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Terri Hinte: Co-Creating the Image of Jazz


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The main change in the jazz industry has been the rise of the Internet, and of digital music, and of so-called free music and free everything. How is this economic model sustainable?
—Terri Hinte
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

[This is the second of an All About Jazz series of interviews and articles on "The Many Faces of Jazz Today: Critical Dialogues" in which we explore the current state of jazz around the world with musicians, journalists, and entrepreneurs who give us their own unique perspectives. In the first interview of the series, saxophonist Bobby Zankel provided the perspective of a seasoned musician on his efforts to maintain his creativity and independence in an increasingly "homogenized" consumer-based environment. The interview below is with public relations expert Terri Hinte, who elaborates on how musicians promote their wares and what this means in terms of how the jazz industry evolved over the past half century]

Terri Hinte works tirelessly behind the scenes to make jazz happen. For four decades she has been helping musicians with their careers through writing, networking, and publicizing their recordings and concerts, first assisting Gretchen Horton and Orrin Keepnews at historic Fantasy Records, then becoming their Director of Press and Public Information, and for the last decade as director of her own firm, Terri Hinte Public Relations. In her work, she gets to see what helps and hurts musicians in their careers, finds successful ways to generate interest and attract audiences, talks with musicians about their satisfactions and frustrations, and obtains a birds-eye view of the jazz scene. She has witnessed first-hand the many changes that have happened in jazz during the transition from LP recordings to the digital age and all the shifts that have occurred in musical styles and audience preferences. One of her most enduring clients, Sonny Rollins, has relied countless times on her astute management and PR skills. Hinte works out of the San Francisco area, but she frequently travels to festivals and other events world-wide.

Since jazz, like any endeavor, depends in part upon how people perceive it and do business around it, we asked Hinte to give us her take on the present and past jazz scene from her perch as someone who works with the musicians to co-create their public perception and opportunities for performance and development.

Hinte's Vantage Point

All About Jazz: Tell us about the "perch" from which you view jazz. What is the experience from which you come to this discussion?

Terri Hinte: For the last 40-plus years, in my professional life, I've been tracking how, why, and where jazz and jazz artists get written and talked about and how they're perceived for better or worse by the public. I consume a heavy diet of newspapers and magazines. I also spend an awful lot of time online, reading and researching and just poking around in search of new outlets and new writers and those who are new to me personally. Fortunately I'm a newspaper and magazine junkie, because it's a full-time job in itself keeping up with the constant evolution of platforms as well as the volume of content and figuring out how I can maximize the current opportunities for the artists I'm working with.

AAJ: What's been your exposure to the music itself?

TH: Live music has always been a big part of the picture for me. Over the years I've been to innumerable festivals, where I've been witness to some extraordinary performances, but I really prefer the intimacy of small clubs. There's a certain glamour to it, even when the space itself is less than entirely comfortable, and I love the physical experience of the music—the vibrations, the audible breaths and squeaks and hums of the players and their instruments. The music is alive.

Probably most of the music I've experienced has been in many dozens of Bay Area venues, but New York takes second place. I'm from New York originally and return there at least annually. Third is Rio de Janeiro. During the 1980s into the '90s, I made frequent trips to Brazil and caught as much samba, MPB ["Musica Popular Brasileira"—Brazilian popular music -Eds], and jazz as I possibly could. But I make a point of seeing live music wherever I find myself: L.A., Washington DC, Chicago, Paris, London, Prague.

At home I listen to all kinds of music, including classical, bluegrass, samba, and salsa. I especially love Chopin and Jobim. When hearing an album for the first time, I like to arrive at the 'point of obsession'—the track(s) that, upon repeated listening, will truly capture me and eventually show up in my dreams. I imagine that the music writers I work with, as well as most fans, are in search of a similar transformational experience: the power of music. So I try to apply that in my work.

AAJ: Do you still think of jazz in the same way you did when you first got into it? Or has your perspective changed?

TH: My first exposure to jazz, when I started at Fantasy, was to artists like McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans. Before that, I was coming from rock, blues, folk, classical, pop, and r&b. Then I heard this new music and loved it, immersed myself in it. Good music is good music, and I've never been concerned, from a fan's perspective, with categories and boxes.

