So, uh, yeah, that was my week at CMJ -- a couple of very different Secret Society shows for very different audiences, with the off-days spent checking out as much live music as my schedule and my rapidly deteriorating meatbag would allow. All told, I had a grand old time and it would be fun to do this every year -- though I don't suppose anyone's about to hook me up with a lifetime pass.
Part of the excitement -- beyond the shallow but immensely satisfying pleasure of flashing my "Artist" badge and being waved through the door -- was that most of the time, I had no clue what I was going to hear. When I go out to a jazz show or a contemporary classical show, most of the time I have a pretty good idea what to expect -- even if I haven't heard those specific players or that specific composer before, I generally know their reputation and I'm rarely all that surprised by what I hear. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: if I'm going out to see someone, then 90% of the time I've at minimum listened to whatever tracks they offer online, or I've heard them play in other groups, and so on -- so if I'm making the effort to catch their show, it's because I have certain expectations, and I want the music to fulfill those expectations. Generally speaking, I am happy when it does and disappointed when it doesn't. But that also means there's not a whole lot of room for surprise.
Now, I hate to dredge up the interminably-discusssed "audience question," but I wonder if one of the fundamental problems with attracting young people to jazz and contemporary classical is that it's so damn hard to discover surprising new stuff in a live setting. I know this sounds counterintuitive -- isn't everything surprising to a neophyte listener? Isn't the problem too much surprise?
Well, no. I don't think my behavior is all that different from most other halfway curious concertgoers in their twenties and thirties, regardless of what kind of music they listen to. If a friend says, "Hey, let's go see Band X tonight, I think you'll like them" and I've never heard of Band X, then I'm going to Google them and listen to whatever tracks they have streaming on their home page or MySpace. So if Hypothetical Jazz Fan texts Hypothetical Non-Jazz Fan and says, "Hey, let's go see Brad Meldhau tonight, I think you'll like him," Non-Jazz Fan is probably going either (A) say no, or (B) go to Brad Meldau's website (Brad doesn't do MySpace) and check out the preview tracks available there. If they like what they hear, then they might agree to go to the show -- because now they have some expectations about what it is they'll be getting into. Like me, they'll probably be happy if Brad fulfills their expectations and disappointed if he doesn't. But if they heard the preview tracks, they won't be that surprised -- unless Brad decides this is the night he's going to break out the acoustic guitar and start actually singing "Wonderwall."
The difference with CMJ is that it wasn't remotely possible for me to check out all of the bands I was going to see on MySpace beforehand. But since I had an artist badge and could basically go to anything I wanted without having to pay a cover, it was easy to decide to go to shows because I liked the venue, or I liked the band name, or because it was someone I'd vaguely heard of but had no idea what they sounded like. All week I was constantly being surprised, which turned out to be really fun.
There's nothing really comparable to CMJ in the jazz or contemporary classical worlds -- IAJE was kind of like a stuffy, gated-community version of it (with performances in hotel ballrooms instead of clubs), and now even that is gone. The Bang on a Can Marathon has the right spirit, but even 27 hours on a single stage can't compare to five days and nights over dozens of venues, almost all of them devoted to unsigned or up-and-coming artists.
But even outside the lack of substantial jazz/classical representation at the big festivals like CMJ, SXSW, PopMontreal, etc (the NewAm/Cantaloupe CMJ showcase was great, but it was a tiny island in a big sea) there's the simple fact that jazz and classical shows virtually never include opening acts. This is how smaller artists make their reps in the indie world, by opening for (and often touring with) larger acts. It's good for musicians and labels, because it gives smaller bands access to a touring network, where they can grow their audience and hone their skills. It's also good for the audience, which gets to be surprised -- and sure, there are always the assholes that boo the openers before they even play a note, but most people want to like the opening acts, and are thrilled when they see a great set from a band they've never heard of.
When you go see a rock show -- any rock show, doesn't matter whether it's a CMJ showcase, or a bloated stadium tour, or just your average night out -- you're going to hear bands you probably haven't heard of before you get to hear the headliner. Often those bands will surprise you. Why doesn't this happen in our own little corner? We've talked before about the benefits of cross-pollinating across genres, but even within the jazz world, why don't we see Gretchen Parlato on the road opening for Esperanza Spalding, or Marcus Strickland out with Dave Douglas, or Andrew D'Angelo out with Tim Berne? Instead, this only seems to happen within the headliner's band (e.g., when Marcus plays in Dave's groups). But what about, say, Aaron Parks's own quartet opening for Kurt Rosenwinkel's, or Donny McCaslin's band opening for Maria Schneider's -- not just as a one-off, but actually touring both groups together? You'd think the overlap in personnel would make those combinations irresistible.
These questions aren't hypotheticals -- I know the answer and so do you: "ze money, Lebowski." The record companies that might benefit from nurturing their younger artists by putting them out with their established talent are all cratering -- they barely even give advances anymore, the last thing any of them have money for is tour support. Name artists don't want to split a portion of their hard-won guarantees with some up-and-comer. Up-and-comers need to hold on to their day jobs or teaching gigs to survive, and can't take off on tour for months at a time. Even at home in New York , the fear is that everyone's draw is so small that any vaguely complimentary multiple-band bill won't pull in any additional listeners. Double- and triple-bill loving organizations like Search and Restore and the New Languages Festival are (bless 'em) swimming against the tide.
Everyone's behaving perfectly rationally, but collectively it's bad for the music.