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My approach has always been — musicians first

Evilena Protektore

A conversation about the All About Jazz web page — how was it created and why do musicians need something like that

Attention! From this interview you, a musician, can find out how to grow your popularity abroad!
But on a serious note, it indeed is so, because my conversation buddy this time is someone, who has dedicated his whole life to helping musicians get more gigs and more listeners. His name is Michael Ricci, a founder of the All About Jazz web page. Perhaps his name is not known to every single musician in the States, but he has been doing his thing for more that 20 years now, and his thing is being an advocate of jazz. In the far 1995 he has started the All About Jazz web page, which was meant to help the musicians to improve their live and now, when we live in a world that happens mostly in the web, his resource plays a very important role in gaining more publicity for musicians.

Musicians trust me because they know I’ve always been working for them, a lot of them know what it takes to do what I do, it’s not an easy job but I do it. I love it. My approach has always been — musicians first, and that’s the only way I feel that this could be successful, it’s got to be about the musician. That’s where my head is — in helping musicians promote themselves and further their career. They should have at least a middle class lifestyle, they shouldn’t struggle, and I’m trying to do my part. And when they use the site they’re supporting me as well, so we need each other to be successful.

Evilena Protektore

Why did you decide to build the «All about jazz» web page?

Why did I subject myself to this? (Laughs) Well… I started AAJ in 1995, the internet was very different then — it was more open, it was less commercial and it was really an opportunity to pursue an interest or a hobby, and there were really a lot of hobbyists on the internet back then. Remember when there was a blog boom when everyone was a blogger? You could easily start a web page, you just had to read a book that was 5 inches thick and learn HTML (markup language). I was different back then and I really enjoyed it, it was kind of this wild west — a free, open, «do whatever you want» situation.

I’ve always had interest in music, mostly as a fan, I played the trumpet but I was also a collector, my father was influential — he played music, took me to shows when I was young. I went to college, got a background in programming and technology and a strong interest in jazz. I was developing software with a friend of mine and once we decided to move the business to the web it was like… somebody’s going to have to do the application and somebody’s going to have to do the web and I thought — I could do the web, it seems interesting to me. I decided to practice on the web, just try things out and I decided to do it with jazz, I decided to build a jazz web site. I was active in a rec.music.bluenote, which was an old community of enthusiasts and some experts who would just talk about jazz on many subjects. I mostly lurked, but once in a while I chimed in. At a certain point, after I was developing websites for musicians, I decided that I wanted to create my own web site and that’s when it all started — I solicited some help from this forum, I said I’m going to publish album reviews and book reviews, is anyone interested? A few gentlemen stepped forward and that’s how it all started — it was low tech, it was raw, but it was 1995…

The web was pretty ugly back then, the internet was slow, we couldn’t do a lot of images, so it was mostly text. Not to fast forward too much, but I realised that the word was spreading about the site, there were other writers interested in writing reviews as well, at some point it became too much, because I was creating reviews by myself, building static HTML pages, I realised that I’ve got to start adding some intelligence, some automation to the process, so e-mail submission forms became online submission forms, a database was developed, and because I had a background in technology and a pretty good understanding of the music by then, and the needs of jazz musicians I was able to create a database that has served me till today. I decided to build this around the musician and hear all the elements that are important to a musician and here’s how we fit in reviews and a staff of writers and a community.

Obviously certain technologies weren’t available to me at that time, but I had an idea of where I could go with it. When I first designed the database I figured that I need to make this scaleable, and because I had the background in it, I set things up in a generic way, I was able to build it, build on top of it. People who know about databases know that if it’s done incorrectly, it can cause a problem, because then you have to reengineer things, and engineering is a lot more expensive then just adding things to it, so there was that.

I have this obsessive personality, I want things to be a certain way, I spend unhealthy amount of time on things, so AAJ has become a life’s work, I take what I do very seriously, but it still has great potential and that keeps me excited. The reality is that I am an idea guy too and I think in terms of this platform and how enormous it is. I always think that I at least have a solid understanding of how it works and I know how to build on top of it. What keeps me going is the fact that I can implement these ideas in fairly short order and i can see an immediate impact, and not just in terms of visitors and readers, but in the impact on a musician, I suddenly start receiving emails: Michael, it really helped, I’m recruiting more students…

The mission is always to serve the musician. We’re not a blog, or a database, we’re a lot of things, but most of all we’re a platform.

You’ve mentioned the needs of jazz musicians, what are those exactly?

