For the composer and bandleader Maria Schneider, who comes to New England Conservatory for an artist residency March 2-4, the limitations of Zoom-centric life during the coronavirus pandemic must carry a particular kind of irony.
Her 2020 double-CD, “Data Lords,” devoted one disc to “The Digital World,” the second to “Our Natural World.” Together they trace the relationship between humans and both worlds from the humble, decidedly noncommercial “social media” of “ham” radio to the universal connectivity of the digital age (mocking Google’s motto in one song title, “Don’t Be Evil”), and finding release in the wonders of the natural world through the garden of a Buddhist temple (“Sanzenin”), a potter’s alchemy (“Stone Song”), and Schneider’s own love of ornithology (“Bluebird”). In its entirety, the album is variously ominous, playful, and sweepingly lyrical, written with Schneider’s keen mastery of the orchestral jazz palette, and performed with deep commitment by her band of veteran players. It was voted Best New Album in the 2020 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll and has been nominated for two Grammy Awards.
“I think it was in a way an uncanny time to have that record come out,” Schneider, a multiple Grammy winner and an NEA Jazz Master honoree, says during a Zoom (of course) interview. “Something has happened for a lot of people now that they’ve become really aware of the importance of human contact, and aware of the importance of connecting to nature,” she says. “Having that moment of the awe of the snow or whatever.”
The NEC residency, as in normal times, will include panel discussions and a concert performance with students, all free and open to the public. Except that now, of course, the audience will attend online only, including the March 10 concert, prerecorded during the residency.
But Schneider, who lives in New York, will be coming to Boston to take part in the panels and rehearse and lead the band in person. The visit will require multiple COVID tests as well as extreme social distancing for Schneider and NEC’s student orchestra. It’s something she has some experience with, having recently conducted a similar residency at the University of Miami.
“It’s crazy times,” says Schneider, “but when I rehearse, I’m very diligent about details and expression, and I’m going to push past these hurdles that we’re in and give everybody the very best educational and musical experience I can when I’m there.” The program will include selections from “Data Lords” and other Schneider compositions.
The residency is part of NEC’s Grow Your Art series (past participants have included trumpeter Dave Douglas and singer Luciana Souza), with a focus on career management and the artist as entrepreneur, even including a pitch competition in which NEC students and alumni will present project proposals to a panel including Schneider and compete for cash prizes.
The artist-as-entrepreneur is something Schneider knows something about. After three albums on the German label Enja, she staked out her independence by joining the crowd-funding platform ArtistShare for the release of “Concert in the Garden” in 2004.
As streaming services like Spotify and YouTube have come to dominate the listener’s experience of recorded music, Schneider has become a fierce advocate for artists’ rights, including testifying before Congress about intellectual property and digital rights.
As a result of streaming services, royalties these days are minimal, and a nonstarter for someone like Schneider, who says “Data Lords” cost a quarter-million dollars to make “If you stream, you have no chance of making your money back,” she says. “You’re making barely enough to pay for a sandwich, or a cab ride to the recording session.”
For Schneider, the ArtistShare relationship has become more than a one-off crowd-funding project — it’s an ongoing business of its own, with fans joining at particular levels of membership, allowing them access to various forms of “product.” That can include simple CD purchases, but also entry to special video events, recording sessions, and other elements of Schneider’s creative process. ArtistShare, she says, is “my bread and butter.”
“The whole thing of ArtistShare really is that you don’t just make a record, but you create a whole experience,” Schneider says. “It pays off financially because I can pay for an expensive record.”
All of which leads to what could be Schneider’s first rule in conducting her own business: “I never give ownership of my music to anybody. I much prefer to control my own work and to take the financial risk on myself.”
For students who need the visibility that streaming services afford, she advises giving only an occasional piece as “a carrot. But keep your marketplace yourself, own your own work, run your own business, because then you can develop your audience.”
Like most performers, Schneider is looking forward to seeing that audience in person again. “Everybody’s trying to find a way to keep the audience with them and just get through this. I know one thing: Musicians will appreciate playing together like never before.” And not just for the revenue. “Somebody sitting in the front row, giving us a smile.”
Grow Your Art residency at New England Conservatory, March 2-4. Concert, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. Links for all events at https://necmusic.edu/growyourart-public-events