Can you use the internet to sustain a jazz career?

This post is a response to a specific thread shared by some musicians on the fate of jazz and the result of so much now being free on the internet. This is a vitally important topic and one on I wish to share my thoughts, using my current internet project as an example of one possible illustration of a musician’s use of the internet to make money.

By way of introduction, I am a lifelong jazz trombonist, author, and teacher, and a career marketer. I have NOT lived through the experience of seeing hundreds of my albums get posted on Youtube and Spotify and my income evaporate in the process. I am enormously sympathetic to you if you have experienced that for yourself. I just want to share my personal perspective on the current reality of musicians and the Internet, and perhaps offer some useful advice.

PLUS, the thoughts I offer are not simple things anyone can turn on with a switch. For a certain generation of musicians, you are caught in a crappy transition period. You’ve built a life of work that was made for another time and method of monetization. Now, you’re being asked to accommodate to a dramatic change in how information flows throughout the world.

The tools are here but neither the time nor the expertise is easily available for you to implement them. Age is not necessarily an impediment to utilizing new technologies and mindsets, but it does make it harder.

Embrace the internet. Don’t fight it

I think the common sentiment of, ‘just go out and buy more CDs’, in reaction to our current reality misinterprets the seismic change that has occurred and the opportunity that is available to musicians. Accommodating a musical living to the reality of the internet is by no means simple but I believe that the answer lies in using the connectivity it provides us rather than fighting against it. 

The internet gives us the means for connectivity and communication. The question I think we need to ask ourselves is, how can we monetize our skills using the Internet instead of resisting it? How can we use the Internet for our benefit to accomplish something we never could do before Google, Youtube, Facebook, Spotify, etc.? We’ll NEVER win the battle against the internet. Think kung fu rather than boxing.

Let me share the current project that I’ve been working on to illustrate what I am suggesting. I’m building something online called the Jazz Master Summit.

The “experiment” I’ve been working on over the past 8 months (the Jazz Master Summit) is to create a unique week-long online experience, and advertise and promote it to as many musicians as I can target within the three billion internet users on the planet. I DON’T give it away on Youtube or Facebook, but instead charge a small amount for the online experience – $20. Is that the right price? I’ll find out as time goes on. That price has to be a balance between contributing to an income for me and something a large enough audience believes is worth their hard-earned money.

And, that $20 goes to me, not to Alphabet or Spotify or Facebook, etc.

The core of the experience, in this case, is recorded video interviews with master jazz players and teachers. Richie Beirach, Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, and about 25 others. I talked to them about improvisation, composition, reharmonization, stories, history, etc. Again, trying not to repeat the type of interviews they’ve all done. I focused on providing unique entertainment and practical value to the viewer. And creating them, not as hour-long talking heads but as rich multimedia experiences. 

The week-long event also contains live experiences hosted on Facebook. A competition, talks with these and other musicians, a facebook watch party for the documentary by George Schuller on the Modern Jazz Quartet. George and a Berklee professer Allan Chase will talk about the film and the history during breaks of the film. I’ll give away various musical goods and services from Jamey Aebersold, Bandzoogle (a service for building musician websites), and other things as a promotion of them. I’m trying to create an experience similar to attending a conference for jazz musicians. The only thing missing is the playing, but this event is more a learning resource than a performance stage.

Sharing revenue

Now, there is a revenue share with the musicians. I’ll give each musician and company that partners with me something called an Affiliate link. This is a link that is unique to each musician. Anyone with whom that link is shared and who clicks it to pay $20, the musician providing that link gets 50%.

That concept of the affiliate link has been around a long time and is very common to marketing people but completely foreign to most musicians. It’s been difficult to communicate the use of that link to musicians and how best to propagate it. But some are getting it and using it.

To be fair, most jazz musicians don’t have a ready made list of people to whom they can send this link. They also don’t have the experience in writing a few compelling lines of text to describe the event, the benefits, and the direction for people to click to the shopping cart and buy.

Some are posting it on their social channels but knowing how best to effectively do that is foreign to most.

