How Classical Musicians can Evolve in the Modern Music Era

GigLinked recently met with Jaye Marsh to chat about her experiences as a freelancer and a recording artist during a difficult time for musicians. She spoke about her initial aversion to the recording process.

How Classical Musicians can Evolve in the Modern Music Era

Interview with Jaye Marsh, recording artist and principal flutist with the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra

GigLinked recently met with Jaye Marsh to chat about her experiences as a freelancer and a recording artist during a difficult time for musicians. She spoke about her initial aversion to the recording process and the creative challenges that can face conservatory-trained musicians as well as the new streaming paradigm that classical music recordings need to address. She had a lot to say about her experiences as what she calls herself ‘a reluctant recording artist’ and her determination to learn how the pop world does things and to share that with everyone.

Jaye Marsh is a classically-trained musician living in Toronto. She is originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia but also lived in Montreal for most of her childhood. Jaye is a recording artist and currently principal flutist with the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra as well as a freelance orchestral flutist. She is also a graphic designer, pioneer of eco-friendly events, an art-supply addict, and lives with her husband and two sons in a small house in the east end of the city.

Jaye: I started learning flute fairly young, but you know, not like violinists who start when they’re right out of the womb! I took to the flute quite well, but I was actually told to take up flute because I was impatient! As a flutist now, I don’t understand why I was told this, because the flute is actually very challenging in so many ways.

I just released an album in November of last year, and I’m currently working on premieres, videos, social media and publicity and all of this kind of stuff that we weren’t actually taught to do as classical musicians. This is all a whole new world for me.

Speaking of these new endeavors like recording and having to take on these new responsibilities or learning new skills; what were some of the surprises you encountered and what are some things you find more challenging versus things that maybe come more naturally?

I think I was surprised at how different it was to actually play music in a recording studio. I’ve done some things like film scores, and I’ve recorded as part of a larger group, but I’ve never been wholly responsible for the music that’s coming out in a project. It took me a little while to get used to that, but at the same time, I kinda dug it because it’s a different way of music making; very different than playing live in an orchestra or recitals as a small ensemble, or even solo. It’s a dimension of music making that I’m glad to have added, but I wish I had done it sooner because it really added a valuable aspect to my playing.

Jaye Marsh (Bottom-Center)

Can you talk a little bit about the trajectory of the classical musician and how the lifestyle or journey compares to other types of musicians, to your knowledge?

As a freelancer you’re angling for gigs and dealing with navigating the social dynamics of networking while trying to get work, and also trying to maintain your quality of playing, it can be a challenge. In Canada, in particular, we don’t have as many places to play as they do in the States; so the orchestral musician life is to constantly pick up gigs as compared to the frequent auditioning that people have available to them in the States.

Jaye spoke about the differences between Canadian and US orchestral life. Many Canadian musicians move to the US to build a career in the industry, often coming back when there is an audition, which in the flute world is infrequent. Subsequent generations of musicians have developed new creativity and ways of expressing their art.

New Generations Got Creative

So, when it comes to the millennials, they became more collaborative and supportive of each other to create new opportunities, create pick-up orchestras, or orchestras for composers who needed people to play their stuff. Very interesting projects have come and gone, and just because of the nature of the funding, the nature of the audience retention, and actually attracting people to concerts, some of these people don’t last quite as long. But this all really generated connectivity and cross pollination between composers and people who want to conduct and chamber groups. Just in general, the freelance world is a little more supportive, but it’s still really challenging.

On the Brink of Giving Up

I, myself, nearly gave up, and then decided that I’m going to give it one last go to try to get into the lists. There’s just so many people, so the competition is really fierce. In the meantime, I also have a guitar duo and I would put together recitals, with a variety of people, sort of like a flute-and-friends kind of thing. I would have all kinds of people, like dramatists, quintets, someone playing a solo piano, just to create a variety.

