The Gig: Beats Me

Nate Chinen on streaming services and jazz

Nate Chinen
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Nate Chinen
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I’m AT MY COMPUTER and feel like SAVING THE WORLD with YOUR EX to JAZZ.

Uh, come again? What you just read was my current arrangement of The Sentence, a trademark feature of the splashy new streaming service Beats Music. As I type this, I’m listening to a playlist generated by those Mad Lib variables in all-caps. And what has this ransom-like command yielded musically? A 1950 recording of Charlie Parker’s “Mohawk,” from the album Bird and Diz. The glossy-funk title track of Freddie Hubbard’s Liquid Love, released on Columbia in ’75. “Confirmation,” another Parker track sprung from the vault at Verve. A gleeful romp through Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” by the Jaki Byard Experience, featuring Roland Kirk on tenor saxophone. Then Monk himself, unveiling “Criss Cross” on a session for Blue Note. And so on.

For those who haven’t yet been bombarded by its massive ad campaign, Beats Music-prominently backed by Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, the same industry moguls behind the Beats by Dre headphone empire-is the latest in a series of on-demand streaming companies, which provide users with millions of tracks through mobile apps or on the web. This isn’t a new concept, not even in my own CD-cluttered household. I first checked out Rhapsody five years ago, around the same time I began fooling around with Pandora. My experience with Rdio, Radical.FM, iTunes Radio and assorted others is practically nil, but I’ve been on Spotify since July 2011: I happened to sign up a few days before bassist Ben Allison appeared on Soundcheck, the WNYC radio show, to object to that service’s meager royalty structure, and to voice a forward-looking concern. “My fear is that this is going to slowly become the way we listen to music,” he said. We now know that the only thing he had wrong was the modifier “slowly.”

By now there have surely been dozens of panel discussions, and many more barroom or tour-bus debates, about the merits and hazards of streaming music services. (I’m told there was a good one at this year’s Jazz Connect Conference, which JazzTimes co-organizes; it’s also worth noting here that JazzTimes‘ editors recommend albums for Spotify’s Stylus app.) Opinion on the subject looks fairly polarized from where I sit, with a musicianly cohort that decries the current model as exploitative and a customer base that holds convenience as its highest order. My own sympathies fall closer to the artist argument, especially in light of a generation of consumers that has been trained to view recorded music as an essential but cheap commodity, like the water that flows from the tap.

We should draw a distinction here between the likes of Spotify and the realm of illegal downloads, a black-market pirate economy that many music lovers support without a second thought. But has one fed into the other? It seems disingenuous to suggest otherwise; the founders of Pandora were clearly on to something when they brainstormed their brand name. Then there’s the question of cannibalization: Why would anyone shell out for something they can also find, right now, for free? Musicians and labels aren’t being paranoid when they fret about the implications for the bottom line. The spokesperson for one jazz label, which has licensed its catalog to Spotify and others, politely discouraged me from speaking with its corporate leadership because of the ambivalence I was likely to encounter. I did talk to Yulun Wang, co-proprietor of Pi Recordings, which sells music digitally but doesn’t do any on-demand streaming. “It’s inevitable that that will be the way most of us will listen to music five years from now,” said Wang. “But we don’t want to be the ones on that train until we absolutely have to be on that train.” The same general feeling seems widespread among jazz musicians. But I wonder about the consequences of avoidance: If that train pulls out of the station and working jazz musicians have refused to get aboard, does that mean they’ll just be left behind?

What refreshed this line of thinking for me was the sleek mobile interface for Beats Music, which puts an avowed emphasis on discovery. Unlike, say, Pandora, which relies on the faceless algorithms of the Music Genome Project, Beats Music touts a chief creative officer (Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails) and a coalition of “curators” that includes the Grand Ole Opry, Hot 97 and, on the jazz front, DownBeat magazine. After a signup screen that asked me to identify three favorite genres, I came to a Just for You page. Among the options were a playlist titled “Miles Davis: Live,” another one called “Intro to Charlie Parker” and, more striking, the 2006 album New Monastery: A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill by guitarist Nels Cline. During my next session, I was offered the 2001 release Corridors & Parallels, by the David S. Ware Quartet. I found this heartening, all issues of royalties aside.

There was selection bias at play, of course: I’d picked jazz as one of my three core genres. When I swiped my screen over to the actual Jazz page, I saw playlists devoted to pianist Paul Bley and bassists Dave Holland and Esperanza Spalding. Not bad. Still, over a few weeks of testing, it was rare that I randomly heard even a semi-recent jazz cut. (Look again at the tracks listed at the top of this column, not a one of them made in my lifetime.) And since the most determinative field in The Sentence is a genre tag, there’s almost no chance of jazz slipping in the side door. You’ll never hear Ravi Coltrane while ON A ROOFTOP and GAMING with STRANGERS to SOFT ROCK.

But it’s early still. The dreamer in me can picture a world in which services like Beats Music truly fill the role once held by freeform radio. And why shouldn’t a casual user stumble across some great new jazz every now and then? We’ve been so focused on the question of why jazz musicians can’t afford to engage with streaming that we might have ignored another question: How much longer can they afford not to?