The needs of a jazz musician have changed since 1995, what I was able to gather through communication with musicians and reading was that physical sales were becoming increasingly more challenging, the distributors were dropping, retail stores were going out of business, they had to rely on online sales, then there was pirating, now there’s streaming. But still there are costs — the musicians are still printing, studio costs money, all these things, but they weren’t making money on CD’s and as a result there was a greater dependency on performing live. Getting good paying gigs was always important, but it became more important with diminishing sales of physical CD’s. Then I realized that jazz is a teaching profession and finding students and teaching them was another source of revenue for musicians so we layered in the teaching credentials to a musicians database, and then finding teachers by location, we provide access to any musician that is on the site with the complete teaching information — whether they teach beginners, intermediate or advanced students, they can add teaching bio, all these things. So the needs have changed to a certain degree but the focus is still on getting gigs and recruiting students.

I’ve seen you have a set of writers, and musicians are able to connect with them and order a press release, or send them their recordings for a review. Do you have the statistics? How often do musicians use these options?

Well, I think that musicians over the years have realized that it’s a musician friendly site. It is technology, it is the web, but we continually refine it to make things easier, more accessible, at the end of the day it’s their career, we’re a professional site, we provide professional services, and if it moves them to spend a few extra minutes to become better acquainted with what we offer… We have a musician tool-kit page, you can get a high level look at what we’re doing at this present time, what we can offer a musician.

But getting back to the question — musicians use the spotlight service to raise the awareness of a certain event, some musicians purchase album showcase, and this is a great example of how we would promote a musician — there’s always a picture of said musician, an album cover, a «buy» button, and it’s always highly visible, and back in the day we would sell records, it was easy to track, because I would sell them through amazon, where tracking option is available. Now there’s less interest in the physical product though. What we do really well is — we have a captive audience in radio programmers and station managers, they visit the website regularly to look for different pieces of information. So with showcase and radio people paying close attention to the site, radio stations are requesting the albums. Because it’s such a desirable and visible spot, radio stations are requesting the album, they’re playing it, as the result the album is now charting on the JazzWeek radio chart, and we’re providing forum to discover the music.

So the end results have changed a little bit, because obviously new technologies emerge, and it’s still getting positive results. So there’s that and there are other things musicians can do, lots of them upgrade their page to premium and in addition to the standard services we give them 13 more services. Musician pages are heavily read and viewed, and the ones that are regularly updated have the highest views, that’s the way it is, so… I know everyone’s busy, musicians are busy, but it won’t take a lot of time to keep your page current. It’s important to do that, because when your album is reviewed, readers click through to your musicians page and if it hasn’t been updated since 2002 there’s an incompatibility between what they have read and what they viewed.

In simple words — why does a musician need your page?

At the very least they should create a musicians page, because those drive traffic to the musicians website and social pages. We generate video views, click-throughs to stores, and it’s also important because Google loves AAJ. When people search out your name, your web page may not always turn up the highest, but AAJ always does, it’s always on page 1. You want people to find you, and AAJ is interested in helping them do that. But we also provide a lot of promotional services. Jazz musicians need to be promoted, whether a record, a performance date or just themselves, let people know that they exist in some way, shape and form, that’s why you want to create a page. It’s the most popular jazz site in the world. It’s relevant, it’s active, we have an active community and building an even greater one, and we’re found not only by traditional jazz enthusiasts, we’re found by everyone, because Google favors us, it’s a strategic decision to be on AAJ, it’s a business decision, a lot of our services are free, trey’re highly effective, so honestly, if you know about AAJ and you’re not using it, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Let’s talk about the writers, you have lots of them and anyone can also become one?

Some of the writers have been with AAJ for over 20 years now. We are always looking to cover jazz from all continents, all cities, anywhere jazz is being made, because we’re All About Jazz! We’ve set thing up the way that we’re actively recruiting new writers. So if you have an interest in jazz, you’re knowledgeable about jazz, you’re a skilled writer, we’ll provide a forum for you to be published and to be read. If you’re a blogger and you don’t have a popular blog, you can write in obscurity and no one will read your articles, maybe it will be viewed for 6 times… But if you write for AAJ, maybe 6k people, or 12k people will. One of our writers said: “I posted this article to my blog and it was read 14 times in 4 months. I posted it on AAJ, and it was read 4k times in 2 days…” That’s the difference. Being associated with AAJ, though it’s volunteer staff, has its benefits. A lot of our writers have traveled the globe covering events all expenses paid and that’s great, they get access to the music, to festivals, events, which is important to them, because they love the music, and they establish credibility within the industry. My goal has always been to pay the staff, but the economics are such that it makes it difficult. What I’ve been doing, I’ve been actively marketing their writing services, so that’s what we offer as well, they can write bio’s, press releases and such.