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Michael Ricci: A Modern Day Jazz Messenger

Michael Ricci: A Modern Day Jazz Messenger

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Our primary consideration has always been what's best for a jazz musician, because what's best for a jazz musician is what's best for us fans.
—Michael Ricci
All About Jazz is celebrating its twentieth anniversary but for founder Michael Ricci it's business as usual. For the Philadelphian that means dedicating huge amounts of time and energy to giving jazz musicians everywhere a platform, promoting the music globally, providing numerous services and encouraging debate around the key issues facing jazz today.

This is pretty much what Ricci has been doing daily since 1995 and his efforts haven't gone unnoticed. All About Jazz has reached a peak of 1.3 million monthly readers and has been voted Best Website Covering Jazz for thirteen consecutive years by the Jazz Journalists Association.

It's fairly safe to say that no other jazz magazine or webzine has the same reach as All About Jazz, and that's largely down to the loyal team of volunteer staffers who share Ricci's vision of jazz as a beautifully edifying force for the good.

The first twenty years have been a rollercoaster ride for Ricci and All About Jazz, with many highs and a few lows. Yet perhaps the greatest chapter in the adventure that is All About Jazz is only just beginning.

All About Jazz: After twenty years of keeping a weather eye on jazz, pretty much globally, how healthy do you think jazz is today?

Michael Ricci: I'm exposed to new music daily, much of it arrives from around the world, and I constantly hear good things. When I attend shows, the venues are typically full. I was at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in July—the programming was superb and most of the events were sold out; even the jam sessions were packed. From my point of view, jazz is healthy enough, but it needs better infrastructure.

AAJ: How has the music changed since you first launched All About Jazz in 1995?

MR: In terms of the music being produced, I'm hearing less standards and more original music. In terms of access and discovery, it's unprecedented. From CDs, to peer-to-peer distribution, to Amazon's related recommendations, to digital downloads, to YouTube, to human or algorithmic-curated streaming services, to a musician's website, to social media... all from a desktop computer, to a laptop computer, to a tablet or a phone. Music discovery is now at your fingertips.

AAJ: When and where were you brought up? What music was in your house growing up?

MR: I'm from Philadelphia, and I was exposed to all kinds of music though the majority of the music my father played was classical and jazz. When I started collecting music in the early '70s I gravitated towards instrumental music with horn sections—bands like Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire.

AAJ: What was your path into jazz?

MR: I played the trumpet growing up and I always had an interest in music. I attended my first jazz concert when I was eight and bought my first record when I was eleven, so the music has always been a part of my life.

AAJ: What inspired you to launch AAJ in the first place? What were your aims and ambitions at the very outset two decades ago?

MR: All About Jazz started as a hobby. I have a background in programming and the early days of the internet were wide open and very exciting. With the right skills, interest, and time, you could create anything and call it your own. Some of my friends were interested in politics, some were interested in humor, while others gravitated towards technology. I decided to combine my interest in the internet with my love of jazz. It was built slowly over time, but I became more serious in 1997 and turned the corner in 2000, when we built the database. The All About Jazz database has served us well over the years and we were lucky to get it right the first time as we've been able to build on top of it ever since.

AAJ: Had you thought seriously of launching a paper magazine instead?

MR: No. I've always thought web and database first. Building and engaging a community was also important early on. I did create a series of newspapers, but the purpose of the newspapers was to brand All About Jazz and drive traffic to the website. I'm also fond of trees.

AAJ: Were you aware of other jazz webzines at the time?

MR: No one was thinking magazines adapted to the web early on. N2K's heavily funded Jazz Central Station and Joe Vella's Jazz Online were more focused on new media rather than old media.

AAJ: Can you remember what AAJ looked like back then?

MR: Um, yes. The good news is the Wayback Machine has no record of AAJ from 1995 to 1996 when it was located at http://www.visionx.com/jazz/. But you can still get a glimpse of what it looked like in 1997. AAJ started as an outlet for my cartooning interests and I created and animated a character that played the trumpet. The character was a part of our logo for a few years. Here's an example.

AAJ: What services were you offering then?

MR: No pay services. For the most part we maintained a list of links, announced new websites, published reviews, built a jazz timeline, and had fun. Here's how the site looked in April 1997.

AAJ: How many people were involved?

MR: Initially just myself. An old friend (Doug Ronallo) got involved and built a history of jazz timeline. I was able to network through newsgroups and web-rings, and anyone from a knowledgeable newsgroup user to Gene Lees would email me material to publish. I think everyone realized it was a work in progress and a grassroots effort and they wanted to help.

AAJ: I guess that the services offered today by AAJ are much greater than 20 years before—in what ways?

MR: Greater and different. We can leverage newer technologies and much faster connection speeds to present more robust promotional solutions to musicians. And as we scale infrastructure, we can expand the content we deliver to our readers across devices and platforms.

