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July 2013: Spike Wilner on Why Smalls Jazz Club Is Going Digital

Exterior view of Smalls Jazz Club, 7th avenue and west 10th St. New York, NY

A New Way For Jazz Clubs to Make Ends Meet?
Spike Wilner on Why Smalls Jazz Club Is Going Digital

by Dan Fishman

Smalls Jazz Club has been a home-away-from-home for young experimental jazz musicians and their fans for twenty years. Recently they’ve been getting a lot of attention, most notably from Nate Chinen of the New York Times, for their pioneering use of digital media—including their highly-trafficked live webcasts of performances and their new endeavor to earn profits and pay rent from money made off subscriptions to their jazz archive. Dan Fishman spoke with Spike Wilner—jazz pianist, owner, and manager of Smalls—to discuss the future of jazz on the web and what that means for musicians and clubs going forward.

Whitehot: How did you get the idea to create a subscription system for Smalls’ archive of jazz recordings?

Spike Wilner: We started recording all of the shows performed at Smalls when I took over the club in 2007. I wanted to preserve as much as possible of what was going on—I really thought that it all had historical significance—and we quickly massed a lot of material. As of right now there are two years of video and six years of audio. In order to make that material available to the public we put it online.

At that point we didn’t have a mechanism for paying the artists whose work was online and we still don’t, but the site offered some visibility for the musicians. Though there were some who musicians didn’t like that we were putting their stuff online, for the most part musicians were happy to have it there. We also started showing live stream webcasts of our shows at Smalls and began to get a lot of traffic for those. At one point we had even asked a subscription fee to see the shows on live stream but it ended up not being a great idea because it a lot of our viewership didn’t necessarily want to pay to see the shows live on the web.

The idea for what we’re doing now, building a subscription system for our archive material and a revenue-sharing system with musicians, came about because of a few meetings we had with musicians, intellectual property lawyers and union leaders. It was at one of those meetings that we came up with the idea for a subscription model—kind of like Netflix—and we moved forward with that. There would also be a way to monitor usage such that every time someone listened to something we could track that and then the revenue from the subscriptions would go proportionately to the musicians whose work was most popular.

At first, we had some investment bankers who were going to fund the project, but, three months ago, they backed out when they realized there wasn’t going to be a lot of money in it. So I borrowed $25,000 from the bank and since we still needed funds I decided to give crowd-source funding a shot. So far it’s galvanized the project. Musicians have been very supportive and we had some really nice press recently from the New York Times.

If it works, it’ll be a way for musicians to play at Smalls and then have residual payments for their work as long as their material is in the archive. And we’re setting it up such that if something is paid for and downloaded that’s by a certain artist the money will go directly to them. The money we make off the subscriptions would also help us with the costs for the club. And I think the model has a good chance of working. Some of our free web streams of performances at Smalls have had ten thousand views in a night. Often it’s four to ten thousand. So we think that we could really generate a lot of business worldwide, which could translate to more revenue for us to pay bills and some more revenue for musicians whose music is popular. It would even incentivize musicians to try to get more traffic to our site and to their music, which would also help build our site.


W: I’m pretty stunned to hear that you’ve had four to ten thousand views for a jazz program on certain nights. That’s a lot—especially when Smalls otherwise has only about sixty seats to show live jazz. What do you think that says about the potential for jazz programming to go online and whether or not jazz is going to become increasingly digital in the next few decades?

SW: I think that everybody is becoming more and more accustomed to using the web in order to get programming. I’m pretty confident that streaming may one day replace cable TV—as the connectivity gets better, it’s just a matter of getting the best programming that’s already happening out to wider audiences. As long as Smalls provides a lot of interesting content, which we have in spades, then there’s potential there to get to a wide audience. The audience for jazz, nowadays, is a diffuse audience but it’s a big one.

Smalls also has a few things going for it. It’s an internationally known name and even though we often present artists whose names our audiences might not know they trust that if we’re presenting them they want to know about them.

W: I think it’s a good idea, Spike, and I hope it works. It seems like there are new jazz clubs closing all of the time and if by making revenue online some of the costs of having a club like Smalls can be kept away then that seems like a good thing for jazz.

SW: Thanks. I hope it works, too.

W: Sort of along those lines, what do you think are the biggest obstacles that you face today as a jazz club owner and what might keep you from keeping your doors open?

SW: Well, my obstacles are just natural ones to the business I’m running. There’s always the question of how to stay alive in New York with a business model that, in terms of revenue, is up against the wall. I can’t really fit any more seats in here—we have about 60 and with $20 cover per seat that’s all of the revenue we can really get from that. With rent and other expenses going up it gets hard to cover all of the costs. I realized that I needed to turn to the Internet to subsidize the club.

'Smalls Live' CD covers at the entrance to the club.

W: Right. Those seem to be the problems I’ve heard about from other jazz clubs, too. I mean, the Village Vanguards of the world will probably be okay, but it’s nice to know that other clubs can find new ways to try to make ends meet.

SW: Yeah. The Vanguard will be fine because it has been around since the 30’s and has a devoted base of fans that comes and sell out shows every night. And then there are places like Dizzy’s that are corporate sponsored. And there’s Blue Note, which has become a whole operation. But Smalls, we’re not that big and we’re grassroots oriented, so we have to do things a little differently. The goal here is not necessarily to turn a profit. We want to create a place to allow young musicians to get a start and give older musicians the space and time to perform that they deserve. In that sense, Smalls is a club in the traditional use of the word—not as a high-price performance space.

W: What do the jazz musicians that you’ve talked to think about digital jazz and the new subscription system that you’re setting up? If I were them, I might worry about whether or not jazz will be as sustainable if it’s all on the internet—whether or not recorded shows will replace live gigs for example.

SW: Well musicians are notoriously passive about helping themselves and they often don’t do shit. There’s no question that [the Internet] is the future of the music—so it’s really a matter of facing the new reality. The one model that seems to work is revenue-subscription a la Netflix. So we’re hoping that works and can pay the musicians as much as possible. And, like I said, the musicians I’ve been working with have been really supportive.


You can find out more about Smalls Jazz Club and donate to their fundraising campaign by following this link.

Mitch Borden of Smalls Jazz Club

A view from the bar, Smalls, New York, NY

Spike Wilner

 

 

 


 

Dan Fishman

Dan Fishman is a journalist in New York.

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