Natural Selection

Late summer/early fall is always an exciting time here at jazz festival headquarters. With the most recent festival basically put to bed, our thoughts turn to the festival coming up. The slate is blank, and wish lists are long. It almost feels as though we're coming out of hibernation of some sort - stretching our arms, rubbing our eyes, re-establishing contact with musicians and agents who only a few months ago we were chatting with almost daily. Right around now is when I start listening to submissions in earnest. I've made it through about 20 (of the roughly 200 which have come in so far) and I thought I would share my thoughts on this part of the process.

A couple of years ago I did a few sessions on "making a submission to the festival", and I had this to say about evaluating submissions:

First of all, if I don’t find your music interesting, I’m not going to book it. That may sound unfair, but I’m the Artistic Director, and that’s my job…The other side of the interesting coin is this: even I do find your music to be interesting, and even if I think it’s sounding great, if I don’t think it will fly with the audience, I won’t book it. It’s vital that everyone remembers that the festival depends on its audience…and so it’s not enough that the music is interesting to me: it’s got to be interesting for the audience too, and, depending on the venue, has to create enough interest to sell tickets.

I wrote the blurb above in 2010 and, three years later, the same holds true. As I listen to submissions - and I can only spend a few minutes on each - I'm gauging first and foremost my reaction to the music. If it grabs me in any way (great melodies, great harmonies, great grooves, great technique…), I'll give the submission a bit more attention.

What has changed for me over the past few festivals, though, is the efficiency with which I categorize the submissions. When I started, I was hopeful that we could find a spot for most of the submissions I had slotted into the "maybe" category. Now I recognize - for better or worse - that we won't find a spot for most bands. It's a drag, but it's true. So rather than create an unnecessarily large list of "maybes", I'm much more realistic than I once was. I'm still open to surprise, still open to new discoveries; it's what I like best about listening to the submissions. But we have very few spots available, and no matter how far the definition of jazz may be stretched, there are still a particular set of parameters which must be met in order for any band to get a spot.

The good news, as frustrating as this sometimes get - because sometimes I just want to book everything - is that parameters change. As trends change, as audience tastes change, as finances change, so do the types and numbers of acts we book. So a spot denied this year is not a spot forever denied. Many musicians and bands have come onto my radar because they submitted. So even if they haven't yet gotten a gig at the festival, when the opportunity comes up in the future I'll do my best to get them one. Or see them when they're playing elsewhere in town. Or recommend them to others.

And so, you may be asking, what's the current score? About 5 maybes, which includes one definitely and one potential new discovery. Not a bad percentage so far…


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