Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Who Are We Making Music For?

"If you are making music for everyone, then you are making it for no one. " 

This is how I live my life: by keeping my focus simple and narrow. We are no longer living in an era where it’s all about trying to please the masses. It’s about connecting with those who share our worldview, no matter how few. And these people are our conduits to others who also share our worldview.

When I came to New York to pursue a career in jazz during the 1990s, this was the height of the record industry. The industry was so lucrative and powerful that people had more respect for label heads and other industry types than they did for the artists.  Unfortunately, so did many of the artists. These types had one agenda: Sell as many records as possible, by any means necessary. They did not care if they needed to fire your band, have you change your music, have you play other people’s music, or entirely redefine who you were and what you did--as long as it moved units. 

I’m happy to say that these people and their way of thinking are of little relevance in today’s culture. Thanks to Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, the record company-industrial complex came tumbling down.

How does this affect you? Better yet, how does this affect us?

That model was all about trying to lure people who don’t care about what you do and quite frankly, did not care about jazz--at least progressive jazz. It was all about trying to get a more significant piece of the marketplace; instead of satisfying the market that was already loyal to our cause.

We no longer have to make music for everyone. Or try to bring those along who have no interest in what we do. We can make music for five people if we want. No label suits are telling us that this a bad idea. The label suits may not care, but I guarantee those five people we are making music for do. In fact, they will care so much that they will tell others, and then those people will tell others, and so on and so on. It's the people on the fringes who are actually looking for new music. The WBGO and Jazz at Lincoln Center types don't have an aesthetical scarcity problem that they need you to solve. They will live their lives fine never knowing that you exist. So don't even waste your time going after these folks.

So in the grand scheme of things, if you think you are making music for everyone, I’m sorry to inform you that you are probably not making it for anyone, including yourself.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Four Letter Words: Choosing the Correct One

As musicians and artists, we’re constantly bombarded with this four-letter word with everything that we do: M-O-R-E. We're always under the pressure to get more gigs, make more money, play more shit, sell more CDs, and grow more audience.

But I’m here to say that we should be consumed by a different four-letter word: L-E-S-S. Aiming for less actually gives us more. It allows us to be more consistent, more focused, and it allows us to matter more to people who actually care about what we do.

I’ve always been a believer in the principle of opposites. If you want to learn to play fast, practice slow. If you want a bigger sound, practice soft. And if you want more out of life, aim for less.

Just some fruit for thought.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Hawthorne Effect

How does the Hawthorne effect affect our daily lives? 

First of all, many may not have heard of this phenomenon, but I guarantee that most of us have been under the influence of it. The Hawthorne effect is a type of reactivity in which people modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed. Simply put, you act differently when you think that people might be watching you. 

Think back to your college days, when practice room availability was scarce. And when one did become available, there was usually a burning musician in the room to your right, another one to the left, and probably a few in the practice rooms across the hall. I found that under these conditions, practicing was no longer about learning new ideas and perfecting your old ones, it became a type of performance. 

And this is classic Hawthorne effect. 

I usually had a love-hate relationship with the communal aspect of college practice conditions. On the one hand, I enjoyed letting others hear some of the cool things I was working on—as I did theirs. The drawback was me feeling compelled to perform rather than just practice. I’m talking about the willingness to sound horrible as you take on the new and under-explored material. And this speaks to the aspect of the Hawthorne effect in which one's behavior becomes modified when being observed. 

Here are some ways it affected me:
  • I never wanted to play things I didn’t know.
  • I always wanted play things that were flashy.
  • And I was too paranoid that others were listening to me.

But I must say, the Hawthorne effect doesn’t always have to always affect you negatively.  Sometimes knowing that you might be observed helps you to become more focused. Instead of showing off your flashy licks, now you’re showing how disciplined you are—how you can methodically tackle a new idea. 

Even outside of musical things, the Hawthorne effect is the reason I go to Starbucks to do administrative tasks on my computer. Just from feeling self-conscious about indulging in time wasters like YouTube and Facebook, I tend to be more focused, and I use my time more wisely. 

So is being watched while we perform tasks a good or bad thing? I guess it all depends on the kind of show you want to put on. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Naysayers: Three Kinds of Pessimism

Whenever we attempt something new, whether it be a new job, a new project, or perhaps a new musical direction, we’re likely to encounter some well-meaning soul telling you “No, you can’t,” also known as the naysayer. I’m here to tell you that you might not be able to always avoid them, but you can learn how to deal with them.

