Text by Dawoud Kringle
MFM founder Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi and jazz virtuoso Billy Harper organized a Jazz Musicians Meeting. This is the second of such meetings. Attendees such as Joe Lovano, Billy Harper, Ray Blue, Jimmy Owens, Ken Hatfield, Roger Blanc, and MFM members Reggie Sylvester, Michael Moss and others made the event a remarkable success.
The first thing that was noticeable was that the basic idea that making music is a profession (the foundation of MFM) was already so deeply ingrained in the psyche of the gathering that it was too obvious to even bear mentioning. The need to voice this basic fact has, in the context of this meeting, been transcended. The next step had been very decisively taken.
Saadat had invited many female professional musicians to the event. Unfortunately none showed up. The inclusion of women in these affairs is an important factor. The lack of the participation and contributions of female musicians was noticeable; and underscored the dire need to support gender equality in the music business.
The conversation began with a lively analysis of the harsh economic realities of trying to make a living as a musician. One interesting point that arose was how streaming outlets like Spotify, Pandora, etc., do not pay us a living wage. Spotify is particularly unsavory in their business practises. A musician will have to have millions of streams before he or she will see the most minuscule royalty statement (which by the way, if that monthly royalty does not meet a certain minimum, it does not spill over into the next month). Their entire business model is losing money: yet their CEOs are pulling in seven figure salaries. Where does this leave the musicians who actually produce Spotify’s content? Penniless. And the CEO’s platitudes are always the same: “it’s good exposure.”
Some problems that were discussed included playing clubs, the pros and cons of the Union, question of publishing royalties for composers and side men, and the obsolete business models that are being used to exploit musicians.
Other subjects that could offer possible solutions were explored, including the Fair Play Fair Pay Act, CASE Act bill in Congress, Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and setting up a corporation (LLC) and pay into your own pension, arranging deals with BMI and ASCAP for guaranteed payments, and others which are attempting to level the playing field for musicians.
The nuts and bolts of record deals and how musicians can get paid was dissected under a microscope. Many anecdotes of personal experiences of different deals were compared and analyzed.
Ken Hatfield was the main commentator on musician rights and issues. It is regrettable that his discourse was not recorded; it contained valuable information on the business.
Jimmy Owens shared ideas rooted in his experience as a musician activist. He gave good advice on business matters; and his anecdotes were priceless.
Joe Lovano gave some very interesting inside information about his business relationship with Blue Note Records.
Saddat’s contribution to the meeting – beyond his role in organizing it – was more in the background. He moderated a bit, and asked the group to share concerns, fears, and successes. This was a good sign: not because Saadat‘s contributions are irrelevant or superfluous. It simply signaled that the MFM model of “we” – i.e. a proactive and communal collective approach to diagnosing problems and implementing workable solutions, is finally taking shape.
Concerns were expressed about the future. The mechanization of business is reducing work opportunities for musicians, as well as all workers. Europe, as another example, has no more need for American jazz musicians. They developed to the point where they have their own branches of jazz. This poses a question: how do we get overseas gigs in the face of the present political (Trump) and economic climate? How do musicians set up health care, career development, etc. How does the working musician survive at all?
All attendees agreed that musicians need to organize and advocate the profession and business of music. It’s necessary that musicians get out from their individual mental boxes and start to listen to other musicians and share experiences. It was also reiterated that we shouldn’t play for free (one of the elders advised one of the younger attendees not to play at a club that doesn’t pay despite providing the backline).
One thing that’s important is drawing an audience’s attention. This is difficult because people don’t know how to listen to music. We are fighting the dumbing down of America. Our best work is incomprehensible to most people. We can’t accomplish our long term objectives without the audience understanding that we are not getting paid for the use of our work. Breaking through this is a priority.
Musicians got into their careers because of some inner spiritual idea. The music business behaves in contrast to universal spiritual principles. We are walking a razor’s edge trying to survive and prosper through speaking universal truths directly into hearts. The American model of greed based business is simply not working. It is doomed to destruction. We need another way to do this.
This meeting was a milestone for MFM. It was a gathering of intelligent and experienced musicians who shared ideas in order to formulate a real workable plan of action. All attendees asked that these meetings be continued.
This could signal the beginning of a formidable movement.