by: Shannon West


It's not a tragedy of the same magnitude as natural disasters, lost lives, betrayals of various kinds or even the nasty little incidents that we have to navigate in the course of our everyday lives, but when you love music and admire the people who create it, it's very sad to see musicians put their hearts and souls into a project then trust it to a system that sends it into a void. A few years ago one of my favorite artists followed up a series of formula albums that did OK commercially with what should have been a milestone release that returned him to the realm of innovation and artistic growth. Unfortunately it was released at the very point in time when smooth jazz radio quit playing current music and jettisoned mature artists. And the record company was about to go under. The CD received a brief flurry of critical praise then faded into oblivion without ever reaching its audience. Now I see an interview online where he sees the whole project as a mistake.  Hearing artists beat themselves up because they believe the music itself was the problem when it was actually the delivery system that failed is, yeah, tragic to me. Radio plays even less music now and "record stores" are as rare as typewriter repair shops, but I still talk to artists who say, "I'll let my label take care of getting it out there. They can get it on the radio, then people will buy it, and I can get some gigs and sell more CDs and get more gigs...."  Which puts a new spin on that old riff: "Hey, the 80s called and they want their business model back!" 

On the other hand, I hit my MySpace page late at night and see a little blurb from Marcus Miller's manager that says, "Bibi Green is workin' it."  Which she is, creating excitement about his new CD.  Then little bulletins pop up from other fans, "Hey, Marcus Miller CD dropped today and you've gotta check it out."  Every month I get an e-mail update on Nick Colionne.  What he's doing, where he's playing, how to get tickets, how to get 'hold of the music.  Not a lot of clutter in the in-box, just enough to keep him top-of-mind and out of that "gee, I used to like him, I didn't know he was doing anything these days" zone.  And Nyee Moses and her collaborator/manager Susan Youngblood, decided to release the album themselves so they could give it the care it deserved, instead of tossing it into the four winds and watching from a distance as it tried to land and take root.  But just when I high-five my cat over the latest DIY story, I will hear someone else say, "the label will take care of it, and when we chart we can tour," and just sigh and wonder how you can trust your hard work to a process that doesn't even exist anymore.

That is when the question came up.  Obviously because we were curious, but also in hopes that it would inspire some yanking of heads out of the sand.  At the time, everyone was freaking out over the format flip of a heritage smooth jazz station in New York City.  Since then several other stations have flipped, including Washington, Houston, and Jacksonville, Fla - my hometown.  Then, after several artists had expressed faith in Satellite radio, the Department of Justice approved the merger of XM and Sirius, which will most likely be rubber-stamped by the FCC.  Then Lee Abrams, who provided the creative spark that ignited XM in its initial stages, left the company.  The merger will put Sirius executives in control, and Sirius plays by corporate radio rules - their channels have the same tight, repetitive playlists as regular radio.  When most of the channels become controlled by them another innovative door will close. 

We asked.  They answered.  The majority of the people we contacted replied rapidly with well thought out responses.  It would be hard to do justice to these comments by editing them down or inserting them in a larger piece so here are the insights they shared with us.  From Dave Koz's comment in the beginning about opening the musical floodgates without restriction to Nick Colionne's manager Carol Ray's inspiring statement at the end there is a lot of hope and imagination at work here.  It's the beginning of the new game, and playing it strong is so important, because the audience needs the music as much as the musicians need the audience.  Here's to imagination, innovation and survival.

The Question: What are you going to do to get your music heard and keep your audience aware of what you are doing during the period between now and the time when smooth jazz radio reinvents itself and reemerges as a format that plays original instrumental music?

