The following is an article I wrote in 2008 for my high school alumni magazine.
Jazz music has been a passion for me ever since, the summer after eighth grade. I immersed myself in jazz records and learned to play the tenor sax so that I could fill an open spot in the Dalton High School Jazz Band. I spent countless wonderful hours practicing at home and playing with the band.
My academic studies led me elsewhere—as an undergrad I studied Mathematics and Philosophy, and I went on to do a doctorate in Artificial Intelligence… but jazz was always there for me. After I decided, five years into my doctorate at Stanford, that I did not want to be an academic, I slowly realized that I would become a full-time jazz musician instead. It came as a surprise; I knew I’d always play music, but it never occurred to me that I might ever do it for a living.
As a professional musician I perform, lead a band, compose, record CDs, run an independent record label, and teach at the Jazzschool, the Brubeck Institute and the Stanford Jazz Workshop. My band has headlined venues like the Blue Note and the Monterey Jazz Festival. Our latest CD, Radiant Blue, hit number four on the US jazz radio charts. So, I’ve seen a measure of success.
Most of my musician colleagues went to music school. While I was proving theorems and writing conference papers, they were refining their musical technique, learning second and third instruments, forging industry connections… and doing lots of other things of which I’m still envious. But, oddly, I think that foregoing music school has also helped my career. As an outsider, I had an atypical perspective on a life in music. And I could see the assumptions shared by my peers more clearly for not having grown up with them. I thought it might be interesting to share a few observations…
The way a jazz musician normally thinks about success goes something like this: I’m pretty good. When I get very good, I’ll get to play at [some nice local club]. And when I get REALLY good I’ll get to play at [some really famous club].
The logic sounds reasonable enough. But, if it is true, it means something disastrous for the club owners: that they’re obliged to hire anyone who’s good enough to play in their club. Well, what if a jazz musician is really gifted but makes difficult, dissonant music that people don’t want to hear? Or what if a musician is talented but unwilling to help publicize the gig? Or talks down to his or her audience? Hiring these musicians too often is a sure way to put the club out of business.
The idea that a stranger somehow “owes” me a gig because he decided to open up a club in my hometown is ridiculous… but it is amazingly widespread among musicians. It’s astonishing how little thought musicians give to what it actually takes to run a club profitably, especially since thinking this way would be an enormous aid in obtaining gigs.
To make things worse, when musicians are faced with the fact that they’re not getting the gigs (or record contracts or media coverage…) they “deserve,” they often come to the wrong conclusions. Rather than overhaul their notion of how to succeed, they may turn cynical and start to feel that there’s a force out to get them.
There’s a long history of this sort of bitterness in the biz, and for a long time it was arguably justified; the record labels and managers wielded incredible power and were famous for mistreating musicians. By contrast, these days the playing field is wide open. Whereas the record labels used to be the essential link between musicians and their fans, nowadays recording and selling music has become very affordable, and keeping in touch with fans over the internet is cheap and easy.
Still, when I ask a group of young students what you have to do to be successful in music, they frequently give me this answer: “Don’t let them get you down.” Somehow they’ve inherited the old adversarial notion of the music industry as “the little guy musician” pitted against “the man.” Unfortunately, it blinds them to their own failings (just watch American Idol auditions for proof of that), and to many productive ways they could develop their own career.
When I entered music professionally, I started from the premise that nobody owes me anything. I worked on my music and I tried to put myself in the shoes of the people who could help my career—bookers, journalists, distributors, and the like. Over time, I discovered that my interests were uncannily aligned with those people. A club owner and I both want to fill up the club’s seats when I play there. And we both want my band to play great music that’ll reflect well on all of us. If I can’t convince myself that both those things will happen when I play a certain gig, I shouldn’t solicit the gig—or even accept it if it’s offered to me. But if I can, then it’s in the club owner’s interest to hire me. Knowing that, I can argue very persuasively and with the knowledge that I’m helping both of us. The booker senses that I’m not his adversary, and the discussions actually become fun and productive.
It made me wonder: If it’s so helpful to my business for me to consider the perspectives of those with whom I have dealings, why don’t more musicians operate this way? I can’t say for sure, but I have some strong inklings. There is a longstanding tradition among musicians—among artists in general—of eschewing outside influences and valuing the art in its pure form. The public at large is seen as crass and materialistic, so interactions with them are seen as distracting at best… downright corrupting at worst. To shelter themselves from the interests of others, musicians tend to depersonalize outsiders they work with. They view bookers and label executives as an abstractions—vehicles for their own music’s dissemination—rather than real people trying to lead lives and make sensible decisions.
To be sure, this insular perspective is beneficial in many regards. It helps musicians focus on their art and spend long hours practicing. And it helps them cope with a public that often understands neither their lifestyle nor their art. But when it comes to the business side, this perspective is toxic. Many musicians seek people to shelter them from the world of business—such as the record label with the elusive “record deal” that will be their ticket to success. Most never find a deal, and those who do, generally discover down the line that the record label did not have their interests at heart. Others resign themselves to obscurity or settle for jobs playing music they don’t love.
I love what I do. It’s been fifteen years since I left academia for a life in music, and I have never looked back. As an academic, I found the subjects of my research fascinating… even thrilling. But I came to realize that the academic life was not how I wanted to live my hours on this planet. I was passionate about my academic work, but the product of that work was often barren of emotional content. Music, by contrast, is emotion. And musical performance, unlike scholarship, has an immediacy that I find hugely satisfying. A beautiful musical moment is its own reward, and won’t be obviated or disproved the next day.
As an independent artist, I take full responsibility of my own career. It requires a sizeable investment of time—valuable time that I could otherwise spend practicing or performing. But the rewards are enormous. Running my own record label, I have complete control over the music I create and the business relationships I engage in.
Fortunately I have found there are people who enjoy my music and will pay to experience it. As a result, it’s in the financial interest of my music industry colleagues to further my career. Not because I’m good enough that they “owe it to me,” but because it will help everyone concerned. The way I see it, if I don’t help them figure out how, I have no one to blame but myself.
— Anton Schwartz ’85