Jazz Philanthropy & the Gig, cont’d.

Last week, in response to several pieces of news about large-scale, institution-centered jazz philanthropy, I wrote a post thinking about the possibility that jazz might be better served in the long run by steering money toward smaller venues and less established “stars” (Jazz stars! LOL.) Since then, people far and wide have weighed in on the issue, which is good, and exactly what I was hoping would happen.

One response was from Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR’s A Blog Supreme, who mentioned one big reason why Big Jazz is ahead in the funding game right now:

Big, central institutions, by their nature, have massive potential for outreach. They can spend money on making money, whether by hiring publicity people, financial officers or big-name performers. … In contrast, Mom and Pop’s Bar sometimes doesn’t even have the wherewithal to put up a serviceable Web site with updated show listings. If you were a potential investor, sponsor or major giver, wouldn’t you want to donate to a place with accountability, a proven track record and highly visible accomplishments?

No argument here (just yesterday I came across a website for a venue which didn’t include the address). The small-club, unfamiliar-name approach has a lot less high-visibility appeal than Sonny Rollins at the Citibank Jazz Palace or whatever. (More about this in a moment.)

Over on Facebook, several musicians weighed in–one idea which got me thinking came from vocaphonist Lorin Benedict:

Actually, I think this idea of distributing $ to a large number of smaller gigs COULD work. And the model already exists: The Stone, [John] Zorn’s NYC venue which is curated by a different musician every month. Zorn and his cohorts choose the curators, ofΒ course, so you could argue that they are stacking the deck to favor the music of their friends… fine. But with a big donor, you could make, say, 10 different Stones in NYC alone. One run by Wynton, one run by Connie Crothers, one run by Randy Brecker, one run by Afrika Bambataa… the point would be to get a host of EXTREMELY DIFFERENT and nearly unrelated people to decide who curates their own little venue each month. …Β  See, the thing that’s great about The Stone is that Zorn has it set up (through donations and the like) so that the musicians always walk away with ALL the $ from each gig. Which could be a nice bunch of change if they pack the place, or could be NADA, like when Bleeding Vector [Lorin’s band] played thereΒ  πŸ™‚Β  Either way, Zorn and co. are cool with it, because they weren’t expecting to make any money anyway. Now, this is a little different than your model of guaranteed $200 gigs, but it does address the problem of venues: The Stone is a hole-in-the-wall … but that’s good enough, really. The bands could then choose to charge what they want each night, and if they pack the place, fine, if not, fine. … In all of the above, I am assuming that the real problem is venues rather than simply $ for gigs. One could argue that giving $ directly to musicians is better, but I like the above because it has a “natural selection” quality-control built in to it. And the heads of the places, if chosen well, could pick curators who would effectively cover the entire scene … keeping in mind that each one would designate a different curator each month. Each place would be some little dive that would be completely paid for, so you’d never have to worry about packing the place. But if the musicians did enough legwork, they could make real money by charging a goodly amount and packing it.

Lorin and I talked about this some more last night at Kaleidoscope, a casual performance space which, interestingly enough, would be perfectly suited to the sort of thing described above. I think he’s really on to something, although it’s a different approach than the paid gig idea, which bassist Noah Schenker brought up in his comment:

Lorin, you’re talking about some kinds of funded concert spaces, which would be cool. Also seriously lacking is the restaurant, bar, lounge type venues where musicians can really practice, work on standards, maybe have a meal and bring home a meaningful paycheck–and how about a decent piano while we’re at it. These places now expect musicians to play for tips. Not really sure what can be done, but the “free” market ain’t doin’ it.

More from bassist Kurt Kotheimer:

I think both those ideas are great (smaller venues/musicians as curators) and the Stone is a perfect example of this kind of thing in action. There is one other aspect to this that I was thinking about. Think of the small venues that already exist… Q: What is the problem with these venues? A: They are empty. … Imagine what a small fraction the promotional money and ‘Seal of Approval’ of a large organization like SFJAZZ would do to bring people out to 21 Grand, Blue6, the Rev, etc. Even without supporting new venues and directly paying musicians they could at the very least support what is already happening in community. … From the little bit I have played there, this seems to be how it works in Europe. I have played at total dives for like 5 people there but the flyer for the gig has all these sponsors on it. Some of them local businesses, some of them large corporate sponsors. And because of this you can play a small gig and still have travel expenses covered and make a modest amount of money. Crazy, huh?

So, a few thoughts on this–I think the Stone model is a good one, as a way of avoiding stylistic cliques (although who chooses the choosers?), but I do think the idea of giving the bands a minimum (say, the aforementioned $200) could encourage the participation of people (like Noah, above) who might otherwise have to take a less artistically rewarding gig because it pays. Since we’re still talking hypothetically, let’s keep the minimum for now.Β  (And you could get an entire year of $200 gigs every night for $73,000, which is less than one two-hundredth the amount SFJAZZ just raised.)

Next post, I’ll get into the nuts & bolts of how I might do it if I ran the universe. Stay tuned, and please feel free to join in the conversation in the comments (even if you want to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about).

Is it just me, or is this seeming less and less crazy?

14 thoughts on “Jazz Philanthropy & the Gig, cont’d.”

  1. You can talk about “curators,” or larger institutions sanctioning the work of smaller ones, but in the end, you have to deal with the fact that you want to use someone’s real estate; someone who has a monthly nut to make. So, applaud the altruism of anyone who cares enough to make their space cheap to rent, like the Outpost 186 in Camb., (which also, btw, has a system of, essentially, “curators”) and be happy to walk out with lunch money in your pocket.

