Marty Khan: Outward Visionary
Operating in accordance with a business aesthetic that focused on sustainable growth driven by collective action and artistic integrity, Khan and his wife, Helene Cann, located and nurtured an otherwise unconsidered range of musical opportunities for artists. In the process, they helped to establish a vast range of small nonprofit arts organizations that provided artists with unprecedented levels of empowerment and possibility.
Now, more than 35 years after founding Outward Visions, Khan is re-emerging as a vital name in the current music business debate. In 2004, he condensed his multi- faceted experience into the book Straight Ahead: A Comprehensive Guide to the Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity), which remains the only dedicated jazz business textbook on the market. Returning to the field of management after a 15-year hiatus, Khan has teamed up with the Arizona-based vocalist and composer Rahe, a 23-year-old prodigy whom he met through the University of Arizona's Camerata Program, for which Khan has been a popular guest lecturer for six years.
This past year, Outward Visions released Rahe's debut recording, Out of the Box, a genre-defying album that showcases a remarkably mature and self- assured artist who has mastered the balance of musical accessibility and risk taking. While recent years have seen a disturbing increase in platitudinous texts on the ability of artists to undertake do-it-yourself recordings or engage in crowd-sourced project models, Khan's efforts in releasing Out of the Box demonstrate a practical and actionable path forward for young artists who have yet to develop fan bases or diverse funding sources. With luck, his new method will provide a benchmark and model for developing talent for years to come.
All About Jazz: Many of your projects emphasize long-term and sustainable career building, and often take place in spaces that traditional wisdom had written off. What drew you to this route?
Marty Khan: Coming of age in the 1960s, and being fortunate enough to absorb the last three years that John Coltranewas on the planet and even getting to see him, the concept was always to push myself as far as possible. So, rather than do something obvious, you wanted to break new ground. Innovation, creativity, and making new things happen were the important things. When I gave up playing music, I decided I had to keep that model going.
So the idea from the start was to say, "Let's take Americawhich is virgin territory for some important and innovative artists who had no basis and no traction here, and let's try to create a scene that never existed before. And let's make it viable, functional, and thriving." The plan was to do this by taking on artists that people said were un- bookable, who had no commercial potential, and then prove those people wrong. That's the ornery nature I have, as a Brooklyn Sicilian-Italian, to do something that people say can't be done!
AAJ: Let's take one of your projectsthe Coltrane Projectas an example. For this, you pulled together a number of organizations around Philadelphia and New York and organized them as a type of confederation functioning in a collective environment.
You've written extensively about the importance of collective action in music and described it as a model that was gaining traction during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. You've also argued that the 1980s saw a "trickle-down" business aesthetic enter the arts world and supplant collective action. Can you speak more to this point?
MK: I think that collective action is the only way in which you can deal with creative enterprises and with creative product. You know, the model that I always envision is the Coltrane Quartet. It is the ideal example of collective action. You have a leader with a visionand in the case of the Coltrane Quartet, perhaps a leader with the greatest vision any of us have ever seenand the only way that you can fulfill that vision is to have all of the people brought in to participate at the absolute fullest extent of their powers. They must contribute as much as they possibly can to the situation in service of the overall vision and the overall organism. And from this you come up with the magical substance that is created from that kind of collective action.
You will also see another approach to it in groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, where there isn't a single visionary, but instead five separate visionaries, and each controls a specific piece of music that they bring to the table. Ultimately, it gets dispersed among the five entities, and creates a separate entity, which is the group dynamic.
These two methodologies are different, and the idea of five visionaries coming together may seem a little too utopian. Somebody has to be captain of the ship. As a friend of mine says, "People say I'm not a good team player. I'm definitely a team player, as long as I'm the captain!" Well, I have a similar kind of attitude to that: I have a vision, I like to get it out there, and I like to develop it. However, I like to do so hand in hand with the people who are working with me, and let them bring something important to the vision so that they feel they own it. That way, they will commit to it more, and they feel they will gain more from it. It also diminishes my responsibility for them, so I'm not carrying them as a weight. We have exponential force as opposed to geometric force. And that, to me, is a methodology that makes sense.
In the case of the Coltrane Project, it did succeed and it didn't succeed. What's that clichea chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We had 19 organizations involved with the project. Seven of them were based in Philadelphia, and 12 of them came from New York. Of the seven in Philadelphia, three were extremely proactive, one was kind of proactive, two were OK, and one was totally non-active. As a result of that, the project had to pull along the dead weight. And the problem with collective action is that the exact opposite of exponential force can happen if one person pulls back on it. It's like in multiplication: you can have ten positives and one negative, and the negative will win out. So in that case, what should have been an ongoing initiative that could have lived for 25 years only lived for as long as we could push it, which was about three years.