In addition, I had a host of business-related day jobs that I was doing, and so it’s really kind of a patchwork quilt life. In the end, those day jobs gave me a lot of skills that I’m now finally applying to myself and my career, which is an interesting trajectory!

Publicity and Marketing Skills as part of the Business of Music

Jaye shared with us her experience with learning the marketing and promotion that is already prominent in the indie music world. She also explored the possible reasons for the difference in approach to marketing oneself as a classical artist compared to a band. On the surface, she felt there was a difference in WHEN the hard work is put into a musician’s craft and possibly an old attitude towards even the idea of self-promotion being anathema to a traditionally trained musician.

One outcome of these skills I’ve built up is the awareness of the importance of branding. The whole idea of publicity and marketing, that side of the music business, where you have Indie artists that are doing it really well, most of my classical colleagues aren’t involved in that unless they have an agent or they’re an established group with an audience. A majority of these classical musicians have agents that are managing them and helping them along as individual freelancers. When we look to the U.K. and Europe, they have a few more publicity marketing companies that are helping to advise in the classical world, but in the States and over here [Canada], I have found that’s not available.

In light of that, I’ve hooked up with Hip-Hop artists, which has been so fun because they know what they’re doing, and I am absorbing, like a sponge. People need to also do that in the classical world. Some will say “It’s a sell out, we’re not doing that marketing”, or they might be afraid to, or there’s a whole host of possible reasons why, but I think we should be doing it.

Hip Hop Knows What it’s Doing in Promotion!

Can you tell me more about these collaborations and how they came about and what you benefited from it?

So, I haven’t collaborated musically, this is more in the realm of marketing. I wanted to find out what I needed to know to promote an album, so I did a bit of research trying to find somebody to help me discover who’s doing that marketing aspect of music. I paid attention to all my feeds and found a group in the US that offered a membership where you can share ideas with people and take masterclasses to understand how you market on social media and their offerings keep up with the current trends. They’ve got a wide variety of people, some from Jazz, but mostly Hip-Hop and Rap. There’s a good mix, but there’s lots of Grass-Roots and small Rap bands, and producers, who are doing things in their own bedrooms because they feel it. This is what I found interesting as a vibe and wanted to absorb as a musician who front ended all her work and didn’t know how to promote once the playing work was done.

In popular music, once you put out a single, there’s a pile of work to do just before and after you release. Whereas classical musicians put out a recording, or a full album, they do a bit of a promotional spots around socials, there’s a release party, and off you go to the next thing. Maybe you get some reviews and if you’re lucky, radio play. There’s a reason why we don't have nearly any playlisting or any streams on Spotify and it’s because we’re not using the tools as they are designed. This is largely due to them being designed around the pop world and not the different listening required of the genre but also because of our reluctance or lack of awareness to do this work.

Classical Recording Artists Need to Show Up as Marketers

However, to shift things to work for us, we have to show up there, find out how it works, and then slowly change it from the inside to see if we can make it work, and understand how we need to market. I think our medium is very different, and that we’re not gonna be able to change that, but we can change our marketing strategy, we can have a marketing strategy. More music is being put out now than we’ve seen in the last few decades and there’s some increase in streaming and CD/Digital purchases but comparing that to what’s going on in the successful pop streaming world, it’s apples and cars; it’s just totally different universes and we’re not going to survive [if we don’t take action.]

On the Fear of Recording and Why We Should Do it

Jaye shared her new found passion for recording and releasing music and how she now wished she had been encouraged to do so when still in school. She has reflected on why her freelance colleagues may have avoided it so far or even fears the endeavor. She is on a mission to encourage young graduates as well as her older colleagues to take the dive as it can be so very rewarding. She says that it should be an important part of the marketing efforts even if one prefers to play live.

Why do you think there’s a fear, or that it’s not to their level to expose themselves in that way? Why do you think that’s the case? What’s the philosophy behind this?

