Photo: Briene Lermitte Schneider / Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the “Data Lords” in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Data Lords
Maria Schneider Orchestra
24 July 2020

Schneider, the Composer

Schneider’s status as a highly acclaimed jazz composer has few true parallels in creative music.

Unlike the huge majority of jazz composers—Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter, say—her acclaim wasn’t preceded or accompanied by her success as an instrumentalist. Most of the jazz musicians whose writing has risen to canon got their initial acclaim as players. Charles Mingus, for instance, has a body of work that is overwhelmingly original music. Yet, he may be better known as the bassist on the famous Massey Hall concert headlined by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He was, of course, just that great a player.

Toshiko Akiyoshi formed an orchestra as the voice of her compositions and was an early and decisive influence on Schneider. “I heard Toshiko perform when I was at the University of Minnesota, and I thought, ‘Man, you can do that with jazz?’ I decided that was what I wanted to do right there.” But Akiyoshi got her start as a successful trio pianist, opening the way for her to compose. And while Billy Strayhorn was never a star player, his name was never on the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Maria plays the piano like Akiyoshi and Strayhorn, but you would be hard-pressed to find a recording of her playing.

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Among Schneider’s contemporaries, she is also nearly unique. Wynton Marsalis has written as much for large bands, but he is still known first as a trumpet virtuoso and now an institutional figure through Jazz at Lincoln Center. John Hollenbeck’s writing overlaps with Schneider’s in various ways—particularly in the influence of Bob Brookmeyer, who brought to both composers a deft manner in which to use ideas from classical music—but Hollenbeck’s career as a drummer in his bands and those of others remains a calling card for him.

There are two closer analogs. Carla Bley is a performing pianist, yes, but almost only on her own recordings in service to her writing. Like Schneider, Bley has a distinctive style that owes less to big band-era arranging (that is: with traditional roles for the brass, the saxophone section, the rhythm section) and approaches the jazz orchestra as an instrument with great flexibility, more colors, and more programmatic wit. But both Bley and Schneider are descendants of the composer who looms largest in Schneider’s life and legacy: Gil Evans. Also, a pianist but not really a performer, Evans is her closest peer.

At graduate school in music at the Eastman School of Music, Schneider fell in love with composing. She had the chance to gather more technical skills and to hear the likes of Dave Holland and George Russell. But after that ended, she came to New York City and started making money as a music copyist—for Gil Evans. “My intention in grad school was to do film scoring.” But in working for Evans, it became clear that “I wanted to write creative music.”

Like Evans, should eventually led the finest big band in jazz’s most important city.


Photo: Briene Lermitte Schneider / Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Succeeding as a Woman

Schneider is also distinctive as an artist who eluded the institutional and personal barriers against women in jazz seemingly from the start of her career. That doesn’t mean that it was easy, but just that her status as a woman is mostly a footnote to the thesis of who she is as an artist.

Schneider ascended on talent and hard work, of course. And is it possible that not being (and therefore not marketing herself as) a star instrumentalist out front helped her to avoid the trap that has been set for so many women “on the bandstand”?

She acknowledges: “I’ve been really fortunate. I had teachers who supported me. When jazz was coming up, there weren’t as many women playing. It wasn’t a life that women chose. There were a lot of sexist attitudes, and there weren’t as many mentors for us.” But in Gil Evans, she found one who could encourage her in all the right ways.

From Evans’s example, Schneider could see that her instrument was going to be the jazz orchestra. “I knew I couldn’t find my own music without my own band. I was working writing tunes at a ‘jingle house’ for a while, and someone there told me I was crazy to start a big band.” Who could blame that person? She was an unknown as a composer and as a player. Recording, touring with, and running a big band is expensive.

“I couldn’t get recorded,” she says. “But I put down $30,000 of my own to make that first record with Enja.” And acclaim followed—neither because nor despite her being a woman.

She is rightly proud that she can work with her band without being conscious of being a woman and can make it “all about the music—and I get that back from the band.” Schneider has won five Grammy awards for five different recordings in four different categories, so one can hardly question her feeling that “my hard work has put me at the highest level. I never hear ‘that’s good for a girl.”


Photo: Briene Lermitte Schneider / Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

A Pioneer in the Pivot from Recorded Discs to Downloads

The third way in which Schneider is truly rare is in how nimbly she flipped her success from that of an artist releasing music on an independent label (Enja, the label based in Germany that has been home to a bevy of jazz notables) to control of her own music’s ownership, release, and distribution through ArtistShare.

Her Enja recording, she says, “put me on the map”. There was a real risk, of course, but recovering a $30,000 investment was at least possible when people were still buying compact discs at $16 a pop. “Before I knew it, I was making a living. There were big bands all over who wanted music to perform.”