The Responses:

Dave Koz
: These are certainly interesting and challenging times for our format—with stations flipping and record companies not signing new talent at the same rate as in years past.  But I’ve always been a big believer in change—and I think it’s time we had a metamorphosis in smooth jazz.  After all, it’s been around for 20 years.  And for that time, we artists have relied on radio stations and record companies to expose the music we make.  But that’s the past, that model is over—we all have to look forward. Instrumental music is not dead, far from it—there are such great players out there—established and brand new on the scene.  I think the future success of what we do relies on all of us artists to now push the musical boundaries—and chart new territory...both in the making of our music and the way we get it out there.  Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace will become increasingly important in creating the communities previously formed by radio. Instead of appealing to the aggregate masses, we might find ourselves appealing to a smaller, more passionate and invested audience and being surprised at how effective that can be. Corporate tie-ins, aligning with the right sponsorship might be a solution for some as well...maybe artists will one day be signed to a “Robert Mondavi Records” instead of a “Verve Records”...who knows?!  But it’s exciting to think of the possibilities this new era opens up. We’ve seen it with the cruises—the audience is there, and they are INTO it.  Reaching them in unique, one of a kind ways I think will become ever more important.  As a community, we can’t retrench...we have to come up with new stuff to be part of the solution moving forward.  That of course requires creativity and vision—and most importantly, patience.  Theses times call not for panic, but further commitment to what we’re doing.  It of course all starts with the music—and I feel this may be the time to open the musical flood gates without the restriction of a ‘format road map’, and let that creativity put us in the driver’s seat.  

Mindi Abair
: I watched the beginning of this format we now call smooth jazz, and it was a cool place to feature new instrumental music.  People were writing all kinds of stuff, from Ottmar Liebert and his flamenco type world music to David Sanborn with his funky pop-based melodies.  In my opinion, it's a shame that much of the current playlist of smooth jazz stations has become "oldies."  Smooth jazz radio seems to have become stuck in what is safe, and that is tried and true hits, whether they be the original hits or covers of them.  I'm a songwriter as much as a musician/performer, so I've built my catalog as an artist on my own songs, not covers.  I've had great radio success with every CD I've made, so I know that stations will play new music.  It's just how much.  I'm one of the lucky ones that has broken through even during our "covers only" phase of radio, so I have no doubt that our format will see its way through to discover new artists and new music again on a larger scale.  A few stations around the country are really pushing the boundaries right now, and reaching out to some new sounds and leaving the oldies for the oldies stations.  I applaud that.  I host a nationally syndicated radio show "Chill With Mindi Abair" and I feature artists that I believe have a unique voice and could be a small part of the picture of what smooth jazz radio could become - artists like Bebel Gilberto, Zero Seven, Moby, and cool remixes of classic artists like Nina Simone or Billie Holiday...mixing classics with new beats and sounds. In my opinion I think this could be a great time for artists and radio.  We need each other. Right now music is more a part of people's lives than ever before. People are finding new music everywhere they turn, from iTunes to MySpace to commercials and ringtones, the list goes on.  No one is tired of new music!  I believe that smooth jazz radio is going to realize this, and jump on the bandwagon as stations that introduce us to new artists... worthy artists...diverse artists.  I hope that these stations will once again champion a new groundbreaking era of music, and one day 20 or so years from now we'll be the songs that they're again playing too much as "oldies" and they'll be having this same conversation!

Matt Marshak:
It is my belief that if you create naturally, believe in your vision, dedicate your life to your passion, and do not follow any trends or edit yourself before you begin, people will sense your honest and earnest way and tune in even if radio tunes out.  I'm excited for a new era.  I've seen many younger listeners at the shows, and people are calling for new music and new faces. I'm thrilled to help usher in a new period in instrumental music that is based on artistry and substance.  I would love to see smooth jazz radio as a whole echo the new artist's visions, sounds, and scene, not vice versa.  Until then, I will perform non stop and be my own radio with an optimistic smile that good things are on the way!

