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Thana Alexa, Sirintip and Owen Broder: Beaming Live Jazz From Their Living Rooms To Yours

Michael Ricci By

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Our inspiration to organize the Live From Our Living Rooms Online Festival and Fundraiser was to enable artists to collaborate from a distance with the purpose of collectively generating support for the NYC music community we deeply care about. —Thana Alexa, Sirintip and Owen Broder
All About Jazz was in a unique position to help promote and broadcast the Live From Our Living Rooms Festival & Fundraiser to our readers from April 1-7, 2020 as we presented select performances over the seven days. Similar to the NEA Jazz Masters concert we broadcasted last April, I felt a personal connection to the Living Room project and was intent on seeing All About Jazz do its part to help it succeed. Organized by musicians Sirintip “Tippan” Phasuk, Thana Alexa, Owen Broder and their nonprofit partner, MusicTalks, the festival, designed inside a short window, helped raise emergency relief funds for New York City jazz musicians whose careers have been adversely impacted by COVID-19.

From my perspective, and with the exception of the brief Crowdcast outage on April 2, the festival went off without a hitch and was enthusiastically received. So much so, their financial goal was met, then exceeded. All About Jazz celebrates positive stories in jazz, and the Live From Our Living Rooms Festival and Fundraiser proved our jazz community can mobilize quickly, support one another in a time of crisis and make a difference.

In this interview, Tippan, Thana and Owen share their personal experiences.

All About Jazz: How and when was the fundraiser conceived?

Thana Alexa: Together, our team of organizers spent the majority of our quarantines organizing the Live From Our Living Rooms Festival & Fundraiser. When the pandemic first came to national attention in the U.S. and concerts, tours and other music-related jobs were getting cancelled, Sirintip decided to start a personal GoFundMe to raise money for NYC artists who were looking at very difficult financial times ahead. Owen Broder, who saw a post about her fundraiser on Instagram, got in touch with her with an idea to start an online music festival to continue a creative exchange of music within our community. They both then contacted me with the idea, and I suggested that we get a nonprofit fiscal sponsor involved in order to solicit tax deductible donations and, hopefully, institutional support as well as a detailed grant application and an experienced panel of grantmakers in NYC. This is how the team of Live From Our Living Rooms began. Ever since our first conference call, a continuous flow of mutual support, wonderful ideas and creativity gave way to what became the Live From Our Living Rooms Online Music Festival & Fundraiser. From there, we began contacting all the musicians we knew collectively. The stellar lineup we secured is a firsthand account of what a supportive community we are all a part of here in NYC.

AAJ: How did you go about selecting and scheduling the performances?

TA: When we first started putting the lineup together we discussed the possibility of getting a few marquee names on board to help bring attention to our initiative. We, of course, never imagined in a million years that we would end up with the online equivalent of some of the most amazing music festivals around the world! Antonio Sanchez, my husband, offered to reach out to some of his personal contacts and colleagues to see if they would be willing to participate. We were so touched by the overwhelming positive responses we received and also by how enthusiastic everyone was. It was a perfect combination of musicians within our community who not only wanted to support the cause, but express themselves and play! We also wanted to make sure that we had a combination of emerging artists on the lineup as well as musicians from other genres to truly represent all musicians in NYC. I really feel like we ended up with a wonderfully diverse lineup.

Owen Broder: We also wanted to offer something for all the folks stuck at home who might not otherwise attend a jazz festival or listen to the artists we programmed for our evening sets. With so many young people unable to attend school, we wanted to provide something engaging for kids. Our children's programs each morning were something the whole family could enjoy together. The afternoon masterclasses and interdisciplinary presentations each afternoon were great means of sharing ideas, knowledge and experience through interactive conversations and activities.

Sirintip Phasuk: We reached out to artists within our community that we knew personally or through our connections who live in NYC. It was important to us that the artists performing were NY based since the fundraiser is meant to help NYC musicians and that they could perform solo or with the people they were living with to make sure that we did our part in quarantining and keeping the world safe.

AAJ: Why did you choose Crowdcast as your video platform and were you pleased with the results?

TA: After doing a lot of research on the streaming platforms available to us we decided that the easiest platform to use—for both artists and viewers—was Crowdcast. Crowdcast allowed simulcasting (broadcasting on multiple streams at one time), didn't require audience members to download an app to view concerts, and allowed us to keep all of our festival videos in one place for the duration of the festival and fundraiser. It also made it possible for musicians with varying audio/video setups to participate, no matter how complex or minimal their setup was. There were a few global Crowdcast outages that caused some issues during our weeklong festival (the most notable of which was during Bill Frisell's concert on the evening of April 2). These issues were unfortunate, but were out of our control. These streaming platforms are still trying to figure out how to deal with the sheer number of people tuning in worldwide as this is a brand new age of livestream concerts.

