Thriving In The Landscape of Indie Jazz
In this piece, Surma Munyar looks at the music industry through the lens of indie jazz, and how streaming successes and the loyalty of individual fans have allowed such a niche genre to flourish in the modern music economy.
Guest post by Surma Munyar from TuneCore
In the recent years, playlists have taken the lead in new music discovery. Today, a placement in an editorial Spotify playlist with millions of followers is so coveted because it can be a career-defining moment for some newcomers.
While there are some pretty diversely curated playlists in most major streaming platforms at this point, it’s obvious that just like the rest of the music industry, editors flock towards genres that are well-received by the general public. Perhaps this is why almost every Indie Jazz artist or band I know personally seem to prioritize strategies that are geared towards building a loyal fanbase, instead of putting all their energy and funds into PR and social media marketing. As an Alternative Electronic Pop artist myself, I was curious to find out how some of those friends of mine view the music industry we all live in today.
JP Bouvet: “The fact that the average music enthusiast can now be a genuine patron of art they care about is a really beautiful thing.”
Image taken from: https://www.moderndrummer.com/article/november-2017-jp-bouvet
The first person that came to mind: JP Bouvet, the drummer of New York-based Experimental Jazz project, Childish Japes. JP’s career as a well-known drummer has helped his band get a head start, but they sure didn’t leave things at that since then. According to JP, the band owes their success to Patreon, streaming income and live performances.
Regarding their work on Patreon, JP says, “I believe, especially for experimental music, that fans understand the struggle of the artists they like. People are interested in supporting the Japes on Patreon primarily because they just want to support us. Yes, every now and then they a get sneak peek at some work or get to hear our new music before it’s released, but my impression is that a lot of people want to support the art simply because they’re good people and think it’s fair and rewarding to pay for something that adds value to their lives.”
It seems that this symbiotic relationship has inspired gratitude which must be motivating for Childish Japes to carry on despite the hardships we’re all too familiar with. JP explains, “The fact that the average music enthusiast can now be a genuine patron of art they care about, at whatever level of support they wish, is a really beautiful thing. It diffuses the “gatekeeper” role from the executives of yester-decades and creates a more democratic system, which in turn enables more freedom for artists to create things that deviate from the mainstream.”
Deniz Taşar: “Once you stick to being your genuine self and not try to be just any band that plays jazz tunes, you find a path to walk on and there you meet great people that want to walk with you.”
After discussing the benefits of building a solid relationship directly between the Japes and their fanbase with JP, I decided to reach out to an old friend of mine who lives so very far away from New York City: the Istanbul-based Indie Jazz singer, Deniz Taşar.
I’ve been following Deniz’s musical activities from a far. Back when I was in high school, I saw a snippet of what a path similar to hers might have looked like since I started out as a local Jazz singer myself.
“It’s really hard,” Deniz says, “But there is an audience out there and there are great venues that do support original projects and we, as musicians, support them back. With that unity comes great experiences where we find motivation.”
At this point in her career, Deniz has already played some prestigious Jazz festivals and residencies in her hometown, including Istanbul Jazz Festival and Soho House Istanbul. She recalls, “Starting out, I was just trying to find my way, singing jazz standards all the time. It gave me joy and taught me a lot but once I found my own words to say and melodies to sing, I transformed my repertoire one song at a time by adding originals.”
According to Deniz, one of the biggest challenges in her career was avoiding the money trap: “Gigs that pay good but kind of crush your soul… There are a lot of them! Sometimes it’s hard to say no but once you’re in that, you’re stuck.” After countless concerts under her belt, it’s no surprise that Deniz feels like she can be more selective in order to protect her creative vision.
She wisely states, “Once you stick to being your genuine self and not try to be just any band that plays jazz tunes, you find a path to walk on and there you meet great people that want to walk with you.”
Dave Mackay: “Getting to play my own music and also rock out with the headliner was such a blast. Some of those audiences made me feel like I was a headliner too, and they had probably never heard of me before!”
Image taken from: http://www.dave-mackay.com/
Dave remembers the first time he met Plini vividly: “I met him at a festival we were playing in the Czech Republic a couple of years ago. We bonded over a game of cards at the local bowling alley (I’m not making that up). Turns out he had been looking for a keyboard player for his US/Canada tour, so he invited me to join the band and also offered me an opening slot on the run. I think because we met as fellow artists, the dynamic was very different from the beginning. I’m very grateful to him for that experience – my music probably isn’t what a typical Plini fan might expect, but he let me do whatever I wanted in my set.”
I should mention that Dave has a pretty impressive resume to begin with. He toured with Art Garfunkel for years, but now, he seems to be turning his focus back into his music. When I ask him about whether he thinks he has gained any fans from playing with Garfunkel, Dave answers, “I think I probably gained the odd fan here and there – people who liked my playing in Art’s show and then looked me up online and found my solo project… But for the most part, the audience are coming to hear their favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs, not to discover my music.”
He had a drastically different experience touring with Plini, though: “It seemed like Plini’s fans were into what I did – some of those audiences made me feel like I was a headliner too, and they had probably never heard of me before! I think that particular music community is one of the most supportive, positive worlds I’ve been a part of – and that extends to the audiences, too. They seem to really dig musicianship and creativity.”
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol: “I owe a huge chunk of my success to my non-profit musicians’ collective and label, Dünya.”
Image taken from: https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2014/09/23/sanlikol-whats-next
The last musician I reached out to during my research was the GRAMMY-nominated scholar who now teaches full time at New England Conservatory in Boston, Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol.
I learned so much simply chatting with him during my years studying at Berklee and I was always in awe of the way he managed to maintain such a healthy work and passion project balance. He explains, “I view my academic career as its own thing. What really helped me build a loyal fanbase for my project was my non-profit musicians’ collective and label, Dünya. I owe a huge chunk of my success to the supporters of Dünya. It’s how I managed to make orchestral Jazz records, while keeping my academic career afloat at the same time.”
I’ve always looked up to Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s approach because he seems to be receptive to each and every opportunity while building long-lasting relationships along the way and keeping his attention laser-focused on the positives. “I’ve had a few students here and there who have become genuine fans of my music but I can’t say my students are my fanbase – and that’s okay,” he says, and adds, “What I love the most about teaching music is that it makes me a better musician, anyway.”
Indie Jazz artists in particular might have to try a bit harder to carve out their road to success than those who set their gaze upon relatively more mainstream genres, but it is possible to turn some disadvantages into advantages. These artists, and so many others out there, continue to prove this theory right.
One of the most beautiful things about the global music industry today is the fact that it’s diverse with a giant spectrum to offer, and there are always music lovers out there who are keen on discovering new artists.
No matter what kind of music you make, if you do feel like you’re fighting a losing battle every now and then, remember: there are so many others who share the same struggles as you and nobody expects you to go through it alone. Your music will gain new meaning when you let people in.