Women Behind the Music: Christine Allen

As part of LondonJazz's tribute to International Woman's Day, I chose to celebrate a handful of the industrious, influential women working behind the scenes in music, providing support to jazz musicians as artist managers, promoters, programmers, record label directors and in PR.

Christine Allen is a trustee on the board of Jazz Services and Managing Director of Basho Music, including the Basho record label and distribution website, Jazz CDs. During her career in jazz, she has worked as a promoter, artist manager and executive producer. She told us what brought her to the industry, her views on how the industry has developed and offers advice to those aspiring to careers in the jazz music industry.

What brought you to your career path in jazz?

It all happened in a way by chance. I had always been interested in jazz and when I left my old business (Virgin Balloon Flights which I founded and was MD of) I was asked to help a couple of musicians get gigs. I was the vocalist in a rock band and we often used jazz horn players so I knew quite a few people like Martin Speake, Mark Lockheart, Paul Taylor, Tim Whitehead. I had also got very interested in the web and designed a few websites for musicians. My husband Max had started the Basho label back in the early 1990’s to put out a couple of albums of a close friend US trombonist, Ephie Resnick. At first it was a part time hobby but gradually it took over, becoming the main focus of what I do. I realised early on that being involved at all levels was the right way for me. So many of the artists on my label I also arrange tours for. But not all by any means.

What do you look for in an artist?

When I work with an artist I look for a number of things – focus, ambition, dedication, brilliance as a musician and potential. I work with some wonderful musicians and I am always looking for ways to develop their career and get them involved in exciting projects. The worst thing for a musician in my view is to do the same thing all your life. Everyone and especially someone creative, needs new challenges. I like to try and make exciting projects happen. It’s not always easy especially with the lack of serious funding in jazz, but nonetheless we have had our exciting times. Building the profile of an artist is the single most important aspect of any musician’s career. Being good is one thing, being known and highly regarded is another. It is an ongoing process of keeping up the pressure in all directions – getting stories in the press, creating new exciting projects and making the right contacts. Ultimately an artist manager earns a small percentage of what his/her artists’ earn. So your job is to get you artists the best gigs you can. If you don’t, your enthusiasm will soon wane, as will your bank balance.

In your time working in the industry and within your experience at Jazz Services, have you noticed any changes in the demographics of the jazz scene?

If you are a performer, jazz offers built-in longevity. You see as many young performers and older ones and very often in the same band. I am working with a great band at the moment The Impossible Gentlemen with Gwilym Simcock, Mike Walker, Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum where the age span is over 40 years. This is one of the great things for me about jazz.

People say that the jazz audience comes mainly from the older generation. We are all getting older, but then we live longer and perhaps the older generation have more time to go to gigs without the pressure of having to get up early for their jobs and their kids. Having said that I am very heartened by the number of young people I see at gigs and the numbers coming through the music colleges. There are lots of very smart young people who refuse to be brainwashed by Simon Cowell and his ilk and are able to listen to good music without the flashy sets and mind numbing drivel associated with it. I think we have a long way to go to getting the younger generation to engage with serious music of any kind but things are definitely improving. I read recently that a study done in the US showed that children who are encouraged to listen (to music and stories) rather than to listen with visual stimuli, did significantly better at school than kids who grew up with TV. The ability to listen is an incredibly important message that needs to be got across at an early stage. If our education programmes can do this then we will have an audience in the future.

Why do you think there are still comparatively few female jazz instrumentalists on the scene? What do you think we could do to change that?

There are many great female musicians but very few who are prepared to make the sacrifices that touring demands. If you want to be successful you have to be prepared to move outside the confines of the UK jazz scene and be prepared to travel a great deal. This is inconsistent with many women’s ambitions of becoming a mother. Given the low financial rewards in jazz this can be a huge barrier. I can’t see this changing any time soon.
I work with some great female musicians who have managed to juggle things successfully - pianist Nikki Iles and vocalist Norma Winstone and I have recently signed a young saxophonist/composer Trish Clowes who shows enormous promise.

What advice would you offer for someone looking to forge a career behind the scenes in jazz?

When I was a balloonist we always used to joke “How do you earn a small fortune in aviation?” Answer “Start with a large one”. Jazz has some of the same issues. Your main investment will be time and enthusiasm. Your principal rewards will be knowing that you helped make something wonderful happen, when something wonderful does happen. Be prepared for a very unlevel playing field on the funding front. You may work your socks off and wonder why another organisation gets most of the funding handouts, or wonder why opera gets roughly 40 times what jazz gets when jazz has a bigger audience. Ultimately it will be up to you to make a judgment on who you want to support and they need to be willing to support you too. It is a two way process. I get several calls and e-mails every week from artists who want me to get dates for them. What you are looking for is to work with someone who has as much respect for what you do as you do for them. You are looking for relationships that will last that can develop and ultimately bring success to both of you. There are of course many other things you can do in jazz - writing, photography, promotion, PR etc. but as with artist management you must get totally immersed and really love what you do.

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