But boy oh boy, my perspective as a professional has changed all that! Evaluating music that I might be representing is a process that requires me to consider what 'slot' the album might be put into, as well as how it might be received by the writers I work with. Does it correlate with what I know of their tastes? This on top of my gut reaction to the music: can I listen to it repeatedly? Will it find its way into my dreams? But sometimes that's less important, on a professional level, than whether the music will somehow fit in on the larger stage.

Musicians' Public Relations Efforts

AAJ: What have been the greatest satisfactions and frustrations in your work?

TH: My biggest frustration is one presumably shared by many people: the shrinking space allotted to jazz in the media. But my biggest satisfaction is somehow prevailing against these tides and managing to get a feature or review into print that can potentially make a real difference in the artist's career. That is the goal, and reaching it is always a thrill.

I especially like to work with musicians who are just entering the recording field. About five years ago, I handled the publicity campaign for drummer Reggie Quinerly's album debut. The response to Reggie and his music brought to mind that observation about certain actors and actresses: that the camera loves them. The jazz press was very receptive, and the campaign culminated with a performance review in the New York Times that featured a huge photo of Reggie at his drum kit in the club. A signal moment!

Recently I've worked on the last two albums by cellist Akua Dixon. Akua has had a long, illustrious career, but in these projects the focus was more on putting herself front and center, as a leader and soloist, rather than being part of a string quartet or other ensemble. I've been very gratified, as has she, by the response to these albums. It feels like the timing was really perfect, as if the jazz world had pent-up positive feelings toward Akua, and this new music provided an opportunity for those feelings to be expressed in print.

AAJ: You've worked with Sonny Rollins for many years. How do you explain his stunning popularity over many decades?

TH: Sonny is one of the giants of the music. His contributions have been discussed and written about at great length in publications and in forums around the world for more than 60 years. But the main reason for his popularity is that his music has affected people in deeply personal ways—they tell him so. People of all ages, all nationalities, and all persuasions write to him with their stories of how his music has changed their lives. The word 'popularity' comes from the Latin 'popularis,' 'belonging to the people, accepted by the people.' Certainly many people have embraced the gift of Sonny's music over the years, and continue to do so.

I think that Sonny embodies the Zeitgeist in many ways. Apart from his music, he has an iconic image, or rather, a series of images, that seem to have captured the jazz public's imagination: his Mohawk, his study of Buddhism and yoga, his sabbaticals, his bridge period, to cite but a few examples. I would say without exaggeration that he is a magnet for publicity. Simply put, people are interested in him. They want to know more about him. They want to interview him, photograph him, film him. This is not a new development.

My challenge is to manage the attention, to channel the interest, so that it supports him, his music, his projects in the best ways possible. And the same would apply to any gifted musician with whom I work.

AAJ: Aside from Sonny, what kind of subject matter about a musician tends to attract attention and increase visibility these days?

TH: The tool I use for that in my work is the press bio. I think it should present a truthful, candid—but not salacious—account of the artist's life and musical path. I think such a press release should shed light on the artist as a person, not just a recitation of gigs and accomplishments. Perhaps I would include an extra-musical passion. Many years ago, when I was working with George Mraz, I read an interview in which George talked about his love of fly-fishing, and how the movement and tension of the fishing line were reminiscent of the strings of his bass. That's a lovely look at a different aspect of the artist.

Artists who come to music and recording later in life always have stories to tell. The vocalist Ed Reed made his first record at age 78! He never shied away from the difficult and even sordid parts of his story such as heroin addiction and prison. His honesty came through in his music, and people responded to it. Ed won the Rising Star/Male Vocalist category in the Downbeat Critics Poll at age 86! That's dramatic evidence that there's no one way to get to the 'finish line.'

Changes in the Music Industry

AAJ: Can you compare and contrast the jazz industry from the time you began working at Fantasy Records in 1973 to now?

TH: Remember record stores? It was all about record stores. Distribution was key, and it was a competitive field nationally and regionally. You had to get the records into the stores via your distributors, and you had to get them sold through sales and promotion efforts. Airplay was the principle way of moving products, and if a song took off, all of the relevant gears had to be in sync. In order for the distributor to keep the stores stocked, the label had to keep the records pressed and shipped, and had to anticipate need in terms of manufacturers' schedules. Paradoxically, smaller labels sometimes went out of business as a result of a big hit, because they couldn't afford their urgent pressing bills—they wouldn't get paid by the distributors in a timely manner.

