An Open Letter to Musicians: Lemme Hear It!
I don't claim to be the prototypical music listener and buyer. I listen to, and buy, a whole lot of music. I spend uncountable hours on various web sites, including my own, shooting the breeze about what I've heard. I don't care to attempt to quantify my actual cash outlay for all of the music I've acquired in my life, but I'm sure the grand total is pretty steep and would cause me to shake my head in disbelief. In addition to amassing a sizable amount of music, I've also accumulated substantial insight into how I, and others, go about discovering music. And to the point of this article, I'm going to share what I know. My advice is well meant and I hope it is taken that way.
About me, currently:
I'm the All About Jazz Download of the Day editor. I contribute to a new arrivals column on music retailer eMusic in which I make weekly jazz picks. I write standard reviews for both outfits. I blog at Bird is the Worm. I occasionally contribute to a very cool new music site called MusicIsGood.org. I'm beginning plans to expand my reach. So, not a music big shot, by any means, but I know some stuff and I do some stuff. Further down, I will describe how I typically go about exploring new music. I mention my current jazz bio by way of explaining that my current positions aren't the reason I have my current music exploration process... I have those positions because of that process, because of my enthusiastic and relentless search for my next favorite album (and hopefully your next favorite album, too).
I live in the middle of nowhere. You will not meet me at hip jazz clubs or at regular hangs. I don't run in similar circles. I am, in a physical sense, out of the loop. The music I discover is done solely over the internet. If you're an artist who can't be bothered with an internet presence, who rues the day MP3s were created, and who doesn't have a label, agent, friend or family member who is internet savvy and gets your music up there in bright bold HTML, then it is very likely I will never hear the voice you give through notes and silence. I will never have the opportunity to connect with you. Your music doesn't exist to me.
In this, I am not alone. Lots of people live in lots of small towns all over the place, far far away from concert halls and music shops and venues that would have quality music playing while people sat around to shoot the breeze about it. And it's not just the middle-of-nowhere people. I am a Chicago guy. I was born and raised there, lived in that city throughout my life. There are a whole lotta people who live in that town, and just like any large city, it is populated by a segment of people who don't go out a hell of a lot, who maybe don't like city life all that much, who live in solitude while surrounded by six million neighbors. These people, also, are on the internet discovering music, buying music on the internet, living digitally. Do not dismiss my advice as just the inevitable fallout of small town logistics. There are people in jazz centers of the world that will never see or hear you if not through the internet. This is about much more than geography. This is about how people connect, not just today, but tomorrow and tomorrow after. That it is increasingly happening in cyberspace is not necessarily a good or bad thing. What's important is the quality of that connection between musician and listener, and it requires a little bit of effort from both parties to make it work. Let's talk about that.
Finally, My Point: Lemme Hear It!
If you have an album, let me hear all of it. A musician's best tool at getting me to plunk down cash is the music itself. I like a pretty album cover as much as the next guy. Cool band name or album title? Sure, it'll grab my attention. The label, producer, guest musicians, personnel and instruments, yeah, absolutely, they'll all help in catching my eye. But those only serve to corral me in as far as wondering what your album sounds like. That essential curiosity won't be satisfied unless I get to hear that music in its fullness.
Don't give me partial song samples. I don't care if it's 30 seconds, 60 seconds, or, as some artists have done, provide song samples that are exactly half the song duration. The theory of samples, I suppose, is to intrigue me sufficiently to take a chance on buying the album. Well, the problem with that is that I'm done taking chances on music based on song samples. I'm tired of looking on my shelf (and my iTunes library) at all the albums I "took a chance on" in the spirit of music discovery, and now they just sit there gathering dust. There's no reason to gamble like that. There is so much great jazz being recorded in the present day that I don't need to waste money on albums that don't connect with me. If I waste cash on an artist's album, it's very rare that I'll ever give that artist the time of day again. I just won't risk it. That decision is unequal parts pragmatism and spite, and I really don't care what the ratio on that bitter soup is... that's where we're at.
