Shows, Closed Books, and Genre-Bending

Hello, friends, and welcome to another episode of Posts That Will Require Extra Editing. I am one sentence in, and I can already tell you this one’s going to be a headache of an intentionally-worded piece. Yay! At any rate, this has been on my mind since that Paying Your Dues post (which went up last week, but in my time was written about three weeks before this one). In my writing, blogs frequently spawn from other blogs, and this is no exception—tonight’s installment of Music Is Hard comes from one of the thousand or so questions I posed in that entirely-too-long edition. The question in question? (Yes, I’ve had caffeine.) This one:

“Which organizations are profiting off the free labor of student musicians and then closing their calendars to those same artists looking for a place to launch their own projects?”

And, as I’ll get into later on, why aren’t we getting onto these calendars, who controls who gets onto them, and how should we work within and around these institutions to ensure we’re getting the opportunities we want?

In the initial post, I followed the quoted question with a quip about late-stage capitalism, but that paragraph largely went under-explained out of sheer necessity (read: the weight of 3300 words). I could probably come back to most of them at some point in time, but this one in particular is lighting a fire under my butt currently, so we’re going to dive in.

First, I want to explain a little for folks lacking context and/or people who maybe didn’t read the behemoth that is the Paying Your Dues post. In most scenes, a handful of venues (sometimes a large handful, sometimes a small one) control a lot of the music that happens within a genre (or, sometimes, book folks making “creative music” as a sort of inter-genre catch-all). For live performers, getting in with these venues is imperative. We prioritize meeting owners, contractors, and booking agents; we familiarize ourselves with the best opportunities to book each of our projects; we often get involved in projects outside our specialty for reasons beyond “hey, it pays the bills.” Or, put another way, we make noise and let people get to know us in the hope that they’ll book us or point us toward people and opportunities that fit our artistry.

That said, things aren’t always so easy. As we leave academia and set out on our own, we (young musicians generally) realize some of the spaces we had access to as part of education initiatives will no longer open their doors to us and our projects. In some cases, this is a moment of of course not—for instance, even though I’ve performed at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, they’re not going to be clamoring to book me until I have a lot more star power. (And even then, we’ll see.) In others, though, it shouldn’t be quite as much of a moon-landing moment. Why couldn’t we book Scottsdale Center for the Arts, or Automata, or insert-your-mid-tier-venue-here? In the end, it comes down to numbers. We need to be able to attract people and make sure folks actually show up to our gigs. There’s no point booking hundreds of seats if five people will be there.

And, again, that’s a challenge we’re happy to take on. We’re used to that. We’ve grown up in a deluge of Facebook invites to all our friends’ gigs, whether we were interested in the music they were making or not. These days, the senior recitals have begun to phase out, and we’re seeing (or, at least, I’m seeing) a rise in personal projects—in Phoenix, that’s outfits like Palo Brea, The Troubadours, House of Stairs, Hive Mind, Phoenix Brass Collective, the Sunshine Ensemble, and Free Keith!!!. The one thing that unites all these groups across genres and idioms is that in each case, the projects revolve around music the band wants to be making, not music they feel like they have to be making. There’s a lot more creative freedom in these groups, and it shows in the music. It might not be jazz; it might not be straight classical; it might not be entirely pop. Each of these projects (and a whole bunch of others I’m following) is a blend of its members’ influences and the complete skillsets they bring to the table. That’s what makes them good and critical and necessary and us.

This comes as no surprise to any musician growing up Right Now™, but all of this music sounds pretty different and, frequently, a little weird. The harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral parameters of each ensemble shifts between and beyond the more standard groups you might hear around the Valley. Before we go any further, let’s be clear: this is great. Watching skilled musicians flex the entirety of their chops to craft compelling, unique sonic environments is a treat, and that’s a severe understatement. (#NumberOneInInnovation?) Phoenix might not be Los Angeles, but even in the handful of weeks I’ve been back, it’s become abundantly clear that folks are increasingly interested in taking the reins and making the music they want to hear.

So why, then, are we all—all—struggling upstream in pursuit of a seemingly decreasing number of creative music gigs?

