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Jazz Goes Digital

This year the jazz world learned how to cybersell.



It's impossible to identify a single tipping point in the ongoing digital avalanche, but 2006 saw sweeping changes for the jazz world. Bypassing the traditional channels to reach audiences directly through the Web, national and local artists are redefining both the music business and the music.

Not that the old channels are much of an option. The fall of a product-rich retailer like Tower Records and the rise of Wal-Mart (whose far smaller product selection commands 25 percent of the CD market) have forced major labels to focus on the mass market at the expense of a high-prestige/low-sales niche like jazz. Independent labels that once provided a safe haven for improvising artists are struggling for space on the shrunken shelves.

It was a watershed year for players bypassing traditional distribution for direct-to-consumer sales, including commercially proven first-rank players such as saxophone giant Sonny Rollins (whose latest, "Sonny Please," was available only through his Web site) and DownBeat Critics and Readers Poll-topping trumpeter Dave Douglas.

Douglas' year-ending set of recordings from a stay at New York nightclub Jazz Standard is unprecedented: Each performance was recorded, mastered and available for downloading online at his Greenleaf Music Web site within 24 hours.

"It's something I never thought I would do," Douglas says, from his hotel on the last day of the gig. "It's a raw, immediate representation of what we do. In the traditional model, only the best performances are chosen, then they're chopped up and put out as a product."

As forceful, intelligent dispatches from the front, the recordings are a brilliant success, but the motivation isn't purely artistic. "It's a matter of survival," Douglas' Greenleaf partner Mike Friedman says. "If you put out a record through the normal distribution, you may not get paid until 10 months later. That's OK for a big label with a lot of releases, but we don't have their cash flow."

Richmond drummer Brian Jones is no stranger to cash constraints. The ongoing documentation of his multifarious projects provides an entertaining and indispensable portrait of the local music scene, but it doesn't make much money. (The discs come in handmade cardboard envelopes that bear more than a passing resemblance to Greenleaf's minimally packaged live Paperback Series.)

So far, Jones' direct-to-customer sales are face to face rather than online. "I have no interest in cyberspace," he says, "and MySpace seems like a monumental waste of time. But that's the way music is going and the way it will go."

In contrast, jazz drummer and James Brown channeler Kelli Strawbridge says that this was the year he discovered the power of online communities such as MySpace and Facebook in building audience attendance. "Who cares about CD sales?" he says. "The money is in the shows, and putting it out on MySpace can increase attendance 100 percent."

In the MySpace universe, Friend is a verb connoting the ease of linking one personal page with another. Wandering through the web of Richmond musician interconnections is mesmerizing and inscrutable. Starting with Strawbridge, you can pass through a multitude of bands and sidemen with intriguing byways leading to luminaries such as Beck or Paul McCartney, or to a seeming infinity of posturing guys and pretty girls.

"[MySpace] can be addictive," says saxophonist/bandleader Samson Trinh, "but it is a lot more effective than my own Web site." His page features MP3 samples and YouTube videos to hook viewer interest, as well as links to shunt them onward to CD Baby or iTunes to make a purchase. "My CDs sell well at Plan 9," he says. "But it's cool when someone in New Hampshire buys one."

Pianist Steve Kessler sees the depth of online content transforming jazz. "There is so much available, it's overwhelming," Kessler says. "The younger players are trying to incorporate everything, and it's making music much less about individual expression and much more of a community endeavor."

"We're learning as we go," trumpeter Douglas says, "But we're suited for it because jazz is improvisation." There are a million predictions about what will happen next, but whatever it is, some things won't change. "You still have to get up, leave your house and live," he says. "It's not a cyberworld yet." S

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