We Are Pieces

That we are made of pieces,
Pieces so small as to be
Colorless, odorless,
Themselves made of even smaller pieces –
Being nothing much more than empty space.

That these pieces of nothing were
Violently spewed from stars
After having collapsed under their own weight.

That, fantastically, they self-assembled
And through the turmoil of eons
Joined and collaborated in such a way
As to eventually ponder themselves – to look up
To other stars, other future pieces.

This is what keeps me up at night.

In a good way.

Posted on: October 2, 2014 | Leave a comment |

My YouTube Experiment

YouTube is the first place many people go when they’re looking for a specific song. It’s common for fans to upload their favorite tunes along with static images of the artist or album cover art. For years many artists, labels and publishers have looked the other way or even embraced the practice. But all that is starting to change as the very nature of the music industry changes.

Publishers and labels are working to hammer out deals with YouTube that would give them a small royalty. These deals aren’t based on any statutory rates (those set by congress) or any historical precedent (like typical sync licenses). Instead they’re based on the “percentage of ad revenue” model that has emerged as the new standard in the Alice in Wonderland world of on-demand streaming. Two of the “big three” majors, Universal and Sony already have their deals worked out via a partner enterprise called VEVO. But indies are still hard at work on their deals and, by all accounts, finding it tough going. It’s not easy to negotiate with a behemoth like Google, especially if you’re a small company. But at least it’s starting to happen.

Meanwhile, YouTube started offering uploaders the ability to “monetize” their videos as a way to win some points with copyright owners. Anyone who has uploaded a video, including (and this is important) people who don’t own the rights to the material they’ve uploaded, can monetize videos, and in theory share in the advertising revenue that YouTube collects when ads are placed within or over the top of the videos. Of course, copyright owners can request YouTube remove a video containing their property that was uploaded without their consent or knowledge. And YouTube does a pretty good job of getting this done quickly. But the onus is on the copyright owner to first find the content and then fill out the appropriate forms. The process is pretty similar to the DMCA “take down notices” that file-sharing (piracy) websites are supposed to honor, although, unlike most piracy sites YouTube doesn’t go out of its way to hide or obscure the illegal content or make removal an overly onerous process.

Thinking through all of this led me to the following question: Does monetizing videos actually help artists and indie labels?


My latest album, The Stars Look Very Different Today, is the first that I self-produced and released on my own label (Sonic Camera Records). I have full control over where and how the album is available (excluding when it’s pirated, of course). As an experiment, I decided to see what would happen if I uploaded the entire album to YouTube as one continuous video and “monetized it” by allowing YouTube to insert ads. YouTube allows uploaders to place ads at the beginning, at the end and at one specific time during a long video, for a total of 3 ads.

Once my video had received 300 views over a few days, I took it down and reviewed the stats.  This is what I found:

The total minutes watched by all viewers was 3,284 minutes, or about 11 minutes per viewer (you can get this kind of info on your Analytics page). That means that each viewer listened to about 2 tunes (each one being about 5 minutes in length on average). Total income from the ads was $2.91. This comes out to .0097 cents per viewer or .0048 cents per streamed tune.

Granted, this was a limited experiment. Results based only on personal experience are anecdotal at best. I understand that the jazz world is quite different than the pop world, where “views” might number in the millions. Ad revenue might fluctuate depending on how many hits the video has. But I think my experiment is fair and representative of what an indie musician might expect.

I’ve monetized several other videos of mine for over the past year or so and all of them have generated similar revenue results. I’d be curious to hear what others find. My guess is the results will be pretty similar to my own.

Interestingly, .0048 cents per stream is eerily close to the average per stream amount artists often see from on-demand sites like Spotify, which in my experience was about .006 cents per stream.

My YouTube figure does not include the publisher fee that should (hopefully) be in the pipeline once deals are hammered about between my publishing administrator and Google. But my informed guess is that those fees won’t amount to much either.

