Moontraxx at jazzahead 2015 in Bremen

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The German Jazz convention jazzahead has become one of the most important events in the European jazz calendar. It’s a unique combination of festival, showcase, exhibition and symposium. Held annually in April in the Hanseatic city of Bremen, a centre of prominent historical buildings and some art collections, technology, space engineering and, perhaps less prosaically, the home of Beck’s beer, the event attracts several thousand fans and music business professionals from over thirty countries. The unemployment rate is high in Bremen so I’m sure the City is happy about the convention’s prosperity: After nine successful editions, this year, in 2015, the German Jazz Expo jazzahead celebrated its tenth anniversary. Lucky me, that it was the French who were featured as a country this year and served the most delicious wine and appetizers at their opening evening!

Work for jazz musicians is sparse in Los Angeles. Most renowned musicians, solo acts and bands tour internationally and come back to Los Angeles to record their next album. The amount of talent is mind-blowing – which was one of the reasons I made the move from Germany to Los Angeles almost ten years ago. This also “justifies” the fact that jazzahead was new to me, even after having lived in Hamburg for most of my life which is only about 120 km from Bremen away. So unless you are lucky and connected enough to get your music into a movie, jazz in Los Angeles is sadly pretty dead. The pay is low and many people are saturated from all of the music events that take place in Los Angeles every single day of the week. Besides, culture hasn’t got a very high status in America. It’s very consumerism-driven; the new, the big, the best is what’s promoted and mass-consumed. Many jazz clubs have closed in the last few years and especially older jazz musicians are struggling financially. This development has even led to new charities like the California Jazz Foundation (CJF) since there are very few benefits for artists in the US.

893345_10151522493005633_468643407_oAfter having had these very conversations numerous times with other American jazz musicians and agents about the development of American jazz I knew that we, Moontraxx would have to expand and move on into other markets. During these conversations I found out that for anyone pursuing work in the European jazz economy, where jazz is still a respected and a fairly well attended art form, jazzahead is a good place to start in terms of building relationships. I therefore travelled in the name of my company Moontraxx to Bremen, representing one of my most favourite composers and guitarists Greg Porée, who is also my husband, and my own latest multi-lingual Latin jazz project, Frances Livings’ Ipanema Lounge Project.

The motivation to go had really kicked in after our last studio session in Pasadena. We had just recorded the very last song, Aganju for the Ipanema Lounge album. Standing outside, we were saying our goodbyes when our percussionist, Sandro Feliciano said with his cute Brazilian accent, “Don’t call me again unless you have a tour for us in Europe!” Of course he was half joking and half wishful thinking because we all feel strongly about the recordings for this CD. So why not try to wave the magic wand in terms of bookings, an agent? But that’s where I must say I learnt a lot from not only experiencing the convention but also from the many conversations I had at jazzahead:

I found that to participate as a professional – not an exhibitor with a rented booth – jazzahead is really fairly affordable at 175 Euro for three exposition days including free attendance to all concerts – in contrast to other organizations like ASCAP, I am actually even a member of, and that charges completely unrealistic fees of around $500. By the time I had made arrangements to attend jazzahead however, I had not only missed the first, cheaper price tier, but also the opportunity to apply for a showcase which obviously would have brought either of our artists to a new level. Another great opportunity to talk to the right people is participating in meeting that can be set up ahead of time for a fee of 50 Euro. But these sparse slots also go very quickly. It is therefore worthwhile to plan early.

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Jazzahead 2015 official guide, showcases & badge

My first day, Thursday April 24 I spent like most newcomers I suppose, organizing myself; which tram did I need to catch from the Osterdeich, where I was staying at an very affordable Airbnb, to the congress centre (Messehallen) located just behind the central train station (Hauptbahnhof)? What did it cost, could I pay cash, per card, how long was the walk, where would I get my pass etc. The personnel, all well identifiable in the convention’s colours, luminous grass green and black, were helpful. Most of them were fluent in German and English and I soon had my attendance badge and wrist band. My second task was then to gain a general overview and start “networking”.

Being on my feet all day long, it was easy get tired, confused and overwhelmed. Some people, the older ones who have been attending the conference for years and years were sweet but at times disappointingly patronizing, sometimes dissing through the grapevine by saying things like, “Oh, we deal with more cutting edge jazz” or, “I know someone who puts on small cabaret shows in London”. That said, every time I thought I was smiled- and contacted out to the max, I found that I had yet another whole row of booths to work through. And sometimes flopping down on the couch in the lounge with a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc was the best way to get talking to someone who felt similarly “unofficial” for a moment…

My bag weighed a thousand tons, filled with business cards, flyers and our own CDs. My deodorant failed pitifully – since it went from grey and damp and about minus 10 in the morning to quite warm in the afternoon and, I am a spoilt American now; realizing that German “walking distance” is English “biking distance” which equals American “driving distance”. Coming directly from hot and sunny California, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t cold, wearing a woolen top, a scarf, thick socks and boots and my leather coat. The music programme at Jazzahead is vast, and spread around several venues. There was a partner country programme of French acts, a German showcase, and an international night. The two concerts I saw the first night were already quite beautiful. One of them being at the famous concert venue Schlachthof which is located next to the congress halls.

Schlachthof, Bremen jazzahead 2015 opening night

Schlachthof, Bremen jazzahead 2015

Music, theatre, dance, all of the performing arts may seem to be all about spontaneity, creativity, about being in the moment, being courageous – which is very true. But that’s only one side of the whole adventure. The other side is about business, about building trust with agents and bookers, about developing a good and stable reputation with those you are dependent upon. If any organizer of a festival books a band or a solo act, they want to see dedication, reliability and potential to build a trustworthy and lasting relationship. It’s like in any other “marriage”. After the honeymoon the question arises, are you going to do the washing-up i.e. distribute flyers, update your Facebook page and record another album?

Seedy club owners, the ones that want that ridiculous cut of your door money, leaving you with roughly $19 although you have still got to pay the band, are not the people I am talking about. And these are not the kind of blokes and girls who invest money and energy in an attendance at jazzahead – apart from, may I candidly say, gigmit.com or gigmasters.com who are also more like virtual pimps without morales. Most festival organizers are emotionally and morally invested in their festival or club and want their performers to be so too. So I would say, after initially feeling slightly strange about sometimes wandering from booth to booth, sometimes not knowing what to say, I paradoxically knew what I was looking for. I was looking for those relationships that enabled me to not only demonstrate that I was representing reliable and dedicated “brands” but that I was invested in building trustworthy relationships for the future. Most of my work therefore still lies ahead of me, which actually reflects the motto – jazzahead!

An ARTE camera crew and the Orchestre National de Jazz, Thursday of Jazzahead 2015IMG_7169 IMG_7062

Jazzahead-April 21-24-2016

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  1. I agree. Everyone was very friendly and jazzahead seems a place to be to grow your musical projects. But what is the trouble with gigmit ?

    • Frances@Moontraxx

      Hi Georges, I had a meeting set up with gigmit which was cancelled without a reason. Initially, I was curious to see how they would be different from similar companies in the US I have joined in the past and who somehow never delivered any good contacts or work for professional musicians.

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