Another thing to keep in mind with song samples is the negative reaction the ear has to a song that is suddenly cut off. I hit the play button on a song. It has a nice opening, gets me interested from go. The song builds off the head and really starts to cook or simmer or cool. Now I'm starting to get hooked. A few more notes, and then nothing. Song sample is over. Like the music just up and disappeared. Me, I'm sitting there feeling cheated. Just when I started making a connection with the music, it's yanked away from me and that ain't a nice feeling. What would have been the harm in letting me hear the entire song? I'm left feeling suspicious that the album ain't up to the level of the samples, because why else hide the music from me? Or maybe there's some other cryptic reason for samples which I'm not aware of... but again, why risk my cash in a situation that presents all these questions? Where I'm going with all of this isn't to address any imagined or valid reasons for using samples, but to address the importance of establishing a connection with the listener, and how tearing the music away from their ears mid-stream absolutely severs that connection. It's a bad thing. Stop doing it.
I'm gonna return to the topic of establishing the connection, as well as reasons why allowing full streaming of music is a good thing, both in terms of directly how it benefits the musician that I, specifically, can hear it, but also how it helps in a general sense of the artist-fan relationship. I'm gonna talk for a little bit about how I typically look for new music on the internet, then tie it all in to what I've said up to this point.
Here's been my typical music exploration process the last few years. It involves five steps:
I use the eMusic jazz new arrivals listing as my primary search population. For my purposes, it is easily the best list of jazz new arrivals and most useful tool for exploring it. It's not the only way I go about discovering new releases, but using eMusic's listing is the most common one. What I like about it: I can search chronologically by release date, it provides the albums in a simple list with an album cover, artist name, label, album title, sub-genre, and it has a button to listen to samples on that summary page. That's a huge thing for me. It means I can listen to samples of each and every album that looks even remotely like a jazz album recorded in the present day. I also like how the eMusic new jazz arrivals list has everything on an equal footing... no one album cover is displayed more predominately than the other. When I look at that jazz new arrivals list, the new Bill Frisell, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Locke albums appear no differently than the new Markus Pesonen, Kekko Fornarelli, and Sunna Gunnlaugs albums. I don't like that I can only hear thirty second samples on eMusic, but that's a problem bigger than just them, and I make it work for my purposes well enough. It's up to the artist (and, in theory, the labels) to overcome the retailers limitations on song samples. However, what to take away from this first point is that all new jazz releases are on an equal footing with me.
I skip over (most) compilations, (most) re-issues, and definitely anything that looks like some sketchy "new label" copyright violator. But no matter how ridiculous your name is, no matter how cheesy your album cover, no matter that your sub-genre is easy listening (or something equally not to my taste), I will give you a couple song samples to catch my interest. Because, ultimately, it's all about the music for me. I take the luxury of listening to everything, even if just for a little while.
That first 30 second sample is a big one, but it's not your only shot. If I like what I hear on that first sample, I let it play to the second. If I listen to the first two samples of your album in their entirety, I put you on my list. I keep a weekly list of artist and album names to investigate later. If you don't do much of anything in that first sample and don't piss me off with your music, I'll often skip ahead to the second and then third sample. If your music doesn't irritate me in those first couple song sample fragments, I'll put you on the list with a "maybe" designation after it. If you irritate me with your music in the first sample, I don't bother listening to anything more. I move on to the next album. It may not be fair, but that's where we're at. There is so much music out there and so little time to go through it all. We live in a world that has pretty much imposed a 30-60 second shot clock on how much your songs play on a retail site... respect that limit and keep it in mind when you construct your album. Keep in mind that the first 30 seconds are the first, and perhaps, only impression you'll get to make on a listener. Let's move on...
