Droplets in an Ocean

Ian Carey performs at The Sound Room (2147 Broadway, Oakland) on Thursday, Feb. 21, and anybody who pays the admission gets a free copy of the new CD.

Ian Carey‘s newest album, Roads and Codes, is going to get a lot of attention just for its cover, partly because its cover tells the story of how hard it is for a new jazz album to get attention.

carey-roadsBay Area jazz fans know Carey as a trumpeter and bandleader, assuming they know him at all. But he’s also a graphic designer. So, in toying with drawings to go with Roads and Codes, he developed the idea of making the cover a self-referential story about how to connect good music with an audience.

And Carey’s music is good. It’s got a cozy modern-jazz sound with a lot of tricks under the surface; it’s stuff that would get airplay on a station like KCSM. Listen to the alternate take of a very Joe Henderson-like song, “Nemuri Kyoshiro,” on his blog — a lot of people would enjoy that tune. But how does one get the music into their ears?

I’ve never had to struggle with that question. I’ve only been on the other end, as part of the problem.

As late as 2008, KZSU was still getting hundreds of CDs per week, and while some of that volume has shifted to MP3s, I doubt it’s decreased. We do listen to it all, at least a few seconds of every album. Some of it gets easily rejected outright. Other candidates go straight to the review shelf, destined for airplay.

The agonizing cases are the middle ones, and they make up the majority. Especially in jazz, where getting to the mainstream takes a particular level of dedication and ability. But to add it all means each individual CD gets less attention. Add too much, and it defeats the purpose of even having an airplay rotation (that purpose being attention).

Moreover, my philosophy as jazz director was to tilt the station towards the edgier stuff. Occasional mainstream releases were welcome, but I didn’t want them overwhelming the rotation.

Bottom line: Every week, some reasonably good music had to go.

I’m not asking you to shed tears for my plight or anything, but I have to admit, I found it damn depressing on occasion. Especially at the end of a hard work week, when I was tired and frayed, and suddenly staring at a stack of music that didn’t make the cut. I would know I’d made the right decisions, and I’d still feel bad about it. All these artists fighting to bob above the waves just long enough to be seen — and so many little bits of luck, tiny pushes at the right or wrong times, would make the difference.

Maybe they just lost at the numbers game, or maybe they’d arrived after I’d been overly generous for too many weeks in a row and had to cull the field. Maybe theirs was the sixth album in two weeks to make heavy use of a string quartet, and it was just too much. (Something like that really did happen once.)

I don’t know the full text of the graphic-novel page that comprises the Roads and Codes cover, but I know this: It’s visually catchy. It’s not something that’s been overdone (yet). And based on the hints Carey has dropped on his web page, the story told is actually interesting, topical, and relatable — and a little bit funny. It’s good storytelling that you’d think would click with any jazz fan. On top of that, it will carry a spark of recognition with radio DJs: Ah, yes. I know where he’s coming from. It’s a tough road, trying to get an audience to discover music.

He got my attention, and I have it on good authority that he got KZSU’s as well.

Now, can he get listeners?

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