Quickly, however, file-sharing was making the CD industry seem quaint and part of the past. The first big service, Napster, was started in June of 1999 as a “peer to peer” technology that allowed people to share MP3 files easily. It only lasted until July of 2001 before the courts shut it down for facilitating the widespread violation of copyright laws. Still, it famously was reported that, at its height, Napster was responsible for more than 50% of the wifi traffic on college campuses. If copying LPs onto cassettes for your friends was a time-consuming kindness in the 1970s and 1980s, this was wholesale music adoration without limit—and it opened the door to today’s new music economy.

Founded almost exactly as Napster was being closed, ArtistShare was the first crowdfunding site that would also act as a record label and business model for artists. “I launched with ArtistShare in 2003,” Schneider explains, “and built an audience there—creating a mailing list of an audience that I still have today.”

In fact, Schneider was the critical pioneering artist for the platform, as her Concert in the Garden in 2005 became ArtistShare’s first Grammy-winning album—the first album in the history of those awards to win without ever being physically available in stores. She is with ArtistShare still.


Photo: Briene Lermitte Schneider / Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Data Lords, Schneider’s Latest

Schneider has a distinct point of view on what it means to control the business side of creative output—and to control her own fate. In 2014, she testified before a congressional subcommittee on intellectual property about the economics that artists must struggle against in the face of Spotify and other streaming services. She has become a leading voice on the difficult question of how creativity can remain financially viable in today’s environment.

This is the “subject” of the new recording, a double CD-length suite called Data Lords. It is programmatic in that it is broken into two halves, suggesting a dark and troubled world and its complement, a world of nature and light. The music is thrilling and rich in both halves of the suite, but it is divided into yin and yang, darkness and light. The dark side suggests our predicament today, which is not just one of difficulty for artists making ends meet but in music consumers thinking that they are getting their music for “free”. Meanwhile, the streaming music companies are harvesting consumer data in an unprecedented act of stealthy robber-baroning.

Today, Schneider explains, “young musicians feel that they have to get their music out through streaming services. While I invested money in my first recording with the hopes of getting known and recovering the costs, most musicians today have a zero chance and essentially no hope of recovering their investment on their music.”

Schneider explains the dilemma concisely. “The vast majority of the music on streaming services pays out only one percent of the money. In the old days, it may have been bad, but the records that did well helped to pay for the records that didn’t sell. With streaming, musicians are paying for their production and there is almost no way they will make their investment back. We cannot set our price in that market. We can’t charge what we need to charge to break even. Which is not just un-American, but also anti-free market.”

Schneider explains the dilemma concisely. “Ninety percent of the music on streaming services shares less than one percent of the financial pie. You can guess the genres. In the old days, musicians bemoaned their relationship with record companies, but at least back then, record companies took on the financial risks. And, when a record sold well, it paid for the many more records that didn’t sell well. Musicians didn’t personally take on the financial risk.

“Today, with streaming’s pathetic income, most record companies know to avoid the financial risk, so most musicians are paying for their records even when on a label. It’s hard to be otherwise visible. And the vast majority won’t even make a dent in recovering their investment through streaming. When we can’t set our price according to our costs and audience size, giving us a chance to break even or make a profit, it’s not just un-American; it’s anti-free market. It will definitely affect the art of music.”

Schneider mentioned that copyright law is enshrined in the US Constitution. The founders believed that new and innovative content needed to be rewarded to have a vibrant nation—artists had to be paid for their work. Today’s digital technology jeopardizes that American building block.


Photo: Briene Lermitte Schneider / Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Two Halves to Tell a Story

On the first side of Data Lords, called “The Digital World”, the darkness of that situation is largely embodied by the sneer and growl of Ben Monder’s electric guitar and several brilliant horn solos (twice altered by electronics), which are characters in the play that Schneider has written around the range and expressive ability of her musicians.

The opening track, “A World Lost”, for example, is mournful and menacing, both, with a minor harmonic frame stated by a piano figure, around which Monder veers in a string-bending melody that is gorgeous and painful. He uses a tone that might remind some of John McLaughlin or Hendrix and will certainly bring to mind the sound that Monder lent to the very last David Bowie album. On “Don’t Be Evil”, Schneider sets up a lurching march that evokes a bit of that Grand Wazoo-era Frank Zappa, with a drunk, lumbering of sound that again sets up Monder for a barking, overdriven series of snarls and spirals.

“Ben has this amazing sound”, Schneider gushes. “He’s so intensely creative and has all these different sounds, so massive a spectrum that makes it difficult to mix in the band, to get it balanced.” Ryan Keberle takes a brassy, vocal trombone solo on “Evil”, with Monder playing what Schneider calls “these big wide chords behind the trombone.” Here as much as on his solo, Schneider says, “he’s creatively masterful and technically brilliant. I wouldn’t have written a lot of this music but for writing for Ben’s voice.”

