Monday, March 19, 2007

Do they give grants for indie cred?

Much good chatter continues on the web about "the audience problem", or whatever you want to call it. See Darcy's recent post and the comments, prompted by Ben Ratliff's review of Zorn and Taylor at Lincoln Center.

One problem, it seems to me, is that there is an urge among many "jazz" musicians to be pulling in two directions at once. On one hand, we want the grants, institutions and funding that comes with "highbrow" culture, since on some level we know that our ambition for our music most often can or will not be supported by the marketplace. On the other hand, we play a music that, moreso than most "art" musics, has been tied intimately with pop culture from the get go, and indeed WAS the pop music for periods of its history. So we want Taylor Ho Bynum and Charlie Kohlhase and Jane Ira Bloom getting grants, but we want to be at the pop clubs opening for Tortoise and Arcade Fire too.

I'm not sure it's really a problem, and I certainly don't think that the two goals are mutually exclusive, but I hear both conversations tied together, and I think untangling them is useful.

When Roscoe Mitchell came to Boston he talked some about how the AACM started in Chicago. Two things struck me: 1. he made it sound fairly organic. Muhal Richard Abrams had a rehearsal large ensmemble, and groups started to grow out of that larger group. They shared common interests and common needs, and eventually started to put on concerts, etc. It was very much a bottom up enterprise, which of course later did win grants, make records, etc.
2. It started very specific to Chicago, as did the BAG (St. Louis) and other groups of that type. Thirty years later the Jazz Composers' Collective, coming from a very different esthetic, did the same thing in New York, with some real success. But again, there was a specificity of time and place.

This point is so obvious that often we miss it. You can't approach the audience in a suburban/ex-urban landscape of, say, Jacksonville or Rochester the same way you approach a hipster hot spot like Brooklyn or Berkeley. The venue in Albequerque that Doug Ramsey sites recently in his blog is a lot easier to get off the ground someplace where real estate prices are reasonable. In Boston, owning a space, even a fifty or seventy seat space, is a seven-figure investment just to secure space.

My point, if there is one, is that I don't see a "movement" coming the way many of us pine for one. Rather, if success is going to come, it's going to come one small organization, one concert series at a time. Hopefully, the web can serve as a center of communication, a display case for best practices, and a library for old and new musical ideas, but by itself it can't fuel the movement.

This conversation is more than theoretical for all of us, obviously. I look at the particular problems of the Boston scene. There is a local jazz blog, Brilliant Corners blog, that spills many words, not always coherent, about problems and bright spots of the Boston scene. I don't share his antipathy for the schools, but they do eat an overwhelming amount of the attention (Berklee) and artistic activity (NEC) that other artists want to (and deserve to) see.

I'm at a point where I'm thinking of ways to contribute beyond simply playing- I don't intend to move back to New York, and simply teaching isn't enough. My enduring feeling is that we badly need more venues, and more accessible venues. I love the Lily Pad, but Inman Square is a pain to get to, and I don't want to deal with pay for play forever. And I agree completely with Darcy that the best way to get a young audience is to show them that the music is very much alive, not a museum piece. I'm starting to kick around ideas, business plans, etc- advice and encouragement is appreciated. More soon.


Dan said...

I don't think that getting grants and being involved institutionally necessarily needs to ruin ones indie cred. I also don't think that the institutions need to be so...well, institutional. Look at the Vision Festival - backed by a non-profit, Art for Arts, run by artists, and they put on a great festival every year with institutional support. I think creative musicians deserve access to the money being given out in grants. Unfortunately, that money isn't given out directly to artists very often - it has to go through some kind of institution. It's up to musicians to make sure that there are institutions that support the work they want to do, not the other way around. I'm lucky to be involved in an organization that I think does really good things with our money, for the artists and for the community, but it's not always the case. In Chicago we also have the great examples of the AACM, and also a couple lesser known organizaitons: Asian Improv Arts Midwest, which branched off of the original Asian Improv organization out of San Francisco. They put on a great Asian American Jazz Festival every year and put on concerts throughout the year. Umbrella Music is not incorporated as a non-profit, but it's a collective of musicians who actively sought out venues and regular bookings, and they have done a great job in their first year of operation. I guess this should all be considered encouragement, because I've seen first hand that it can happen. It requires dedication since it will be done in your free time for now, and some grant writing skills are useful - but the rewards are big. A city like Boston deserves to have people presenting all kinds of music.

pat said...

Thanks Dan,

Appreciate the support. One thing I neglected to mention- in the theatre and dance worlds I'm told fiscal sponsorship is fairly common, where individual members of an organization can fundraise for their own projects using the organization's NFP status. (see Does anyone know of something similar in the music world? Seems like such a no-brainer.

Dan said...

Pat, all I know is that NPOs can provide tax shelter for individuals, acting as a 'fiscal sponsor.' I think the reason it doesn't happen more often is that it is kind of a pain in the ass on the book keeping end for the NPO, but I think it's still worth looking for organizations that might be interested in filling that role.