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Interview: John Lee Talks About BayImproviser.com: The Phenomenal Calendar Serving The Bay Area’s Experimental Music Scene

This interview is aimed to be an introduction to one of the most powerful tools any music scene can have (regardless of genre).

BayImproviser.com is a very unique calendar that serves the San Francisco Bay Area creative music scene. It has listings for almost all  the shows going around, the musicians playing in them and the venues where they play. It is the glue… that bridges all of the different areas of exploration within the scene and a great place for artists to promote their music.”

 Bay Improviser was created in 1998 by John Lee (way before Facebook came into existence!). It’s purpose is manyfold. First, it allows any audience members to easily find out what’s going on, which increases awareness and attendance at the shows. Second, all musicians in the scene, regardless of their technical skills or interest in web sites, now have at least a basic bio and information about their shows. Third, musicians new to the area can easily get into the scene by checking the calendar and attending shows of interest, thus the site aids the integration of new members into the community.

In this interview with John Lee we talk about all the fundamentals of a calendar like this: the benefits it brings into the scene, it’s advantages over Facebook, and advice on creating, promoting and improving a calendar such as this.

*Note: If you happen to know about any other calendar such as this, feel free to drop a link in the comments section?

Index

  1. The Problems That Bay Improviser Solves
  2. Shortcomings of Facebook With Respect To Bay Improviser
  3. Advice On Creating Similar Calendars
  4. Promoting the Calendar
  5. Improvements On Bay Improviser
  6. Finishing Thoughts
  7. Links
Bay Improviser's Home Page
Bay Improviser’s Home Page

[The Problems That Bay Improviser Solves]

Diego Villaseñor: What led you to create Bay Improviser? What needs does it address?

John Lee: I created bayimproviser.com in 1998 for a couple of reasons.  At that time I was finding that I was missing a lot of shows due to the lack of a comprehensive calendar of events that I could count on to be updated and complete at all times.  At the same time, I was interested in learning to develop a web application from a career perspective.  So initially I created the site for my own personal use and learning experience.  Once I got into it, I realized that it could be highly useful for the musicians and fans of the music, so I expanded it beyond the calendar to include the Artist, Venue and other pages.  In 1998, there was no Facebook or blogging sites where a musician could easily set up a web presence, so my site allowed anyone to get a basic page up and running without needing to pay for it, or have a lot of technical expertise.


Diego: How has the musical landscape in the Bay Area changed after launching the calendar?

John: There are more sub-genres, more venues, and more series now then when the site was launched in 1998.  In 1998, I think the scene was more dominated by “free jazz” than it is today.  There has been a significant increase in the number of weekly or monthly series.  The size of the audience is much larger, although still pretty small relative to more mainstream music.  During the last couple of years, the Center for New Music in San Francisco has had a big impact with 4 or 5 shows a week, and bringing in musicians from out of town.  The sfSound group has helped bring a lot more “new music”, “contemporary classical” music into the scene.  The calendar was not the cause of these changes, but helped support the scene by making it more visible.

Diego: Why do you think the calendar worked so well for the Bay Area Scene?

John: There is a large contingent of musicians here so there are usually multiple shows in the bay area on any given night.  Given the amount of activity and the number of choices for going out, a calendar is essential.  So the most important prerequisite for success is a robust scene.  If there is a lot going on, then people will naturally discover and use a calendar site to keep up with things.

Artist Page on Bay Improviser
Artist Page on Bay Improviser

[Shortcomings of Facebook With Respect To Bay Improviser]

Diego: What do you think of Facebook, and how it’s services compare to Bay Improviser?

John: I think the impact of facebook needs to be discussed.  What I’ve found in the past 5 years or so is that many musicians have turned to facebook as their primary method of promoting themselves and their shows.  This is especially true with the under 30 year old generation, who have grown up with facebook.  Personally I find facebook really inadequate for scene promotion for a variety of reasons, but it has certainly grown increasingly dominant.  So anyone thinking about starting an independent site to promote a scene (experimental or otherwise) needs to question if they really want to compete with facebook, or whether they would be better off just having a page on facebook?