You might ask, “What’s the problem? Isn’t YouTube a great place for artists to gain exposure and develop their fan base?” Yes, I agree that’s true. I, myself occasionally upload videos of my band performing live. It’s a great way to share music with fans and the general public. But when it comes to studio recordings that are currently available commercially, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that YouTube is not always a good thing for artists and the future of recorded music. At least, not yet.

One of my concerns, as I’ve mentioned in public panel discussions and interviews over the past few years (listen to my interview on WNYC from 2011), is that on-demand, subscription-based streaming is undermining the recording industry by allowing and encouraging consumers to listen to, but never actually buy music. After all, why would anyone buy a track on iTunes for $.99 when they can stream it for free or nearly free anytime they have Internet access (which is most of the time these days).

There are numerous reports, including this new one from Billboard that show download sales continuing to decline (as CD sales have been doing for more than a decade) even as on-demand streaming increases. This particular article ends with the statement: “The growth of streaming services negatively impacts digital purchases and puts additional pressure on the music business to generate new revenue by growing streaming services.” Can income from streaming services fill the gap? My take is that they can’t, or more likely, won’t. Here’s why.

As artists and music-lovers, we should stop thinking of YouTube, Spotify, Rdio, Deezer, Rhapsody and the rapidly growing list of streaming services as being part of the “music industry.” I think of the recording industry (the creator side of the music industry) as essentially being comprised of record labels, publishers, distributors, and artists. All are interested in the same thing — creating and selling music.

By comparison, companies like YouTube and Spotify aren’t really interested in selling music because they don’t sell music. They’re interested in accumulating user and subscriber data and selling ads. They use music as the draw. Spotify recently received an infusion of $100,000,000 in venture capital from Goldman Sachs. Not bad for a company that has yet to be profitable. Is Goldman Sachs interested in getting into the music selling business? I don’t think so.

So, I’m left with the thought that I don’t want to monetize my videos on YouTube. It doesn’t turn into any real money for me. Meanwhile, it allows YouTube to profit when they insert ads into the experience of listening to music. Furthermore, this model adds to the idea that on-demand streaming is going to save the recording industry. I’m worried it will have the opposite effect.

Some say that we’re just in a transition phase to a new kind of music industry. The key, they argue, is to make music as readily available and ubiquitous as possible so that those tiny fractions of pennies derived from ad revenue and subscription fees will add up for creators. In the words of Spotify founder Daniel Ek, “We believe music should be like water. It should just exist everywhere.” Leaving aside the fact that water is a finite resource (and all too scarce for many millions of people), the analogy is troublesome for another reason. It is based on the idea that if you make things cheap enough and available enough, people will consume more. Think of it as the “Walmartization” of music. The Waltons have certainly done alright with Walmart and consumers seem to like it. I’m not so sure about the people who make most of the stuff they sell or the small companies who can’t compete when they come to town.

It is possible that someday the money will start to trickle down, but clearly we’re not there yet. In the mean time, we artists should become as educated as possible. We should be aware of how things are changing and what’s driving that change. Only then can we start to drive some of this change ourselves.

All well-considered opinions are welcome in the comments section below.

Posted on: February 26, 2014 | 13 Comments |

The DIY Ethos and Thoughts for the Future

When I was 25, I had a few realizations that continue to guide my musical life two decades later. In order to find your voice as a musician you have to take risks. You have to pursue your music with energy, passion and a healthy disregard for the status quo. And it really helps to surround yourself with like-minded artists who share those ideals.

These thoughts inspired me to form the Jazz Composers Collective — a non-profit, musician-run organization dedicated to new music. In the summer of 1992, I, along with pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonists Ted Nash and John Schroeder and later saxophonist Michael Blake and trumpeter Ron Horton, set out to provide ourselves and other musicians with opportunities to develop and present our music on our own terms and, at the same time, build new audiences for jazz. It was a fairly simple mandate based on collaboration and self-empowerment. At the heart of this effort was a desire to carve out one corner of our musical lives in which we could be idealistic.

