By now many of you have heard that Esperanza Spalding beat Justin Bieber (among others) for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammy Awards. Hopefully most of you have taken the time to find out who she is. If you have not, the short version is that she’s a 26 year-old bass(!) playing vocalist who comes from the Jazz world and has three albums under her own name as well as several appearances on other artists’ albums.
Whether you are a fan of hers or of Bieber’s and even if you don’t understand the Grammy rules for what constitutes ‘New’ you have to appreciate the fact that for once popularity did not determine the outcome here. Many people (myself included) assumed that Bieber was a slam dunk for this award. I’m not personally a fan of his, but I have to admit that the kid is a good entertainer and he has legions of fans. But the Grammy is not for Most Popular, or at least it shouldn’t be.
So what happens as a result of this? Does Bieber’s career tank? No, of course not. Does Esperanza’s career take off making her the next Justin Bieber? No, that won’t happen either. What WILL happen is that a lot of curious people will go check out Ms. Spalding’s music just to see what it’s all about. If you saw her accept her award or play on stage a few minutes later you know that if nothing else she has a unique look and style. I can’t say if this will make her thousands of new fans, but speaking from experience she will see a boost in sales.
There are a few Sure Things in the music business or at least there used to be. The inevitable one is death. Death sells, sad but true. Towards the end of Frank Sinatra’s life I was working at an HMV record store (remember those?) in NYC and we had a Sinatra order ready and waiting by the fax machine (remember THOSE?). The plan was to send that in the second we learned of his death. Yeah it’s kinda morbid, but we knew that as soon as it happened there would be a flood of customers looking for Old Blue Eyes’ CDs and we wanted to be prepared.
The other things that work are less morbid and include a write-up in The New York Times, A Grammy and an appearance in a hit movie. Every Sunday the Upper West Siders of Manhattan would hit the streets with their Sunday Times in hand and descend on record stores demanding a copy of whatever had been written about in that issue. It didn’t matter if they were fans of the music or not; if it was in The Times then it was good enough for them. Sometimes this would catch us off guard and we’d be scrambling to find copies before the effect wore off, but usually we were ok. A few of these titles would sell well for weeks afterward, while others peaked by Sunday or Monday. Ideally the record label would let us know ahead of time so we could stock up.
There was a similar effect with the Grammys. Every year we’d sticker the CDs that had won and dust off the related back catalog in an effort to capitalize on the moment. When the expected artist won nothing much happened, but if a dark horse won then there was always some action. Die hard music fans don’t like to be caught off guard, they like to think that they know everything. Someone like Esperanza winning on Sunday or like Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock winning album of the Year in 2008 sends music geeks into a tailspin. They feel like they’ve missed out on something and need to fill the gap as quickly as possible. In a perfect situation a customer would show up and start asking questions. Who is this person who won? Where do I find the record that won? What else do I need to hear by this artist? That’s ‘music’ to my ears; a curious fan is the best kind of fan. Even if we never saw this customer again, they did their part by coming out to investigate. Over the years many people caught the Jazz bug and became regular customers and huge fans…I LOVE when that happens.
The music industry is struggling of late, that’s no secret. But the Jazz world has always been struggling so it doesn’t really bother us as much. Jazz never sold millions so the drops in sales while present are not as dramatic. You might say that expectations were low to begin with. Success is not measured in the millions or even thousands, it’s almost One Fan At A Time. Take whatever opportunity you get to get their attention…doesn’t matter what it is…then reel them in. A few years ago there was the hip hop band US3 that used samples from classic Blue Note albums as the basis for their hit record Hand On The Torch (1993). That record sold millions for the label and created a lot of new Jazz fans. One of the smartest things Blue Note did was to issue a double CD that collected all of the original songs that US3 sampled. It sold very well and allowed people to get into Jazz with one album, if they liked what they heard they could dig deeper.
Not long after that we had Ken Burns PBS series ‘Jazz’ in 2001 It wasn’t perfect and many Jazz Snobs (yeah they exist) said it was horrible, but I did not agree. If it created one new fan then it was a success in my book. Jazz is about slow growth and dedicated intelligent fans who are in it for the long haul. If you took the time to watch all 19 hours then you were the kind of fan who had the attention span for Jazz. There were countless related CDs that came out at the time and they sold fairly well. Again like the Blue Note compilation these were bite sized introductions that allowed people a closer look without scaring them off when faced with the Entire Duke Ellington catalog.
One of the things said in the documentary was about Wynton Marsalis. Wynton is another polarizing topic in the Jazz world. Some saw him as a saviour and others as a distraction, this is a debate that still rages on. Well ok maybe ‘rages’ isn’t the best way to describe some bickering Jazz snobs, but you get the idea. In the documentary Branford Marsalis was quoted as saying, ‘Wynton is good for Jazz, period.’ I think the same applies to Esperanza Spalding. If her Grammy win garners a few Jazz fans who otherwise may not have heard the music then that’s a good thing.
Watch Esperanza performing live on CBS This Morning:
For more information about Esperanza please visit her official site or her label site:
Interested in learning more about Jazz? Go visit the folks at All About Jazz: