18 August 2014

The Column: Eddie Myer – Digital Anorak

     Holiday season can present both the jazz musician and the jazz enthusiast with a bit of a dilemma. For the  self-employed musician, the nagging realisation that family or romantic commitments have obliged them to take ‘quality time’ off during the busiest gigging season of the year can be enough to put them in a foul mood and obliterate any of the supposed benefits of a week on the beach. For the enthusiast, it means leaving behind their beloved record collection and enduring endless repeats of this years beach-bar banging tunes ’til they get home. Unless, of course, they’re all connected up to the magic of the internet, in which case all the music of the world will be waiting for them wherever there’s a plentiful supply of 3G or uninterrupted access to a shady wifi hotspot. Streaming services are revolutionising the music industry, so we’re continually being told, and the impact is already being felt by the jazz community – both players and audiences alike. 

     Firstly, one of the big unacknowledged changes in the jazz scene is the availability of a truly gigantic archive of footage on YouTube, from grainy flickering cameos from the earliest days of both jazz and cinema to the latest Jacob Collier sensation. You could argue that the pedagogic aspect of jazz has  been significantly democratised, in the sense that aspiring players can now watch Wes Montgomery’s right hand, Jo Jones’s traditional grip, Paul Chambers’ fingering or Dizzy Gillespie’s embouchure as many times as they want, whenever they want. (There’s also an expanding sub-genre of hilariously inept ‘instructional  videos’ on offer from the likes of expertvillage.) Older readers may remember the days when live footage of the jazz greats was almost impossible to see – now there’s almost an embarrassment of riches on offer. Furthermore, YouTube also provides a platform for contemporary artists to spread the word. Snarky Puppy’s carefully staged live recordings gained them an international following, even to the extent of starting a revival of the previously unlamented jazz-fusion genre, aforementioned prodigy Mr. Collier’s creative mix of multi-tracking and video editing continue to astound and entertain, while audience-sourced gig footage keeps everyone who’s interested updated with the latest stylistic trends emanating from New York, Tokyo or Stockholm. Jazz has thrived in its own niche of dedicated fans attending word-of-mouth gigs, and now these can be shared worldwide. On the downside, it has to be acknowledged that none of this activity leads directly to artists getting paid in any significant way; the PRS and YouTube have had major disputes over royalties already, and it’s a paradox of the internet’s structure that while allowing everyone access to intellectual content, it also tends to encourage the power of monopolies to decide who gets to make money out of that content. 

     Despite this, surely the overall effect will be to increase appreciation of the great players of the past whilst empowering the present generation with access to a media platform that they can control?  If we enter the world of streaming services, however, the picture is a lot murkier. There have been many well-publicised complaints from artists at the tiny royalty payments handed out by Spotify, so the argument is whether the potential exposure of a Spotify presence can compensate small labels for the loss of physical sales which making your album available for free streaming surely entails. After all, a lot of jazz artists make money by selling CDs at gigs, or even when out busking, and can ill afford to lose this ‘physical sales’ market. As yet, arguments and conflicting statistics fly back and forth, and no real definitive business impact studies have been published, so we’ll have to wait and see whether streaming represents a glorious new dawn or the death of the recorded music industry as we know it. One aspect which hasn’t yet been extensively addressed is how streaming services alter things at the consumer’s end. 

     For better or for worse, Jazz has long been a connoisseur’s market; it’s all about the music, of course, but there’s more to it. I have before me as I write an aged copy of Rex Harris and Brian Rust’s “Recorded Jazz; A Critical Guide”, published  in 1958 by the august Pelican imprint. In it, the dedicated seeker can uncover  such gems of discographical information as the recording career of Blind Leroy Garnett (pno) (Birthplace and date unknown, believed dead), limited as it is to two sides cut in Richmond Indiana in 1929 in the company of James “Boodle-It” Wiggins (vcls) and an unknown harmonica player and briefly re-released decades later on the Riverside label. This kind of stuff was just catnip for jazz fans back then, when records were fragile and hard to get hold of and the dedicated enthusiast was also an expert archaeologist and curator of obscure musical treasures. You might say that this has nothing to do with actual music, perhaps even making unkind references to anoraks and train-spotters, and that it’s exactly this attitude that gives jazz a reputation for being dry and fusty rather than vibrant and exciting. That’s to overlook the profound body of knowledge accumulated over the 100-plus years of the history of the music, as well as the depth and complexity of the actual practice of playing and composing it. There’s an extra level of appreciation which a dedicated fan will derive from knowing when, where and by whom a piece of music was played, in the same way that an understanding of musical form adds an extra level of appreciation that shouldn’t detract from the immediacy of the music. This is where Spotify serves the Jazz fan, and the music itself, very poorly. 

      Do a Spotify search for Miles Davis – probably the most famous modern jazz artist with a long, complex discography that moved through a fascinating series of stylistic evolutions.  You’re confronted with a huge list of live recordings, radio airshots, themed compilations and obvious cash-ins (The Miles Davis Dreams Strings, anyone?), amongst which Miles’ actual album releases, which he took such pains to programme, are totally lost. There’s no information at all, beyond the sketchy biog – no composer credits, no list of performers, no dates, producer credits or no liner notes. That’s not the only problem: say you want to find recordings by pianist Bill Evans. You can find a bunch of them — but nothing linking him to Kind of Blue, perhaps the most important (and, in vinyl and CD form, certainly the bestselling) recording he was ever a part of. Evans shaped that album profoundly. You won’t find John Coltrane — another key voice on that session — there either, since it’s a Miles Davis record. The way Spotify sets up it’s metadata search facility is based on a pop music model, and jazz just doesn’t work in the same way. Part of the pleasure in a jazz recording is being able to place it in the line of the artist’s and the music’s evolution and Spotify doesn’t accommodate that dimension at all. It’s not surprising that the rise in streaming has coincided with a surge in vinyl sales, as people acknowledge that there’s more to the listening experience than the music itself being delivered in the cheapest, most convenient form. As streaming is set to continue to expand into a primary position, jazz labels, publishers and artists need to work with streaming services to address the problem of how best to present the music on this new medium. It’s something which will need a concerted effort from all concerned to embrace and improve the technology – jazz needs to look towards the future to safeguard it’s past.


Eddie Myer

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