Diego: Could you name the main aspects in which you find Facebook to be an inadequate platform?

John: Facebook can be used in two ways.  First, musicians can have their own pages and followers.  Second, a dedicated “scene” page can be created which includes all musicians.

If musicians rely on their own page, then there are several limitations.  First, in order to reach the audience, the audience members must first know about you, second they have to be on Facebook, and third they have to become “friends” with you.  Someone new to the scene would not have any way to know what’s going on until they start adding friends on Facebook, and it could take months, or years, to discover folks this way.

If a dedicated “scene” page is used, then a lot of the things my site does will not happen.  For example, if a show is listed, the musicians playing in the show will not be automatically linked to the show.  And if using the “scene” page, there is no way to identify individual musicians of interest to get notified of their shows.  Also, I have been told that there is a fairly low number of people you can send event announcements to without having to pay Facebook.

Show Listing Page on Bay Improviser

[Advice On Creating Similar Calendars]

Diego: Do you know of similar projects around the world?

John: There are a number of calendar oriented sites out there.  Frankly, I haven’t spent a lot of time researching other similar sites.  I’d be interested in knowing about them.  But based on what I’ve seen, BayImproviser.com is unique in putting together not only the calendar, but the Artist, Venue and other pages.  And at bayimproviser everything is linked together.  For example, in a show listing, the Bay Improviser musicians are linked to the show and their music and videos will show up in the event listing.  So someone interested in the show can get a better idea of what to expect and can learn about the musicians.  Conversely, you can go to an Artist page and see their upcoming shows listed.

Diego: I’ve heard that other people have attempted to do a calendar like Bay Improviser, but that at times these efforts have not replicated the success of Bay Improviser. To what factors do you attribute that?

John: I think the site needs to be seen as non-biased and comprehensive. BayImproviser.com is certainly that.  Obviously there needs to be some boundaries established for which shows and which musicians are covered on the site, but beyond that I don’t have any editorial bias as far as what shows and musicians are listed.  With some similar sites I’ve seen over the years, there is usually some venue or smaller subset of musicians that are the focus of the site, and no attempt is made to cover the entire scene.  So I think a site that strives to cover an entire “scene” and make all shows and musicians equally visible without bias is much more useful to the audience.  Another factor is that these sites depend on having one or more folks who are willing to put in the time, week after week, year after year, to keep the listings current.  What often happens is a site will be started and then the people maintaining the listings run out of time, move away, etc. and the site gradually dies off from lack of maintenance of the listings.

Diego: What would you advice to someone trying to set up a calendar for his particular scene?

John: The first thing would be to decide to make a long term commitment to putting energy into maintaining the listings.  It’s time consuming.  I have more than 50 musician, venue and calendar sites I visit on a regular basis to discover shows that need to be posted on BayImproviser.com.  Also, the social aspect is super important.  The site will be more successful if the people maintaining it are also out attending the shows and getting to know the musicians and other audience members.

Diego: Is there any open source version of the code that some might recur to if they wanted to create a calendar for their scenes?

John: BayImproviser.com is a custom built site done by professional developers.  The original version was done entirely by me.  For the rewrite, I enlisted the help of some developers who worked for me on other projects to build out the main functionality.  I then polished it up and put in the effort to make it work well on mobile devices. When the site was first built, WordPress and other do-it-yourself site creation tools didn’t exist.  Someone doing a site like this today would want to use some site building tool.  For example, Experimental Portland is one I just came across when looking for similar sites.  This is done in WordPress.  It’s mostly news and a calendar, but for a quick, basic site it’s fine.

[Promoting the Calendar]

Diego: Who helped (building the site, getting the word around, etc.)? What did it require to get the project launched and maintained?

