What's The Point, Part 2

Dom Minasi By

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This is the second entry for my new column at All About Jazz. I actually published What's The Point? in my own blog in January 2012. All About Jazz asked if I would be interested in writing for them; I was surprised and honored. I decided to update and rewrite the original article; because of the response and all the emails I received, I wanted to expand and make some of my points longer and clearer. I have increased the piece by two thousand words and broken it into two parts.

Chapter Index

The Late Eighties and Beyond


What's the Point?

The Late Eighties and Beyond

In the late eighties, as jazz began to emerge again, along with the older Improvising musicians a new breed of Improvisers started appearing along with the older and newer "straight-ahead jazzers." But in New York City, there was no place to play except The Knitting Factory, and a few other places, which were all door gigs (same as pass the hat, except patrons paid at the door). The straight-ahead jazz clubs, except for The Blue Note, had disappeared and in the last twenty years, a few new jazz clubs have opened up including a new Birdland and Iridium. But these clubs are expensive and feature name acts. Years ago, The Blue Note always let musicians in for free. They didn't pay a cover and it was a great hang, as was Bradley's, but that is a thing of the past. Awhile back, when Joe Williams was alive, my wife and I caught Joe at The Blue Note. Between the cover, music charge and one drink apiece, it cost $150. I suspect it is more now. There are some jazz clubs that have lesser-known musicians performing that pay, but be prepared to do some serious hanging out in order to get a gig. I guarantee you they are booked at least six or more months ahead.

In the last few years, because of the escalation of New York City's rent, Brooklyn has taken the place of what the City once was. The Roulette and The Knitting Factory now reside in Brooklyn, with more performance spaces popping up every day. Along with the performance spaces there are many bar gigs, which are also door gigs. The prices at some of these door gigs are dictated by the clubs/venues and sometimes by the musicians. Some places call them "donations." If you want to perform, these are the conditions you have to deal with. The problem is, you must bring in an audience or you will not make any money nor work there again. This means before you play, you have to promote the gig. It will cost you money to decently promote. AllAboutJazz.com, NYC jazz Record, The Jazz Insider and the NY Press are some of free outlets where you can promote for free. Getting your gig listed in the NY Times and Time Out New York is the coup de grâce, and even if you have a wonderful reputation with a great press kit, there is no guarantee you will get listed .

If you intend to treat your musicians with some dignity, you pay them out of your own pocket and you keep whatever is made at the door. Ninety-eight percent of the time you will lose money, especially if the venue wants a guarantee. This means they get a cut, whether there is money to be made or not. You also shouldn't book a gig three nights in a row at different venues or even one per week unless it is a steady paying job. You want as many people to come to your gig so it is best to have one door gig a month or every few weeks. You can't expect your friends, family and fans to show up three times in a week. You're lucky if they come once a month. This is why you only see name acts perform here every two months or so. Even with their great draw, not even they can attract an audience every week, or once a month.

It's happening not only with jazz and improvised music, but with rock 'n' roll music too. My son is a wonderful rock 'n' roll guitarist and he does freebees and door gigs. I got an email from an ex-student, a rock singer/songwriter who does very well in Europe but when he's here he's expected to work for the door.

A few months ago at a performance venue in New York City, an argument over money ensued between the leader of the group and one of the managers. It became violent and the manager punched the musician in the eye. The musician wore glasses. He ended up in the hospital getting stitches and is lucky he is not blind. Word spread throughout the musical community and many musicians have banned that venue. This was beyond unforgivable. This is no way to treat artists and musicians. Needless to say, no one I know has worked there again.


With the advance of technology and recording equipment, many recording studios that existed in the sixties throughout the early nineties are gone. Musicians who aren't signed by a major record company or independent label have taken advantage of the technology and now self-produce. There are some small independent labels that will put your music out on their label, but you have to give them a completed master and liner notes. If you want to do it right, you need to record in a professional recording studio with an engineer you trust who can also master your product. The next step is to shop it around, which means you have to do the research and find the type of companies that may be interested in your product. Some companies will not accept unsolicited demos or CDs. So what do you do? You write a letter and ask to submit your music and if you are lucky, they will respond. Most don't. They might if you have a star on your recording. Unless you are personal friends with the star you have in mind, and if he/she is willing to do you a favor, it will cost you a lot of money. The problem with using a name is:
1. If you and your star never played together it might not fit and you and your music will suffer;

2. If you have enough in the budget to pay your star, what happens if and when the recording comes out? In order to get gigs to promote the CD you will have to book that star too. You'll never get enough money to pay him/her and the rest of your musicians;

3. Sometimes the cost of a star is your whole budget. So you don't use a star and hope for the best.

Putting out one CD a year is very expensive. Many musicians think they can recoup their expenses at gigs. That's why they take door gigs because they can sell their CD's —but with the popularity of digital downloads, very few people buy CDs now. If you do or don't have an audience, and can't sell CDs,

What's the Point?