However, the results of it have continued among individuals who were a part of the project, people who were served by the project, and individuals who viewed the project. I've heard from people in politics, music education, and many other committed walks of life who credited experiencing some aspect of the Project as a key inspiration in their work. And we left behind a number of Coltrane-oriented murals, some in schools where hundreds of new students every year are exposed to his spirit.
So you look at those sorts of things and say, "That's where the life of a project of collective action occurs!" You don't even know where it's going to go, and you hope the collective energy carries it forward.
AAJ: Let's step away from the concept of collective action for a minute. The turn of the century marked a profound change in how you have conducted your business. From 1976 until 1999, your work was largely in behind-the-scenes roles. However, in 1999, you stepped to the forefront, publishing a number of forceful invectives for Bird Lives, and then proceeded to increase your lecturing, publish your first book, and commence work on your second publication. This is a much more active and visible role than you've previously taken. What changed?
MK: It's another cliche: necessity is the mother of invention. By 1999, it became apparent to me that all the mechanisms I had created in the past 20 years were not desirable in the new marketplace, and a different energy had taken over. The concept of trickle-down economics that was launched in the 1980s had been absorbed into the performing arts. The artist, who was supposed to be out front, was now behind both the facilities and the knuckleheads who ran the facilities. All of a sudden, the presenters became stars, and you would go to an event like the IAJE or APAP conference and see these clowns strutting around like they were important.
But here's the reality. Look at the jazz world prior to 1950, and in 30 seconds name as many people as you can who were non-musicians yet who had a dramatic and profound effect on the world of jazz. If you can name three or four, I'd be stunned. You've got Norman Granz, John Hammond, Alfred Lion, but where do you go from there? OK, now take that same period of time and name as many musicians who had a profound effect on jazz ... it goes on and on, right?
Those of us who are behind the scenes belong behind the scenes. We're not supposed to be seen because we're minor players. We manipulate, we operate, and we do what we need to do, but without the musicians, we're nothing, and there's no point in deluding ourselves about it.
Now we see, by having administrators take over, the music and the business of music have suffered dramatically. All of a sudden, we have people who've been picked and chosen as the leaders of the music, whereas this never happened beforethe leaders all evolved organically behind their undeniable attributes. The people who spoke for the music were the people who made it: they were people like Miles and Mingus and Coltrane and Monk and George Russell and Betty Carter and, and, and. These are the sorts of people whose opinions matter, not someone who pulled an artist out of a band and said, "This is the guy who knows everything right now." And that guy's opinions don't really matter, either.
So I had a choice: do I join this, or do I fight it? And whichever case, I was going to have to step out front to do that. So I went on a kind of kamikaze mission, which was one of the pieces I wrote for Bird Lives. Somebody had to call attention to this shit, so here it is!
What I'd hear back was, "Wow, this is the stuff all the musicians were saying themselves backstage where nobody could hear it." And damn straight it was, because that's where I learned it! But I also knew it because I was in the trenches.
So I became a lightning rod. I had already been rejected by the industry. In fact, I was told that if I had been called to the table for meetings about the Lila Wallace grant, which wasted nearly $20 million, or the multimillion dollars wasted in Doris Duke, the money would have been distributed differently. Damn straight, it would have! The money would have been planted to go from the bottom up, instead of the top to theoretically trickle down. So with my already being characterized in that manner, I decided to drive the point home even further. So that's when I started writing these pieces.
And I'll admit, a lot of the pieces were therapeutic. Getting off my chest what I knew to be truth was important. I read those now, and I'm almost slightly embarrassednot over what I said, as I stand by thatbut over being quite so vehement and opening myself so much to show my passion at that moment. At that point, my hope was that I could call attention to something by screaming it out from the desert, but it was pretty futile. It didn't change anything, and as far as the business, the New York City scene is essentially akin to the 1970s loft scene zone that was at play when we first stepped in and tried to change everything.
And we did change it temporarily, but it didn't hold. The thing I find most disturbing is that people tended to respond more positively to the screaming articles as opposed to the constructive articles that tried to discuss a way forward. I found it very frustrating, and one of the reasons I stopped writing those articles is because I didn't want someone getting their cherries off on my personal passion. So that's when I turned to write Straight Ahead.
AAJ: It appears that your efforts with Straight Ahead and the renewed step forward to push collective action got a ball rolling in Tucson with your current work and your increased push into education. Do you feel this is the best path towards reforming the current system?
