Space is the Place: Jazz Artists Tap into the Power of MySpace

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Jazz Artists and MySpace
By Jason Raish

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Myspace.com is a great place to troll—for jazz, that is. Once the domain of teenagers and pop-punk bands, MySpace has expanded beyond being a kiddy playground. A recent survey by ComScore Networks reported that 51.6 percent of visitors to the popular social-networking site are 35 years or older.

Jazz is only the 26th most popular genre at music.myspace.com, coming behind comedy (23rd) but well in front of crunk (37th). Yet the current MySpace demographics are more in line with jazz’s typical audience age than one might suspect. Musicians have begun to recognize this, and in the past year it’s become increasingly common to see jazz players advertise their MySpace URLs alongside their homepage addresses.

In fact, for many musicians, feedback on their MySpace pages far outpaces that from their regular Web sites.

“I get comments and messages on MySpace every day, but get messages from my site only about once a week,” says pianist Vijay Iyer (myspace.com/vijayiyer). “I’m still getting lots of hits on my site, but not as much direct communication as I did maybe a couple of years ago.”

For feedback and promotion, “MySpace has worked much better for me than my Web site,” says bassist Lonnie Plaxico (myspace.com/lonnieplaxicogroup), who features links to CDBaby.com for those who wish to buy his music.

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (myspace.com/rudreshm) also admits he gets more feedback through MySpace, though he’s not necessarily happy about it. “I think that sucks. I don’t know why people are more inclined to go to my MySpace page than my Web site. My Web site has lots more free music and more pertinent info about me. Is it just that one’s MySpace page is a soundbite version of what one is about? If that’s the case, that’s sad!”

Saxophonist Eric Darius (myspace.com/ericdarius) has a theory as to why the service garners more traffic than an average Web site: “MySpace is much more interactive, which is why I believe more people use it.”

Guitarist Liberty Ellman (myspace.com/libertyellman) agrees. “I think people like the reciprocity of it. If you accept them as a friend then they show up on your page and you on their page. It’s kind of a mutual endorsement on some level.”

Every person on MySpace has a “Friends Space,” where users link to other MySpacers who have approved their “friend” requests. This provides easy networking, connecting the dots between players and their fans. Many artists share MySpace friendships, and trawling through a musician’s “Friends Space” is a fun, if time-consuming way to discover new music.

For instance, vocalist Hilde Marie Kjersem (myspace.com/hildemariekjersem) is a rising artist in Norway but she’s virtually unknown outside of the country. But she closed down her traditional Web site because, as she says, “It would never attract as many visitors as MySpace—no way!” Yet Kjersem has more than 1,600 MySpace friends, including many well-known jazz musicians, such as Diana Krall (myspace.com/dianakrall). Perhaps somebody digging through Krall’s 17,000-plus friends will discover Kjersem’s music and add her as a friend. It’s like viral marketing without the nasty connotations.

“Anyone can be anybody else’s friend,” says Iyer, “and that gives rise to some interesting connections. I myself have received requests from both Bob James and Peter Brötzmann!”

MySpace was created by Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson in 2003, and it was an almost instant hit with teenagers, who glommed onto the idea of having virtual “friends.” Meanwhile, bands discovered that the site was a valuable marketing tool, and emo-punk groups like Hawthorne Heights and My Chemical Romance became breakout stars, in part, because of their MySpace buzz.

DeWolfe and Anderson sold the service in 2005 for $629 million to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, owner of the Fox News channel and the New York Post. The purchase of a somewhat progressive, youth-oriented site by a conservative media mogul caused some hand-wringing, but Murdoch’s ownership didn’t hamper MySpace’s growth in the slightest.

On Aug. 9, 2006, the site’s 100-millionth account was created, and currently an average 230,000 people a day sign up for the service. MySpace is among the top five most popular sites on the Web, along with stalwarts like Google, Yahoo and MSN. It reaches an average of nearly 40 million people every day according to the Alexa site-ranking service.

Anyone can go to a MySpace page and listen to music and read basic content. But if you want to check out photos not displayed on the main page, or subscribe to MySpace-hosted blogs, you’ll need to be a member. The service is free, and getting started is a snap.

Musicians should sign up at music.myspace.com. (Look for “Artist Signup” on the far right of the red menu bar.) Enrolling through the music portal gives artists the ability to upload tracks to their sites, use an “Upcoming Shows” interface and have the “General Info” section tweaked to list band members, influences, record label, etc. Nonartists aren’t allowed to upload another person’s music directly to MySpace because it’s a copyright violation, but users can link to songs that musicians have posted to MySpace, allowing them to show support for the groups they love. And artists and fans alike can use MySpace to host blogs, send notices through the “Bulletin Space” function and send out “Event Invites,” though none of these services are particularly robust.

