Global audience, local scene: How Smalls is turning the live music venue inside out
In an age where recorded music has become an exercise in automated reconstruction, and live music has faded into a vanishing art, one downtown jazz club seeks to shift the paradigm for working jazz artists, while it secures a permanent place for live, improvised music in the digital world.
Since its opening in 1994, Smalls Jazz Club has been a community driven haven for young players, veteran musicians and jazz lovers alike. The intimate, 60 seat venue is home to more than 500 artists, countless students and jazz fans and one very hip cat known to lay across the Steinway piano whenever partner/manager Spike Wilner sits down to play.
When Mr. Wilner took over the club in February of 2007, Smalls already had a name for itself on the New York jazz scene as a low key venue where high profile players and fans could hang all night, listen to great live jazz and sit in with other musicians on the bandstand. In September of 2007, in partnership with club founder Mitch Borden, Mr. Wilner began audio archiving each live performance for posterity.
"I feel that jazz music is best heard in a live context. It's a Zen art; it's meant to be spontaneously created, and appreciated right away."
Showcasing spontaneity seemed to be the idea behind the launch of the SmallsLIVE record label in 2008.
"It's very hard to capture the feeling of the live moment of jazz in the studio, and once you start cutting it up, it really starts killing it. Our goal [for the label] was to have minimal editing [of the performances] with the best sound possible. We wanted to present to the listener exactly what they would hear at Smalls Jazz Club, but in a clear and beautiful way, and let the artists choose cuts that they felt were best representative of their work."
Following the modest success of the live record label, and recognizing the diminishing role of the traditional recording studio, in 2011 Smalls unveiled a video broadcast of nightly live performances that transformed the tiny club on west 10th street into a global venue with thousands of international viewers, and introduced a brand new kind of revenue possibility.
The Musicians Revenue Sharing Project uses the Netflix model of a monthly subscription fee for access to audio and video archives of live performances. Collected fees enter into a "revenue pool" to be distributed among artists in the archive, based on the number of listening minutes each artist accrues.
The project marks a never before seen partnership initiative between artist and club owner, where the club offers the band leader a high definition master recording of the live performance, in exchange for allowing the club to archive the recording for their catalogue.
"Our goal is to turn Smalls into a recording studio, so that every artist that plays there is signed to the label. We're trying to make the biggest record company of all time."
Perhaps the most highly evolved aspect of the project is its consideration for the shamefully and consistently neglected sideman. Under the new initiative, each player on the date will receive an equal share of the revenue for that particular recording, so popular side players are poised to earn a sizable percentage of the quarterly revenue pool.
"The artists just don't want to get screwed. They're getting 50% of sales, they're getting 100% ownership of their property to do with it what they wish. All the sidemen get paid. It's never been done before."
Other venues soon may take their cue from Smalls Jazz Club. As many find themselves in danger of folding in the driving intensity of an increasingly digital world, Smalls is attempting to harness that intensity on a local level, and market it globally.
"It's just a matter of unifying everyone under one umbrella and getting it out there.
Our mission is to propagate this music and to send it worldwide. We want to save the music; that's why we're doing it."
The club is accepting contributions for the Revenue Sharing Project through indiegogo:
Stephanie Jones, jazzgroupiez.com