Jazz, in the key of Twitter

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Musicians’ union panel targets marketing


  • From left, Andre Kimo Stone Guess, Camille Thurman, Christian McBride and moderator Todd Weeks talk about marketing jazz in a changing, and already challenging, music industry. Photo: James K. Galloway


Talent will get you so far as a jazz musician. But fluency with social media is increasingly important in finding and developing an audience.

That was one of the takeaways of a panel discussion last month hosted by a local musicians union that took up the changing approaches to success in an evolving jazz music industry.

Two jazz legends led the talk, which was attended by about 40 people at the Local 802 Club Room on West 48th Street. Camille Thurman, an accomplished, in-demand singer and saxophonist, and Christian McBride, one of the best known jazz bassists in the industry — and a five-time Grammy winner — sat at the front of the room with Andre Kimo Stone Guess, McBride’s manager.

The 10th installment of Jazz Mentors, moderated by Todd Weeks, principal business representative of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, American Federation of Musicians Local 802, touched on issues such as sustainability, social media presence and quality representation.

“This is a marathon,” Guess said at the June 29 panel. “It’s about finding a lifestyle that being a musician can sustain, and then doing what it is that’s going to make you happy within it.”

Guess said musicians can support themselves in that manner, but in order to take one’s career to the next level, a musician must discover and be aware of their own unique strategic advantages and play to those strengths.

“This is true of anything in life,” Guess said. “What is it you can do that’s different than most people can do?”

Thurman, however, initially took a different approach, and cited her own experience coming up as a saxophonist. She said women face greater scrutiny and must therefore go to greater lengths to prove themselves. She said she wanted to be respected first for her playing, and concealed her ability to sing for a long time, until a mentor finally heard her and asked why she would sit on such a gift.

“Because I want to be able to be respected for playing,” Thurman said. “She was like ‘don’t you realize you’re sitting on a freaking land mine? The fact that you can both, and it’s not that you just sing. You sing as a horn player, and that’s unique and rare.’”

Even though now Thurman is well-known as a saxophonist and singer, she made her way using traits she and the other speakers agreed is appropriate for jazz: being a capable musician, being known by fellow musicians as a reliable sideman, and being willing to play other people’s music without necessarily being the star of the show.

But the music business is changing so rapidly under the pressure of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, in addition to streaming services like Spotify and Soundcloud, that a musician’s approach inevitably forks out to appease the changing landscape, if their careers were not already born out of it.

One must focus on their craft but also — as Weeks pointed out and Guess confirmed — balance time spent on their musicianship with the added work of cultivating of an online audience, to grow their brand not only through album releases, but by amassing followings in places that did not matter 10 years ago, and on sites that might not have existed 10 years ago.

Guess said it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each social platform. And use them to create a narrative consistent with the product — in this case, the music — being put out.

“For people who don’t know you — if they come, and they hear your song — and during, they like it, well when they come to find out who you are on whatever your social platform is, the message they get when they get there needs to be consistent with the feeling they got when they heard it.”

Guess added that it is better not to fixate on “Likes” which he compared to the euphoric rush of crack-cocaine, but to focus instead on creating content people will like.

Many musicians do not have the luxury of dismissing the necessity of micromanaging their social media presence. Even McBride, one of the world’s most prolific jazz performers, said he avoids politics online, choosing instead to limit his presence to information, positivity and humor.

Negative comments on Facebook are predictable, McBride said, but in the music business so are predatory “managers” and agents.

“As much as jazz is struggling,” McBride said, “there sure are a lot of managers.”

People laughed at McBride’s dry delivery.

“I heard about a manager who charged for a meeting,” McBride said. “’If you want to meet with me, I charge $125 an hour.’ That’s what we’re dealing with out here!”

Guess concluded by saying he would never accept payment exceeding that of his clients’ and it would be inappropriate for him to get paid for a gig, if a client does not.

Weeks said another talk is being planned for September. More information will be posted to the union website, local802afm.org, as the date draws near.

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