Friday, November 6, 2009

A little retrospective on my experience presenting...

I've been active in throwing shows and trying to develop as an improviser in my own right, as well as encourage those around me, for going on 7 years here in Columbus.

The question of audience development has always been at the forefront of my mind. I've never been content with the idea of creating some kind of secret society/insider-y scene for the music here, and have been careful to avoid any intellectual trappings in how I promote and produce shows. That's just a personal choice though. In some of the experimental music shows I attended early on, I may have enjoyed the music but found the people and the climate to be suffocatingly "in the know." When I started doing shows I determined that I would do what I could to cultivate a different kind of climate. Music can be serious but the people at an event-- musicians and audience alike--- don't need to take themselves so seriously.

This may not after all be the most strategic or astute thing. One of the things you find in a place like Columbus is that people yearn for the high art cred of New York/east coast....and that if you feed them pretentiousness, they'll often eat it up. A number of people have remarked that my shows would seem like a natural overlap for people who attend events at the Wexner Center (the local "mod" performing arts center). As such, I've attempted to distribute handbills outside of relevant Wexner Center concerts. That was eye-opening to say the least. I can't tell you how disinterested people were, even as I found myself making a pretty good pitch. I had nice, attractive handbills and I was polite, earnest, and all-- but I might as well have been selling wristwatches under my trenchcoat.

If something has the Wexner seal of approval though, people turn out. I'm convinced to this day that if some of the people I'd brought in-- Tatsuya, Tom Abbs, Josh Berman-- had performed at the Wexner Center instead of one of my "free jazz ghetto" shows, they would have had probably 10 times the attendance and pay. I don't have a personal need to present these guys on my turf either, which is why I've repeatedly contacted the Wexner Center on their behalf. Never heard a word from them.

While I would be happy for these artists getting a show at the Wexner, for their finances and their egos (getting to play in front of a larg(er) crowd)-- at the same time, I don't feel like busting into the concert hall, being legitimized by the mod art institutions, is what the music needs. I am a staunch believer in the music having a primarily grassroots existence....the problem is, of course, that musicians and promoters like myself or Dan get discouraged when the audience grows at such a snail's pace.

I will say, small as my crowds may be, I'm fairly proud of the kind of people who turn out for the shows. There's a range of ages, cultures, occupations, and even political persuasions. (The only thing that is sorely missing is gender diversity. Yes, they're mostly "man meets."). I would say too that a number of these folks might not have turned out for the shows if I had adopted some kind of knowingly mod/"cutting edge" presentation from the outset. There are some really down-to-earth people who would just be turned off by that. At the same time, I believe that my lack of pretentiousness has resulted in some people not turning out. It's a hard balance to strike, to cultivate the sort of climate you want to see take place, while knowing that you may be forfeiting some of the obvious suspects for audience members. I am just very resistant to creating another "scene" in a city rife with "scenes", and so, admittedly, have made very little effort to ingratiate myself with the young, white hipster community here.

If anything, I have tried to lean further to the "accessible" end of presentation. I have produced some mixed bill shows that featured free jazz alongside straight-ahead jazz, or hip-hop, or spoken word forums. Here though, I think this kind of program is just CONFUSING to people though. In the late 60s or 70s this wouldn't have been any big deal, but you're really screwing with people's sense of order when you do this now. I am still glad to have made attempts in this direction though. I think if you have the right venue, one that is eclectic by nature--- you could pull this off, especially if it was regular, revue-type event.

Speaking of which.....regularity, predictability, and consistency of quality. These are the things that are key to any presenter's success in buiding an audience. When I was having the most success here, it was because I had a regular venue to work with and the shows were happening on fairly regular intervals. Alas, the two regular venues I've worked with have both went bust, and that always takes you a step back. For the past 3 years I have just done shows with venues by committee-- where I could get an appropriate room and who was simply willing to host.

So-- if you have a hospitable venue, MILK IT for all it's worth because there is no telling how long it will last. I know ad hoc/by commitee is the reality for a lot of presenters and musicians in this music, and yet-- if I could go back in time I would have done even more shows at the regular venues I had.

All of this aside, I just keep doing what I do. I have gone back and forth at times about whether I wanted to continue doing shows, because just when I get some kind of little breakthrough-- a good crowd-- the next show would be sparsely attended. But in the course of time there's been a community of sorts that has evolved here. People who were once simply unconnected audience members are now playing in bands together, going to each other's weddings, sharing memories about good times, all that stuff. Shows are now an occasion for these guys to hang out and catch up, as well as experiencing a common interest. So that keeps me going, and is gratifying in its own right.

Lest I sound at all jaded or resigned here, I should add that I'm open to reconceiving how I present and promote shows. I just recognize that if one isn't willing to dress the music in intellectual trappings and ingratiate themselves with the local hiperati, you're counting on people being both honestly curious and honest in their intentions (to simply hear some interesting music...). I do believe there are more people in Columbus, and the Midwest in general, who might be curious about experiencing something "different", but are put off by the scenesterism. Precisely because they are not part of a pre-existing scene and do not travel by packs, they are harder to reach though.

Friends of friends, of friends....and don't forget grandma-- she might like free jazz if she tried it.


  1. Gerard, thanks for this articulate post!

  2. This is great. The hipster suffocation problem in Boston is generally confined to places that ditched free jazz years ago in favor of things that are either more nebulous like 'electronica' laptop tapping or vapid noise/improvisers like hick versions of Zorn.

    The gallery has the sort of constituency cross section you seek but numbers are small. Now Columbus had interesting 'indie' bands like Scrawl and the Ass Pony's (I seem to recall). If they are still doing anything, I wonder if genre contrast combinations might be fun?

    It is funny, the locals need the imprimateur of some prestige dump. Maybe, instead of handbills, you justhave someone with a horn busking out front or hand out cds?

  3. Chris, I think mixed bill shows are a great idea in principle. One thing that I've learned though is that if you're going to do a mixed bill, you've got to take it to the doorstep of the indie/rock/noise kids. And there has to be beer. In my naivete I tried to do some mixed bills in galleries + performance spaces. Well, these were not places the indie folks frequent by habit, and there was no beer, or BYOB at best. So, even though I had acts on the bill they like, and used plenty of targeted promotion to reach them- it was mostly in vain.

    This really dawned on me when I saw the difference in turnout for Corsano/Flaherty at one of my shows, vs. their appearance at a local hipster hangout. Like night and day. Bring it to their doorstep, and there is a MUCH better chance they will turn out. The social aspect of live music is just so big for younger folks. As a jazz/improv listener I have been so used to going wherever the artists were appearing- by necessity- that I've took for granted that others might have that same mindset.