Over eight superb albums, hundreds of live performances around the world, educational work and workshops, Maria Schneider has emerged as the pre-eminent jazz composer of her generation. Through her ground-breaking independent and fan-funded way of producing her music she has as close a connection with her listeners as her music has with their emotions and centres of delight. This month she brings her jazz orchestra of hand-picked New York musicians to Birmingham for the first time. They will also be at the London Jazz Festival. Maria and I exchanged emails:
Q Minnesota has produced some important people in modern culture – I’m thinking of the Coen brothers, Garrison Keillor, Bob Dylan, Louise Erdrich, Prince, Anne Tyler. And, earlier, Sinclair Lewis, Robert M Pirsig, F Scott Fitzgerald. Is there something about the make-up of its people, or its landscape – or something else about the State – that inspires this creativity. And might there be common threads that your work shares with some of theirs?
A Oh gosh, I can’t speak about anyone but myself. I always thought I came from a special place, even though on the surface it looked like there wasn’t anything there at all. Maybe all that space makes you fill it in with your mind. Maybe the space leaves a vacuum that allows room for one’s own thoughts to further shape the space. Maybe all that space draws people to connect to each other in unique ways. I don’t know really. I do know though that when I go home, I still find people at home to be some of the most interesting people I know. Maybe they just feel familiar, and that’s all that it is. But I still love to go home and always find myself inspired.
Q You worked earlier on in your career with Gil Evans and also studied with Bob Brookmeyer. Are there key things that you learned from each of them that you have found invaluable in your own composing and band-leading?
A They both mostly inspired me to find my own way. Of course Bob’s sense of development and line is divine, and Gil’s orchestration and linearity, is also “beyond”. But in the end, I had to look to find my own perspective, and the strength of their individual voices inspired me to do that.
Q As I understand it your Jazz Orchestra had a weekly gig at Visiones, the club in Greenwich Village, for a five-year stretch in the ‘90s. How important was that, both for your writing and for the band? Are there still as many playing opportunities in New York? How healthy is the live jazz scene currently?
A That time was very important, as I started to really connect with the musicians, and slowly, their individual ways of phrasing or improvising, or just their individual sounds, started to drive my writing as much as my own ideas. It became more of a collaboration. There are a lot of clubs in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I think there are many bands finding the kind of opportunities that I had. I think the live jazz scene is quite healthy. It’s the recording scene that is really difficult.
Q Fan-funding is commonplace now in the music industry, but it was not so when you embarked upon your first ArtistShare project. What prompted you to take that route, and how has it benefited (or otherwise) your career?
A ArtistShare was the first to do it — pulling out of record stores, and looking for the direct connection, so that I could literally know who those fans were. And that dynamic then presented the opportunity for me to show them who I am. That was the idea behind ArtistShare — to document the creation of a record or a composition for those that purchase it through my website. After years of doing things the traditional way where there was no profit to be had, I wanted to own my own work, even if that meant taking on tremendous financial risk.
Q I know you have clear views on modern forms of disseminating music and how it affects the intellectual property rights – and income – of the artists. How would you advise music fans (some of them musicians themselves) who share music, access pirate sites, or use online services like Spotify?
A As I just expressed, self-producing records means that I take on tremendous financial burdens. My last recordings have each cost between $160,000 and $220,000. I’ve spent about $750,000 on my last four recordings, and that doesn’t include paying myself. I’ve worked extremely hard on these recordings for the past 12 years, and those budgets don’t include paying me. So it’s fair to say that this is about a million dollars we’re looking at.
Now why in the world would any person feel they should enjoy that for free, or steal it and give it to others for free? But people do. In the last 90 minutes, I’ve just been dealing with three infringement issues. My music costs me more and more to produce and more and more people expect it for free. Would that fly in the garment industry, the restaurant industry, in furniture, housing, building materials?
YouTube created this, quite by design. They needed eyeballs to catch the world’s data, and to sell advertising, and the best way to do that is through music and video. And they counted on the fact that musicians, desperate for finding audiences, wouldn’t pay much attention to copyright infringement if they felt they were gathering fans. Well, this hasn’t worked well for musicians, and music creators (songwriters, composers), because now we have a culture that wants music for free — expects it for free, feels entitled to have my million dollar investment as their own.
And Spotify comes along pretending to be the big saviour of piracy and offers to pay a percentage of their profit made from advertising and subscriptions (which few pay). The problem is, that profit is tiny in the face of having 30 million songs that they share. Who should get 30 million songs for zero to $9.99 a month. It’s beyond belief that this can exist.
They (Spotify), like YouTube, aren’t in the music business at all. They’re in the advertising and “big data” business. And again, like YouTube, they need to make music basically free to get all those eyeballs to gather data and have an attractive audience to advertisers. That “data” value is not figured into the artist/creator’s profits. But it’ll sure figure into their big IPO (initial public offeriing).