SP: (Adding to TA) We chose Crowdcast because it was the most user friendly platform for the artists and audience that still allowed us to keep all the streams in one place and also making it easy for people to donate compared to Facebook Live for example. We've been pleased with the results and sympathize with the outage that the platform has experienced due to the sudden influx of users. Crowdcast was quick to notify us about their outages, communicated with us throughout and made timely corrections.

AAJ: Which audio / video gear delivered the best results?

TA: Those artists that used good microphones through some sort of audio interface with a decent camera ended up having the best results. We knew going into this that each artist had to do the best with what they had in their individual quarantines. From the very beginning we decided that we didn't want to make lineup decisions based on the gear that artists had available to them in their homes. If we had done that, then we wouldn't have had the incredible lineup of artists that we did! The charm of the festival was watching each artist do their best with what they had. It humanized each musician in a wonderful way and showed that love, vibe and creative exchange were of utmost importance to all of us.

AAJ: How did you go about selecting the music to perform for your individual shows?

SP: As a duo of voice & drums, Nolan Byrd and I had limited choices in what we could put together in a short amount of time. Being busy with organizing the festival, it was hard to spend enough time to create a new set from scratch for our instrumentation. What we did was a combination of rearranging songs from my debut album Tribus, rearranging covers that had modal harmony to enable simple looping, and including pre-produced tracks of a few new songs that I performed during my U.S. solo support tour for Reign of Kindo back in August 2019.

OB: With two single-line instruments, there certainly were some challenges in recreating our band's repertoire without harmonic instruments available. But we had a lot of fun navigating that, and felt it pushed us into some new territory with songs we've gotten really comfortable with over the years. It gave us a chance to utilize our woodwind doubles to incorporate some other colors and textures, and open things up, in terms of form, harmony, and time.

TA: Antonio and I wanted to showcase a few different tunes from each of our bands, including our duo project that we started at the beginning of 2020. As I released my latest album ONA on March 27 and wasn't able to do my upcoming release tour, I decided to arrange a couple of tunes from my album for solo looping and drums. We also wanted to play something in honor of New York City, so Antonio had the idea to play a very hypnotic arrangement of Billy Joel's "New York State Of Mind." When we came up with the arrangement we were both feeling very emotional about the amount of people who have died so far in NYC and really needed to play something like that to heal our own souls. Our version of this song was a tribute to all New Yorkers.

AAJ: I personally enjoyed each of your three concerts, but if you could redo some aspect of your performance, what would it be?

OB: Thanks so much for watching, Michael! Ethan Helm and I had a lot of fun putting this set together and just as much fun performing it. It was incredibly refreshing to make music during this performance dry spell we're all experiencing. We had planned to play several other tunes, thinking a saxophone duo wouldn't spend much time on each one. But we were pleasantly surprised at how much we were able to get out of each piece. I'm quite happy with how things went, but I could imagine restructuring our time slot to include more of our compositions.

SP: Thanks for tuning in Michael and I'm so glad you enjoyed them! I think we could have played more. We were expecting more questions since our performance was scheduled as a masterclass/performance at 3:00pm. However, I think most of the viewers who tuned in, like my Swedish family who were six hours ahead in Sweden, were expecting a pure performance. We didn't get as many looping nerds involved as we would have expected. Looking back now, we could have definitely played at least one to two more songs.

TA: I'm so glad you enjoyed each of our shows! Thank you for tuning in to watch them. Since Antonio and I have a home studio and the capability of producing a professional looking and sounding livestream we labored over making the audio and video quality of our performance as high as possible. We have a lot of experience recording audio in our studio, but had never done a live broadcast of any kind, nor had we used our microphones to perform together at the same time while recording. We were actually very happy with the results and I don't think we would change any aspect of the production value. The only thing I wish we would have had was more time to answer the live questions that were asked by our viewers from all around the world. We thought that playing duo voice and drums for an hour would feel like ages, but it went by so quickly!

AAJ: How inspiring was it to see the comment stream of positive and encouraging words?