On this first half of Data Lords in particular, the rhythm section is vital. Schneider explains that she created with them in a set of workshops, testing things out. “For example, on ‘CQ, CQ—Is Anybody There?’ we developed interesting sounds at the start—such as Jay Anderson using a bow on his bass to sound like a whale. I had ideas for the guitar, but Ben heard his part in another way, and I ended up changing it to track what Ben came up with. I brought in sheets and graphs with ideas, but we developed things together in the workshop.” The result on that track is a very free-sounding bed of terrifying sounds (again, with Monder generating a huge spectrum of otherworldly distortion) over which Donny McCaslin’s tenor saxophone cries and then Greg Gisbert’s trumpet, split into buzzed, odd harmonies by electronics, bends notes over a more formally orchestrated set of horn melodies and harmonic washes.

It’s worth noting that David Bowie collaborated with Schneider on “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” for his 2014 release Nothing Has Changed, which garnered Schneider an arranging Grammy. “I started this workshopping idea when working with Bowie bringing in the rhythm section and few horns. I wasn’t up on David’s latest music at the time—I was really nervous and told him we might create something horrible. I wanted it to be really dark, and I made him promise that we wouldn’t do it if he didn’t like it.” Needless to say, the collaboration was sublime. And Schneider reports that, for her, “the result of working with him was a sense of courage. He said the great thing about music is that if the plane goes down, we all walk away. And that spirit is in my recent music—I’m taking some risks.”

It was then Schneider who suggested that Bowie use McCaslin, Monder, and others on 2016’s Blackstar. The chain of collaboration deepened and spread.


Photo: Briene Lermitte Schneider / Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

The Side of Light and Nature

The other half of Data Lords is somewhat more in keeping with Schneider’s early writing, some portion of which evoked the natural world—birds, trees, and landscapes, as well the musical language of open spaces, whether that be the American prairie and west of Aaron Copland or music we associate with eastern cultures. The opener here, “Sanzenin”, is a musical portrait of a Japanese Buddhist temple that gives Gary Versace the chance to play beautiful lines and chordal pipings on accordion over gently throbbing half-note chords from the orchestra.

In many ways, Versace’s voice is this half’s counterbalance to Monder’s snarling guitar from the dark half. Versace also features on the chiming “Bluebird”, which gives him a role equal to the horns in creating a circling, thrumming pattern that sets up a bold but featherlight theme for the whole band. Steve Wilson’s ripe alto saxophone makes all of that funky as he solos over a groove made magical by Jonathan Blake’s trap kit, Anderson’s bass, and a potent Monder guitar pattern. Versace gets a similar solo, after which the two voices quietly intertwine.

Wilson is also essential to “Stone Song”, which opens with his soprano saxophone in duet with accordion and Frank Kimbrough’s piano—all playing with whimsy and risk, but in the most delicate and tender ways. Kimbrough and trombonist Marshall Gilkes are featured on the sunlit optimism of “Look Up”. It starts as a small-group tune, and then layers in the kind of full-ensemble writing that has made Schneider so properly acclaimed: 18 musicians in dazzling cooperation so that they sound like a single voice.

What emerges in the collision of light and dark on Data Lords is nothing like a polemic about the danger of social media algorithms or a lecture on corporate greed, even though composer Maria Schneider has much to say on those topics. Rather, she had the wisdom to leaven the darker “Digital World” with some fun and keep the pastoral beauty of “The Natural World” fueled by rhythmic momentum. The world of her musical imagination is complex and variegated, not just good guys and bad guys.

“It seemed to me important that there be beauty or a fun factor even on the darker performances. A little bit of cheekiness. But I’m delighting in putting some anger in the music. I wanted it to sound epic but a sense of play.”

Maria Schneider’s music—presented and sold in new ways that suggest a way forward for creative artists—reflects her love of orchestration and her engagement with politics at once. Though she realizes that she built an audience just before the “data lords” made musical art that much harder to build as a career, she has confidence that young musicians will find a way.

When Spotify’s founder, Daniel Ek, outraged many musicians this summer by saying that they cannot “record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough”—that they would need to adjust their output to the new environment that has made him a billionaire—Schneider’s thesis could not have been more salient.

“The ‘adjustment’ will come”, she predicts, “when musicians feel that they can’t take it anymore.”


Photo: Briene Lermitte Schneider / Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Composer and bandleader Maria Schneider is triply unusual in jazz. Above all else, she is a composer, an acclaimed woman without too many scars from that mere fact, and an artist who mastered the ability to continue selling recordings after the music economy turned upside down.

And on top of that
and her sumptuous new recording, Data Lords, Schneider has become a forceful voice in decrying the corporations who now provide streaming music that compensates artists minimally while, at the same time, harvesting the information of music consumers as their profit.