AAJ: How many people contribute to AAJ today?

MR: We've had nearly 2,000 contributors since our launch in 1995, and we [now] maintain a staff of 45-50 volunteers.

AAJ: According to the Open Market Internet Index, 37% of the world's population used the internet as of December 2014, 100 times more than in 1995; how have AAJ's figures grown/fluctuated over the past twenty years and do the numbers surprise you in any way?

MR: We did really well and very early on. Our best year came in 2007 when we topped 1.3 million monthly readers, but the web has grown rapidly since then and once Facebook became mainstream and Twitter caught on, we saw a precipitous drop in traffic. People had more options. The good news is we're slowly building our numbers back and our readership is way up over our the previous two years. The paradox is that we're popular website about an unpopular subject, and that's a testament to how we remain current and continually innovate.

AAJ: Do you know where the readership is from, globally speaking?

MR: Yes, mostly English speaking countries, with the United States representing 46% of our readership. The UK represents 11%, while Canada represents 6%. We also have a nice following in Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Australia, Germany, and China.

AAJ: How much do you know about the profile of your readership?

MR: I've used various analytics tools over the years so I have a good feel for our readers and users. I also solicit feedback regularly, and thanks to our database, I have access to both member demographic and psychographic information. And we make our read counts on most pages public so it's easy to ascertain what is popular and what is less popular.

AAJ: Contributors have naturally come and gone over the years—but many have been there for ten, fifteen and in one or two cases almost twenty years; to what do you owe attribute the loyalty of so many of your contributors/staff?

MR: Free music? I kid! I think most enjoy creative writing as an outlet and enjoy writing about jazz in particular. I also think they feel they are supporting the music by covering it. The perks help—there's recorded music, access to live events, DVDs/books, the occasional travel assignment, paid assignments as a result of their affiliation, but for the most part, they do it for the love. AAJ gives them a platform to reach a much larger audience than a blog—it's also less pressure to keep up because we rely on a team of writers. I believe most are proud of AAJ and appreciate the effort that goes on behind the scenes to produce it. They also know my ultimate goal is to pay them and they are aware of the steps I am taking to make that happen.

AAJ: Obviously internet technology has changed dramatically over the last twenty years; in what ways have these changes impacted AAJ and AAJ's ability to serve the international jazz community?

MR: Search engines, browsers, improved access speed, cheaper internet rates, feeds, social media, and apps have all played a role in helping us extend our reach. Though we did well prior to feeds, social media and apps, and we've always had an international following. The challenge is retaining readership and remaining relevant as something new seems to pop up every day vying for your attention.

AAJ: All About Jazz has been voted Best Jazz Webzine by the Jazz Journalists Association an incredible 13 consecutive years; how satisfying to you personally is such recognition?

MR: It's always an honor to be recognized by your peers and by an organization like the JJA. We've logged countless hours over the last 20 years to improve AAJ and to make a positive difference for jazz, and I'm glad it shows within the journalist community.

AAJ: What gives you the greatest pleasure in running AAJ?

MR: Interacting with the long time contributors, many of which have become friends. But on a day to day basis, innovating is what gets me up in the morning and keeps me up late at night. What I absolutely love about the web is the ability to develop an idea, implement it, and see it work almost immediately. Though some of what you see at the site has taken years to develop, there are the regular immediate gratification projects that keep me inspired and engaged.

AAJ: What, for you, are your most significant achievements as regards All About Jazz?

MR: Building the database, the jazz musician directory in particular; overcoming a hack that knocked AAJ out for two months in 2003, and Jazz Near You.

AAJ: Let's talk stats—everybody loves stats—All About Jazz is a tremendous resource for musicians; how many musicians are members of All About Jazz?

MR: We currently have over 77,000 musician profiles in our database. Many of those profiles are maintained by active musicians, their representatives, or their fans.

AAJ: How many CDs have been reviewed since 1995?

MR: Over 36,000.

AAJ: How many articles have been written since 1995?

MR: About 20,000. We still have about 6,000 pre-database articles that need to be archived.

AAJ: Recently you launched the Big Question at All About Jazz, which examines issues in jazz; what for you, if it's possible to narrow it down to one, is the main issue in jazz today?

MR: Can I narrow it down to three? If so, radio airplay, venues, and infrastructure. There are less terrestrial radio stations, less venues to perform, and jazz oftentimes operates in a silo outside the music industry. I've also found it a challenge to collaborate with other jazz organizations over the years, though I'm encouraged by what I see from KC Jazz ALIVE, the Philadelphia Jazz Project, and Jazz Danmark.

AAJ: In quite recent times, and breaking with long tradition, All About Jazz began to charge for certain services; what was the thinking behind that and what is the long term goal in monetizing aspects of the site?