TA: The rolling stream of comments during our performance was the reason we felt like we were doing a live-streamed concert. It felt strange to know that hundreds of people were tuned in and watching at the same time that we were performing, but not having them in the room with us felt very strange. Those comments made it feel like we were actually doing a live performance and not just playing for each other in our basement! After our set Antonio and I went back and read each one of the comments and were very happy to read all the positive feedback we got from our viewers!

OB: During the set, I was too far from my computer to see the comments themselves, but I could see the comments column scrolling as messages came in and found that energizing! After the set I did go back and read all the wonderfully kind things people had to say, and that feedback was incredibly heartwarming and rewarding. Having that element of audience participation, I think, achieves the global connection we hoped this festival would foster.

SP: I didn't personally see the comments since I was running the Ableton, video and sound of the computer but it helped to know that there were people watching us at that very moment even if we couldn't see them.

AAJ: The enthusiasm from both performers and viewers was palpable. How did it feel as a performer playing to a screen and not a live audience?

SP: Although it was different, it definitely changed the way we walked into the performance compared to just a regular rehearsal in our music room. We missed seeing the people in person, feeling the energy of the physical room and the instant feedback on what we were doing. But because we knew that hundreds of people were watching us, we still felt the adrenaline that created that extra nerve for us when performing in comparison to just a rehearsal. It's crazy how powerful psychology is, even when it's something you can't see. One other major thing that was a benefit too, is that we didn't need to spend so much time on traveling, setting up & tearing down. It was amazing to only need to click "Go Live." In a way, it made it much easier to truly just focus on the music instead of stressing over the technicalities of each venue.

TA: It was a bizarre experience to get ready for a gig—rehearse, dress up, feel the adrenaline and excitement before playing—only to go down into your home studio instead of out to a club or theater! The feeling of performing was great, though. Knowing that people were tuning in LIVE to hear us at that very moment gave a similar feeling of excitement to performing live, even though we were alone in our studio. Having the screen with the comments open was also great because it allowed us to feel connected to the audience that was tuning in, read questions that audience members had, etc. It was a very cool experience.

OB: Echoing Thana, the amount of preparation that went into setting up for this put us in the same headspace as we would be in for a gig in a live venue. I think that adrenaline—paired with the scrolling comments column and the occasionally visible "applaud" emoji—yielded a really great performance experience from our end. There's something really special about inviting so many people into your own home, too. We curated the space. We got comfortable. And it felt personal being there with our listeners.

AAJ: Where did most of the viewers tune in from or did it depend on the show?

SP: It was different for each show but we had viewers tune in from all over the world. From the US to Europe, Asia, South America, Australia & New Zealand.

AAJ: What were the differences and similarities in how the performers approached their concert, compared to a "live" concert?

OB: I imagine that each performer felt a lot of freedom as they programmed their set and set their own tone for the performance. That, however, is probably not much different from live performances from any of these veterans of the world stage. All the artists have dealt with easy and challenging sound checks, which translates in this context to getting their live-streams up and running; they are all incredibly comfortable commanding the stage and doing whatever they need to do to enjoy the experience of making music; and they all have illustrious careers demonstrating their ability to engage their audience in any kind of room. I think performers strive to make the stage feel like their living room. Now we're making our living room feel like the stage.

SP: I loved how it humanized the artists by inviting the audience into their homes. Usually on a stage, as an artist, it's possible to create a barrier between the artists and audience with mysterious stage lights, outfits and smoke effects, etc. The stage is in a way like our office, where we step into our uniforms and perform. Once we can go home, we can step out of the costume and be whoever we want. However, by performing from home, it's impossible to keep that same distance. Immediately the audience gets a glimpse of what it's like at the artists home which tells us a lot about who they are. In many ways, the performance became more intimate just like how it would have felt if we were all invited to these artists living rooms.

TA: Each performer did a unique thing. Some made their entire performances about communicating with the audience in real time, while others decided to just play knowing that people were tuning in and listening in real time. It was amazing to see how each person decided to communicate with the audience and how that connection guided certain performances.

AAJ: What is the long-term sustainability of this format?

OB: It's an interesting question to consider, because so much of it is dependent on how society will recover from this global crisis. Amongst ourselves, Thana, Sirintip and I have asked, "when will audiences feel comfortable being in a club or theater again?" "When will bands feel comfortable flying or driving for hours in a packed van again?" We may be looking at live-streamed performances for months. But as for long-term sustainability of this festival's format specifically, we are certainly brainstorming how Live From Our Living Rooms can continue to contribute to our community beyond the week of music we've just concluded. We could not be more thrilled with the support and generosity we saw, both from our viewers who donated and from the artists who volunteered their time and talents. But all the artists involved need to work as badly as the artists who apply for our grant. So it may be the case that we focus on developing paid performance opportunities for artists in the future.