There are basically three categories of naysayers. Each possessing three levels of pessimism.

  1. Family naysayers 
  2. Destructive naysayers 
  3. Constructive naysayers 

Family naysayers:
With family naysayers, they don’t wish you harm, they just want you to be safe. They want you to have a steady job, a family, benefits, the whole nine yards. They want you to follow a rule book, however, you’re looking to follow a vision for which you have to make up the rules as you go along. We’ve heard that art and finance don’t mix. And neither do art and family approval. 

In dealing with family, I say this: love them, respect them, but ignore them. They may not get what you do, and they may not be able to get what you do. And you don’t need them to. Their function in your life is TLC, not career support..

Destructive naysayers: Avoid these types at all costs. They thrive on negativity, and they absolutely love company. Under no circumstances are you to share your ideas or plans with them. Chances are they will only greet them with negativity and cynicism. As with the former, respect them, love them, but avoid them, and certainly don’t listen to or become influenced by them.

Constructive naysayers: This group is the most complicated. Because they get what you, they support what you do, but they’re not convinced that you are making the right decision. They might be in support of you being a professional musician, but maybe they think you should major in accounting as a backup plan. For this group, I say this: embrace them, listen to them, maybe even implement some of their suggestions. However, then revisit your original idea to see if this is something you really want to do. This will help solidify it in your mind and give you the assurance that you are indeed making the right decision.

So as you pursue your new idea, project, or vision, just realize what you might be up against and go for it!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Four Ways to Build Your Musical Brand

We often think of branding as having a fancy logo or catchy slogan. These things are great for corporate and product branding. However, as artists, ours is much more personal. It requires courage, commitment, and a whole lot patience. Simply put, our branding is the story that people tell about us and our music when we're not in the room.

Back when I had a close working relationship with drummer Leon Parker, the conversation in the room about him was usually how he only played the ride cymbal, or him just playing parts of his body, or one of his temper tantrum antics pulled that day, or him having given up playing music altogether; and of course, his infectious beat.

No one talked about his clothes, his hairstyle, his promo pictures, nor his website. In fact, you had to be somewhat of a detective to even find him. This was another conversation about him when he was not in the room. He often had no phone, email, or website. Typically you had to know somebody who knew somebody who knew him. And you know what? The jazz media could not get enough of him. The more elusive he became, the more they wanted him. All of these things would have been the nails in the coffins of most folks careers. However, for Leon, it only perpetuated the Leon Parker mystique. 

I'll admit, his case is extreme. But it does prove a point. Which is that branding is in the hands of the artist, not some publicist or record company. These mediums just magnify what's already there. They don't create it. 

Below are four ways that I've observed that we as artists can go about creating an effective brand for ourselves. These are by no means the holy grail. Just a few things that I have observed over the past 25 years or so.

1. Embrace that which is uniquely you.
Find that thing that you are good at—something you feel you can do better than anybody else, and more importantly, something you’re more passionate about than most people. This often means doing things that no one else wants to do or is afraid to do.  For me, this would be me only playing the soprano,  along with me having a geek-like obsession with producing unusual sounds. As I said, it often means doing that undesirable grunt work.

2. Develop a network of like-minded folks.
Even though we often create in isolation, all artists need a community of creative comrades with a shared vision to learn from and to share ideas with--even if it's just members of your own ensemble. Silicon Valley is a perfect example. Creating artistic communities are so much easier to do nowadays than ever before. One of the reasons I created Soprano Sax Talk was to galvanize like-minded people. Not only has this created opportunities to share, but ones to learn.

3. Spread your ideas.
Producing product and performing live is a must. As musicians, we have to make recordings, post videos, blog, tweet, perform, you name it. Releasing our work into the public domain is an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we end up boarding the bus without ever getting on the road. Oddly enough, this is one part that people neglect. I know so many musicians who've been on the scene for twenty years and have released only one or two recordings. We live in a time where we can release four or five a year in we want. We just have to get out of that "Please, pick me!" mentality. And we need to get away from the record-company-industrial-complex way of doing things. Our only limits are our imagination and courage.