MK: I do, despite the fact that things didn't progress as I had hoped herebut more on that in a bit.
Within the book, a lot of people are going to be looking at the more explosive text, but Part IV, which comprises more than one third of the book, is about constructive activity. It covers musicians' working together, utilizing the 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, economic development, locking down deals, et cetera. The section emphasizes the point that you can't work by yourself, and even the earlier sections of the book talk about the team and the importance of team activity.
So, the methodology: I had written the book to benefit the world of jazz education. Look, no matter how hard it is to play this music, it's even harder to make a living at it. So I decided to write a book that would be an appropriate and relevant text to be used in application of these concepts.
It didn't work out as I'd intended, because the now-defunct IAJE [International Association of Jazz Educators] and the jazz education world are handicapped by the same problems as Jazz at Lincoln Center and the world of foundations. What they really want is to be able to say to their students, "Here's what you need: three parts paprika, three parts cinnamon in a cup of tea. Stir it up, drink it down, and you'll be a success." Instead, my book said, "OK, now that you've worked hard on your music, you'll need to work ten times harder on your career." And that just isn't good for the jazz education business.
A lot of schools do have the book, but only a few use it as a text, and its methodology of action is not being applied. You have an education business that's launching 6,000 new musicians onto a scene where there's steady work for maybe 60 of them, and that's absurd. Of course, the IAJE collapsed under its own weight, and it was replaced by another well-intentioned organization that hopefully won't be structured the same way. The structure of most educational organizations is inherently wrong. I feel that education is key to fixing these problems, as it always has been. If institutions were offering business education, many of those musicians who otherwise would be failing as musicians would be in a position to provide business services to those who stay with the music, and then you might have 3,000 of those 6,000 being employed as artists or professionals serving the artists.
Here in Tucson, Professor Kelland Thomas, who headed the University of Arizona's Camerata Program during the years I've been involved, saw the value in what I taught and in my writing, and in January 2010 invited me to participate in more depth than just as a lecturer. When he told me about what he had in mind, I said, "It sounds like you want a collective." The class comprised about 40 students, nearly half of them interested in the business side of things, and the rest being aspiring musicians, some of whom are beginning to recognize that they may not be able to be successful musicians and will have to apply themselves to the business side.
So I said, "OK, let's find projects by which all of these people can work together to accomplish certain goals. Let's form some ensembles and related projects, and have the other people manage and develop this as an actual business and performance element." They were able to do this in a manner in which they had the freedom to create what they wanted, but had the discipline and support of professionals to shape their work into something. As a result of our efforts, the program began to launch the careers of certain musicians and professionals after the first year.
Unfortunately, with the budget crisis deeply affecting education hereand everywhere for that matterand with Dr. Thomas' decision to focus on other things that took him away from Camerata, whether or not these programs continue is up in the air, along with whether or not I will be able to remain involved with it. But the program is there for use if the new director so decides.
In any case, this is how I met Rahe, who was an outstanding student and artist, as well as a person of clear focus and vision. The connection we made with her reminded me of the connections I made with some of my favorite artist-clients back in the early days. I said, "This is somebody who has a different outlook on things," and so we created a new model for the university to do business on behalf of its students. Essentially, her project, the CD Out of the Box (Outward Visions Music, 2011), became a model for universities to do business with their students.
AAJ: Let's piece this apart. Can you talk at further length about the application of your principles from Straight Ahead to the conceptualization, recording, production, and distribution of Rahe's album? A number of the business steps you took were quite novel.
MK: The cornerstone of my approach has always been the idea that the business needs to be the same as the art. In jazz, you had to use improvisational methodologies. So you look at a situation and think, "How am I going to make this work?" So you try something and maybe say, "Whoa! That didn't work out," or you think, "Uh oh, that was a chord change I hadn't counted on; the pianist hit the wrong note!" You ride this roller coaster of business because that's what the music requires.
So in this situation, we are looking at working with an artist like Rahe who is as innovatively creative as all the other artists I've worked with. However, she's also working within a popular music zone because the traditional role of the singer- songwriter has an enormous accessibility. It's a compelling and direct connection, with the words coming from the singer-songwriter's heart and soul. So it's a different musical approach than pure improvisation, but when you're creative like Rahe is, and you're inspired by people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, flamenco music, world music, and so forth, you don't want to put it in a box. You want it to breathe and grow in an organic fashion.