Euge Groove: I may not be the best person to answer your question as it was asked (coming from where I'm coming from).  I have been very fortunate that radio has continued to play my original songs.  I've never released a "cover" as a single.  Even as play lists and radio stations themselves continue to shrink, I've been really blessed that I've been able to keep a foot in the door with original self-penned songs.  I've always beat myself up about writing so I wouldn't have to choose covers for material.  In the end, it always comes down to songs - be it new or redone.  As a fan of contemporary jazz, I've never been much of a fan of covers and have spoken out to that effect every chance I could.  There are a few guys that can take a cover and really make it something new and unique.  And make a version that really is as strong and legitimate as the original.  But very few guys can do that.  I know it's always been one of the hardest things for me to do on my own discs.  Doing a "karaoke" background track with an instrumental melody is just painful.  But the bottom line is, if artists don't record them, the stations can't play them.  Part two of this is that radio isn't the only medium to reach out anymore and it hasn't been for a long time.  You have to have a balance of net presence (artist website, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, iTunes, Amazon, Smooth Views, etc), high profile live appearances (large festivals, jazz cruises, local TV, print interviews, etc.) as well as radio support to reach out to genre fans.  It's a 24/7 experience these days.  If artists and labels are betting the bank on radio and radio only for exposure, they will have missed the boat on their releases.

David Hughes: I am trying to stay up on the technological developments that affect musicians and other artists. Radio as we know it will cease to exist in the not too distant future.  Perhaps it will be replaced with a subscription model and the music will be streamed to a variety of devices, mobile phones, computers, cars... microwave ovens.  The good thing is that listeners can listen to any artist, anytime, anywhere.  It offers an opportunity for lesser-known artists with limited resources to reach audiences that way.  Getting rid of the payola obstacle will be welcome for artists like myself. Musicians need to know how the technology that relates to digital content affects them.  It used to be that critics and DJs influenced people's listening habits.  Now, that power has been delegated to consumers who use Facebook and other networking sites to influence their peers.  You need to stay in touch with your fans and find new ones via email, MySpace, Facebook etc .  The web is more important than ever.

Richard Smith: Well, there is a long tradition in Smooth jazz of covering, or doing original interpretations of great R&B, pop, soul and rock, I don't look at that part of artist's music as being a bad thing, as long as it is a true vehicle for that artist to express themselves with a degree of integrity. I actually always look forward to covering a few songs on my CD projects.  Major jazz and classical musicians of the past often covered hits of their day as well. No doubt about it though, the entire music industry is on it's ear. However, there will always be venues for creative music. There are actually more than ever, thanks to the Internet- radio will just become a smaller part of the promotion pie, maybe this isn't such a bad thing, given radio and media's own susceptibility to manipulation. Think of what musicians did before the radio was invented - there sure was a lot of good music going on then as well. Modalities such as MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook are sure to continue to play a huge role in promotion and distribution plans of the future.

Randall Kennedy (ARTizen Records): We need to keep in mind that while the terrestrial community reinvents itself - primarily for marketing purposes - we have a wealth of online radio and satellite programmers whom will continue unabated by similar concerns.  Naturally, they do have commercial intent but may be just beyond the format wars.  As well, we have all driven consumers to online stores and portals that have generous sampling opportunities and clever sites like that seek new music based on your preferences. The most successful artists of the genre also tour frequently which (Catch-22 like) may have local pitfalls while radio sorts out their personality/appellation, but will continue to play to their strength: the core - the faithful - the fans who track their favorites and have the tools to do so.  The birth of the modern instrumental format has undergone many changes, trends, and challenges but what is clear is that people want this music and radio can make money at it with intelligence and patience.

Jaared: The only thing I can think of is to play as many shows as possible to stay "visible". Also, to have a STRONG online presence.  To me, the obvious "wave of the future" is Internet Radio and Satellite Radio. That should be a main focus. Also, as far as I'm concerned, I think that all "Smooth Jazz" artists ought to think very hard about "re-doing the formula"... so to speak.... when it comes to creating the music.

Alan Hewitt: You can never let a radio format decide your future.  I write and perform music because I love it, everything after that is just a bonus.  It's always up to us as artists to rejuvenate our music.  This has happened to many other kinds of music as well, but that music still lives on.  Performing live is the most important part of the equation.  I've also signed with a major label, which will bring a better platform to expand to other countries like Europe and Asia.