Radio was all-powerful. In addition to there being many more jazz radio stations than today, it wasn't unusual for r&b stations to feature some jazz programming. And all these stations were nearly always locally owned, with distinctive music programming and on-air personalities. Regional styles still existed. We hadn't gotten to this homogeneous, bland sameness that is all too evident these days in everything.

Believe it or not, record review columns in daily newspapers and mainstream magazines (even Vogue) were very common. There was more than one newspaper that included jazz reviews and stories in some markets! And there was greater stability then among print outlets in terms of tenure and ownership. Downbeat was publishing twice a month in that era.

Also, at that time, there was a lot of work for musicians. The Fantasy artists, for example, were frequently and regularly on the road, on the circuits, appearing at clubs for a few days or as long as a week and promoting their latest albums, often as frequently as one a year. It was the record label sales department's responsibility to get this info to the distributors, like when an artist was coming to town, so that the product would be in the stores. Distributors had their own promotion staffs which were plugged into the local scene. Lots of moving parts. Not so much anymore.

Finally, formal education of jazz musicians was available but not yet a 'thing.' Today, young musicians learn jazz at conservatories and colleges, and many get college teaching gigs of their own. Back then, that was far from the case. In recent years, jazz education has had a big impact. The musicians' sources of income have changed as well. In the past, the musicians' main sources of income were gigs and royalties. Today, they more often have to find other means of sustaining their income, such as teaching.

AAJ: What are the changes that have happened during that time in the recording industry, and how does that affect the music that is produced?

TH: The main change has been the rise of the Internet, and of digital music, and of so-called free music and free everything. How is this economic model sustainable? We're seeing a modest resurgence of vinyl, and record stores haven't gone away entirely, but it's nowhere near what's going to 'save' the music business—and with it many people's livelihoods.

To sum up, obviously the landscape is radically different today. Record distribution, retail, and radio are not the robust, competitive fields they used to be. Print media is much diminished. Labels themselves are fewer in number, leaving an opening for artists to function as their own labels, which can be a liberating opportunity but also a heavy, costly burden. Artists are now entrepreneurs, producing their own music, responsible for every aspect of package design, sales and promotion, distribution, and career strategy as well as the music. Some artists welcome this challenge; some would probably be happier with an actual label performing these tasks—if only there were enough labels currently in operation to serve the music community.

Musical Careers

AAJ: Is it possible for a talented musician from a college or conservatory to achieve a satisfying career today? If so, how would you suggest that he or she go about it?

TH: As always, to put it bluntly, talent is not enough. Unless an artist is fortunate enough to sign with a simpatico label that provides career support—which can come in many forms, from vigorous promotion to helpful feedback and connections—he or she will have to make his or her own way. Taking care of the music itself is important, of course, by practicing, repertoire, developing new improvising possibilities, and so on, but also figuring out the business details necessary to secure bookings, raise money for recordings, and the sometimes amorphous task of raising one's profile among peers, press, the public. An artist just starting out also has to step back and come to an objective understanding: What is your story as both a musician and a person? And what kind of image are you trying to project in terms of visuals? Strong, compelling photos are another expense, but absolutely a must. The photos help tell your story.

AAJ: What do you hear from musicians and your clients about their gratifications, problems, and frustrations in their life and work?

TH: The number one frustration I hear from artists has to do with the paucity of booking agents. Seems like the folks working in this field are solidly booked up, so to speak, and there aren't enough of them to go around. I do know a few artists who really crash through and book tours for themselves. It's enormously taxing and time-consuming to cold-call clubs and get zero response. It's similar to what publicists often go through, or writers, or any freelancers. I can't blame an artist for wanting to outsource this particular job, but releasing a new CD without having at least one or two shows in support of the release is a lost opportunity on the publicity front, and on the overall career front too.

AAJ: What are the "tipping points" where a working musician goes from getting occasional gigs to being quite busy and in demand, to achieving top drawer attention? Above and beyond talent, what can musicians, their agents, and PR people do to elevate the status of a player?

TH: In my opinion, this is one of the mysteries, if and when the breakthrough might occur. One of my favorite pieces of advice—for myself and anyone who cares to hear—is "Always be ready to catch the ball" from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (book by Tom Wolfe, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1968). Also, "Chance favors the prepared mind" (Louis Pasteur). The musician should always be striving for excellence in one's music, taking care of business and having quality, having up-to-date materials available such as your photos, press kit, and web site, and surrounding oneself with positive people. Through perseverance, the 'overnight success' comes when it comes.