You’ve already heard my thoughts on Paying Your Dues (and if not, take a half hour and read for yourself), but let me use this moment to connect that post to this one—because this question is ultimately the one I’m trying to answer. And so, with the weight of 3,300 words plus the almost-900 we’re at right now, let’s weave some things together. As young musicians in academia, we spent a lot of time playing the concerts we were required to—big bands, orchestras, combos, chamber ensembles—and in doing so, we cultivated relationships with the venues who typically put on those productions. Some of those were outside ASU and CalArts and insert-your-school-here, and across the board, our professors (who, remember, are both advocates and gatekeepers) encouraged us to strengthen those relationships. “They’ll be helpful when you’ve graduated!” they said (though usually without the exclamation point—again, yes, I’ve had caffeine). Many of us graduated with this mindset intact, thinking we’d be able to cozy up with the venue managers we’d known for years and work our way into some gigs with our names on them.

This is where things start breaking down.

Some places, like Scottsdale Center for the Arts, are big venues that will lend you some of their marketing machine if you can prove you have a track record of successful performances (and not just in a the-music-went-well sense). So, to get to that level, you’ve got to play a bunch of smaller venues, right? That isn’t as hard—I find myself at the Lost Leaf pretty regularly to watch friends play, and First Fridays tend to be a smorgasbord of creative music across Phoenix. From the looks of things (and please remember I’ve only been back for a month and I’m doing my best), we’re looking at a few problems: first, a lack of consistent accessibility to mid-tier venues (think Crescent Ballroom, the Nash, Regency, etc.—basically anything above bars and churches); second, a general lack of knowledge surrounding (and/or willingness to work on) marketing inter-genre and nontraditional ensembles to music professionals; and third, a complicated relationship between advocates and former students that makes it hard for people in power to really see and understand what we’re doing.

The marketing thing, I think, can unlock a lot of doors with regard to the other two issues. On a basic level, if you’re loud and clear about what you’re doing, other people tend to know what you’re doing, and that can make it a lot easier to open mid-tier doors. I think that’s going to be another post, because there’s a lot to be said on that front (and it also ties into funding and paid performances and grants and a whole lot of other things). Still, the advocate-alum relationship is a complicated one to navigate, and there’s one reason in particular that sticks out to me in Phoenix: our advocates don’t go to most of our low-level gigs.

Yes, I’m going there. Bear with me for just a couple paragraphs.

Anyone who remembers the last time I was around Phoenix jazz knows that for a long time, I was the person who went to absolutely everything. (That’s not particularly financially sustainable, btw.) Anyone who’s seen me around in the last two months knows that while I haven’t hit every possible show, I’m still doing my part to reprise that role (and when I’m not around, you guessed it, that’s because I’m still job-hunting and a $20 ticket every week isn’t super financially sustainable). As a result, six weeks in, I’ve got a decent idea of who goes to what, and for those of us who came out of the ASU program, things don’t look awesome—regardless of genre, a lot of our former teachers don’t make it to things that aren’t at the Nash or at ASU. Now, on the one hand, that’s great for those venues, particularly for the Nash; they’ve become a nexus of activity for a significant bubble within our community. On the other, it’s difficult for the young crowd; we’re stuck in a never-ending loop. Most of us usually make it onto a lineup at the Nash to play more trad-jazz-oriented music (somehow, I’ve become the exception?); as a result, patrons really only hear us play trad-jazz-oriented music, and when we don’t have older (/more established) musicians who have seen our own shows and can back us up to the powers that be, it’s a lot harder to get our hands on the few creative-music gigs up for grabs there.

And this is hard! We want our teachers to come see us not only because we’d love for them to be more involved and invested in our post-academia musical lives but because we want to share this part of ourselves with them. When my teachers and colleagues come to anything of mine, my reaction is ninety percent “OH MY GOD YOU CAME” and maaaaaybe five percent “oh sweet, now they’ll know what I’m up to.” (The other five percent is usually “well, better not screw this up now.”) And a lot of our teachers have families and adorable tiny children and adorable not-so-tiny children! They have other parts of their lives pulling them in different directions! They have their own creative practices to nurture! I repeat: this is hard! As someone who doesn’t have kids and may not want kids but who is innately familiar with the obligations therein, as someone who is newly adjuncting and adapting to the somehow-crazy-weird hours and commitment that involves from time to time, I absolutely, absolutely don’t want to unfairly pressure any of our mentors and leaders to pick up all the slack. As I said, this isn’t a single-issue problem. But the boys won’t say it (yay toxic masculinity), so I will: 

Dear faculty and mentor friends, 

We would really love to see you at more of our creative music gigs. We will get better at talking to you about them, but they are important to us in ways we know you understand, and we still really like y’all’s approval, so if you happen to catch one of our sets every once in awhile, we’ll probably love you forever.

