Nicky Schrire is a British-South African vocalist and composer based in Toronto, Canada. Alongside her performing and touring career, she has built a profile as a radio broadcaster and, in 2021 took over the reins at the long-running Jazz Session podcast.
With deep experience in various sides of the jazz industry, we caught up with her as part of our industry interview series to discuss the work of a portfolio career musician, tips for radio and podcasts and other ideas on the promotion of jazz.
You’ll find all the good bits in the full interview below – as well as some videos from past podcast episodes – but first a couple of key takeaways from my side…
- The presence of a story is vital! This is something we hear all the time from every area of the jazz industry. Great music is, of course, vital. But if there’s a great story behind it, you will be able to connect with people (including fans) much more effectively.
- Share reviews/interviews as widely as possible! Getting a gig, review or interview is not the end ! If you don’t shout about it as widely as possible, you not only miss out on all the possible exposure from doing it, but you also risk the person who gave the opportunity not coming back in a hurry…
Can you talk a bit about your own career and how you came to the point of being both a performing musician and someone on the ‘industry’ side?
Define “a bit”, Matt…Kidding!
I’ll do my very best to be succinct-admittedly not my strong suit…I want to say thank you for sending me these juicy questions and inviting me to be a JazzFuel interviewee. It’s so lovely to be interviewed and as part of a site of which I’m such a fan.
Like many jazz musicians today, I studied jazz at undergraduate and graduate levels-a BMus at the University of Cape Town followed by a MMus at the Manhattan School of Music.
(I should add that both degrees were performance degrees and NOT education or journalism focused.) I’ve recorded albums and performed internationally, from Cape Town to London to New York.
Like most working musicians, I’ve also explored multiple avenues that could generate income while I was chipping away at building a reputation as a performer and recording musician.
These avenues have included teaching (master classes, jazz camps, and lecturing at the University of Cape Town for four years), arts administration (for manager Karen Kennedy, and musicians like Becca Stevens, Taylor Eigsti, and Laila Biali).
Also, project coordination (for producer Matt Pierson), and a decade plus of jazz journalism for LondonJazz News (runs the gamut from reviewing the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival to profiling vocalist Gretchen Parlato and gushing about Norma Winstone).
Several years ago I had the opportunity to programme and present classical chamber music for a Cape Town radio station. Broadcasting was new to me and seemed both creative and challenging.
When I moved to Toronto a couple of years later, I knew that getting university teaching work would be challenging (due to rehires, hiring from within, and my being unknown) so I took my small amount of radio experience and attempted to leverage it.
I ambushed the lovely Brad Barker at Toronto’s JazzFM.91 station with a coffee and, while there were no job openings initially, a year later I was in luck.
I pitched and started hosting a weekly show called This Bright North, which allowed me to share my recent Canadian jazz discoveries with listeners in short, sharp 3-4 minute episodes.
At the same time as my foray into Canadian radio waters, I reconnected with Jason Crane who had produced and hosted The Jazz Session podcast since 2007. I met Jason when I lived in New York and he interviewed me about my debut album.
He was interested in passing along the podcast baton and he offered it to me. I love the podcast medium and so enjoy podcasts that focus on interviews with creatives, revealing their processes, trials and tribulations, tips and tricks, and more.
I also love to chat to people and have always geeked out talking about music business strategy/intel with industry folks and fellow musicians.
For these reasons, I accepted the baton and dove into podcasting, learning more about recording, editing, successful interview preparation, and various technological things.
A LOT of chocolate was consumed and Jason kindly fielded many a panicked email asking about domain transfers and other juicy tech topics at 2am.
Producing and hosting The Jazz Session has inadvertently seen me call on several of the jazz connections I made over a decade of dabbling in various musical avenues. I’ve also made use of skills learnt on-the-go, like writing, editing and self-editing (not applied to this Q&A clearly….), and critical/analytical listening.
What are the challenges with balancing being both a performing musician and someone on the ‘industry’ side?
Any challenges I associate with being on both sides of the fence are psychological and not administrative. Attending to multiple to-dos isn’t something with which I struggle.
However, I am often anxious about pursuing musical tasks that veer away from single-mindedly pursuing performing goals because I still very much want to be a performer and musician, and I worry about not being seen as that if my other work succeeds or gains recognition.
My goal is, in the words of vocalist Tierney Sutton, to “do the thing”.
For me, “doing the thing” means primarily composing, recording and performing combined with other musical tasks I enjoy, like teaching or broadcasting.