These are skills that need to be learned. In the old days, and certainly still today, all the promotion and selling was done by the business manager, promoter, and others. But I believe that one of the shifts that the internet provides each of us is the ability to promote ourselves and to be our own ticketmaster. But, like playing over changes, it is a skill we must learn. We can resist, but I don’t think it’s a battle we’ll win, OR SHOULD WANT TO!

Building your audience

Going back to my Jazz Master Summit project, a MAJOR aspect of my event is to collect names and emails of the people out there on planet Earth who value my music, my teaching, my communicating, my interview style, and me. This is a crucially important way to build an audience in the age in which we find ourselves. I think that a musician’s list is one of his or her most important assets in these times. At some point, I want to create a short online course on marketing for musicians, and one element of that course is, how to build a list. It’s MUCH more than just adding your Rolodex into outlook!!

What can you do with that list of names and emails:

  • Promote your gigs and those of others
  • Promote the opportunity to teach
  • Promote your books or your written music
  • Create a conversation with a live audience about anything
  • Perform to a live audience
  • Promote your videos or recorded audio files

At a certain point, you could have a bigger list than many of the venues in which you perform. THAT adds to your value. Remember Louis C.K. before he crashed into the #MeToo movement? He had the audacity to sell his own tickets to his concert and made $4.5 million. Please… I’m not suggesting that jazz musicians can easily become millionaires. I’m suggesting that the potential is there to take more control over our economic lives if we embrace the new technological reality.

A new perspective

I think we’re limited in how we use this technology only by our imagination. Perhaps it’s healthier not to lament the internet as an assault against the good old days of Tower Records, and music exclusively living on circular disks each selling for $15, but rather as an opportunity to BE our own Tower records with a storefront potentially in 3 billion homes and pockets.

The Internet and its manifestations of Youtube, Facebook, Spotify, etc. is here to stay. The question for all of us is, how can we best use it to build ourselves a sustainable and fulfilling musical career?

1 Comment

  1. Ron McClure AKA McJolt on May 25, 2020 at 11:23 pm

    Mike,
    I read Roberta Pickett’s response before I read your article on musician’s use of the internet. I know she’s a protege of Richie Beirach’s and is probably as resistant to using the internet as he was, but is beginning to appreciate. After countless phone calls from Richie, begging; “Call Me, Mcjolt!”, we’ve actually begun using FaceTime, as hard as it has been to look at each other!! He won’t consider online, remote lessons, which I think he’d dig, once he got into it, as I have in the last couple of months. I just purchased a new iMac, and have begun rewriting my “memoirs”, for lack of a better term. I call it:
    “Body Music – a Post Bop Journal”, at least to this point. Lewis Porter hooked me up with Evan Spring, a former Grad Student of his, as a potential editor. Evan read my first draft and found it too daunting a task to edit in its current form, but offered several pages of tips on how I might go about bringing it to the point where he’d consider editing it. If the pandemic has had an upside, it’s got me re-writing what I began writing while in the USSR with Charles Lloyd in May, 1967, and after reading Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”, and began writing what she suggests as at least 3 “Morning Pages” while on planes and trains ever since. I don’t know where I’m headed, in terms of publishing or whatever, but the task at hand is to get it to the second draft ASAP, and not worry about the results at this time. I’m looking forward to watching all 25 of your interviews, having only seen Richie’s, my own and clips from Randy and Lenny’s interviews, that were posted recently in conjunction with something else your doing, I guess:? I’m very interested in learning more about using the internet as a musical outlet and potentially a source of income, now that the music biz is shut down completely and Spotify and YouTube have all but totally stolen our royalties from actual CD sales, and performances. I’l keep you posted on my progress, and probably pick your brain from time to time about things I’m only beginning to realize exist in cyberspace. I’m worried about if, when and where I’ll ever play music again for a live audience, as well as being unsure if I’ll have a teaching position at NYU or the NYJA at any time again? In the meantime, I’ll be that masked man on West 87th street with the tuna sandwich, iced coffee and iPhone keeping my distance from the increasing number of defiant citizens who are following Donald J. Trump’s lead and wearing it on their sleeves….

Leave a Comment