Videos can also be uploaded and played, but it’s often easier to embed clips uploaded to youtube.com rather than deal with the balky MySpace video player. The same criticism can be leveled at the site’s music player, which often gets hung up while loading files for playback. Cellist Erik Friedlander (myspace.com/erikfriedlander) says the MySpace music player is no treat for those providing the tunes, either: “Changing the songs you want to have play on your MySpace page requires deleting and then uploading, and you have to go through page after page.” It’s a tedious process.

While various third-party music players, such as the Flash-based one at myspacetotal.com, can also be embedded into MySpace, the MP3s must be hosted somewhere else. Using the MySpace player means that the music is stored on myspace.com, which, at one point, meant agreeing to certain suspect terms. The nefarious conditions were exposed last May when an associate of singer-songwriter Billy Bragg read the fine print on myspace.com and discovered that any content uploaded to the service became property of the company.

The previous terms stated the following:

By displaying or publishing (“posting”) any Content, messages, text, files, images, photos, video, sounds, profiles, works of authorship, or any other materials (collectively, “Content”) on or through the Services, you hereby grant to MySpace.com, a non-exclusive, fully-paid and royalty-free, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense through unlimited levels of sublicensees) to use, copy, modify, adapt, translate, publicly perform, publicly display, store, reproduce, transmit, and distribute such Content on and through the Services.

A minor flap ensued, and the terms were eventually tweaked so that ownership remained with the artist, but it highlighted one of the many troubles with the MySpace service.

MySpace’s tremendous success may be hard to believe once you’ve spent some time on the site and encounter its numerous problems. (Then again, you get what you pay for.)

For one thing, there is virtually no customer service. Have a problem and it’s not addressed on the FAQ page? Good luck receiving an e-mail response that actually addresses your question.

Messages like “Sorry! an [sic] unexpected error has occurred. This error has been forwarded to MySpace’s technical group” are unfailingly common. So are complaints about how MySpace looks, feels and works.

“It’s got one of the worst user interfaces of any software I’ve ever bothered using more than once,” says Iyer.

“The interface is clunky and many features don’t work regularly,” confirms trombonist Robin Eubanks (myspace.com/robineubanks). “Most of the time it takes me three tries to list a gig.”

“It takes so long to search for a specific friend from your list,” says saxophonist Soweto Kinch (myspace.com/sowetokinch). You can’t do a name search in your “Friend Space,” which means “if you have over 1,000 friends it takes ages to circumnavigate your settings and find one person.”

“The interface needs a big upgrade,” says Friedlander. “It’s clunky and way behind given what’s possible with Web 2.0. It’s not easy to customize how the page looks, and the basic look is pretty plain when compared with the some of the free blog sites, which have much slicker interfaces and look much better.”

“The visual design is awful,” agrees saxophonist Kjetil Møster (myspace.com/kjetilmoester). “Even though some people seem to have spent a whole lot of time editing it, it never looks any good.”

Sluggish speeds and abundant spam are two more common complaints.

“The server is often too busy and it’s difficult to get pages to load up sometimes,” says guitarist Jeff Parker (myspace.com/peffjarker). “And the advertisements are annoying.”

“I don’t like it when people decide to use your comment space for advertising. I delete these right away,” seconds drummer E.J. Strickland (myspace.com/theejstricklandproject). “And I don’t like all of the escort women online either. I delete these, too. Sometimes the network is very slow, too.”

Like the Internet in general, MySpace further breaks down the wall between artists and fans, and while that’s often a good thing, if boundaries aren’t respected then a little bit of interaction can go a long way.

“There are annoying solicitations from some people I’d rather not be ‘friends’ with,” says saxophonist Matana Roberts (myspace.com/matanaroberts). “And some people who you don’t want to end up finding you do—like this pseudo-stalker I had back in ’99.”

Also, you can’t always be sure the artist you’ve added as a “friend” is even the real artist.

“Some people create fake sites about artists without the artists’ consent or knowledge,” says Darius. “Personally, before I created my own account, there were already two sites on MySpace about me, which I was completely unaware about. I don’t think that random people should be able to create sites about artists without their consent, because they may portray the artist in the wrong way and destroy his or her image.”

Most of these fan-created sites, however, are created with nothing but positive intentions. Richard Bona, for example, has his own MySpace site (myspace.com/richardbona), but a Google search for “Richard Bona MySpace” will turn up a link to myspace.com/54724997, a well-maintained site featuring videos and music from the bassist that, on first glance, appears to be official. A closer inspection reveals disclaimers stating that it isn’t the bassist’s real MySpace site—though it does appear to be endorsed by the real Richard Bona: He appears in his tribute site’s “Top 8” friends.