The idea of recording and putting something out there, even if it’s like “Hey, this is a demo, come hear us, and this is what you’re gonna get!”; people like to know what they’re getting, and it’s not that they don’t like classical music or are uninterested, they just don’t know what they’re buying into because of the educational aspect that’s not happening in grade schools. People know what they’re getting when you say “punk” but how do you describe a quartet if nobody’s heard one and don’t know what that means. So we need to record if for no other reason besides building a fan base.

I think some of the reluctance comes from not having been told that we could or should record. When I think of the culture, especially in classical, you are seen as a wunderkind, and told you’re a star from birth, and agents are taking you and you’ve got a recording contract, or that you’re a genuine wonder on your instrument. This is all great and I appreciate that, but if you’re not that kind of star, not an established group wanting to record things like the Orpheus Quartet, or you’re not a solo instrument such as piano, harp, or guitar that can really stand on it’s own and that are a little easier to organize online and private performances, recording is something you need to do. I think what happens is that we sort of choose a path early on, “I’m going to be an orchestral musician”, or “I’m not a big star, so I’ll just be a violinist somewhere.” This is still a good job and not to be discounted, yet I wonder how much talent, creativity, experience, music and artistry we’ve lost because these musicians dimmed their own stars. It’s okay if you just want to do that kind of job, but is it because you weren’t told you could or should record, or weren’t told that there’s a fan out there for everybody’s music and art?

Who Do You Think You Are?

We are almost not allowed to feel that, and there’s a real sense of hubris around that, like “who am I to put myself out there?” I know when one of the composers on my album told me “go get a FACTOR grant to record and I’ll write you a piece”, I looked at her and said “you’re crazy, who wants to listen to me play?” Yet, here I am playing in an orchestra offering that bit [my playing], even if there’s less responsibility on me as an artist to provide that in this context, so why did I feel that way about a solo album? Is it because of the constant search for perfection and so much competition? Is it the need to be perfect in the audition process and not being allowed to make mistakes?

The reality is, YOU are the only YOU! And these are the kinds of messages we are finally starting to tell each other to encourage one another to put ourselves out there. What is it you want to make, what do you feel like sharing? It’s the idea of sharing, as opposed to being perfect. I think it starts a little bit earlier in the training stage, deciding whether you want to be a musician, and if so, what does that look like?

What Can We Do?

In the institutions, if you’re going for formal training, what can teachers do to encourage their students who have a creative mind to explore various aspects of music-making? For example, encouraging students to play Beethoven the way they want to like add a trap beat, or transcribing a violin piece for accordion. I think that’s not happening as much as it should, and we’re so afraid to put ourselves out there because we’re not perfect or that we don’t sound like Emmanuel Pahud [principal flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic.]

Genre Gate-Keeping

Jaye voices her thoughts on some of the obstacles musicians face today because of the music industry’s need to silo music by genre. She also discusses how incorrectly labelling certain types of music can dissuade listeners from becoming fans, even if they are likely to enjoy it.

One of the things that is really important to me was I’ve noticed the little genre silos created by either the marketing teams for the labels or to make it easier for streaming services, you know, the whole algorithm of “if you like this thing we’re going to send you only that thing.” But I’m wondering, I like this and I’m all the way over here, why can’t I have that. Breaking down those silos, or what I like to call genre gatekeeping, is what has me thinking lately, how do we break through that? Through that marketing group I mentioned, The Brandman Network, some people have come to hear my music, which is far removed from what they do, and they liked it but they don’t know how to find us.

So again, this comes back to our marketing piece, we have to have people find us and they’ll like us because it’s music, humans aren’t like, “oh this is just too much art and music for me.” I hate to say this, but it’s the marketing companies and the labels and the radio stations deciding their market because it’s easier to divide people into comfortable little groups, and therefore market that specifically to them. As a result, people start to identify themselves with that market because we all buy into it.