The Collective’s annual concert series, which was a mainstay of NYC’s creative music scene from 1992 until 2005, featured the work of 50 composers, the participation of over 250 musicians and the premiere of more than 300 new works. It was a tremendous outpouring of creative energy that resulted in over 40 albums, countless national and international tours, residencies at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), an annual festival at the Jazz Standard club in NYC, collaborations with the 80-piece Jazz Sinfonica orchestra in Brazil, partnerships with the U.S. State Department, as well as lasting friendships and lots of great memories.

Fall, 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of our first concert. We celebrated by reprising the Jazz Composers Collective Festival.  Over the course of 6 nights at the Jazz Standard we presented 11 bands led by  founding members of the Collective.

Preparing for the festival got me thinking about the early years, before the Collective. Back then, I was itching to get my music career going but frustrated by the lack of opportunities to do so. There were some clubs where I might land a weekday set with my band, but too few to sustain any kind of momentum. I had been organizing a weekly session in the basement of a music school where I was teaching.  The price of entry was an original piece of music. Someone might bring in a fully realized score, another a deck of cards and a concept. Those were some very experimental sessions. And I loved them.

As a kid I listened to rock, ska, punk, blues and whatever else felt raw and had an edge. When I eventually discovered jazz as a teenager, I was drawn in by musicians who, to my ears, had a renegade spirit — Ornette, Mingus, Monk. These musicians taught me that jazz could and should be dangerous.

The sessions at the school allowed us to experiment without fear. We could bring in a crazy idea with the assurance that everyone would work hard on it. Sometimes the ideas would lead nowhere or fail epically. We’d just laugh and move on to the next one. Gradually, some really amazing music started to emerge. We had begun to find our voices as composers.

After a year or so we decided to bring it all out of the basement. We rented a hall and presented our first concert in October 1992. We drafted a mission statement and published our first newsletter, which contained articles written by the composers about their music and process. We put together a business plan, a fundraising strategy, incorporated and filed for non-profit status. In 1996 we moved our series over to the performance space at the New School University’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, where we remained until we decided to dissolve the Collective in 2005. By then, we felt we had fulfilled the Collective’s mission.

As I look back at what we accomplished and think about the current state of the music industry I think the DIY ethos is more relevant than ever. Many artists, out of necessity, must now be their own record labels, managers, lawyers and promoters. And we all do better when we collaborate, share information and build strong communities around the music we love.

Posted on: July 1, 2013 | 1 Comment |

Ornette Coleman, 10 Favorites

This article also appears at JazzTimes.com

The third jazz record I ever bought was Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music. I had never heard anything like it before and it changed the way I thought about music. I was in high school and was just beginning to immerse myself in the world of jazz. Until that point, most of the jazz I had heard was bebop-era music, which to my teenaged, rock-loving ears sounded a bit cerebral and complex: No vocals to pull me in immediately. With Ornette (I use his first name throughout this article with all due respect), I heard something new but also somehow familiar. This was folk music, raw and edgy. It made sense to me immediately. There was blues in there, for sure. And a voice. It was a saxophone voice. I was hooked. Here are some favorites, in no particular order.


ThisIsOurMusic“Folk Tale”
This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1961)
This record featured the great but rarely recorded lineup of trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Ed Blackwell and bassist Charlie Haden. One of the world’s funkiest drummers, Blackwell was not afraid to play the drums, not just cymbals. On this record he hooks up with Haden in such a deep way that it makes me wonder why Ornette rarely used them together on record. To my ears, “Folk Tale” is an archetypal Ornette tune—full of catchy melodies and grooves, hairpin turns and a kind of offbeat humor that pops up in a lot of his music.


SoapsudsSoapsuds“Human Being”
Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House, 1977)
Soapsuds, Soapsuds features Ornette and Charlie Haden in the stripped-down setting of a duo. Recorded for the great Artists House label, the sonic room afforded by a duo gives these masters room to harmonize and re-harmonize at will. “Human Being” is remarkable for its stark beauty, soulful lyricism and the amazing counterpoint offered by Haden, some of his best playing on record.