Okay, so now I've gone through a ton of jazz new arrivals. I have my list. Here's where my advice, and this article, becomes relevant. Here's what I do:
I begin searching for internet sites where I can hear something more of your music than just 30 second samples. I'll Google your name and see if you have a web site. If you do, I immediately look for a page on your site to stream your music. If you have a place where you stream all or most of your new release, I think a nice thought of you and I listen to it. If I really like the first couple songs, then I make a couple notes on my list, and then I'm done with you for the time being. You've made it to the next round. If I'm not sold yet, I keep listening, giving your music every opportunity to connect. If I'm not liking your music so much, I still continue listening. If you give me the opportunity to listen to your music in full, I will give you every opportunity to prove to me that I should keep listening.
Let's say I don't like the album and you don't make it to the next round on my list. Lemme tell you why that's not the end of the world. I bookmark sites. I have different bookmark folders with links to sites that let me stream in full. I will return to your site. I will return to give your current album another listen, I will return to your site to see if you're coming to a town near me, and I will return to see if you have a newer release coming out, one that might better connect with me. This process I'm currently explaining, it's not the only method I utilize to discover music. I also have bookmark nights, when I go back through what I've heard before and give it another shot. I have strong anecdotal evidence of artists who had an album I didn't like suddenly becoming my new favorite artist with a later release. And, sometimes, making that connection with a later album has me re-evaluating my relationship with the earlier album. Sometimes, once that connection is made, it translates on to future albums and back to past ones. This has happened. Repeatedly.
Okay, let continue with #4, but we'll set up the scenario that you don't have an artist site or you don't stream music on your artist site. These days there are less and less tech excuses not to stream on your site, but that will be a subject for a different article. For now, let's just continue on with this scenario.
So, I struck out on your website. I now turn to specific trusted third-party sites where I am confident that I can stream music in full and the site won't spam me or unload some ungodly virus onto my hard drive. My first two choices are Bandcamp and SoundCloud.
For those unfamiliar with either of those sites, Bandcamp is a very cool retail site that is very self-driven by the artist, and I've been told that as far as music retailers go, the musician rate on sales ain't bad. It's a lot like Myspace but without all the social nonsense and spam. What I like about it is that 99% of the artists who list there use the functionality of full streaming of music. SoundCloud isn't so much a music retailer as a music showcase tool, but the end result is the same... a huge percentage of the musicians who are on SoundCloud stream their album in full (or near about).
(Note: Artists who only provide song samples on Bandcamp and SoundCloud stand out like a festering thumb.)
Since I really like to focus on small label and self-produced jazz, I typically do pretty well finding music on Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Up and coming jazz musicians have grown up in a cyber world and are hip to the benefits of the internet. And a big benefit of putting music up on sites like Bandcamp or SoundCloud (or others I'm about to discuss momentarily) is that even if a musician doesn't have the time and/or knowledge to create their own site, third-party sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud give the artist a meaty skeleton on which to establish themselves and build up from. I've lost track of the times I've seen a post on a music forum or Twitter that linked to a SoundCloud or Bandcamp page, which I then followed, listened to, and then purchased the music or, at least, spread the word about it. But more on that later.
Okay, so back to the search. If I strike out on the artist site and Bandcamp and SoundCloud, I start searching for secondary sites like All About Jazz and ReverbNation and YouTube and Facebook... sites where I've seen instances of full-streaming by artists but have had mixed results so as not to make the sites fall within the first avenues to explore. We at All About Jazz now offer a service that allows artists to stream their music from several pages, and of course there's the thousands of free tracks available here to download. ReverbNation is very similar to Myspace. You know what YouTube is, as well as Facebook. I don't know how long this particular Facebook functionality has existed, but I've noticed that Facebook has a "Band Page" tab, which some musicians use to stream their music on. That's a good thing.
However, if I strike out on those options, too, then I go to a label site (if applicable). Most labels don't stream in full. Some will stream a couple songs, some do just samples, though some, like Palmetto Records and RareNoise and Savoy, stream in full (god bless ya!). And, ironically (and smartly), some labels like Anzic Records and Sunnyside Records actually have created Bandcamp pages where they stream and sell their music (god bless ya, too!). If I was able to hear your album in full on your label site when I couldn't hear it on your own (if you even have a site), then your label has already done right by you.
