We've entered some strange, futuristic world, one where technology, in a general sense, inspires jazz musicians, while new technologies, in the form of content-streaming sites like Spotify and YouTube, simultaneously screw them out of hard-earned royalties.
"The Stars Look Very Different Today," composer/bassist Ben Allison's 11th album as a leader, came out late last year on Sonic Camera, his own label. It's his first attempt at producing, mixing and releasing his own work, after a long history with Palmetto Records. Many of the tracks are responses to certain films, sci-fi and otherwise: "D.A.V.E. (Digital Awareness Vector Emulator)" explores the moment when H.A.L., Kubrick's vengeful computer, becomes aware in "2001: A Space Odyssey"; "Dr. Zaius" riffs on the damn-dirty "Planet of the Apes" antagonist; and "The Ballad of Joe Buck," featuring far-out banjo work by guitarist Brandon Seabrook, filtered through pedals and gadgets (he also bows the instrument at the end of the tune), alludes to "Midnight Cowboy"'s gigolo-ingenue, played by Jon Voight. The album, which received raves from critics, is available for purchase on Allison's website (in various formats as well as on CD) or through iTunes, but you won't find it on Spotify or YouTube.
On his blog and in interviews, Allison has laid out a convincing case for why streaming sites, which deliver sounds to listeners in record time, really don't do much for the people who create the music. "Artists have always needed technology," Allison, a New Haven native, told CTNow from his home in New York City. "Without technology, there would be no record business. But like anything else, technology is a double-edged sword." Musicians, he said, are drawn to technological breakthroughs, but modern business practices don't have their best interests in mind. "The ways technology has changed how music is sold and shared: those are cultural things… It's not the consumers' fault. They're just supposed to love music. It's the industry's job to create a positive business atmosphere."
For the recording of "Stars," Allison, a self-described "science and technology nerd," recruited Seabrook and two longtime collaborators, guitarist Steve Cardenas and drummer Allison Miller. The album (named after a line in David Bowie's 1972 hit "Space Oddity") blends rock and post-rock, eerie early-'60s film-score textures (the kind you'd hear in some of the movies referenced on "Stars") and folk-ish melodies, played by Cardenas, over grooves and sonic washes (often provided by Seabrook). The music is both evocative and exhilarating.
When "Stars" was completed, Allison uploaded the album to YouTube for several days, where it was viewed roughly 300 times (average time: 11 minutes), to see how much advertising revenue would come his way. Total payday: $2.91. (He blogged about the experiment.)
At the same time, the economics of operating a record label are attractive and complicated. "Everybody's situation is different," Allison said. "In my case, I wrote the tunes, I recorded the tunes, I released the tunes. All of those [revenue] streams go to me." He uses a web service called TopSpin to handle the online sales (they take a percentage, in the forms of a yearly administrative cost and a per-download cost). "There are all kinds of layers… But the promise of the digital age is that there's the potential for those sort of channels to be opened up to the masses. Anybody can use [TopSpin], and that can be a good thing or a bad thing."
The risk-reward scenarios involved in releasing his own music appeals to Allison, a DIY musician who co-founded the non-profit, musician-led Jazz Composers Collective in the early '90s. "That was built around this whole scene of new music that was happening in New York," he said. "It was very rewarding. It supported the ideal of doing a lot of this work ourselves. So when a record gets to number one on the radio, to me it means that much more." While recording for Palmetto Records, he was hands-on, gleaning tips from engineers and producers. "They allowed me to be involved in every stage. I was always in the studio when we mixed, and I worked very closely with the head engineer. I learned the craft, even though I didn't really press the buttons."
Allison recorded "Stars" at the Bunker, a Brooklyn, N.Y. studio, and subsequently sent it to MasterDisk, a legendary mastering studio (also in New York), for mastering using his own mixes. He wanted the best ears in the business checking his work. On Friday, March 21 at 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., Allison brings a different group — a trio with Cardenas and trumpeter Ron Horton — to Firehouse 12 in New Haven, where they'll perform rearranged "Stars" tracks and music by guitarist Jim Hall and saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre.
"This other group is stripped down," Allison said. "No drums, very open, very chamber-jazz. That space [Firehouse 12] is so intimate and close that I didn't want to bring my other project in there. I think this just seemed like the perfect music, this conversational jazz where there's plenty of room. It's basically a three-way conversation."
BEN ALLISON TRIO performs on Friday, March 21, at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., New Haven. Showtimes are 8:30 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $18 (first set) and $12 (second set). Information: firehouse12.com, 203-785-0468.