Most radio stations and many reviewers require CDs. They haven't kept up with the technology that is now available. I understand that change is hard, but it must be dealt with in order to help artists. If you, as an independent artist or record company, only put out digital downloads, you are still required to send them CDs with artwork and the liner notes. In other words, the whole package if you want to get radio play and reviews. If you have an extensive mailing list of radio stations and magazines and journalists, the packaging and mailings will cost you a fortune, and the chance of recouping your investment is not good. If you don't have that mailing list, you will need to hire a promo company who has a relationship with magazines and website editors and a radio person who knows all the jazz programmers and DJs. This, again, is very expensive,

All in all, these are impossible situations. Some magazines (even though they won't admit it) will not review your CD unless you advertise with them. Radio station directors decide to whom they will give radio play. To be fair, radio stations and jazz journalists are overwhelmed with music and it is impossible to give everyone a chance, but to review and play the same people over and over again doesn't seem fair. In essence your career may be in their hands. If you are part of the new improviser's scene, your music will only be played on college radio stations. At least the college music directors are open-minded to new music and some of them accept digital downloads, which isn't the case for the commercial jazz stations.

What has happened to us, that our need for performing has canceled out our dignity?

It's time to stop playing door gigs and passing the hat. Stop playing for nothing and stop playing.

You may say, "If we stop, someone will come along and play anyway." They won't play if there are hordes of musicians outside of these gigs carrying signs that say "Pay or We Don't Play." Ask the customers going into the bar/restaurant if they would work for nothing. It may be considered harassment, but something has to be done. If this happens at every venue in New York and Brooklyn and were then to spread throughout the USA and Europe, it just might make a difference. If we can't get that grant that will pay us, then go find another way or don't play.

I've received many emails, which disagree with the strike mentality. Many of my colleagues don't know what to do. The musicians union never put jazz musicians and clubs and restaurants high on their priority list. We are out there alone, and somehow we have to get back the respect that we, as professionals, have lost. You wouldn't call an electrician or a plumber to fix something and tell them you expect them to work for free or dinner. And if you did, would they show up? They have a service that requires payment. We as musicians have a service that requires payment too.

You can say to me, "But I play for the love of It." Well, play for the love of it at home if need be, and stop embarrassing yourself by playing for nothing. If you are a professional musician then be one.

I know we say to ourselves, what about all the hours of studying and practicing I've done, or the two hundred thousand dollar education I got, isn't it worth something? Yes it is, so why play for nothing? Some musicians want the reputation, but that rep won't put food on the table. Remember the venue you are playing in is making money, but you're not. And the only reason they are making money is because of you.

In our neediness to play and perform, we have lost sight of who and what we are and, most of all, we have lost our self-worth. Throughout the world, and especially in the USA, greed has been the dominant force adding to the decline of civilization. In this weakened economy the rents for all these venues are high and getting higher all the time. In order to sustain, the clubs and performance venues must charge more, but charging more does not mean "don't pay the musicians." As the prices go up, the amount of work goes down.

You can blame Wall Street, politicians—anyone you like—but the truth is we have to blame ourselves. It is unbelievable to me that clubs and venues throughout the city and Brooklyn not only don't pay their musicians, but are booked seven nights a week with non-paying performances—and because musicians are clamoring to play (I would say work, but playing for no pay is charity), these venues are booked six months in advance, There is something definitely wrong with this equation. There is one venue in NYC that has no heat in the winter and no AC in the summer. The conditions are unbearable when the weather is outrageously cold or hot, and yet musicians are clamoring to play there and they think if you play there, not only is your music being heard by who-ever, but also you've made your"'mark." Another organization asks for donations by mail from musicians. In essence when you play there you've paid yourself. How ridiculous is this?

On The Road

New York City isn't the only place this is happening. It's happening in Los Angeles and throughout the US—and more and more in Europe. Eleven years ago, with the release of Takin' The Duke Out (CDM, 2002,) I started getting emails from different clubs and venues in Europe to come over and perform. There was only one hitch—door gig!

I couldn't believe it. I talk to many improvising musicians who travel to Europe and they all tell me the same thing: they spend hours upon hours on the computer to book one good paying gig and then some door gigs so they can sell their CDs. They might make a profit, but my sense of it is: they break even.

You could say to me, "There are plenty of jazz musicians who travel and get paid well," and I would say, you are right. But there aren't as many as you think. And the ones that do well basically made it years ago when there were only a few record companies and plenty of work around. The newer artists fortunate enough to be signed by a record company have the backing of those companies, who pay for all their promotion. They are set up with good management and agents. They don't have to worry about costs and they can concentrate on the creative part of their life.

Until we regain our self-worth, nothing will change and nothing will change till we change!

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