If I've struck out on all those other options and Googling your name hasn't brought up some oddball result like you're streaming your entire album on archive.org or ubuweb, then I have one last place I check before scratching your name off the list... Myspace. However, the only reason I visit Myspace is, one, to see if you have an artist site address that my Google search didn't return (which happens occasionally, oddly enough) or maybe find a musician name or other search term to feed into Google (which also has brought results in the case of an ensemble name being no-go on the search because everything was linked to a specific musician's name from the ensemble). I do not listen to Myspace tracks anymore. Aside from getting hit with a nasty virus from a Myspace page and nearly getting hit with two others, I now get error messages when trying to play Myspace tracks or, sometimes, it plays a sponsored track instead of what I wanted. I'm done with that site, other than for a scan for information.
If, at this point, I've got nothing on you and couldn't hear your music, then I cross you off the list. I've already spent considerable time investigating your music, and if after all that time I couldn't even hear what you have to offer, then forget it, I'm moving on.
If I was able to hear your music and didn't care for it, well, I addressed that above. But it's worth mentioning again... your music will get revisited, both current and future albums. Musicians who let me stream an album in full may not get a sale from me, but they do earn substantial goodwill, and that can result in a future sale from me or, possibly, I spread the word that people can stream your album by putting posts on various forums and blogs (and with nearly 10,000 forum & bulletin board posts about music, I assure you, I've done it plenty), and that could lead to new fans and new sales.
For those of you who let me hear all (or near all) of your new album and I liked it... Congrats, you move on to #5.
In addition to the immediate benefit of purchasing your album, there's an assortment of others upsides that could result from my having been able to hear your album (results may and likely will vary):
5a. I invite you to submit an album track to be featured as an All About Jazz Download of the Day. AAJ gets over 800,000 unique visitors a month, so not too shabby a crowd to get your music out in front of.
5b. If your album hasn't been released to the public yet, and it's going to retail on eMusic, then I may include it as one of my weekly jazz picks. eMusic has something like half a million member customers, so that can't hurt promo-wise to get out in front of that group.
5c. I write a formal review of your album for All About Jazz, eMusic, Bird is the Worm, Music is Good, or in the future, other music sites and publications.
5d. To hell with 5a5c. I mean, those are all good and they will bring you some solid results, but 5d is so damn important and it's what I've been doing and will continue to do regardless of my associations with any organizations or media outlets. I get the word out! On the All About Jazz forum, on Bird is the Worm, on the eMusic forum, on the eMusers forum, on Twitter, through emails to friends and just hanging out... I love to pass along what I've discovered, to share the great and beautiful music I've heard in the hope that others might also have a sublime reaction to it as well.
I love music. Jazz, especially jazz of the present day, is definitely tops in my life, but music has always been at the forefront. All those years of ambivalence at not owning a TV, all I cared about was whether the stereo was working and searching for more great music to play on it. I received an iPod once as a gift. It had video capability. I never bothered looking into purchasing shows or movies for it... I filled that damn thing up with MP3s, and suddenly my commutes on the EL and CTA buses and Metra trains were so much more enjoyable.
And the gift that I consider music to be in my life, I can't help but want to share what I've found, to share that gift. My enthusiasm may be almost pathetically innocent in its childlike exuberance, but fuckwhatever, it's how I'm wired, and so passing along the gift of found music matters to me. I'm compelled to do it. I want to spread some happiness along to others. That's a human reaction that I'll never hide from, to want to find ways to make the world around me a little bit better than the way I found it. One of those ways is spreading word of beautiful and engaging music.
So, yeah, in me, you effectively have a street team member. I don't work for you or take orders from you, but I'll be out there spreading the word about your wonderful music like you were my good and dear friend. I am the human element of the connection your music made with me via the internet, and so it follows that one way for me to show my appreciation for your music is to shout about it from the rooftops. This way, other listeners will gain the benefit of your music and you will gain the benefit of more people listening to and purchasing your music.
This is only going to happen if you let me hear your music.