This overarching one-two-three-punch of professional and social complications isn’t an issue that should be resolved by one side and one side only—from the looks of things, the Nash’s resources (as they are now) appear to be quickly nearing capacity. If the rumors about double-booking at Crescent (and Regency?) are true, we have a lot of mid-tier spaces running out of room for new acts. (Let it be known I’m not intending to put anyone on blast here; the Nash was a formative part of my musical upbringing, so I care a lot about what goes on there, but I also know it best overall. I’ve still got a lot to learn about other venues in town.) For some of us, this might mean we don’t look for gigs in certain places for awhile. It might mean our pitches start focusing on shows, projects, and experiences rather than the lineup of people looking to take the stage. (More on that in the marketing post.) It might mean exercising those social skills we claim to possess and making friends with the OME people, even if that means taking a couple musical steps out of our comfort zone. (Improvisers: you’re going to be fine. Hop on that early-October application deadline for the festival, though.) Overall, though, it means that even if we grew up around this idea that a particular venue was the place to be and the place to pitch to, we need to be discerning not only about cultivating new relationships with other venues but choosing which projects to pitch to which places. No single mid-tier venue is always going to have space for our possibly-jazz-adjacent weird-music stuff, so we need to learn to talk more efficiently and accessibly about our music while keeping in mind that we can pitch the same band/concert/project two different ways to two different venues and communities.

So, in the end, I think my best advice is this: for those of you who are primarily jazz-trained, start thinking critically about whether the music you’re making is best called “jazz” (and what other descriptors might help clue people into the connections you’re making between the tradition and what’s coming out of your band). If you’re classically-trained, consider if you’re really “classical.” Regardless of your training, remember there’s lots of room in the New Music (read: weird music) community for overlap between genres. Remember you don’t necessarily need a genre label if you can describe your project based on the story you’re telling or how your musicians are crafting your soundscapes. Remember we need to be on the lookout for more places to have proper shows, not just jam sessions.

Because here’s the thing, folks: these projects we’re working on, our little bands and shows and pieces we spend hours on when we don’t think anybody’s looking, the ones we’re using to build our social media presence and our portfolios, they are vital. And they may not all be forever—hell, they may not all survive the semester—but they’re the opportunities and the long, slow moments we have to improve our art as we define it. They’re the (hopefully) judgment-free zones where we can screw up a little on the way to figuring it all out. They’re the groups of people we’ll want to celebrate victories with. They’re what we’re working toward: that intersection of the things we’ve been taught and the things we’ve found and the things we just intrinsically are. These projects absolutely should have priority in our lives. We should be pitching them to well-established venues, because they’re not what people are used to hearing. They’re where we’re going, and they’re arguably where our generation is going. And I know Phoenix doesn’t normalize those kinds of music as much as Los Angeles and New York do, but please, please, please remember these bands and acts and shows absolutely have their place in the pantheon alongside Coltrane and Mingus and Ornette and Beethoven and Shostakovich and all the rest.

We have a place in the pantheon. We just have to work our way up there.

Certain parts of the community are always going to be focused on maintaining (and, when possible, improving) institutions and presenters that already exist. Those of us still in or newly done with our educations are frequently going to be on the young, scrappy, and hungry end of things. While that means we’re already hustling the most (and hopefully Not Throwing Away Our Shot), it also means that if there’s going to be leadership on this issue, it’s going to come from us.

Let’s get to work. 

A thousand thank-yous to Alex Price for beta-reading this post before publication.

Thanks so much for reading! I blog about music, womanhood, misogyny, sexual assault, and institutional and interpersonal power dynamics. If you like what you see, take a look around! I’d love to have you back. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.