The Audience Issue

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Thu Oct 6 4:45pm

A couple of weeks ago, I referred in my blog to an interview with Branford Marsalis posted on the Seattle Weekly website (here it is). The ideas covered off in the interview - why some jazz isn't connecting with some audiences - stuck with me, and have been on my mind recently.

The topic of audience development in jazz is a hot one, frequently discussed by festivals and clubs, but also by artists and their representatives, radio stations, record companies and the audience members themselves. In fact, there have been studies completed recently on the subject - check out this post on NPR about the Columbus, Ohio based Jazz Audience Initiative. In today's post, I thought I would use three recent, and quite different, live concert experiences to explore audience engagement. I'll do my best to list some of the key information about each show.

What: The Donefors CD release party
When: Thursday, September 22, 10 pm
Where: The Dakota Tavern
How much: $10
Estimated attendance (approximate capacity): 100 (120)

The Donefors performed on the outdoor stage as part of the Lunchtime Concerts at this year's TD Toronto Jazz Festival. I suppose they're probably not jazz, but I like their music so well I was pleased to have them as part of the festival, and I was excited to attend their CD release. They finally took the stage (after an opening act) shortly after 11 pm and didn't disappoint, playing a variety of music from their first album (How to Have Sex with Canadians), their cheekily titled new release Award Winning Album, and other tunes. The space was packed, there was a party vibe and, though there was room to squish in a few more people, it might not have been comfortable to do so. The Donefors are working with a publicist but are still doing their own booking, and recording independently. So - what made this show such a hit with the crowd, and why was it so full?

A few things come to mind. First, the music is top-notch (in my opinion, but also according to The Globe and Mail, which gave the new album three stars out of four). The musicians are approachable and have a great stage presence. They make good use of social media, and, given the title of their new CD, they clearly have a good sense of humour. In other words, they seem to be doing a lot of things right. That said, the venue was small; how would they have done in a larger room?

What: John MacLeod's Rex Hotel Orchestra
When: Saturday, September 24, 8 pm
Where: Walter Hall, at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music
How much: $30
Estimated attendance (approximate capacity): 200 (490)

I dedicated some of last week's post to this concert so I'll do a quick recap: it was fantastic. The band sounded great, the hall (which can be treacherous) worked perfectly - everything musically about the evening was a success. The question, then, is this: with 18 of Canada's top jazz musicians on the same stage, playing the music of Rick Wilkins, a legendary Canadian arranger, and with the concert billed as a fundraiser for the establishment of an arranging scholarship in Rick's name, why wasn't the hall filled to capacity?

As with the Donefors, this band seems to be doing everything right: they're producing outstanding music (they've even won a Juno!), they're working with a great and well-recognized producer/publicist, making use of social media, and clearly having a great time. And, for a jazz show, a crowd of 200 is certainly respectable. But should an audience of 400 not have been attainable? Was a ticket price of $30 prohibitive to some people? Was the venue unfamiliar? Does the band, with their monthly performances at The Rex Hotel, perform too frequently to sell a ticketed show?

Last example...

What: AIMToronto Interface (night one of two) with special guest Sylvie Courvoisier
When: Friday, September 30, 8 pm
Where: Gallery 345
How much: $20 ($30 for both nights)
Estimated attendance (approximate capacity): 20 (100)

I admit to not being familiar with Sylvie Courvoisier's playing prior to this Interface so, seeking to educate myself, I attended the first night of the two-night event. The evening was a triple bill: the grouping of Courvoisier along with Parmela Attariwala (violin, viola) and Matt Miller (samples, electronics) got the evening started, followed by a set by Muskox, and wrapped up with the grouping of Courvoisier with Kyle Brenders (saxophones and clarinet), Heather Segger (trombone) and Rick Sacks (percussion). The music in the first and third sets was improvised, while Muskox performed their unique compositions for banjo, guitar, piano, bass and drums. It was a good night of music. In her two sets, Sylvie performed on, in and around the piano with mastery and musicality. I enjoyed the interplay between the musicians in the first and third sets, and Mike Smith's compositions for Muskox are original and playful, and were well performed.

A concert of improvised music will always be a harder sell, but I got the sense that even the organizers of the event were disappointed with the turnout. (I didn't hear if attendance improved on the second night.) So why didn't this concert attract more people? The music, here again, was excellent. Sylvie Courvoisier is an internationally acclaimed musician who has performed with the top names in the contemporary jazz and classical worlds. The AIMToronto crew spread word of the concert via social media and the various free listings available to them. The range of musicians - from emerging, younger musicians to established veterans - produced interesting musical collaborations. The venue is gaining recognition, and the music presented there is enthusiastically supported by the Gallery's owner, Ed Epstein. But is the venue too far off the beaten path (near Dundas and Roncesvalles)? Was it the weather (cold and rainy)? Was there not enough advertising? Is the music too niche?

So - three very different musical experiences, and three very different outcomes in terms of audience turnout. In my books, all were enjoyable, and all were worth whatever effort was involved in getting there.

In this post, I've asked some questions. I clearly don't have the answers; if I did, we'd be selling out every show at the jazz festival, and I could probably write a book on the subject and retire wealthy (ish). The purpose of this post is not to suggest that one group did this right and another made these mistakes. The purpose of this post is to hopefully spark a discussion.

What are your thoughts? What do we as musicians and music presenters need to do in order to attract an audience? And, if you're usually on the audience side of the stage, what makes you go to a show?

I welcome your feedback.


P.S. - Speaking of audience, I suggest that you be in it (what a segue!) for this Saturday (October 8th) night's rare gig with the Don Thompson Big Band, 7:30 pm in the St. Michael's College School Centre for the Arts. Concert and ticket information are available here. Due to family commitments I can't attend...but I hope that you'll be there in my stead!