems?

–Do you have your own proposal, perhaps already in existence, for new music strategies?

–How can the old system adapt, if at all, to the new realities and continue to make great music available?


  1. […] 1 votes vote Niches Brew: Musicians Creating a Way Forward This is part of the series Jazz in the Digital Age at NPR’s A Blog Supreme. Niches Brew: […]

    Pingback by Niches Brew: Musicians Creating a Way Forward — July 7, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  2. one exciting aspect of the digital age of music that jazz musicians seem hesitant to explore is how much it eliminates the importance of geography to a musician’s success. it has always seemed that a jazz player has needed to go to new york or chicago to succeed and create a name for him/herself…but if we look to our indie-rock brothers for some inspiration, we see successful bands from all over the map, not to mention the fact that different towns have different sounds.

    it would be awesome to see a young group of players from oregon, oklahoma, or iowa show some ingenuity, book a tour across the nation, and build their audience from the ground up, using the awesome networking strength of the internet to build their audience. i think this is more of a possibility than ever–all we need is an ambitious group of musicians to make it happen.

    Comment by dave — July 7, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  3. As a lister, I feel absolutely satisfied with the way artists have adapted to these times. After the filesharing revolution I’ve soaked myself with music from illegal sources, but on a long-term scale that was very dissatisfying – after all as a filesharer you know you’re stealing and you know, if you like the artists you hear, you have the moral duty to help them not only pay the recording studio, but also help them pay their food and rent. So, these thoughts brought me back to legal offers, and there’s so much cherishable stuff here. There’s Green Leaf, there’s Artistshare, there’s Screwgun Records – all kind of enhancing their album download offers with some extra bonus stuff, which has never been avaialble in a record shop. The David Binney model is also interesting, recording live shows and making people pay for downloading them. Thus even if you’re east of the Atlantic Ocean, you can visit New York’s 55 Bar once in a while. And my absolute favorite at the moment:, a weblabel with pristine live recordings, many of them not only available as mp3 and flac, but also HD video – not to mention that the music – especially the neo-cool jazz branch there – is wonderful.
    You all are on the right way.

    Comment by Kai Weber — July 7, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

  4. You’re right on, Dave. I think we’re going to be seeing quite a bit of that, and soon.

    Kai – thanks for commenting. Dave Binney started doing this internet stuff a long time ago – before anybody, including ArtistShare, got underway. He deserves a lot of credit in developing a viable system. Likewise, Greg Osby has been doing a lot on line for years.

    It’s also important to recognize collective artist organizations like AACM, BAG, Jazz Composers’ Guild, as well as early artist-run labels like Debut. These were really the forerunners of artists developing their own labels now.

    Greenleaf Music started in 2004. By that time Tzadik had already been around for over a decade. Screwgun was also going strong. To see those systems in place was a real encouragement.

    Comment by Dave Douglas — July 8, 2009 @ 8:20 am

  5. Oh, I didn’t know about the offers of Greg Osby, I’ve got to check that! Thanks for the hint!

    Well, another thing that concerns me, which is a bit of a spicy matter, I know, as it is concerning internal business data. Nevertheless, the question is there: How much of the money I spend is getting through to the artists?

    I work in book business and therefore know how few money is reaching the writers in the end: When speaking about printed books in a traditional distribution way (retail via bookshops/mailorder), about 5 to 12 % of the end consumer’s price is what the authors get. E-Book business is not so developped yet, at least not in continental Europe, so the authors get quite nothing out of e-book sales yet.

    In the case of the artist-owned weblabels, I have a point of reference, because Plushmusic openly communicates, that 50% of their income is going directly to the artists, the other 50% is for the technical side of recording technology and website maintenance.
    The reason why I’m concerned with this question is: I’m also a subscriber to the distributor emusic. I am quite sure that the artists get very few out of downloads via these distributors. What I wonder is, if they get anything at all. I guess the cashflow is first going from emusic (itunes, etc.) to the original, “traditional” labels, and there wouldn’t be too much left to pass on to the artists after that. So, sometimes I am afraid, that getting music from emusic is not much better for the artists than getting music through illegal file-sharing channels. But what if artists licence their music directly to sites like itunes or, without having a traditional label in between? Sure, I could imagine the content managers of itunes or emusic would prefer to buy the distribution rights of a bigger bunch of artists and not negotiate and make a contract with every individual artist. But as you asked about new music marketing strategies in your post above: wouldn’t it be possible for artists to build cooperatives for the sole purpose of selling distribution rights to such download sites? Because from the customer’s point of view, such download service sites are actually practical. I like to follow, let’s say, 10 artists directly via their website/blog, but I’m interested in the music of, say, 100 artists. So, a place where I can get the music I’m interested in out of one hand is not bad for the end-consumer.

