The Audience Issue III - Venues

It's been a busy couple of weeks, so you may have noticed that I've fallen behind on my blogging. I had fully intended "The Audience Issue" to be a multi-week series of hard-hitting blogs, delving deep into some of the challenges facing today's jazz scene. You know, 60 Minutes style. But given the lack of continuity I think it's a bit closer to 37 Minutes or so. In any case, I'll wrap up the series today with a discussion on venue.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being in the audience for the SF Jazz Collective's performance at Koerner Hall, billed as a tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder. The billing may not have been totally accurate (about half of the evening's tunes were Stevie's, and the other half was originals from members of the ensemble), but the show was top notch. The eight musicians on stage are all outstanding, and they each got to demonstrate mastery of their respective instruments at various times throughout the evening.

As I was watching the show, though, I wondered if a 1000+ concert hall was the right venue. I should be clear: Koerner Hall is an excellent venue, and every show I've seen there has sounded great. But with those particular eight musicians, I craved a bit more of an "in my face" experience - something up close, more intimate. Maybe even...louder. Imagine seeing that group in a 300-seat club, for example. (The existence of such a club in Toronto - or the lack thereof - is a discussion for another time and much more wine.)

I suppose I've been thinking about the types of venues in which we experience music for a while now. I experienced the Winter Jazzfest in New York at the beginning of 2011. The organizers of that festival seemed to pay no mind as to whether a venue was a traditional jazz venue or not. And seeing a progressive jazz quartet in a bar typically booked for rock acts really worked. The vibe was great, and for the most part the audience was still listening intently (though attention varied somewhat from venue to venue).

Here in Toronto, a group of local classical musicians has picked up on the "Classical Revolution" created in San Francisco in 2006, putting on what are essentially classical music jam sessions at a local bar. (From the Facebook page for their October 18th event: "Are you a musician? Bring your instrument. Music, stands, lights and piano provided. Bring your own rep too! Not a Musician? Come and enjoy the live classical music, enjoy food and drink at Daves!") I unfortunately missed the event, but I love the idea of taking a music form which has traditionally been housed in concert halls (with the perceived high ticket prices and stuffiness that go along with certain halls) and putting it into a more informal, hopefully more welcoming environment. (They're doing it again on November 22...check out their Facebook group for more information.)

I referenced the Jazz Audience Initiative in a previous blog post. One of the findings in this study of 37,000 jazz ticket buyers from six major American concert presenters plus 13 American universities is this: "By a wide margin, jazz buyers prefer informal settings for live jazz shows, especially clubs and lounges. Younger buyers have an especially strong affinity for informal settings. Prospects are equally likely to prefer outdoor settings to club settings." The study writers go on to suggest: "This has significant long-term implications for audience development. Clubs and outdoor settings are appealing “portals” into jazz for younger music lovers. These are settings where people can move around, drink and socialize. Many nonprofit jazz presenters, however, focus their presenting on jazz artists with larger followings, which in turn require larger venues that often do not allow for the experience that many consumers idealize. How can this cycle be broken? What will motivate jazz presenters to explore alternative settings for jazz in their communities? Is this strictly an economic dilemma, or are other factors at play?" (Check out the full report here.)

I had an interesting conversation with some colleagues from jazz festivals across Canada back in January about this very idea: moving away from larger venues into smaller, more intimate venues, spaces in which an audience member could have a more interactive and (hopefully) more memorable experience. Of course, as with many issues in jazz, there is no simple solution. Smaller venues mean fewer seats, which means ticket prices would have to go up in order to cover of artist fees. Or artist fees would have to come down, and I am loathe to suggest which artist should take the lead by charging less - sometimes less than they are worth. There might be a middle ground - some flexibility on fees on the artist side, booking more than two shows in a night - but we haven't found it yet. (And remember that whole other conversation about Toronto and a great 200-300 seat club? Where's my wine...)

What are your thoughts on venue? Where would you like to see your jazz?

Thanks for exploring some issues relating to audience with me over these past few blogs. It's probably time for my entries to move on to other topics, but I encourage you to keep the conversation going either in the comments below or through email.


P.S. - speaking of new audiences for jazz...Jazz Festivals Canada is hoping to reach new and current fans and presenters of jazz with their showcase this Saturday night at Glenn Gould Studio as part of the CAPACOA conference. Three boundary-pushing jazz groups - Parc X Trio (Montreal), the Kyle Brenders Quartet (Toronto) and the Gordon Grdina Trio (Vancouver) will show off their wares in what is sure to be a night of great music. I'll be there, and I hope to see you too! Complete information is available in PDF form from the CAPACOA website.

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