I think a lot of musicians grapple with the fear of their day job usurping both their ability to be a gigging musician and the worry that other pursuits could muddy the waters where career progress is concerned.
Perhaps the ultimate challenge is whether I can leverage positive reactions to the podcast to reflect equally positively on my work as a musician.
I’m now pondering this out loud…So perhaps it remains to be seen and “watch this space”!
What makes a great interviewee?
I learnt a while ago that what makes for a great press release for an album is the presence of a story.
Press releases that are narrative in nature and don’t simply state the track listing, are much more interesting AND they present obvious ways in which a writer, reviewer or broadcaster can cover the artist and their music. The same is true for a great podcast interviewee.
Anecdotes, honesty and stories about process and experience make for fantastic podcast content. Especially if these tales lead to a teaching/learning moment. Some great examples of this within the context of The Jazz Session are:
- Maria Schneider talking about how working with Ivan Lins taught her to appreciate her own music
- Dave Liebman (the ULTIMATE storyteller!) sharing a story about Elvin Jones discussing “My Favourite Things” as a way of teaching Lieb about the joys of repetition.
- Miho Hazama recounts the humorous tale of getting asked to become the new Chief Conductor of the Danish Radio Big Band
- Renee Rosness, Allison Miller and Ingrid Jensen from “Artemis” talk about the thrill of Chick Corea being present at their first performance as a newly-formed jazz “supergroup”
On the flipside, I want to be clear about what does NOT make for a great interviewee.
Some musicians get bogged down by minutiae-exactly how many ECM records they’ve helmed, or the exact dates of every album they’ve ever released.
These sorts of details are boring. I will edit them out but they often reflect a person who takes themselves incredibly seriously and lacks a sense of humour.
Don’t be this person. I beg of you.
There is a paid Patreon membership for fans of the podcast. Do you think that independent musicians should be checking out things like this as a way of getting more support from listeners?
I will be very honest: Jason set up the Patreon page for The Jazz Session and I inherited it.
Were I the founder of this podcast, I likely would not have set up a Patreon page because it requires extra work (I’m efficient in choosing my battles, which means I am not above laziness!).
However, I will say that the Patreon page allows me to cover all podcasting costs so I’m not out of pocket. Thank GOSH for Jason being a better businessman than I and also tapping into another way to build community.
Another admission: I am not a Patron of any artists or entities aside from supporting Maria Schneider on ArtistShare (a crowdfunding platform rather than a monthly subscription model like Patreon).
This is because of the quality of the content Maria offers and my genuine interest in and love for her music and process. I think it’s wonderful if any artist is able to offer exclusive content that appeals to fans and offers the artist in question extra support. I’m all for it.
Independent musicians should subscribe to entities like Patreon if they have the means and if they get something out of it.
I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. And there are a myriad of ways to support your favourite musicians outside of these platforms. Go to their gigs and buy their music and interact with them online.
In terms of whether or not musicians should be helming their own Patreon pages, I can’t say because I’m not particularly good at running a Patreon page. It’s not one of my fortés.
Does it affect listener engagement positively? Does it increase revenue outside of Patreon (i.e. more tickets sold or more albums bought)?
But, for those interested in supporting The Jazz Session on Patreon…
The podcast has two patron tiers-$5/month and $10/month.
The bonus content includes receiving the interview episodes a day early, and receiving a bonus “Track of the Week” offering, where jazz musicians talk about a track off their new album and the entire track is then played.
This is a lovely opportunity for musicians to speak directly to listeners and it allows me to offer a platform to many more musicians than I could otherwise.
The other perk for $10/month patrons is receiving episodes of the spin-off series “The Insider” several weeks in advance of the public.
Visit patreon.com/thejazzsession for more information.
A lot of focus is placed on reviews and airplay when it comes to new projects. What alternative benefits do you think long-form podcast interviews offer?
Most often, I approach a musician to be a guest on The Jazz Session because they have a new album coming out. But, I use the new recording as a jumping off point for talking about a much wider array of topics related to their music and trajectory.
So the biggest benefit of a long-form podcast interview, as opposed to a fifteen-minute interview on radio or TV, is that we can cover a lot more ground that is, possibly, much more interesting AND gives a more nuanced overview of the musician and their music.
I also think the interesting content is the journey and not the destination.
An album is a resting point. The process of assembling the musicians and the music, the events that led to certain decisions being made, how an album came to be released on Blue Note. These are fascinating topics and they lead a conversation in unexpected directions. How wonderful!