4. Be authentic.
Being authentic, which is also just another way saying "be consistent,"  is how you gain trust within your creative community. This makes people feel they always know what they’re getting and where you stand. Consequently, this is also how you keep yourself focused. Personally speaking, people who trust what I do would be very disappointed if all of the sudden I started playing tenor, alto, flute, and clarinet; releasing dull straight-ahead recordings on Criss Cross; and only associating myself with the flavors-of-the-month and decrepit jazz masters. I'm starting to yawn just joking about it! But more importantly, doing these things would make me disappointed in myself. 

In closing, I'd like to point out that there are many different ways to brand yourself:

Types of Brands:
The consummate side-person who plays with everybody;
The leader who only does his or her own gigs;
The uncompromising artist;
The hardcore, straight-ahead cat;
The multi-instrumentalist;
The uni-instrumentalist;
The political activist/musician;
The jazz educator/musician;
The holistic musician type;
The musician with a strong religious affiliation;
The feminist/musician;
The trend-chaser;
The musician who only wants to get paid!;
The anti-establishment musician;
The name-association whore-type;
The weird experimentalist;
and so on, and so on....

Whatever the case may be for you. Do it, and do it well...Oh yeah, and in no way do I think that all records on Criss Cross are boring. I was merely trying to make a point.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

39th Annual Jazz Station Awards: The Soprano Saxophone Category

With all of the best-of-the-year-lists posted over the past few weeks or so, here's one more that flew under my radar.

Below are the winners of the 39th Annual Jazz Station Awards: The Soprano Saxophone Category, a feature of the blog Jazz Station, by Arnaldo DeSouteiro, jazz journalist and producer for Jazz Station Records.

Arnaldo put together a pretty comprehensive list of notable jazz recordings and performances. And I like the fact that he included categories for players on their respective instruments.

I was happy to be included for my appearance on Fire Dance, a beautiful recording by vocalist Beata Pater on B&B Records, who, by the way, placed in the number one slot in the Female Singer category. Yaaah, Beata!

Congrats to all of the winners. Kudos to Jane Ira Bloom for a job well done. It’s nice to see that the straight horn is alive and well.

2017 Soprano Sax Category:

1. Jane Ira Bloom (“Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson” – Outline);

2. Hailey Niswanger (“Mae Sun Vol.1: Inter-Be” – Calmit Productions);

3. Dave Liebman ("Masters In Bordeaux" w/ Martial Solal - Sunnyside);

 4. Michael Pedicin (“As It Should Be: Ballads 2” – Groundblue Records);

5. Sam Newsome (“Fire Dance” w/ Beata Pater – B&B Records);

6. Chris Potter (“The Dreamer Is The Dream” – ECM);

7. Chris Greene (“Boundary Issues” – Single Malt);

8. Harry Sokal (“I Remember Art” – Alessa Records);

9. Vincent Herring (“Hard Times” – Smoke Sessions);

10. Roscoe Mitchell (“Bells For The South Side” – ECM);

11. Gilad Atzmon (“Pasar Klewer” w/ Dwiki Dharmawan – Musikita/MoonJune);

12. Lisa Parrot ("Lyric Fury" w/ Cynthia Hilts - Blond Coyote).

Saturday, January 6, 2018

DÉCIMA ENCUESTA ANUAL A PERIODISTAS INTERNACIONALES: Tenth Annual International Critics Polls - The Soprano Saxophone Category

It was great placing 2nd in the Tenth Annual International Critics Poll. Though many just say "Wake me up when it's over,"  when it comes to critics polls, I'm a believer that they do serve an important function in that they inform the jazz community at large on who's doing what and how audiences are responding. And this poll is also a little hipper than most: 

(1) there are fewer critics than those voting in the Downbeat and JazzTimes polls, so it doesn't get saturated with the misinformed; 

(2) these critics have more adventurous and eclectic taste and the often include musicians ignored in other polls; Rarely have I read this poll and had a what?-what!-moment; 

(3) they have more respect for the soprano category. 

I've often read the Downbeat Polls and felt I did not even know that musicians selected even played the soprano. Certainly not the case here. Check my earlier post about critics polls in my article "Seven Reasons to Support Downbeat Magazine (And Other Publications Like Them.) "  This post resonated with a lot of readers.

But I am glad to appear with many of my heroes. Amazing company to be in.

Congrats to Jane Ira Bloom for knocking it out of the park, once again!

CLICK HERE for the full article.

JANE IRA BLOOM (95 votes)

SAM NEWSOME (79 votes)

EVAN PARKER (53 votes)


JOHN BUTCHER (23 votes)


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