SoapsudsSoapsuds “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”
Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House, 1977)
I couldn’t decide between “Human Being” and this one so I chose them both. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is the theme from the amazing and strange nighttime soap-opera parody of the same name. Norman Lear created the kind of television that pushed boundaries, much in the way that Ornette does with music. Humor, deep emotion and a just-plain-weird feeling pervaded the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of “improvised reality” was a big influence on filmmaker Christopher Guest.


ScienceFiction“What Reason Could I Give?” Science Fiction (Columbia, 1971)
One of the rare Ornette recordings to feature vocals, this take sounds colossal with Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins on drums, plus four tightly voiced horn players (including Ornette and Dewey Redman and two trumpeters) and a processed mix that adds to the density and intensity. Vocalist Asha Puthli really belts it out with fearless energy, a perfect beginning to a record that has a serious edge to it. Any record that has the word “science” in it has my attention.


Something Else!!!! (Contemporary, 1958)
On Something Else!!!!, Ornette’s first album, you can hear a lot of classic bebop references. It sounds a bit like a first step, the beginning of a transition. In hindsight we know where Ornette’s going with his music. But at this point in history the other musicians are very firmly routed in American Songbook forms, which, in a way, is at odds with Ornette’s more folk-and-blues-oriented music. To my ears, Ornette is referencing a more traditional—maybe even primal—approach to music that the modern musicians of the day weren’t hip to yet (or had forgotten).


ArtOfTheImprovisers“The Alchemy of Scott LaFaro”
The Art of the Improvisers (Atlantic, 1961)
For me, the session that produced this cut as well as the album Ornette! and part of Twins is all about Scott LaFaro (bass) and Ed Blackwell. LaFaro brought a totally different energy to Ornette’s music when he temporarily replaced Charlie Haden. This is truly “out” music, which means it’s atonal. The focus is timbre and energy. The forms are very simple, rough and loose, and sometimes difficult to discern. This is not lyrical music, not folk music as I think of it. There’s a great conversation happening—it’s just not about the weather or sports.


InAllLanguages“Feet Music”
In All Languages (Caravan of Dreams, 1987)
“Feet Music” is one of my favorite Ornette tunes. It’s a funky boogaloo with lots of blues elements. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Ornette’s music is the way he can break a groove for a few bars at a time, then resume it and make it sound alright. That kind of thing is more common in folk and blues music but almost never happens in bebop-era tunes. It’s another example of how his music is so tied to the cadences of the human voice, both in song and in spoken language. This has been a huge influence on my music.


TomorrowIsTheQuestion“Tears Inside”
Tomorrow Is the Question (Atlantic, 1959)
Another great blues, filled with interesting momentary trips into unrelated keys and a hint of bop phrasing, “Tears Inside” is always fun to play.



Tomorrow Is the Question (Atlantic ,1959)
Parts of this tune remind me of Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” It’s rooted in bop phrasing and harmonic structure but with a few odd measures and other twists and turns that knock it off-center. What makes this so quintessentially Ornette is the way he solos. It’s a slippery statement that, once again, sounds like a vocalization to my ears.


ThisIsOurMusic“Blues Connotation”
This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1961)
“Blues Connotation” is one of his most enduring and covered tunes and the first one I ever learned to play. Ornette’s saxophone playing and his approach to composition are completely intertwined. It’s not easy to play his tunes without hearing his voice on the saxophone in your mind. Like Bird, his pre-conceived melodies seem to be extensions of his improvisation—part of one sound, integrated and whole. He’s a complete artist and one of my biggest inspirations.

Posted on: January 15, 2013 | Leave a comment |

An Open Letter To Musicians

November 25, 2012

This post also appears at brubeckinstitute.wordpress.com

Dear Musicians:

I recently participated as a guest speaker in a web chat hosted by Chamber Music America called “Audio Streams, Downloads and Digital Files” that was moderated by JazzTimes editor Lee Mergner. The discussion focused on the benefits and downsides of streaming music online, what is involved in streaming music via your own website or a site like Spotify, whether to offer free samples of your music for download, and the difference between mechanical royalties and performance royalties. The key question that emerged was how to strike the right balance between getting our music out there and maintaining enough control over our recordings to be able to derive income from them.