The other benefit of podcast coverage is the longevity of the coverage. Like online blogs, the content is available forever. I never mind when someone says to me, a year after an episode aired, “I just listened to your interview with Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza today.”
I love that someone stumbled upon the podcast or the guest and that they listened.
There’s no time-stamp on these things for me. And because the conversations cover more than just a single album, they stand the test of time and contain wisdom that is evergreen. Quick blurbs, spoken or written, about a new album are no longer interesting a year down the line.
You have experience both as a radio host and podcast interviewer. How can musicians maximise the effects of coverage on each of those mediums?
When a musician has the opportunity to be interviewed (in any medium), they should make a mental note of anything they wish to publicize so that they can work it into the conversation. Things like upcoming gigs or URLs they want to share.
Do a little bit of preparation before the interview so that the opportunity is really maximized. This is even more important when it’s radio coverage because there’s less time to communicate everything you wish to convey. Pre-planning is invaluable.
The other tip, which is even more important and fairly obvious, is to share the published/posted content. The impact for maximum coverage actually happens AFTER the fact, especially since so much (including radio) is heard online these days and then archived in perpetuity.
Sharing content that publicizes your music or activities is both a free marketing tool and a chance to be community-minded.
- It requires little to no effort to re-share something in which you’re mentioned. The text is taken care of for you. All you have to do is hit “retweet” or “share”
- Jazz is an ecosystem. Musicians do not exist and make a living off their music in a silo. They require venues in which to play, publicists to generate buzz, journalists to review their music, broadcasters to program their music. It is odd to me how musicians can conduct themselves with little to no regard for this fact.
- Most folks interview musicians whose music they like and whose company might be enjoyable. They don’t interview musicians because they expect reciprocation. However, the issues of courtesy and good manners stand. I am also aware of lost marketing opportunities for a podcast or blog when guests fail to acknowledge coverage that was generated on their behalf.
On a more positive note, when an artist does share and shows an awareness of their place in the ecosystem, the results speak for themselves.
Terence Blanchard has a massive online following and I was thrilled when he shared the interview link and promo videos with them.
Those listeners might be new to the podcast and they may go from listening to Terence’s interview to deep-diving into the archives for conversations with other trumpeters like Chloe Rowlands, Ralph Alessi, and Nicholas Payton.
The mere prospect of this domino effect thrills me no end. So a massive thank you to the musicians who DO follow-through in this regard.
Part of the podcast concept is really getting into the stories behind the music. What attracts you to a certain musician or band, before you’ve heard the music?
The first item I receive via email is, more often than not, a press release from the musician’s publicist. So reading is always the first step and this tells you how important a good press release is.
I skim read the press release and a couple things catch my eye:
- The musician’s name. Even if I haven’t heard their music, have I heard of them? Are they engaging in the jazz community in a way that means I’ve come across them on social media or through collaborations with others.
- The company they keep. This could be the label, the publicist, or their bandmates. Association helps me get a sense of the calibre of the musician and, therefore, the music.
- A lovely story in the press release that charms me. This could be a nugget about the recording process or something that gives me insight into the musician’s trajectory or interests. Again, a good release tells a story as opposed to simply stating dry, production-related facts.
How can an artist whose primary goal is simply ‘make/play great music’ start to develop a story that attracts non-musician listeners?
One way to develop a story is to record an album with a concept in mind. Two people who are brilliant at this are drummer John Hollenbeck and vocalist Theo Bleckmann.
Having an album concept both helps the musician focus on their intention and the desired musical goal, and it also helps a press release write itself to a degree.
I’ll say it again: that press release is the lead item that attracts journalists, broadcasters, podcasters to your music and makes them want to share it on various platforms.
Worth noting: an album concept can be a couple of things. Theo’s last recording on ECM was called “Elegy” and the repertoire comprised songs that provided “perspectives on death and transformation.”
The vocalist Somi recently released a fantastic album interpreting the music of South African vocalist and activist Miriam Makeba called “Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba” with a slew of guest artists from the African continent.
On a broader note, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis created a superbly heady, Scandinavian-hued record called “Gullfoss”, inspired by a visit to Iceland.
The other way to develop a story is to apply for funding or grants to record your music.
The grant world is something I’ve only recently started exploring now that I’m fortunate to be based in Canada, where the arts grant system is pretty phenomenal. If this is a world that is open to you, merely applying for funding regardless of outcome can help you iron out important details regarding your album or music.
