How Esperanza Spalding Is Bringing Value Back to Music with Her New Album

“In the paper, the lyrics are waiting. And we’re just gonna pull them out with a pen.” – Esperanza Spalding

Music today is hardly something to get too excited about. Let’s face it, with all the streaming services available to us at any moment for free (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Tidal, etc.), music as a commodity has somewhat lost its value. It’s an issue that musicians and people in the music industry have been dealing with since the rise of Napster and the proliferation of the mp3. If you have access to millions of songs via your phone or computer at any moment, why would you care that your favorite artist is releasing a new song, EP, or album?

In fact, 10 of your favorite artists are probably releasing music this week and 10 more next week. The internet has essentially turned the music industry into a saturated free-for-all in which volume of content greatly outweighs quality. This isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of quality music available in the world. In fact, I’d venture to say there might be more quality music available now than ever before. The issue is attention.

The conveniences of technology have also made listening to music a much more fragmented experience. Before the 1960s, if you wanted to listen to recorded music anywhere other than your house you had to rely on the radio playing it. That meant to listen to an album you had to actually sit down and well… listen to it! You couldn’t listen to it while jogging, or shopping, or taking the subway.

I would often talk to my father about what it was like to sit in a room with his friends and just listen to records and have conversations, and the excitement of when his favorite artist released an album and he had to run down to the store to get it. And if he didn’t get it he’d have to find a friend who had it and go to their house to hear it. This shared experience of listening to recorded music has ultimately given way to more private, non-social means for listening.

So with all this fragmentation and saturation, how do musicians who don’t fit into the popular music machine, musicians who aren’t TV-ready “stars” and who play unconventional, forward-thinking music, find their niche in the marketplace. In other words, how do jazz and classical musicians compete, fighting against an industry that has devalued music and created infrastructures to make music a less social experience? In genres that collectively occupy a mere 2% of the market, how do you convince consumers to value your art?

These are all questions that Esperanza Spalding, Grammy-award-winning bassist, composer, and vocalist, has sought to answer throughout her career. But with her boundary-pushing new album, Exposure, she might be dangerously close to cracking the code. On September 12, Spalding embarked on a landmark creative project to compose, record, and produce a full 10-track album in only three days (77 hours to be exact).

But let’s talk for a second about how extremely daring this was. She and her band went into the studio with no preprepared music at all, and the entire process was live streamed via Facebook Live! As a producer, I know how hard it can be to record that many songs in five days, even after weeks of rehearsal and preparation. The fact that every part of this record is being made in front of a global audience is beyond bold, and I believe it will stand as a pivotal moment in music history (emphasis on moment).

In order to achieve this “creative marathon,” as Nate Chinen called it, Spalding enlisted the help of some amazing musicians: Matthew Stevens on guitar; Justin Tyson on drums; Ray Angry on keyboards; and special guests Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway, and Andrew Bird (along with a team of stellar engineers). Although each of the musicians added their own improvised ideas to the compositions as they began to consolidate, many of the songs started with Spalding sitting on a couch singing melodies and words to herself.

Having watched a lot of the live stream myself, I caught quite a few of these moments. I also watched intently during the times when she was simply sitting and thinking or taking a nap. This project was a window into the life of a truly gifted artist that simultaneously could not be separated from the audience watching on the other end. Her life, for a short time, was all of our lives.

Every time I logged into Facebook during the livestream, I would see it — being curious, I’d watch it for at least five minutes at a time throughout my day. Something unique was always happening. My listening experience was starting to shed some of that toxic fragmentation.

People commented and suggested things musically and would talk amongst themselves. At one point, a hashtag started circulating to feed one of the engineers who appeared to be locked in the studio recording uninterrupted for hours. The viewers were collectively invited to insert themselves into this world. I saw commenters volunteering to go on tour with the band to do everything from singing background vocals to being the designated tea server. This immediate sense of community between the artist, the creators, and the consumers (many are artists themselves) is something that has never been experienced at this level.

