An Open Letter to Musicians: Lemme Hear It!

An Open Letter to Musicians: Lemme Hear It!
Dave Sumner By

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This begins a series of posts intended to give artists, labels, and promoters some insight into how I use the internet to discover and purchase music and how that knowledge might be used to the benefit of the artists.

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...


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