So we had to create something in that manner, and that's the approach that we took to developing the music for this album. The improvisational nature was that we needed studio time and we needed musicians. So I made a proposal to Kelland to put the class theory into real-world action, "OK, this artist came from the Camerata experiment, and here is your experiment in motion. So let me give you this business model in exchange for you providing me with access to certain resources, and we'll come up with something that will work for everybody."
The school systems in America, particularly the state colleges, need new mechanisms because they are in financial trouble as states are cutting back. My idea is that if you can convince a school to invest in its talent, and help students to launch their careers by using the resources already at the school, the school can tag a piece of that action. This creates a situation where instead of just giving students diplomas, you give them careers, and then the students make out better while the university builds an income stream. It's a symbiotic relationship.
So that was the concept we launched here, tied in with the Camerata Program, and I hope this becomes a model for state universities throughout the country. Like we always have, we're trying to change the environment we're working in, and the educational environment needs to be changed, so we're putting this model on the table.
AAJ: It looks like the business setup for all participants on this recording has allowed everyone to be invested in the outcome.
MK: Yes, and in more ways than might be readily apparent! Revenue sharing, to me, has always made a great deal of sense. In the late 1980s, I developed a program that I put in front of the National Endowment for the Artsand another failed attempt to do something for jazz, the National Jazz Service Organization- -that was a distribution methodology in which jazz product, which had been viewed as a loss leader for record companies, could be split off and sent out directly to its niche marketplace. So let's forget the idea of attempting to put product into places designed to reach 100 percent of the market, and focus instead on solely reaching the three percent of jazz. Central to the concept was the idea that the artists would own the product, and instead of going through labels and distributors, it would be a collective and collaborative effort by professionals working with artists.
Utopian, I know, but it's the model that now exists among individuals who produce their own records, sell them from the bandstands, make deals with Downtown Music Gallery and other small stores, and realize that it doesn't pay to put your product in Borders or other stores where you have to chase down your money even if they actually sell the product. It's simple arithmetic.
So with Rahe, the question was how we could get the product out there if we're paying sidemen and a studio. And the idea was that you make the deal with everyone to function in revenue sharing. We said to the studio, "Look, you're going to be dark at a certain time, so while you're dark I could come in with this group. Rather than sit there empty, you can loan the studio to us, and we'll cut you in on the profits." You say to the musicians, "I can't pay you up front, but you aren't doing anything that night, anyways. The music is good, it's enjoyable to play, so let's do it, and I'll give you a royalty for every record we sell and every track that is downloaded." We found out the artists' asking fee, were they to be paid outright, and we increased it by 30 to 50 percent and made it a revenue share, capping off the revenue share at that increased number. Someone who wanted $600 would now get $900. If we don't sell the full amount of product, then they get their corresponding piece of the action. But that means that if they want to take it and buy product as a retailer or sell it from the bandstand, they're able to do it, and they get their markup as well as their royalty.
AAJ: Alternative models, like ArtistShare and Kickstarter, certainly have successfully pushed artist-driven models. What seems unique about what you're describing is its potential to allow new artists without fan bases to create high-quality product.
MK: That is the problem I have with the other models. If you already have your fan base, you can invite them to participate. But what if you don't yet have a large fan base? Here, we're dealing with an earlier step. Before your fan base, you can lean on the support structure that you already have: the local room that believes in you and will give you a place to perform, the studio with an engineer who knows about you and wants to help, the musicians you know who would like to participate.
The other part of the deal with Rahe's project that I've put on the table involves a filmmaker who was also a part of the collective class, who created the music video to her song "Be Down," and later, "Rescue." In bringing him to the discussion, I was able to work with him to develop his own career in structuring his organization and developing his businessand continue to do so, in his and my projects, as well as for Rahe. With my helping him in handling his contracts and publicizing his work, he in turn was able to help to create Rahe's music video, and provide video pieces for the other musicians. This was also part of the pay that the musicians were offered. Whether they actually take advantage of that is up to themand part of the learning process of self-empowerment and proactivity.
At the end, our revenue sharing was a combination of profit sharing, of barter, of product creation, of experience, and of education and counseling that we offer to people for participating. That way, we can say, "Look, even if you walked away without a dime from this record, you still walk away with consulting sessions with me, a video for your website, and opportunities to create your own projects with this model." Everyone leaves with something substantive in their hands.
This allows everyone to maintain artistic integrity. A number of the participants have said to me, "This is the only opportunity I've had to really collaborate in the creation of a project!" This goes back to the Coltrane Quartet model. Rahe is an extremely talented and gifted songwriter and solo artist with a more complex sense of where she wants her music to go.