The only reason Spotify has as much music as they do is that the three biggest companies that represent the world’s music as publishers (Sony, Universal and Warner) – Spotify gave them $150 million dollars and gave them each 6% equity in Spotify. So the truly sick part is that the “music” companies, because of their equity interest in Spotify (which doesn’t figure into musician royalties) are now in the “big data” and advertising business, via making music free. Now is that sick or what?
So why should my pricing have to be based on the stupidly small and manipulated revenue of a scheming corporate giant? I’m a business, and I know what it costs to make a recording, and I want to set my own price like any other business does on planet earth. I suppose there are countries that don’t allow an individual or company to set their own price point. North Korea and well, the country I now live in, the country of “Google.”
So between YouTube (Google) and Spotify, the music business has been systematically destroyed for the people that actually make the music. 80% of the songwriters in Nashville have quit. And unless we keep mortgaging our houses, and making money doing other things to pay for our recordings, there will be no more recorded music — at least beyond pop. But everyone knows musicians will do that, spend more than we have, because that’s what we do. We die making music. And that’s why I’m an advocate of people owning their own work. Because if we ALL said, “Screw you, Sony, Universal, Warner, YouTube, Spotify, you CAN’T have my music,” they’d be left standing there diddling themselves. They’d have to find some other suckers to mooch off of, OR, they’d have to actually come up with a model that is sustainable like the rest of us do.
Q You are active in music education as well as writing and performing. How important is that aspect of your life and work?
A I love to teach when I travel, doing clinics and such. I don’t teach at home as I don’t have the time. But I feel happy when I can share anything that helps someone find a new step in their path. I know what that feels like as I’ve had spectacular teachers every step of the way. I’ve been so lucky.
Q The natural world – the landscape, its history and man’s relationship with it – and your love of birds in particular have become increasingly important themes in your music. Have you always found inspiration “outside” music, as it were? And do you think that makes the music more accessible to the listener – is that “programmatic” aspect of it, if you like, a crucial part of the communication?
A I’m a person that loves many many things in life. I can get as excited looking at a piece of dirt under a microscope as I can about art and music. So for me, music becomes my means of expressing it all. Sometimes I’m expressing a love of sound, making music for music’s sake, but sometimes I’m expressing a love of other things through sound. The world is just a place beyond anything we can really fathom. All the laws of the universe — the indescribable beauty, the bigness, the smallness – all of it going on to an incomprehensible infinity.
Unless you just shut yourself off and numb out watching TV, or bide your time keeping yourself busy “doing” things, then you just have to express that somehow — for scientists, through study and research, for writers through poetry or story, or history maybe, people do it in 20,000 ways, searching for excellence that tries to live up to all of this around us. Surely many connect with it or express it through spiritual practice, and some maybe do extreme sports to “feel” it, but I do music. When I get past the fear, the panic, the dread of writing (the work aspect of facing the blank page which I am now facing again these days), once I really dive in, oh, it’s an incredible world. I often get to that place when my band performs, too.
Q Your music has a clearly identifiable character and sound. If you had to distill that character and sound in order to explain it, how would you do it? In just a sentence or two – or in a few key words? (I realise this is an impossible question but what I’m trying to get at is an attempt – simplified and dreadfully reductive as it may be – to describe the essence of your sound/music in words. How would you describe your music to a deaf person, I suppose, is what I am trying to get at.)
A I don’t know. If people who don’t know my music ask what it’s like, I say it feels open, it’s orchestral, and detailed, but accessible, and that I think it often feels visual to people… I have no idea. I hope it makes people feel rather than think.
Q The musicians you have in your Orchestra clearly mean a great deal to you. And some of them have been with you for a long time. How vital are their characters to the character of your music? In what sense are your compositions theirs too?
A Oh wow, there is no stating how important these musicians are to me… all of them past and present. They’ve shaped me — their sounds, their perspectives, their phrasing, their spirits, and of course their improvisations. I do not write in a vacuum… not by any stretch. My pieces are always with them in mind — or with them in my heart.
Q Quite a few big bands/jazz orchestras have been formed by young musicians in the UK in the past few years – in Birmingham alone we have the Jonathan Silk Big Band, The Birmingham Jazz Orchestra and Sid Peacock’s Surge, for example. What one piece of advice would you give them?
A Respect your musicians.
Q If you had to live with just one piece of music, one book and one work of art for the rest of your life, what would they be?
A Oh dear. The song would be the song of the hermit thrush — the art would be the Blackburnian warbler — the book would be Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks, because they connect me to life and nature and gave me such inspiration for my music.
- The Maria Schneider Orchestra’s recording The Thompson Fields is reviewed here.
- The Maria Schneider Orchestra comes to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on Thursday 19 November (more and booking here)
- The Orchestra is also at the Cadogan Hall in London as part of the London Jazz Festival on Tuesday 17 November (more and booking here).
- The MSJO Residency Quintet of five players from the orchestra is playing at the CBSO Centre on Friday 20 November (more and booking here).
- Maria’s favourite breakfast – along with those of many others – can be found here.
- Maria Schneider’s website is here.