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Jazz struggles on streaming, but Vinyl sales give the genre hope

In between songs, Joy says she’s still getting used to it. “People come up to me in the street,” she says, laughing in disbelief. “And I’m not even dressed!”

May 27, 2023 / 10:59 AM IST


The fabled Village Vanguard in New York is filled on this April evening with fans of Samara Joy. This isn’t simply because the gifted 23-year-old singer brings to mind Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald at their peak. The audience is here to be in the presence of a once-in-a-decade jazz superstar whose career has soared since she was crowned best new artist at the 2023 Grammy Awards in February. In between songs, Joy says she’s still getting used to it. “People come up to me in the street,” she says, laughing in disbelief. “And I’m not even dressed!”

Listening intently from one of the club’s banquettes is Jamie Krents, head of Universal Music Group’s Verve and Impulse! record labels, whose catalogs boast some of the most important works of Fitzgerald and Vaughan, to say nothing of legendary saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Now it’s Krents’s job to sell Linger Awhile, Joy’s much-lauded Verve debut.

You’d think this would be easy, given the Grammy buzz over Joy. But not necessarily. Jazz in recent decades has struggled to get listeners, and nowhere is that more apparent than on Spotify, Apple Music and other services on which the genre accounted for a mere 0.8% of all streams last year in the US, according to Luminate, a music industry data provider.

Krents acknowledges there are some music lovers who find jazz intimidating. “They just think, ‘I don’t like that,’ ” he says. Aficionados of the genre, who tend to be older, have been slow to migrate to Spotify and Apple Music—which is also true of classical music devotees. “It’s taken a while for that consumer to feel comfortable streaming,” says Dickon Stainer, president of global classics and jazz at Universal, and Krents’s boss.

The same could be said of jazz musicians, some of whom have been reluctant to make their music available for streaming because the format rewards them with fractions of a penny when someone listens to one of their songs. “It’s unsustainable,” says Yulun Wang, co-founder of Pi Recordings, a respected independent jazz label in New York.

One of the few bright spots for the genre is the resurgence of vinyl. Luminate says jazz releases accounted for 6% of all vinyl album sales last year, and musicians are now lugging cartons of grooved plastic to peddle when they’re on tour. “I get to take home a respectable piece of change,” says Christian McBride, the jazz bassist and associate artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. As for streaming? “It’s a nonfactor in terms of income,” he says.

Krents is tasked with making sure jazz musicians on Verve and Impulse stream better, along with other off-center artists on his roster including mellow indie rocker Kurt Vile and Pakistani vocalist Arooj Aftab. Krents might not seem the most obvious savior of jazz in the digital era. With his cropped hair and leather jackets, he looks like a rock musician—and, in fact, he is one. On the wall behind the desk in his New York office hangs his 1965 Fender Jazz Bass, which he occasionally trots out on weekends to play gigs alongside old friends from Oberlin College with whom he toured in a band called French Kicks after graduating in 1997.

The following year he landed a temp job at Verve, a label he was drawn to, in part, because it had once been the home of the Velvet Underground, the iconoclastic Andy Warhol-adjacent ’60s rock ensemble. He knew something about jazz, but nothing compared with what he gleaned working side by side with the mavens in Verve’s catalog department. He moved to the international division in 2003 and traveled overseas with some jazz greats: pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist George Benson and vocalist Diana Krall. And he prowled the aisles of record stores in jazz-friendly countries such as Japan to see what was selling.

Krents was named president of Verve and Impulse, and also Verve Forecast—a more conventional rock and pop label—in 2022, but he’d already been working closely with current Verve artists including pianist and former Late Show With Stephen Colbert band leader Jon Batiste, whose We Are won a Grammy for album of the year in 2022. Batiste, who’s made both jazz and hip-hop-flavored records for Verve, pays his label boss the ultimate compliment from a musician. “He’s got ears,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many people who work in high positions at labels can’t hear.”

When it comes to boosting jazz streaming, Krents says one trick is to persuade services to put songs on playlists that are less genre-specific. Sure, he says, you can put Ella on Spotify’s Women of Jazz playlist, but why not Late Night Vibes, where she might be heard alongside Alicia Keys and attract new fans?

In some cases, Krents says, it might also make sense for jazz artists to record shorter songs that are more likely to be picked up by the algorithms employed by streaming services. “Jon Batiste has new music coming out this year, and you will absolutely hear that lens applied,” he says.

Krents is also taking full advantage of the vinyl boom by working with not only indie retailers (“Record Store Day is huge for Verve,” he says) but also chains such as Barnes & Noble and Target Corp. Among the items that have sold well are several newly unearthed albums by the late Coltrane on Impulse. “Some of these really punched above their weight on vinyl,” Krents says.

Then there’s Joy. Even before she clinched her best new artist Grammy, Verve had arranged for her to record a gospel-imbued cover of Adele’s Someone Like You exclusively for Spotify Technology SA. Verve also recently released an expanded edition of Linger Awhile with eight new tracks to keep her fans satiated. “One of the things that tends to stunt an artist’s growth on streaming is long gaps between releases,” Krents says.

By late-May, Joy had 645,000 monthly Spotify listeners, which might’ve paled next to Fitzgerald’s 4.8 million but was far more than most jazz musicians of her age. Krents says it helps that Joy is as comfortable on TikTok as she is on morning TV shows. “She’s very, very real and a normal 23-year-old person,” he says. “I think that’s good for jazz. It helps people feel like they have a path into this kind of music.”

After Joy has taken her final bows at the Vanguard, Krents pays her a backstage visit. Joy, who has long eyelashes and dark hair cascading down her back, is sipping fire-roasted ginger tea, which she says a pastor introduced her to at a Michigan gig. She’s already working on new music for Verve. Does she feel any pressure to take it in a more commercial direction? “No,” she says, shaking her head. “No pressure. I just feel a responsibility to be myself.”

first published: May 27, 2023 10:59 am