Plenty of dead jazz legends have pages, too, though they aren’t necessarily run by the estates. Albert Ayler (myspace.com/albertayler), Eric Dolphy (myspace.com/theericdolphysolowebsite) and Sun Ra (myspace.com/soundofjoy) are just three deceased giants who have MySpace pages. And there’s a good chance that most big-name artists from the past have a presence on MySpace because anyone can claim a name, though musicians and their estates do have the right to contest domain squatters.

But sometimes a name may already be taken legitimately before an artist tries to claim it. Pianist Robert Glasper’s address is myspace.com/therealrobertglasper, even though logging onto myspace.com/robertglasper brings up the following message: “Invalid Friend ID. This user has either cancelled their [sic] membership, or their [sic] account has been deleted.”

While the membership is terminated, it’s unclear whether or not “the real” Robert Glasper could try and claim myspace.com/robertglasper. Repeated phone calls to MySpace to clarify this and other queries went unanswered, and two e-mails sent to customer support about this topic were replied to with responses to questions that were never asked.

Meanwhile, competition from sites like PureVolume.com and GarageBand.com, which offer similar services to musicians, has barely made a dent in MySpace’s omnipotence. For better or worse, and despite its severe drawbacks, MySpace will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

For now, MySpace is best used as a complement to a traditional Web site—a purely utilitarian device to provide and discover information in a no-fuss fashion. The service is most valuable because of its simplicity. MySpace allows for even the most computer-illiterate musician to build a basic site to present his or her music in a network of peers and likeminded souls.

Even the most tech-savvy players can make MySpace work to his or her benefit. By not getting bogged down in working on a tricked-out Web page, instrumentalists can step away from their computers and concentrate on things that really matter—like playing music.

Visions of Jazz

Like MySpace, YouTube.com is a success, in part, because of its ease of use. Anybody can upload any video that’s less than 10 minutes and under 100 megabytes. Of course, if the video is pornographic or containing copyrighted material, it will be yanked off the site—theoretically, anyway. The porno stuff seems to get reported immediately (or so I’m told, ahem), but copyrighted material seems to linger on the site until an artist or company demands that it be removed.

But copyrighted material is what made YouTube into what it is today—or rather, what it was on Oct. 9, when Google paid $1.65 billion in stock to buy it.

Now that YouTube is owned by an Internet juggernaut with money to burn, companies have started targeting the site even more than before, asking it to remove copyrighted material—or, perhaps, pony up some cash to host the content legally. What this means in the long run is that certain videos will no longer be available on a mainstream site like YouTube—though you can bet that they can always be found somewhere online. Once something’s on the Internet, it’s pretty much there forever.

But for now, YouTube.com is a fantastic one-stop shopping source for jazz clips.

Musicians interviewed for the MySpace article were also asked for YouTube suggestions, and they turned up numerous gems. Below is a sampling of their submissions, but because YouTube’s URLs are long, messy combos of numbers and letters, it’s easiest if you use the site’s search engine to find the clips.

E.J. Strickland: “I found some great footage of Tony Williams up there.”

Eric Darius: “A video of Kenny Garrett performing with Miles Davis. It was very inspiring.”

Hilde Marie Kjersem: “I have watched a few of the classic Miles/Coltrane [videos], and my boyfriend showed me some great drum videos. I really dug the one with Buddy Rich and Animal from The Muppet Show!”

Jeff Parker: “Ornette Coleman and Prime Time on Saturday Night Live, 1982. Milton Berle was the host. Awesome! Trane with the Wynton Kelly Trio from 1958 or ’59 is tremendous as well.”

Liberty Ellman: “I just saw a great clip of Coltrane playing with Stan Getz, one of Grant Green and another of Duke’s band, where Paul Gonsalves is sleeping through the entire song, drum solo and all. Priceless.”

Matana Roberts: I’ve watched a lot of Coltrane, Cannonball, some of the old Miles Davis quartet stuff, some old Dinah Washington, Art Ensemble, along with some current stuff like Meshell Ndegeocello’s first video, which really turned my head when I was a kid.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa: “All the Coltrane including the one with Stan Getz. The Duke Ellington one where Paul Gonsalves is asleep through the whole tune, and the very brief but thrilling Anthony Braxton clips.”

Soweto Kinch: “Woody Shaw live, rare John Coltrane with Wynton Kelly Trio, the Coltrane ‘Giant Steps’ animation, Chris Potter live with the Dave Holland Quintet.”

Vijay Iyer: “Anthony Braxton Quartet playing ‘Impressions.’ Art Tatum footage that I didn’t even know existed. Colaiuta/Gadd/Weckl. Duke Ellington with a sleeping Paul Gonsalves.”

Originally published in December 2006

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