    Comment by Kai Weber — July 8, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  6. Kai, you’re absolutely right in thinking that the way to most support the artist is by purchasing it directly from them whether that is at their website, or merch table at a show.

    On NPR yesterday, I heard a story about a new program out east that offers weekly or monthly fish deliveries following the lead of a lot of local farmers delivering their wares in the same way. The organization buy direct from the boats and delivers straight to the customers doorstep. This effectively cuts out the middle man, or men. The organization can give the fisherman or farmer more money per product while selling to the buyer for, usually, the same or less. Buying direct from an artist effectively does the same thing.

    iTunes is a great distributor, though. eMusic, too, though they do pay less per song than the former. All part of the new global business model. Expect to see more of these distributors pop up. Already a few notables to mention — HDTracks, IndieJazz, etc.

    Not at all to diminish what record stores are still doing to promote good music. And supporting them, to me anyway, is important as well. Perhaps I’m in the niche of people who are still going around on weekends scouring the racks for deals on LPs. But the spots I visit are packed most of the time. It’s more a used market, though.

    Comment by Jim Tuerk — July 9, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  7. Just a quick follow up to the first post by Dave…I am a pianist and composer in Portland, OR and am trying to get my stuff outside of this area, but for a good example of a band from this area that’s already booked 6 or 7 West Coast tours by themselves and have had a good deal of success recently building an audience from the ground up in California, check out – I think they provide a good example of a the approach you suggest for a non-NYC based band…

    Comment by Andrew Oliver — July 11, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  8. sweet! thanks, andrew! this is great stuff and it makes me smile to know that they did it without going to NYC (no insult to folks from the city).
    i gotta get those guys to come out to salt lake and play with my group.

    Comment by dave — July 12, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  9. Hey Kai,

    Currently on the road — getting on line is not always the easiest… But the music is a blast !

    Basically, like Jim said, your best bet is to purchase directly from the artist or the artist’s label. There is not a huge consortium or cooperative of independent labels at this time (that I know of). It is a good idea, though. But there is so much music in so many varieties — it’s hard to imagine how it all could be contained by one outlet. You see what I mean?

    itunes or amazon (which maybe carry the biggest selection) are like traditional stores… they pay the distributor a percentage of the sale price… then the distributor pays the label like any other record they sell in a brick and mortar store… the label pays the artist… blah blah blah.

    Emusic (and I believe all subscription services) differ in that while they pay the distributor a fee for the master side, they pay publishers of the music directly (or do so if registered properly). So if an artist owns the songwriting, he/she actually gets the money sooner from an emusic model. But of course, that also means the artist / songwriter has to register every tune that is sold direct and correctly… otherwise they don’t get paid.

    I like the model of book selling – that was what inspired our Paperback Series. It’s interesting that digital readers like Kindle are now forcing book publishers to have the same argument about physical publishing. It will be interesting to see if digital readers catch on. I have no idea one way or the other. But I do know that people are now able to read excerpts of almost anything on line, and I can only think this encourages reading.

    As far as being able to follow all your favorite artists on one place, it seems to me, ambivalent as I am to say it, that the free streaming services like Pandora are way ahead of the paid models on that one.

    Comment by Dave Douglas — July 14, 2009 @ 6:30 am

  10. Absolutely. Pandora is great. A better radio than most on the airwaves at the moment. I’ve bought dozens of records from the playlists that they generate for me — my My Bloody Valentine channel, my Paul Bley channel, my AAC channel. Great way to get exposed to new music next to music you know you love.

    Comment by Jim Tuerk — July 14, 2009 @ 7:51 am

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