Chops: Streaming Jazz on the Installment Plan

A new online strategy—releasing music piecemeal—is taking hold in the jazz world

Pasquale Grasso
Pasquale Grasso (photo: Deneka Peniston)

Pasquale Grasso has a reputation among New York guitarists and guitar geeks for his technical fluidity and incorporation of classical techniques. (He’s a particular favorite of Pat Metheny’s, performing for him at the 2018 NEA Jazz Masters concert.) The 30-year-old, Italian-born bebop specialist often performs unaccompanied. “It’s one of my favorite things, to play solo,” he says.

That specialty makes Grasso unusual. But it’s the bare fact of his being a jazz musician that made his January 2018 signing by Sony Music an unlikely proposition. For there’s one skill that even the most virtuosic jazz musicians struggle with mightily: how to sell records.

Sony has an idea of how to change that. Shortly after his signing, Grasso recorded 51 tracks with producer Matt Pierson. Pierson then organized the tracks into a series of five-track, themed EPs.

“I thought that was a great idea of Matt’s, to put it out this way,” Grasso says. “He worked with so many great artists, so when he told me this I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna listen. He knows what he’s talking about!’”

The first two EPs, Standards Vol. 1 and Ballads Vol. 1, appeared in June and August, with Solo Monk slated for October. Sony plans to release tidbits of new material—including Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell mini-collections—every two months over the next year.

“We realize that jazz in the modern age is commercially challenged,” says Josh Lerman, vice president for the international division of Sony Music Masterworks, “and we’re using Pasquale to try to change things up.”

The revenue for physical music releases has been in decline for nearly a decade, and musicians haven’t reaped the benefits so far from the rise of online streaming platforms; currently, the highest royalty rates are less than $0.02 per stream. Even by those standards, however, jazz fares poorly.

“In our most recent statistics for overall revenue, jazz represents the two-percent range,” Pierson says. “But jazz only represents 0.8 percent of the streaming revenue. Jazz fans don’t listen on streaming platforms, and the people on streaming platforms don’t gravitate towards jazz.”

Nevertheless, streaming platforms represent both the music’s present and its future. Jazz artists who want to make money from recordings will need to grab the attention of streaming music listeners—and to lure reluctant jazz fans onto Spotify, Apple Music, and other platforms. It requires bold action.

That’s where Grasso’s EPs come in. “People who are predisposed to digging jazz, how do you get them migrated over to the streaming platforms?” Pierson asks. “Well, in this case, you’ve got an extraordinary musician who the jazz world is gonna flip over, and they’ll discover, ‘Oh, the only way I can hear the guy is digitally.’ The idea being that you encourage them to go to the digital platforms and check this guy out.”

Attracting non-jazz listeners? They have a plan for that too. When jazz is streamed, it’s often as part of curated playlists. Some, like Spotify’s State of Jazz, are genre-specific—but not all. “There’s Peaceful Guitar, which some of the ballads might end up on; there’s Shredders; there are other guitar-centric playlists,” Pierson says. “Because of the distinct way [Grasso] plays, as a bridge between jazz and classical guitar techniques, the hope is that a lot of the classical guitar people will get into it too. We’ll try to build a viral thing with somebody who’s distinctive.”

This viral-aimed installment approach to releasing music has precedents in the streaming era. Pop duo the Chainsmokers’ 2018 sophomore album Sick Boy compiled 10 tracks that had previously been released as digital-only singles. Scores of other pop artists have made several tracks available to stream and download in advance of new albums. In jazz, Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells began life as a series of individual tracks (and music videos) released over 12 days in October 2018.

“The jazz listening experience has been traditionally album-focused,” Lerman acknowledges. “But we have an artist that is interpreting some of the great, familiar songs, and unlike a lot of jazz recordings, these are all three minutes, four tops, as opposed to things that are going 10 minutes or longer.”

Music in a longer, perhaps more ambitious format doesn’t suit this approach so well, it’s true—but with album sales falling (vinyl’s resurgence may be a profit center, but it’s a niche one), one could argue that for many listeners the “full-length” experience is already history. If anything, it was an aberration in a longer continuum of shorter experiences—78- and 45-rpm records, LPs and cassettes broken into sides—in which the track-centric streaming era represents reversion to the mean, not a radical departure.

Also fading is the idea of music as a tactile object with which listeners must directly engage. Sony’s solution is to replace physical with consistent engagement, allowing listeners to hear new music on a more frequent basis. “Fans of any genre want to feel like they’re having an ongoing conversation with the artists,” Lerman says. “With this body of work that Pasquale has delivered with Matt, it gives us an amazing opportunity with that constant engagement approach and see how it works out.”

That, in fact, is Grasso’s favorite aspect of the strategy. He previously self-produced a CD, Reflections of Me (in 2015), and notes how often people at his gigs ask for a recording. “The fact that people every month get to hear another four or five songs, I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “They always have something to listen to.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.