MR: All About Jazz needs to sustain itself and we need to do a better job of leveraging our community and our technology. I want to see AAJ survive me and grow, so building the business and developing strategic partnerships is essential. We're focused on developing services for musicians, presenters, and record labels and building an ecosystem to support our staff and our partners.

AAJ: All About Jazz has interviewed a huge number of musicians over the years; who has AAJ not interviewed that you would like/would have liked to have interviewed, and why?

MR: We've interviewed over 2,000 musicians. I think the most conspicuous musician missing from the list is Keith Jarrett. Keith happens to be one of the most popular musicians at AAJ and I hope that he one day sits down and chats with John Kelman. It would be epic.

AAJ: What do you think sets All About Jazz apart from other jazz websites?

MR: We have a diverse and diligent staff, and they collectively represent AAJ's editorial voice. I think my understanding of technology, the web, and the needs of a jazz musician also help. I'm unaware of other jazz websites with an integrated platform and database like AAJ's. In a sense, AAJ is six websites in one: we publish articles, distribute news, maintain a musician database, present daily MP3 downloads, feature photos and photographers in our gallery, and present events and venue listings at Jazz Near You.

AAJ: You started up Jazz Near You in 2012; in a nutshell, what was the aim and how is it meeting your initial ambitions?

MR: I talk to musicians regularly and what became clear around 2010 was CDs sales were trending down, digital sales were not bridging the gap, so there was an even greater need to get gigs, sell tickets, and recruit students. I had localized many aspects of AAJ long before Jazz Near You, but this information, like a calendar or a venue directory appeared below the fold or a click or two off the home page. I wanted to repurpose this information as it had tremendous value to a musician, a presenter, and a concert goer, and I wanted to make it easier to access. Thankfully the jazznearyou.com domain was still available and we spent over a year building it. Jazz Near You now includes 260 websites, a weekly email, an app, a series of feeds and a series of widgets. The nice thing about JNY is it is fully integrated with AAJ, so if you sign up for JNY, you're automatically signed up for AAJ and vice versa. And we've created a seamless transition from one site to the other as they share similar visual elements and navigation.

We are slowly building our following and JNY is catching on in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Copenhagen, Boston, San Francisco, Kansas City and Austin. We simply need to raise the awareness of Jazz Near You wherever jazz is presented because it works in driving concert goers to shows. We outlined our recent accomplishments and some of our immediate plans for JNY on this page.

AAJ: A criticism I have occasionally heard levelled at All About Jazz is that it reviews lots of stuff that is far removed from jazz—i.e. rock, pop, lots of prog rock/jam band stuff, etc., etc. How do you respond to such criticism?

MR: We have a staff of volunteer writers and we cover more jazz between Monday and Friday than many publications combined. I give our writers the freedom to cover non-jazz or fringe-of-jazz music and I publish it on the weekends. It represents a small percentage of what we publish but it does stand out and make an impression because it isn't jazz. One reason why some writers have stuck with AAJ over the years is because we give them the freedom to occasionally cover classical, blues, prog or jam music.

AAJ: How much time do you put into All About Jazz every day/week, and has it become more time-consuming as it has grown?

MR: I work on AAJ seven days a week, though I try to limit my weekend time. Weekdays can run anywhere from 10-12 hours. Back in the day, 14 hours was more of the norm. My goal is to reduce the time I spend on the web site and we're making strides as we continue to automate processes and streamline how we operate.

AAJ: In hindsight, is there anything you would change about the way you've run the site over the years?

MR: It's hard to say because I'm happy with where we are now and where we are heading. In hindsight, I would have beefed up security. If I did, we would have avoided that catastrophic hack in 2003.

AAJ: How bad was it?

MR: Pretty bad. A very smart person gained access to our server and scrambled our hard drive. We had issues with our backups and we could not restore our data. I had a few data recovery specialists look at the hard drive, and when they couldn't help, they recommended one of the top data recovery centers in the United States. At first glance, they could not help and quoted me $20,000 just to attempt to recover it, and there were no guarantees. A very nice gent named Carl Malamud stepped forward and was able to resurrect every CD review from Google cache which we were able to import back into our database. I'm sure it was a tinker toy project for Carl, but it saved our bacon and got us back on track. We lost a considerable number of articles, all of our news, and most of our photos. It was a learning experience for sure, but we came back stronger than ever.

AAJ: What do you hope the next twenty years will bring for AAJ?

MR: Continued improvement, constant innovation and a greater impact on the livelihoods of jazz musicians. Our primary consideration has always been what's best for a jazz musician, because what's best for a jazz musician is what's best for us fans.

AAJ: Can you envisage the site, and jazz music, twenty years from now?

MR: 20 years is a long time and my crystal ball gets fuzzy beyond three. But if we see rapid advancements like we saw over the previous 20 years, then Jeff Fitzgerald's prediction of holographic three dimensional computing giving you a full All About Jazz experience in the comfort of your own home may be right around the corner.

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