When it comes to helping artists make a living, social media turns out to be a mixed blessing.
By Robert Israel
I first happened on the provocative virtuosity of the Chicago-based sextet Eighth Blackbird — performing at Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre on Saturday (February 3), courtesy of the Celebrity Series of Boston — some years ago. I was tuned to All Songs Considered. This was in the days before our local NPR stations made the switch to almost all-talk format, back when you could actually listen to a piece of music — and if you liked it you would sit in the car until it was finished, and later purchase the album.
I do not remember the title of the composition I first heard, but I recall being impressed by the mastery of the players. With a spare array of instruments — violin, piano, cello, clarinet and flute — they created the roughly lyrical sounds of nature in extremis, complete with flourishes of commotion and the frictional scrapes of regeneration – in the mode of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” And I knew I had to learn more about the performers.
In an effort to do just that, earlier this week I talked with Eighth Blackbird member Yvonne Lam, who plays violin and viola. She reflected on the pieces she and the sextet will perform this Saturday, including Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak, a homage to Philip Glass’s 75th birthday and selections from the folk-inspired Murder Ballades by Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National. “Murder Ballades” is an eerie romp through the folk ballad tradition. Dessner, Lam says, has gone on to compose three additional “Ballades” that Eighth Blackbird hopes to record someday.
“The opportunities of discovering a new artist or a musical group through serendipity, by listening to them for the first time on the radio, is rapidly diminishing,” Lam says after I told her how I had first discovered Eighth Blackbird. “Our group relies heavily on social media to attract new listeners.”
But social media turns out to be a mixed blessing, Lam explains. She reflects that, while all of the group’s albums are available on Spotify and other social media channels, many of these channels essentially give away their music for free. Sales of Eighth Blackbird’s albums are flat.
The evening of the day Lam and I spoke the Grammy Awards were being televised. Eighth Blackbird – which takes its name from the stanza of a Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” – was awarded a 2016 Grammy for its album Filament. The group has been awarded three additional Grammys. Does being part of the exclusive Grammy award-winners club have any concrete privileges? Does winning a Grammy Award boost album sales? “Not really,” Lam insists. “It’s nice to be acknowledged. It’s nice to be recognized by our peers in the music industry. But we have not experienced the slightest uptick in sales as a result of being Grammy Award winners.”
Has winning Grammys led to more gigs? “That’s hard to say,” Lam considers. “It does give us cache, no question. But we get most of our gigs from personal contacts.”
Being a member of a sextet is a full-time job for the all the performers who, in addition to practicing their instruments, commission and compose new works, travel to gigs and recording sessions, and share administrative duties. For Lam, she had the added responsibility of being a mother to a young child.
“We’re all involved in running a small business,” she says, adding that the group had made the executive decision that it cannot afford the services of a public relations flak.
Part of the joy, Lam says, of being a member of Eighth Blackbird is the ongoing challenge and satisfactions of discovering new works and then taking these on the road and into the studio.
“We’ve traveled all over and we’re set to do more gigs in the coming months,” Lam says. “It’s an adventure I’m glad to be part of.”
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at email@example.com.