Stewart Coxhead, (manager of Acoustic Alchemy): Most of the radio presenters don't even broadcast from the same State let alone the same town - the music has been edited and blanded by BA - The playlist is stupidly " pop " like in size and the whole format is cluttered with covers and vocalists who should be heard in formats other than Smooth Jazz (or in most cases not at all).  Strangely our " World " is wringing its hands wondering why radio listeners are leaving in droves and stations are failing - its easy - terrestrial Smooth Jazz radio pressed the " self destruct " button several years ago and the results are just starting to come home. Acoustic Alchemy will do what we always did - play original instrumental music and trust our loyal fans to come out once a year to enjoy our shows.  Promoters will wince a little at the format's demise but will start to use alternative radio, print, and websites to sell the dates.  I for one hope the time has come to return to real radio with local presenters - local news and information and a brilliant mix of music suitable to the format.  If it doesn't happen, I will go and live in Seattle where real radio still lives!  ( thank you Carol)"

Jeff Lorber: Smooth jazz should be in the process of re-inventing itself all the time. the term smooth jazz may need to be reinvented.  My main focus is on writing and performing compelling, original, ambitious music that will excite and stimulate.

Jason Miles: I think it's very interesting that many smooth jazz artists think that the radio is still the golden egg.  The playlists are very tight.  The music is judged by panels, and the best music on most CDs isn't heard because it doesn't conform to the radio standards.  The only thing that matters to the radio powers-that-be is how much revenue is coming in.  It's the reality of corporate owned stations. They have to meet their numbers or goodbye.  I do believe these stations were making revenue but not enough for behemoth media companies to be happy with.  I mean, a little while ago Apple Computer said they would have revenues of 7.4 billion instead of 7.5 billion.  The stock got hammered.  What's so bad about 7.4 billion?  Jazz is a passion.  It has to always be in the consciousness of our country as it was invented here.  It is a business as well but not that big of a business.  The audience is passionate and will always grow as long as people spread the word about the music to other generations.  The music I make was never accepted across the board by the stations.  I found out the people that love what I do are always in my corner.  I have to keep on working with them and branching out to meet new entrepreneurs and visionaries who understand that the market and delivery system is changing and that the old ways of selling and exposing music to people is coming to an end and it seems rather abruptly.  I will work with Internet and smaller terrestrial stations and hope once in awhile a larger station will recognize my work and play it.  I will network on the Internet and continue to spread the word that Jazz is a great passion and we need to expose the music any way we can.  It's obvious the radio stations don't care about musical solutions just financial ones and that's fine - we are just going to have to find and support our own voices no matter how difficult that is. Playing live and doing as many shows as I can is also a big factor but that is a whole other subject.

One night when I was in the studio with Luther Vandross, he was frustrated about how his last record was marketed.  He said something I will never forget.  "I make the best Pizza in town.  It's the delivery system that gets it to the customer cold."

David Lanz: The two most obvious outlets for getting music heard and enjoyed are live performance and the ever-expanding Internet audience.  Most serious artists have their own web presence and email lists to keep their audience informed of their activities.  Of course, radio can play a big role in promoting new music and live performance, but the Internet ultimately has a much wider reach.  I for one would like to see an instrumental radio format that had a broader selection of musical styles.  Smooth Jazz being part of the equation, but open to world music and other contemporary instrumental sounds.  I have always felt that radio needs to grow and reflect their audience... not just their advertisers.

Everette Harp: Although the question seems a bit daunting the answer is quite simple.  It seems that at one point or another there were a lot of us that were around with "NAC" who were not getting radio airplay when "Smooth Jazz" became the moniker.  We had to do what we had to do to get heard. It wasn't easy, but some were able to and some were not.  The bulk of us will continue to do what we've done all along.

