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The Gig: Kickstart My Art

Nate Chinen on the phenomenon of fan-funded recordings

Nate Chinen
Dr. Lonnie Smith, Queens, NY 3-12

Not long ago, Wayne Escoffery-trusted saxophonist with the Mingus Big Band, the Tom Harrell Quintet and Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy Septet-had an idea for a new album. He’d already released five under his name, and a couple with his wife, the singer Carolyn Leonhart. But this one would be different: a concept album inspired by his early years in London, and the hardships of his single mother, and the circumstances around their emigration to the States. In essence, a portrait of the artist as a young man.

It would also be his first album of entirely original music, which he’d conceived for a blend of acoustic and electric instruments. But when he presented the idea to the record label he was affiliated with at the time, he found no traction there. “They felt that the music wasn’t accessible or radio friendly,” he recalled recently. So Escoffery turned to Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding website, and took his pitch public. The decision literally paid off. He exceeded his $10,000 goal, and went on to make his album, The Only Son of One, which was released on Sunnyside this spring. (To the likely chagrin of his previous label, it has met with some success on jazz radio.)

The thrust of Escoffery’s story is hardly unique for someone in his line of work: Times are hard, budgets are tight and self-reliance is often the only way to bring an album to light. What’s new, or new-ish, is the platform. Kickstarter, founded three years ago, now enjoys clear market dominance, with splashy successes in technology, design, fashion and just about every corner of the arts. “I’m going to need to create a Kickstarter to help fund my Kickstarter contributions,” a friend of mine, a journalist and academic in Southern California, recently quipped on Twitter.

It makes sense that jazz musicians, always a resourceful lot, have caught the spirit. Darcy James Argue, the composer and big-band leader, recently led a successful Kickstarter campaign, as did guitarist Freddie Bryant, singer Kat Edmonson and Hammond B3 organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. And jazz’s Kickstarter wave hasn’t been limited to album funding, underwriting things like the Center City Jazz Festival, in Philadelphia, and the Red Hook Jazz Festival, in Brooklyn. The upstart promoter Search & Restore used it to fund the filming of dozens of shows around New York, for a free online archive.

“Musicians have been crowd-funding records for as long as there have been records,” suggested Argue, speaking by phone two days after he’d finished recording Brooklyn Babylon, the forthcoming second album by his large ensemble, the Secret Society. He was speaking from firsthand experience: He raised money for his previous release through the nonprofit organization Fractured Atlas. What led him to Kickstarter this time was its more transactional nature. Most pledges, he noted, were basically preorders. (Fractured Atlas donations are tax-deductible, but the catch is that you can’t receive anything of tangible value in return, not even a CD.) As is standard in a Kickstarter campaign, he threw in special packages at higher tiers of pricing, like a graphic novel by his Brooklyn Babylon collaborator, Danijel Zezelj, and a custom-made cocktail recipe. (Apparently timbres aren’t the only thing Argue knows how to blend.)

Of course the jazz world has mobilized around an online crowd-funding platform before. It was about eight years ago that we sat up and took notice of ArtistShare, through which composer Maria Schneider financed her Grammy-winning album Concert in the Garden. ArtistShare’s jazz roster includes many other luminaries, like guitarist Jim Hall, pianist Billy Childs and the late valve trombonist and composer-arranger Bob Brookmeyer.

Within jazz circles, it’s surely the example of musicians like these that helped destigmatize open solicitations of fan support. The image that ArtistShare purposefully calls to mind isn’t a street busker with a coin-littered horn case so much as the distinguished beneficiary of a far-flung patronage.

The difference between ArtistShare and Kickstarter is currently a point of legal contention; the companies are engaged in a patent dispute, after what sounds like a series of tense lawyerly exchanges. For my part, I’ve noticed a distinction of feel. Whereas ArtistShare has always sought to engage its patrons in an experience, Kickstarter tends to deal more in the realm of a product. It’s also clear that Kickstarter has a lower barrier to entry. A perusal of its jazz-related offerings shows many projects of modest scale, by musicians whose names are new to me, either because they’re strictly regional or they’re just getting started.

There are reasons to be wary of the rise of crowd-funding in jazz, including an increased workload for the already-strained musician, an unanticipated influence on the music at large and an unfair advantage for those artists born with the promotional urge. “It’s hard for me to imagine a huge introvert like Gil Evans making a Kickstarter pitch,” Argue says, a bit ruefully. Then again, some of the successful recent Kickstarter jazz projects have been by artists who clearly delegated to a manager or some other on-the-ball advocate: I’m thinking of Dr. Lonnie Smith, trombonist Roswell Rudd and even the long-lost free-jazz saxophonist Giussepi Logan. Since Argue chose Evans as his example, I’ll also note that another astute young composer-arranger, Ryan Truesdell, used ArtistShare to fund and release his excellent new album Centennial: The Gil Evans Project.

For now, the more salient point may be the one raised by Escoffery, when I asked him about the future of jazz on Kickstarter. “I’m not sure that I’m comfortable soliciting many of the same people for money again,” he wrote in an e-mail message, adding, “I fear that the more popular these crowd-sourcing sites get, the less successful they will be.” Now as ever, there’s only so much to go around. But we might as well brace ourselves. This trend probably won’t subside anytime soon.

Originally Published