And yet, the real beauty and brilliance of this moment was just that: a moment. A live documentary being created and edited in real time that you could access at any moment. But now it’s gone. There are a few snippets floating around on the internet, but this ephemeral moment is over.

The actual album sold out before the recording was even completed. With a limited pressing of only 7,777 record copies, the people who missed the stream simply missed the opportunity to purchase. But that’s OK; you can just download it on… wait, you can’t! The unique business model for this project dictates that it actually won’t be sold digitally (blasphemy!). What does that mean? In short: value.

Whoever has a copy of this record has something that can’t be heard anywhere else, something that is not instantly accessible, and something you actually have to go out of your way to find if at all. I’m sure more than a few radio DJs bought the record to be able to play on their shows. Some people will even try to resell their copy after some time. Someone will upload it to YouTube or some other random corner of the internet somewhere, but the intent still stands. You can’t just have this music passively.

Obviously, Esperanza Spalding isn’t the first artist to release an extremely limited pressing of a record (that would normally be in high demand). In recent years, a few hip-hop artists have been trying to add value to their music by making limited physical copies and charging $100-1,000 per copy.

Wu-Tang Clan famously auctioned off a single copy of their latest album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, for $2 million. What makes Spalding’s project so special is that it just doesn’t feel like a marketing gimmick. It’s a true, unfiltered window inside the creative process of an artist willing to take chances most others would not. Sales of the record have already made close to $400,000, with the live stream achieving a total of about 1,500,000 views (pretty great numbers for a jazz record!). But Exposure isn’t all about business, it’s a statement — a statement on creativity, a statement on the value of music, and mostly, a statement about fearlessness.

During the session, she wrote ideas on large sheets of white paper that were hung up all throughout the studio. These notes were not clear and not well-organized, but they were a tapestry of raw creativity. Lyrics, song form, and chord changes were all woven together. The musicians, at times, clearly struggled to understand her process, but in the end, adapted beautifully.

Spalding said that she wanted to pull the mask off of making an album. She didn’t want to overthink it and worry about mistakes. The point was to capture creativity at it’s most potent, which some may argue is the moment the raw idea comes into existence. Oftentimes, the musicians started to record without fully knowing each section or how to navigate it.

This experience must have been humbling for the artists and the viewers — there were a lot of mistakes, Pro Tools even crashed at one point while the engineers were trying to edit something, and there were a lot of moments that features people just sitting around waiting. As a musician who has spent a lot of time in the studio myself, I can tell you that this is all pretty common. This is what recording is really like sometimes, and artists need to develop a lot of patience in order to complete something.

Before entering the studio, Spalding collaborated with world-renowned architect Frank Gehry to create about 20 sketches while she improvised. The resulting drawings were displayed all around the studio during the recording. She is now auctioning those sketches off in hopes to raise $80,000 for an organization that helps low-income families (especially farmers) in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

To me, this detail is actually one of the key aspects of this project. It’s not about her. It’s not about look how great I am I can make an album fast and you can’t — it’s about using the global “exposure,” if you will, to bring more value to recorded music as a medium for expression, and as a platform for spreading resources amongst a community in need. As she stated in the final minutes of the live stream, “It’s people like these [farmers in Portland] that allow me the opportunity to do what I do.”

And I think another takeaway point is that most artists simply wouldn’t risk doing something like this. Do you think Taylor Swift would let you see her doing vocal takes and messing up? Would you? How nerve-wracking would it be to write a song with 3,000 people watching you? The reclusiveness that usually accompanies artistic creation is not by accident. Creating meaningful art takes vulnerability. Most of us wouldn’t even live stream brushing our teeth in the morning and most artists wouldn’t dare let you have a front row seat to their creative process.

What I believe Spalding did by stripping away all these layers that usually separate the musician, the music, and the consumer, is to show us that behind all of that, there’s just a human and a moment.


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