Concert and Record Reviews

TH: It's always gratifying for an artist to be on the receiving end of a review that really gets what the musician is doing. Press coverage can yield practical results as well as personal validation. It may result in an artist securing an endorsement deal, or finally getting the attention of a particular club owner, or drawing paying customers to a gig. These results are enormously gratifying for me as well, because not every pitch produces a 'yes.'

Negative reviews also happen on occasion, reviews containing errors, or displaying an apparent agenda, or coming across as just downright mean. In a long career, these will occur; an artist has to know when to let it go and when it might be appropriate to respond.

AAJ: As a reviewer and a journalist, I want to give an accurate and sincere critique of a performance. But I certainly don't want to adversely affect any musician. How can I criticize a musician's performance or approach without unduly hurting the musician or his image?

TH: If a reviewer has an understanding and appreciation of an artist and his or her work, that reviewer should be able to write an honest, respectful account of, say, a performance that may have been less than optimal in the context of the entire career or body of work. I've spoken with artists who may have had an off night and, upon reading the review, might even agree with the writer's assessment.

As an extreme example, I was at a concert last year at which a major musician was being honored, and he also performed. Something seemed terribly wrong with him that night. He seemed like a shadow of his former self. A reviewer sitting next to me who had an assignment to review the show declined to write about it at all, out of respect. He knew he couldn't give a fair shake to the musician under those conditions.

If a reviewer disagrees with a musician's approach or direction on a recording, let's say, it's more complicated. But sometimes things boil down to taste. I don't see the value of using a review for axe-grinding.

Hinte's Interest in "Metaphysics"

AAJ: Surprisingly, in your bio, you mention "metaphysics" as one of your interests. Can you tell us a bit about that?

TH: Coming of age in the '60s, a time when metaphysics was quite the subject and object of countercultural attention, I found that I was drawn to it very naturally and very strongly. I studied astrology in depth and also read extensively on tarot and numerology. I incorporated the I Ching into my daily life as a touchstone and a tool for meditation. Over the last 15 years or so, I've added feng shui practices to my arsenal.

Bottom line, I'm interested in energy—its movement, its characteristics, how it affects our environment, the impact it has on our bodies, minds, souls, emotions. I'm interested in unseen forces, mysteries, what's behind the curtain. Who can entirely explain the effects that music has on us?

Studying astrological transits offers a valuable perspective, I have found, on the inevitable up and down cycles in everyone's lives—including, for example, a musician's career in the public eye. There are times when a person seems to be operating in obscurity or struggle, and times when everything is flowing. Going with the wave is usually the correct course of action.

AAJ: Do you apply your understanding of metaphysics in your PR work?

TH: Yes, and I apply whatever my understanding might be to walking the dog, gardening, and discussing politics as well. I apply it to just about everything!

Supporting the Music Today

AAJ: What changes would you like to see in the jazz business?

TH: I'd like to see women musicians continue to take their place at the table and on the stage, and I'd like to see girls encouraged—by these role models—to do the same. I was really struck by an observation from the pianist Peggy Stern, who booked women-led bands at her Wall Street Jazz Festival for 12 years and just started a similar new festival in Austin. She noticed that, on average, women-led bands resulted in an equal number of men and women in the ensembles. It wasn't planned that way; it just happened. That seems revolutionary to me.

Also, this streaming business, this Spotify creature: can it continue? Royalty checks in the amount of pennies are just wrong. What are we going to do about this? How is it acceptable that people feel they're entitled to the fruits of musicians' creative labors without any compensation? This has to be addressed and fixed.

AAJ: Yet Spotify, YouTube, ITunes, and other web resources do increase listening and exposure. And they're not going to go away. Do you have any thoughts about how they can be made to work to the musicians' advantage financially and otherwise? Is there a way that we can have all this music so readily available to everyone while stimulating financial gain for the players and composers, perhaps in other venues?

TH: I don't have the answers. Someone is making money off these so-called resources. The revenues have to be shared with the creators, period.

AAJ: Based upon your love of jazz and your extensive interactions, what message would you like to convey to our readers about what could enhance the future of jazz?

TH We have to support the music and all its ancillary offshoots with our time and money. That means buying CDs (or downloads); attending shows; contributing to GoFundMe campaigns; subscribing to publications that cover the music; doing everything possible insofar as we're able. If not us, who?

Photo Credit: Clifton Anderson

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