The terrain for recording artists, composers, and performers is rapidly changing. Aside from new technologies, we also face issues related to intellectual property and how we should view the recording industry. Many artists feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the very institutions that were set up to protect their rights and represent their interests. I often hear musicians, especially younger ones, questioning why they should bother with ASCAP or BMI if their checks are small, and why they should care about SoundExchange. Musicians are increasingly asking, “Isn’t it better to give our recordings away for the sake of promotion since we mostly make our living from live performances?”

Businesses are happy to broadcast/stream music without paying a decent royalty. Moreover, a growing number of music listeners believe music is and should be free. Taken together, these attitudes are slowly eroding the very idea of intellectual property. In fact, there is a strong movement that wants to do away with the concept of copyright entirely (think “copyleft”).

Thankfully, the very idea of intellectual property is written into the United States Constitution, in Article 1, Section 8 (alongside basics like levying taxes, printing money, etc.):

Congress shall have the power: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

The important point is that, like physical objects, ideas have value too. When we buy a CD, it’s not the plastic disk that matters. It’s the music on it that we care about.


Earlier this year, as part of a group of NARAS governors and delegates, I had the opportunity to meet with members of Congress to discuss issues related to the future of the music industry. Congressman Steny Hoyer from Maryland offered the following comments:

“Stephen Foster died a pauper. Why? Because there were no publishing rights. No one thought they were stealing his property when they played his music and he didn’t get paid for its usage. IP rights in many respects are about raising the consciousness of good people. You’re not going to convince the bad people, the robbers and the thieves. They don’t care. But the good people understand that you are taking something of value, something that gives you pleasure, lifts you up and gives you vision. And that’s worth something. And if you don’t compensate people for creating art, they’re not going to do it. And if they don’t do it, our lives will be less rich and the quality of our communities and civil society will be less rich. The arts help to inspire us and give us vision. The fact of the matter is that art is a universal way to communicate. And we need to make sure that those of you who create art are protected.”

I believe many people would still create art even if they were not compensated. I think this is a primal drive — people will always be making and listening to music. The real issue is how the general public views recorded music and whether or not they believe it has intrinsic value. In this sense, Congressman Hoyer was right on the money. Intellectual property laws are partly about raising consciousness.


Technology, art and finance have been converging and feeding off each other for the past 80 years or so, creating the “music industry.” I put the term in quotes because I do not believe we should think of the music industry as a monolithic entity. Instead, it is a system made up of many moving parts, some are large corporations, but many are small companies or single individuals, all pursuing their own combination of art and business.

The fact that the “business of music” exists is a good thing. When I was a kid, my friends and I would often accuse musicians of “selling out” when their music seemed to be driven by financial interests more than artistic ones. As an adult, my view is more nuanced. I have come to realize that not only do music and commerce co-exist, they are mutually dependent on one another, at least for people who make their living by composing, recording and/or performing music.


Will choosing to become a professional musician continue to be a viable career choice in the future? Many people involved in creative fields are very concerned — and for good reason. Ask journalists or writers whose works are reduced to a few kilobytes of easily transferrable digital information how their industry is doing. My guess is they would say not so well.

The music industry is comprised of many industries that are interconnected — recording engineers, producers, promoters/publicists, venue owners, music critics, and so forth. Without professional musicians, all of these related industries would likely collapse. Music is at the center of it. Musicians are important, not just to our cultural health but also to the health of our economy.

But we undermine ourselves when we appear in promotional videos for piracy websites like Megaupload. I’m talking to you Kanye West and Will.i.am.

And when we say things like, “Piracy is the new radio.” Neil Young, you’re my hero, but that’s bullshit.

In this fast-changing world we musicians can and should have a lot to say. Becoming as informed as possible about issues that impact our livelihoods and refining our views are important first steps. We have to be comfortable with the idea that our music has value. And we should work to strengthen those laws and institutions that help to protect and enable us to sell our music in a fair way.

Please let me know what you think by posting comments below.

Posted on: November 25, 2012 | 32 Comments |