All Music is for Everyone

Whenever I’ve played in bars with a small orchestra or chamber ensemble, people say “I had no idea it was this cool!” Yes! This is what we’re saying! We’re not just for stuffy people, this is just real human experience and it will affect you just like your pop music affects me. I just don’t like the idea that all the audiences for the music I love hold this idea that the music they love is elitist. This one local radio station has as their slogan “Beautiful music for a crazy world.” They’re promoting classical music as a soporific! I’m thinking, well no, Wagner is not gonna put you to sleep, I can tell you that! Everything has a different emotion, but why only play the top 40 known classical easy listening? Why? So, this is again the marketing descriptions that we are being confined by; the paintbrush we are being tarred with, and I’d like to break that down a little bit.

You know, it actually makes me think of this Chris Thile interview he did a few years back. He spoke about the differences in audience behavior during live shows. He noted that during live performances of classical music, there’s a cultural perception of these musicians - that they would judge the audience for clapping at an innapropriate time, for instance. So when this happens, the person making the noise gets glowered at by fellow audience members...

The thing is, they don’t, not by the musicians at least. For the most part we turn around and say “Thanks man! Thank you for liking me!” We have so much fun when people clap after a first section, that feels great because that means I moved you. I want to see that, and most musicians I know appreciate that now. I also think this is on the performer. If you can create an atmosphere, people won’t want to break that silence if you don’t want them to.

Injury and the Musical Path

You spoke earlier about your music career, that there was a certain moment where you thought about changing directions, or kind of leaving it behind entirely. And you know, the pandemic has had a monumental effect on musicals in general. At the beginning of 2021, a nationwide survey for musicians showed that 58% of respondents were contemplating changing career paths and quitting music.

Could you tell us about your experience during the time you started to question your career in music? How did you get there, and how did you get out of it? I think it would be beneficial for people who are maybe going through the same reflections to hear what you took away from that experience.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Jaye shared her story about recovering from hand issues in a time when these things were not addressed, when physical awareness and self-care like the Alexander Technique were just getting into the training offerings. It led her to a less-fulfilling career and having to put together work from all kinds of industries including corporate, film, and design. Once she had a family, she had a hard decision to make.

Am I going to do music or am I going to try and put all my other skills at work? I had administrative skills, I could run major events, I could do all kinds of design stuff. I’m very lucky that I have experienced a lot of things that I could apply to some other kind of work, but I realized that when I was focusing on these other things I wasn’t refilled by this work. When I would go and play and rehearse, I was rejuvenated from the music process, and that energy taken from my family I could bring back to them as a happy Mum. That’s when I said, okay, I either have to give it my all, I have to figure it out, or sell my very expensive instrument, and buy a car.

Jaye shared the details of the self-care, fixing her hands, and finding out what issues might be lurking beneath the efforts that made playing an instrument more difficult for her. She shares these efforts with her colleagues so that musicians coming up after her might explore these things before they become a problem and affect their musical self-esteem.

We have to look at ourselves first. Often, our first thought is to think “Oh I can’t play, that means I’m not good enough and I suck.” Many people don’t get past that. I’ve had colleagues I went to school with who quit making music; they were great musicians, but they ran into problems, whether financial, physical, or emotional. It was so grueling, the perfectionism. And with COVID, we actually lost a lot of people because it was just too hard to hold on until things opened up. They also realized how precarious their living was because they needed to play live. So to circle back to why I think we need to encourage everybody to be creative and record something, it’s to just do something out there because it will help bolster this live portion of our music making process.

I’m now just exploring some of these topics in my own articles on my new blog. Shameless plug time! If there are any composers out there who want to write to my theme, which is writing music that invites people into Canadian wild spaces, they are more than welcome to send me something and if someone has a recording project that they are starting, I’d be happy to send some resources that might help!

You can find out more about Jaye and her music at her website, you can also purchase her music on BandCamp. Be sure to follow Jaye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, and be the first to see her upcoming videos on Youtube by subscribing to her channel.

You can book Jaye as a solo artist or with her duo Aphrodite Unbound - see her GigLinked profile - Jaye and GigLinked profile - Aphrodite UnBound.

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