Written by Daniel Garel – Communications and Marketing Manager

A couple of weeks ago on the 24th of June, we at the Jazz Promotion Network held our first ever Open Space Event in association with Julia Payne and the hub UK. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it was a great shame that we couldn’t meet together as a sector at our annual conference and AGM which was due to be held in Belfast. But against the odds, we managed to bring together over 80 representatives from across the jazz music industry to engage in discussions about our music scene and it’s future. 

The format for an open space event is simple: get as many people as you can together in a room, and let the agenda and topics for discussion be decided by the attendees. As Julia Payne recently wrote in her blog for the event, “It’s called an ‘open space’ event, because the agenda at it won’t be set by JPN, or determined by the agendas of those funding or sponsoring it.” “No government task force is going to crack [our challenges] for us. Neither will funders alone be able to get us back on the road to recovery. We are. The promoters, festival organisers, venue reps, musicians, producers and agents who make up our ever evolving sector.” And we were thrilled to see so many members and non-members alike turn up to what was the first in hopefully an increasing schedule of online events hosted by JPN.

I feel the energy and experience of the people I met and talked with was inspiring and supportive. There are no easy answers but it seems clear we need to create a coordinated response particularly about Jazz

The afternoon’s event kicked off with some thought-provoking statements and ideas from our guest speakers: musician, songwriter and singer Ayanna Witter-Johnson and MU deputy general secretary Naomi Pohl. Both speakers decided to spark a conversation focussed on experiences of significant change – Naomi took the long view, exploring the significant changes the music industry as a whole has undergone in the past 5-10 years, speaking about the seismic shifts surrounding music consumption and streaming services, and how various organisations have pulled together to tackle these opportunities and challenges. Ayanna took a more personal tone, opening up about her experiences of racism within the music industry and the disproportionate effects of covid-19 on black and ethic minority groups, as well as commenting on the general state of our community.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

“The essence of jazz music for me is conversation and community. With so many venues and festivals under threat, how do we keep this essence alive? Can jazz exist in this virtual vacuum? What can we do to hold the community together?” Ayanna Witter Johnson

Both Ayanna and Naomi managed to steer the conversation in different ways; when it got to deciding what conversations were to be had, nearly all of the proposals were related in some way to the issues and topics covered in their opening statements. One by one, venue reps, label owners, educators and musicians all took it in turns to pitch problems centred around the main question: what next for jazz in the UK?

After the bidding process had taken place, attendees opted to take part in one of 8 possible sessions to hash out the problems facing the sector at large. These included conversations such as: How can we continue the connection between promoters and artists while venues/gigs have stopped during this difficult time? How do we convince the government of the importance of live music performance and music education? And how can we make JPN an organisation that includes and promotes voices and people from diverse backgrounds? With a few clicks – the groups were split into their breakout rooms and discussions commenced.

“As an artist it can sometimes feel like the discussions about our sector can happen ‘elsewhere’, when our access is limited due to travel restrictions and budget, so the opportunity to be involved in some varied and forward-thinking discussions with promoters and arts workers in a virtual space was very rewarding and enlightening.” – John Pope – Newcastle-based bassist

During two sessions comprising seventeen conversations and over 680 minutes of discussion time, it’s safe to say many of us were feeling fatigued from the constant presence of zoom dominating the day. Having said this, it was great to see so many positive insights and take-aways from the event. We asked all attendees to write a summary of what they were going to take from the experience, and the broad range and positivity is testament to the varied and dynamic conversations that were shared by all.

Working with the rest of the JPN Board on our plan to make JPN more diverse- starting now!

We wrapped-up the day with a quick competition to see who could muster the best hat/prop (congrats to the winners who will be sent some mystery gifts soon) and a final chance to post likes, dislikes and frustrations up on our interactive zoom whiteboard and wound down proceedings with a short social at the end of the day.

Collaborative zoom whiteboard – a space to share experiences – good and where there is room for improvement

One of the great joys of hosting the open space was being able to feel the sense of community within the jazz sector. Many attendees were able to meet and discuss with industry professionals they wouldn’t have otherwise, and it was great to have the space to openly discuss some of the great challenges we are all facing, and realise that we are not alone in these strange times. In the true spirit of an open space event, when the 40mins were up, the conversation ends. But now we have the forum and the opportunity to keep discussing, keep brainstorming, and keep coming up with solutions to the sector’s problems, hopefully, with a renewed collective effort.

Screenshot from a very competitive hat competition mid-open space