    If you want more that and you can’t get the money from selling booze or being able to charge more than $10 to get in the door, then you’re talking about trying to tap into a granting structure-redistributing the money of people who have extra and convincing them to give it to you. No disrespect intended, but nothing anyone has said here adds anything new to that process. Saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” is essentially magical thinking, as is talking about what happens in Europe.

  2. No more magical than it would be to expect that SFJAZZ could pull down $20 million from a single donor, I’d say.

  3. Working in a musical non-profit myself, I can tell you how much careful tending that garden needs before it yields fruit. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it sure is a helluva lot more likely if it involves highly credible, organized, knowledgeable and diplomatic people. Generally, musicians (I’m one myself) score high on the creative/imaginative end; somewhat lower in the other areas. Different skill set.

  4. Translation: who are you to ask for anything? Well, I didn’t say I was the one who’d do it. We’re brainstorming here. Thanks for your cold water, though.

  5. That’s not what I said. At least, not what I intended to say: Don’t think you’re inventing a new wheel when you’re just re-naming the old wheel.

  6. Fine, you think we’re wasting our time, your position has been noted, if it’s that worthless than you needn’t bother
    “contributing” further to the discussion.

  7. Hi Mr Carey,

    This is funny, the 200 buck gig meme boomerangs back after seven months. I started it last year in a post about the disgusting opulence of JALC, others like the illustrious Mr. Kelsey ran with it, Patrick at NPR noted it, feathers were ruffled, hands were wrung and then it slept til you woke it up again.

    I deleted the original opinion stinker as I periodically toss old posts that have the shelf life of a Big Mac but I still have the E mail Jason Crane sent me with a pdf file of JALC’s IRS filing back on Sept 29th of last year.

    And consequent conversations with touring musicians suggest 300 bucks a person would probably be better but that’s a minor detail.

    SF seems like an odd place to blow 20 million on a Jazz Taj Mahal as it never had much of an African American community foot print and Oakland is more of a Blues city.

    Frisco could probably just apply the 20 mill to housing vouchers for people stuck in New York and have a better impact.

    A bigger problem is just all the rule changes for grants since the 1980s that seem to reflect a loathing for giving money directly to artists in favor of tossing it at bloated art bureaucracies.

    It’s a GOP thing. It’s really about the US as a nation of stingy dinks who are still uneasy about African America despite whatever fatuous lip service is applied to ‘our unique musical heritage form’ blah blah etc.

    It is a nation where more than 60 million yahoos are convinced Sarah Palin is fit for public office, think the planet is as old as the Bible says it is, can’t find Canada on a map and what have you, the ongoing coronation of moron nation….Moronica.

    A more intelligent dispersal of funds directly to artists and the fabric of small venues that offer them a platform would essentially be an application of principles of sustainability to the ‘ahts’ as us ‘r’-less Massholes call them.

    But alas, Moronica does have a child’s love for big stupid spectacles, bloated real estate deals, grandiosity and gigantism.

    And SF is so pallid, it may as well be Fargo, ND as far as a robust sustainable African American population is concerned. The bloat project is a dumb idea for a dumb place that is rather pretty.

    My colleague, Steve, is just trying to share his 40 or so years of observation, dashed hopes and searches for a working way, no harm, no foul.

    I calculated a budget of around 18 thousand a year would give a small space one event a month for a quintet sized ensemble at 300 bucks per person.

    The ways of finding that are numerous and might best be centered in identifying 36 or so small biz sponsors willing to contribute 500 bucks a pop but that would want some pavement pounding and more effort than is normally applied.

  8. Hi Chris, thanks for your thoughts. I should say I never thought I was being particularly original in this suggestion, or that I was “reinventing the wheel” as Provizer said–just something that occurred to me when confronted with the numbers in those stories last week. In fact, the idea is based around something that seems so simple (“take x dollars pegged for ‘jazz’ and split it so a proportion goes to z instead of y”) and yet obviously is so bound up in the politics and culture of philanthropy as to be hugely more complicated than that simple equation.

    So I guess my intention with this whole line of discussion was to try and get people talking about this in a non-accusatory (such as bashing SFJAZZ or J@LC) and non-pessimistic (like your colleague’s points) way, just to get a sense of how impossible, or non-impossible, it might actually be.

  9. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for pointing me towards this discussion, and sorry for being late to the party. I’ve been thinking about some of these same issues for several years, ever since my band was one of the last to play at Tonic in NYC. Your posts deserve a longer response than I can give right now, but you can expect to see something on Createquity in the near future. Best,

  10. Thanks Ian, it’s good to get people who have more real-world experience of these issues in the discussion, since I’m just asking what-ifs at this point. Hope to hear more of your thoughts.

  11. Ian, I like the Stone model. I definitely agree with you that so many venues have come and gone over the years. As a supporter of live jazz, it is important to have small venues locally where you can hear jazz. I know that SFJAZZ did there Hotplate Series at Amnesia in the Mission District and they definitely packed the house for $5 per person. I am not sure if they will continue this model now that the SFJAZZ Center has opened. I have really enjoyed Birdland Jazz in Berkeley. I have seen a lot of great bands there for $10. They have a great model but have caught heck from the neighborhood due to noise and their late hours. I really hope they find a way to continue because they are definitely unique and organic.

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