AAJ: We've discussed extensively your model of collective action, but can you go into further detail as to how that played out in the conception, recording, and production of the album?
MK: Helene and I sat down with Rahe and listened to her music, and together we all selected an initial set of 18 pieces and honed it down even further. We came up with eight pieces and said, "How will we develop these songs?" She'd tell us what she heard, and we'd say things like, "Hmm, you know, bass clarinet would make a great addition on this track." We'd continue this process when we got together with musicians, and we'd essentially workshop the pieces. She'd sing a bass line to an artist, and he'd run with it. Everyone would feel like he or she had an ownership in the music, and everything was conceived with this synergy of the ensemble.
Some of the pieces started as sextet and became trio works. Some of the trio pieces expanded to sextet, and the music evolved in that manner. The basic tracks were laid down live with the band. She would come in and add the vocals, then add harmonies, and we would continue to expand the pieces.
It was as creative a process as I've ever been involved with in my life. My own participation in the process was greater than usual. In most cases I had been dealing with much older musicians who knew what they wanted to do, and my job was to facilitate it. In this situation, I was there to give her feedback, because she knew what she wanted to do, but the notion of experimentation was a new concept to the younger generation of musicians. This is one of the requirements we've hadthat the artists we worked with needed to have a clear sense of what to do, even if all the specifics aren't locked down.
Rahe knew what she wanted to do, and when I spoke to her early on, I asked whether she wanted to be an artist like Chris Botti, who could sell a huge number of CDs, or to be an artist like Miles Davis, who could sell just a fraction of that. Without hesitation, she chose the Miles Davis path. The bottom line is: do you want to be popular to be a star, or do you want to make the music you love and bring it to as many people as possible?
So it became a question of where we went from there. And in creating the album, we applied what I had learned, in the 1960s, of bringing people together to work toward a common goal under the leadership of a visionary. And through this experience, she's grown from an artist who knew she had a vision, to a visionary artist with the mature confidence of a true leader.
AAJ: Regarding knowing what to do, traditional wisdom would suggest that you would shop the album around to a label. What is your strategy now?
MK: To tell you the truth, this is something of a crapshoot. This was our goal, to complete the album. Out of the Box is more in line with an old LP because of its length, which is why we're selling it at a lower list price. My concern with shopping it is that there are really only one to three labels I'd really want it to be a part of. The primary label, of course, was Nonesuch Records, because to me they're the best on every single level. I'd say that 90 percent of the records I've bought in the past five years were Nonesuch releases. They have incredible business mechanisms and an amazing sense of devotion to their artists. In my experience, my three artist dealings with them on every level were the best business experiences that I'd ever had with the recording industry. To me, it would have been ideal, but the chances of getting hooked in were one-tenth of one percent of a chance, and didn't work out. We have a couple of other ideas we're looking into, but we're forging ahead on our own anyway, knowing we can always pull up the stakes if something viable should materialize. Plus, Rahe has dozens of other songs as great as the ones on the CD and is writing new ones consistently.
So we all decided to release it on Outward Visions, and I'm extremely proud to have it be our first release. Also, I enjoy starting a record label as the entire business is falling apart, which is that same contrary nature I mentioned earlier. The idea is that we're going to approach this organically. We're getting excellent response here in Tucson already, with good radio play and nice focus in press and record stores. Now we are approaching other geographically accessible cities like Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Phoenix, and laying further groundwork in radio play, et cetera, and also reaching out to other fans throughout the United States by what we used to call "The Drum" and [what] is now operating as social networking. We just began working with Ariel Hyatt, the prime innovator in Cyber PR, to build our base further.
Outward Visions has helped to launch a number of careers over the years, so we have people in a lot of fields in the industry that we're reaching out to. We've also nurtured a lot of professionals in the business, and now we're calling on them, not to do us a favor, but to listen to this unique artist who is the first client we've taken on in 15 years. And we're developing step by step. You can't replicate the successes of other artists, and so everything will happen in a different manner by necessity.
Since we are directing the traffic to our sales mechanism to buy the album, we can track everything clearly. That allows us to build a committed fan base, develop performance opportunities and so forth, in much the same manner as we did for our artists back in the 1970s and 1980s. Technology changes, but the essence stays the same. Every piece of promotional material directs people to our website, where the profit margin is the greatest. As she resonates with people more and more, I expect that people will knock on the door and ask to start carrying the product. As that happens, we'll take each call as it comes and develop it as organically as we developed the music.
It's a different kind of approach, but that's how we've always approached things.
Pages 1, 5: Courtesy of Rahe
Page 6: Courtesy of Marty Khan