John: I did all the technical work myself, and promoted the site myself at the beginning.  For the first year of the site’s existence I attended 2-3 shows per week and introduced myself to the musicians and the folks running the series and encouraged them to post their shows and info on the site.  The goal was to make the site “self-service” so it didn’t depend on me to do all the updates.  Eventually, the majority of the calendar events were posted by the musicians or folks running the venues, so my effort was reduced quite a bit.  I had help from the musicians and venues who posted their events and updated their Artist pages.  This is a really important aspect of the site, that it is “self-service” and anyone can post shows.

Diego: How did you make other musicians aware of its existence and how did you get them to appreciate its usefulness and to use it? 

John: I attended shows on a regular basis and introduced myself to the musicians.  I handed out flyers promoting the site.  Word of mouth among the musicians helped spread awareness.  I think flyers are important so people have something to stick in their pocket and pull out later when they are at home and near a computer.  In those days, you couldn’t view a web site on a mobile phone, so people needed to go home to check it out.  And the Artist pages were important.  If a musician checks out the site and sees their friends up there with a page, it motivates them to get their own page.  After the first year, some of the musicians were very proactive in promoting the site.  I would have to single out Rent Romus as someone who has contributed greatly to the success of the site, both by posting his shows and by recommending to musicians that they contact me to get a page set up.  Many folks have mentioned that they first heard about the site from Rent.

[Improvements On Bay Improviser]

Diego: How do you think that Bay Improviser or rather, the project that it represents -coordinating and spreading the word about performances of musicians- could be improved?

John: I did a major upgrade last year, and at some point I ran out of time and money and had to get a job.  So we didn’t finish some things I wanted to do.  I need to improve the mailing list, for example.  There is not currently much social networking built in to the site, but to be honest, I don’t think BayImproviser.com can compete with Facebook in this area.  So from a technology and features perspective, the site is in pretty good shape.  The current dilemma is in getting the musicians to update their profiles.  This would require a major effort in promotion by me, and I have not had the time to do it.  The site needs more up to date sound files, embedded videos, “favorites” lists, photos, etc.  Hopefully over time we’ll get everything updated.  I would like to have more articles, interviews, concert reviews, etc. on the site.  I plan on contacting some folks who are doing things in this area to see if they want to make their efforts part of the BayImproviser site.  So in general the non-calendar content needs more updates.  I need collaborators to help in these areas.

Diego: One of the main problems I’ve observed in the Bay Area scene is that audience members are very often musicians from within the scene, and that not enough people from outside are coming to the shows; thus the scene (to me) seems to be “sustainable”, to play with an ecological metaphor, but not growing, it is healthy and vibrant but plateaued. Do you have any ideas as to what could help it break through towards other audiences?

John: A lot of the music covered on the site is inherently non-commercial and will never achieve mass popularity.  There is definitely some room for growth, but it’s never going to appeal to a large audience.  There are some shows and musicians who are playing more mainstream (for example, having a drummer keeping time) and these could certainly appeal to a larger audience.  And in fact I’ve seen these shows getting more popular over the last couple of years.  The monthly series at the Make Out room in the Mission in San Francisco has been getting larger turnout, in part because there is usually at least one act playing more accessible music.  It also helps that it’s a bar in the Mission!  So people can get a drink and hang out with their friends while listening to the show.  To be clear, I’m not recommending that people consciously try to make their music more mainstream to get a larger audience.  A better strategy would be to play what they want, but be more outgoing and accessible at the shows.  This would be my main advice to musicians wanting to build a larger audience.  This is a social scene as much as a music scene, so building on the social aspect will be really helpful.

[Finishing Thoughts]

Finally I want to mention is that the coolest thing about BayImproviser.com is not the site itself, but rather the community of musicians and organizers that it covers!  The amount of energy they put in and commitment these folks have to their music is truly amazing.  The live music “new/experimental/avante-garde” scene here in the Bay Area is pretty extraordinary.  In terms of number of events per week, I wonder if there is a city anywhere in the world that has as much?

BayImproviser.com

Contact John Lee

Matt Ingalls has released a new version of the Transbay Calendar iPhone app which presents the BayImproviser/Transbay Calendar optimized for the iPhone. You can find it in the App Store.

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