The Internet is certainly a major avenue that we didn't have in the 70's, 80's and 90's.  Seems we will lean on it even more, and try to utilize it with more efficacy.  Live performance will remain the most important tool to promote and sell material, as well as making a living. Building and maintaining the fan base will be the priority during this period.  Maybe even satellite radio becomes a bigger player, or possibly the only player in helping us keep that fan base... we'll see.  It's hard to believe that all stations will die out at once, but anything can happen.  Quite possibly another moniker change, and even a sound change.  I would hope to a more unique and freer form of contemporary jazz which would put more emphasis on the players and not just hooky songs. Now that would be nice to hear.

Michael Manson: I feel fortunate to have had some success with airplay.  Honestly, this is a challenging time.  There is some retooling that has to be done, for sure. Here's a "beat the odds" scenario: In smooth jazz, a format which is inundated with saxophones, guitars, and keyboards, I'm a bass player. I play original music.  And yet I still get some airplay.  It beats the odds.  And I'm so grateful for the exposure. We are always looking for bigger and better outlets.  There will have to be alternate methods, satellite radio being one of them, Internet radio, and e-mail.  I don't know exactly what's going to come of it but we should use every vehicle that is available to us.

Nick Colionne: Well, myself, I plan to just keep recording and doing shows. I have always tried to keep people informed one way or another about what I am doing.  I guess the only thing any of us artists can do is keep trying to make the best music we can and putting on the best live performances we can.  I think that we all have to remain current and that is what I plan to do this year and in the following years to come.  

Carol Ray (Nick Colionne's manager): There is no panic in this quarter, and no change in the long-term plan for keeping Nick Colionne and his music in front of audiences.  Smooth jazz radio has been a huge supporter of Nick's music and we don't see that support going away based on the quality of music he puts out so although the format is struggling in some markets and has disappeared in others (Houston went today), we believe the "ears" of the PDs [program directors] and consultants will ensure Nick's music is played.  Within the format there are a lot of festivals out there that are doing well and attracting audiences, and they are one of Nick's strongest tools for making new fans. Beyond that, we have never limited Nick to only SJ, and he has enjoyed spontaneous crossover to Urban AC, college radio and AC since he broke on the scene.  They are the stations that play his vocals!  Nick has an active and passionate fan club and his "live" performances show his musical talent across several formats (smooth jazz, R&B, blues, vocals and he's a comedian on stage as well!) so his fan base is constantly growing.  He has an active tour schedule that puts him in front of people all the time, and he always has a huge CD line, so we know he's touching people with his music every time we go out. Additionally, we do a monthly newsletter to a pretty big distribution list to keep people updated on what he's doing, and Nick does a monthly newsletter for kids (he's been a mentor for 12 plus years at a Chicago-area K-8 school and the newsletter is an extension of that commitment).  We also have long-standing relationships with many websites run by people who are passionate about the music, so when Nick has a new CD coming out we know we will get a fair listen from same.  Nick has endorsements from Epiphone and Stacy Adams who make sure he gets visibility via national ads and through dealers/stores.

Most important, Nick is constantly growing as an artist, finding new expression through music on a regular basis.  His success at SJ radio has been with original music and we find that to be very encouraging.  His new CD, "No Limits," on Koch Records is due out early summer 2008 and I think the title says it all on how he feels about his music and the future.  Maybe we should be worried, but we're not.  We are organized, passionate, and confident, and besides, we're too busy making things happen!  We'd love to see the format revitalize itself at radio and find new listeners as well as regain the ones it's lost (the number one record on the R&R chart this week has 543 spins, as opposed to over 1,000 just a couple of years ago) but satellite radio, HD radio and Internet radio are out there, as well, and people who like instrumental music will find it.  People ask me occasionally how we managed to come from seemingly nowhere (the third largest city in the country, Chicago, is apparently "nowhere!") and make Nick a "star."  I always tell them it's because we didn't know we couldn't do it, so we did.  I think this is great advice for radio, other artists, and anyone with a dream - don't accept being told, "It can't be done."  Go ahead, and do it!