SP: I think the long-term solution is to make more stable and high quality performances from our homes/venues where the audience can still connect with each other and the artists. Looking ahead, I think it's crucial for us to explore streaming platforms and changing the mindset of listeners to still support artists financially even if it's through a digital format. Like Owen mentioned, it might take a while until we can tour again and that audiences will feel comfortable sharing an enclosed space with so many others. The other aspect of it is also to consider the environment. Due to the economics and infrastructure of touring, it's hard for most artists to tour in the most eco-friendly way. It's common to fly long distances for maybe just for a few shows with detours in between. In the long run, this is not sustainable for our planet. I think if we can find ways to help musicians and venues make ends meet, exploring streaming / VR experiences will be a great way for us as an industry to make sure that we can do our part in reducing our overall carbon emissions and staying afloat even during a pandemic.

AAJ: Arguably, streaming concerts can be meaningful even after folks return to the clubs. Do you think jazz can cultivate a new audience this way?

SP: I'm certain. Just from this festival, I've seen a lot of viewers who've tuned in who might have not have seen or heard any of these artists or music before. These viewers most likely would never have bought a festival ticket and committed their time to check out new music if they would have needed to go somewhere. But with a streamed festival which is donation based, a lot of viewers could now tune in comfortably from their living rooms and experience something for the first time without needing to gamble with their money or time and still get the live experience with their fellow viewers from all over the world. After seeing a performance they enjoy, they'll now be more inclined to buy a ticket and see these artists in person when the clubs are up and running again. I think this is a great way to reach the younger audience in particular. Many high school students were assigned to do school papers on our online festival and many of them were blown away by this music that they've never been exposed to nor been able to afford before.

TA: Jazz is a living, breathing organism. But we've seen this week that a similar kind of "in the moment" magic can be captured in a livestream performance and broadcast to people all around the world. I think that once quarantines and lockdowns are over artists may still be willing to continue live streaming their performances to increase viewership around the world and connect with people in a different way. I'm sure that many people who tuned in to see my concert with Antonio had never seen either of us live, which brought our music to new ears and new places in the world. I don't think that live streaming will EVER take the place of live performances in person, but it may become a tool to introduce music to new listeners. When we are out of the woods and back to performing live I do think it will be paramount for all musicians and live venues to support each other and continue to keep live music ALIVE.

OB: I don't know that there's more to be pursued in that sense, nor do I think there should be. Clubs stream their concerts, educators stream masterclasses and offer Skype lessons, and there is plenty of streamed and recorded video content out there—both independently and on platforms such as NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. As soon as we are able, we should all be getting out there to support the clubs and performance venues who present artists live and in person. These are businesses that depend on our patronage and continue to keep jazz—and all other performance art forms—alive.

AAJ: In an internet flooded with free on-demand video content, what do you think is the key to convince an audience to watch a performance at a set time, and to support it financially?

SP: I think the sense of community. People are social creatures who love to connect with others. If we can create an online platform where people can still get that social interaction from each other and the artists, I'm sure that many would like to support it. Also in a city like NYC where going out can be financially stressful, streaming can be a great alternative for people to connect and spend a smaller budget to support their artists instead of also feeling the pressure to pay for transportation, food and drinks on their night out. Now they can comfortably chime in from home, save money and still support their artists. This could also be a cool way for artists and venues to make extra money if they could sell extra tickets by streaming their live performances to the rest of the world.

OB: We built our festival and fundraiser on the message that the musicians of New York City—one of the world's cultural meccas—have completely lost their source of income, and need help. The situation is urgent, and people are suffering. The compassion we saw from our audience was incredibly moving, and we are now in a position to help a lot of out-of-work musicians.

More generally, I think the most effective way of cultivating loyal viewership and monetizing performance content—recorded or live-streamed—is by focusing on your core fan base. Starting with family and friends who genuinely want to support your art, and letting it grow organically from there. I think one of the best ways of connecting with this part of your fan base is through your email list. It's more personal than social media, and it requires more from your subscribers than simply clicking "follow," which gives some indication that they're more dedicated to the work you're creating.

AAJ: If you had to pick three Living Room festival performances that you connected with as a viewer, which ones were they and why?