Grant applications often require you to answer questions like:
1. Why do you want to make this album?
2. How will this album assist you in progressing in your career?
3. How will you market this album?
4. Who is the target audience for your music?
Applying for a grant should, in fact, be the final preparation step for any musician about to go into the studio. The value is in the exercise. So I highly recommend answering these kinds of questions to see if there’s a common thread running throughout your work that results in a story or theme.
For musicians working to promote a new release, how should they approach pitching to podcasters?
Pitching to a podcaster is no different than pitching to any other press entity.
- Do your research. Don’t pitch to a podcaster having never listened to their podcast. Similarly, if you’re a vocalist who sings traditional jazz, don’t pitch to a writer who favors avant-garde music or a broadcaster who is loath to program vocalists on their show.
(Tip: If you’re taking care of publicity yourself and you don’t know who to reach out to, find coverage of musicians you feel are similar to you and gather the names of the journalists/hosts who covered these releases. It’s not a given that you’ll get coverage but you certainly better your chances and make better use of your time and efforts.)
- Understand the timeline associated with a new album release. This is a pet peeve of many publicists I know who receive emails from musicians requesting their services for an album due out in a week’s time. Publicists work months in advance (some of the best in the business even work 12 months in advance due to being in demand!). This comes into play when pitching to a podcaster – I schedule guests fairly far in advance and, due to juggling other aspects of my career, have already loaded up the remaining episodes for this season, which airs through May 31st. So the more lead time you have, the better.
This is probably a good opportunity to plug something near and dear to me-a spinoff series I created for The Jazz Session called The Insider where I chat to jazz industry experts – managers, booking agents, label executives, publicists, producers, journalists – about their work.
Initially, this series was just for Patreon members. However, I felt that there was SO much precious information in these conversations for musicians, that it was a pity and a waste to only offer this as exclusive content. It meant more to me to share these episodes with my fellow musicians than it did to attempt to get more patrons and income by touting exclusive content.
Musicians promoting a new release can totally do it on their own but there is a lot of value in working with a publicist if you can afford one.
I’d recommend musicians listen to this conversation with New York-based publicist Lydia Liebman to find out more about the musician-publicist relationship and what, exactly, a publicist does. Lydia is brilliant at her job and speaks beautifully to boot.
You seem to manage your various projects very well. What’s your #1 productivity tip for fellow jazz musicians?
Lists. That is my #1 productivity tip.
Firstly, this is especially useful if you have varying deadlines to meet.
Secondly, feeling overwhelmed by work can very easily lead to procrastination and then crippling anxiety. So seeing all the tasks to which you need to attend listed, clearly, in some order of importance, really makes things more manageable.
It also helps a ton if you enjoy the many facets of being a musician.
This is a stretch for a lot of musicians I know – they hate admin and delay getting round to it. I don’t mean to sound smug, but I happen to love the admin that comes with the territory-to be clear, as it pertains to my own work (I’ve outgrown enjoying doing admin for others).
It’s partly because I enjoy career strategizing, and because I’m mildly addicted to the glimmering prospect of possibility.
Living with the naïveté that one’s career could take shape as desired is both fanciful and necessary. It certainly keeps me going.
About Nicky Schire
A graduate of the University of Cape Town and New York’s Manhattan School of Music, Nicky Schrire has recorded several albums and performed internationally with musicians including Gerald Clayton, Ben Wendel, Nir Felder and Nikki Iles.
Her work has seen her likened to vocalists Joni Mitchell and Esperanza Spalding with The Boston Globe’s Jon Garelick noting that “though her approach has earned her comparisons to Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens, the similarities are superficial…she’s got her own thing, and it’s very much worth listening to.”
Touring highlights include headlining the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, performing at Jazz at Lincoln Centre for Carnegie Hall’s Ubuntu Festival, and having her composition ESCAPE: The Ingrid Jonker Suite programmed for the 2022 String Quartet Biennale in Amsterdam (sadly cancelled due to COVID).
Her work as a broadcaster and journalist includes creating and hosting This Bright North on Toronto’s JazzFM.91 station, helming the podcast The Jazz Session, and working at CBC Music.
Her new album Nowhere Girl features Canadian musicians Ernesto Cervini, Dan Fortin, Chris Donnelly (known collectively as Myriad3), and special guests Tara Davidson, Laila Biali, and Mozambican guitarist Julio Sigaque. It will be released in 2022.
“Schrire is, by any standard, a remarkable talent…Her voice is a bell, a curve of pliant sound, a personality, a vessel for great songs.” – Will Layman, PopMatters