I was asked the other day why, in a couple of recent posts, I picked on the Folly Theater. They’re booking jazz, the questioner posed, so aren’t they one of the good guys?
(The person who asked, by the way, is not associated with the Folly.)
I know from my jazz festival days the inherent feeling of unfairness in fielding criticism when the critic doesn’t know what went into booking an event. I’m not privy to the limitations of Folly budgets or artist availability. I don’t know why they booked Eldar just five months after his Jardine’s shows. I don’t know why the show week before last showcased a group of relative unknowns. But I’m sure that when made those seemed the best choices within the theater’s constraints.
I also know from my jazz festival days that when you present an event to the public, public criticism is valid. The festival which headlined the Modern Jazz Quartet was coming off a money losing year and paying off debts. That year’s festival president (not me) thought he had an agreement with The Star’s publisher not to print reviews, to avoid possible negative comments at a sticky time with vendors. I don’t know if he hadn’t reached the agreement he thought or if the publisher didn’t pass it along, but the newspaper did review the shows. And that was fair, no matter our constraints, because we were urging everybody who would listen to come and listen to those shows.
(The idiot reviewer compared the Modern Jazz Quartet to Muzak, but that’s a different matter.)
So when it pains me to read that the audiences for the first two Folly jazz series shows put together would barely half fill the theater for a single show, I comment. Especially when it used to be so much better and could be still.
During my fest years, the 1980s, what is now the Folly jazz series was transitioning from the presenting group Friends of Jazz to the theater. And each year we coordinated with Friends to insure the festival was not looking to book acts they were also considering. Those were good years for jazz in KC, with plenty of clubs around town, crowds at the fest and the Friends of Jazz series regularly filling the Folly.
Today, no doubt the recession makes $30 tickets a questionable expense for too many budgets. And jazz today is not as trendy as it was in the ‘80s. But that means it’s incumbent on the presenter and the artist to reach beyond the niche, to educate, to sell.
Here’s what I mean. Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio plays the January show. Never heard of him in my life. So I checked him out on the Folly’s web site. It tells me that he’s a violinist and composer who “is widely recognized as one of the brightest talents of his generation” and that the Trio “captures the electricity and nuance of performances that can only be described as ‘spectacular.’” Okay, that’s a nice (if generic) start. But it’s only a start.
I found his videos on YouTube. But why did I have to search that out myself? Link to them. Embed one on your Mark O’Conner page (it’s easy to do). I just watched a video. He’s good! Don’t just tell me generically that this dude’s “spectacular.” It’s 2009. It’s Missouri. Show me.
And how about some music links? Give me a chance, on your home page, to click a player (there’s plenty of good ones available) and hear immediately what “spectacular” means.
How about a Facebook page with links? Jardine’s has a page with nearly 1000 fans. How about updates on Twitter? The Phoenix tweets daily to twice as many people as came to the last Folly jazz concert. That’s how I know who’s playing there each night. So do you know how I find out who’s playing the Folly? Neither do I.
(Okay, that’s kind of mean. I can find out on the web site or by phoning. But the point is, that’s not as effective as pushing the news regularly -- not in a single direct mail drop -- to those of us interested. And those links to music and video can be in your tweets, too.)
You'll need rights from the licensing firms to stream music from your web site. I checked. They'll total around $1000 a year. That's a cheap marketing expense for the benefit they'll drive.
That they'll drive, that is, if, once those multimedia samples are embedded and available, you promote them. Tell people, want to hear this trio? Want to know what we mean by "spectacular"? Come to the front page of our web site. See us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Reach beyond the jazz crowd. Reach to the younger audience, some of whom, if exposed to this music, will like it.
You say this media doesn't reach your base? You may be right. But those 200 people at the last show? There's the base. You're reaching them. Now grow the base. I chose this show as an example because there’s still plenty of time to implement new media to promote it.
And artists, artist agents, and artist PR people, you’re just as culpable as the promoters. It’s no longer good enough to provide a glossy of a nicely coiffed violinist to post next to the word “spectacular.” Supply the links. Supply the embed. Supply the music files. Don’t make the promoter work to find them. It’s your talent he’s selling. Give him the tools 2009 requires.
Why so passionate about this? Because it makes me as sick to read of 800 empty seats as I suspect it makes the Folly to see them. I remember what this series used to be. Maybe it will not be selling out regularly any time soon, but it sure ought to draw more than 200 a show. The current crowd size screams, jazz is dead.
Well, jazz is not dead, dammit. It’s inadequately promoted. By everyone involved.