TA: Bill Frisell's performance was one to remember. A performance that warmed our hearts in ways we never thought it could. His livestream gave us the kind of music that changes lives... it sure impacted ours that night. Especially after the global Crowdcast outage that caused him to start playing two hours later than planned, the fact that he decided to go ahead with his livestream that same evening instead of rescheduling was a very heartwarming thing to witness.

Organizer Sirintip and drummer Nolan Byrd put on a duo live stream concert with one of the highest production values during the entire festival week. I listened to their show with headphones and when I closed my eyes I felt like I was listening to a beautifully produced record! They did an incredible job with their audio and visual.

Chick Corea's performance was also one to remember. He not only played beautifully, but had so many uplifting and positive things to say to viewers who were tuning in from all around the world. His words gave us a lot of strength and inspiration.

SP: Three?! I can't pick three... I think the first Becca Stevens performance was magical. She set the tone for the entire festival with her inclusive energy and beautiful songwriting.

Bill Frisell due to his healing & calming playing despite the technical difficulties he was facing. None of that showed in his performance at all. All of it went away, as soon as he started to play.

Nicole Zuraitis Songwriting masterclass, it really felt like we were all it in together. Writing songs on all levels.

Also Thana Alexa & Antonio Sanchez performance of "New York State of Mind" is one to remember. It felt like the perfect homage to the healthcare workers on the frontline risking their lives everyday to save New Yorkers.

OB: I'm tempted to write Bill Frisell's three times. It was a moving set of music during which one song seamlessly flowed into the next. I will always remember listening to that set lying on my bed at home with my laptop on a pillow beside me. It could not have been a more comforting experience in these trying times.

I was blown away by Michael Mayo's performance. The intricate arrangements we watched him build with his looping pedals showcased his mastery of harmony, composition, and improvisation. It was a deeply creative performance.

The Podd Brothers' Swing Set children's program was also a highlight for me. The care they put into programming the set was obvious and incredibly effective. I enjoyed hearing their energizing arrangements as an adult, and we received a lot of great feedback—and a lot of cute pictures—expressing how much fun kids were having watching Matt, Adam, and of course Adam's son, Oliver.

AAJ: The festival raised over $50,000 in seven days. What was the money specifically raised for and how will funds be distributed?

TA: The festival's associated fundraiser raised over $57,000 between our charity Go Fund Me and other institutional support, which was more than we could have ever anticipated! The money we raised will provide performance grants to NYC musicians who submitted complete applications by our April 8 deadline. Our panelists are reviewing the applications now and money will be sent out by our nonprofit partner MusicTalks to all approved grantees by April 22.

AAJ: Are you looking for a specific type of performance submissions? What are the requirements?

OB: Recipients of our grant are asked to share a video of their own performance from their living room. As this is a time for crisis, we are stipulating no requirements to that beyond posting it by the end of the year.

AAJ: Will the videos be archived at YouTube or Vimeo? If so, where can they be viewed?

TA: The videos from our weeklong festival will only be available to view until April 15, after which they will be taken down. We wanted to give people around the world a chance to watch and rewatch any shows they may have missed or wanted to see again, but also wanted to respect the fact that our artists performed for free and may not want free content to remain out in the world indefinitely.

AAJ: What are some of the positive takeaways from the festival?

SP: That music can truly heal. Once the performances started, all the terrible news and statistics we woke up to every day went away. It was the perfect healing distraction that helped us feel connected and less hopeless. We're also very grateful that we're in the position to help so many musicians in need now with the donations we received.

TA: We got a firsthand look at what a wonderful community of artists we are a part of. Ours is a community who understands that mutual respect, support and continued creative exchange are vital to our survival as human beings.

AAJ: Can we expect more virtual home concerts in the future?

SP: I think so and you'll be the first to know!

TA: This whole online festival experience has given me a lot of ideas! I am actually thinking of putting together a virtual album launch party, as my album release tours between now and the fall were cancelled. I think it will be a great way to bring a live performance of my music to homes around the world.

AAJ: Anything else to add?

TA: This whole initiative has reached more people and recognition than we could have ever anticipated it would... We've been covered in Rolling Stone, NPR, The Telegraph, London Financial Times, All About Jazz, Broadway World, Wall Street Journal and more, and are still waiting for more coverage to come out this week. It's a heartwarming thing to feel the support.

As organizers, we feel very proud of what we've accomplished and look forward to being able to help as many NYC musicians as possible with the money that was raised.

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