Supporting jazz music and musicians through a digital membership model
SFJAZZ is a nonprofit presenting and education organization dedicated to developing the audience for jazz in its home community in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world. SFJAZZ has invested in creating digital content for more than a decade, recording live performances at the SFJAZZ Center, which opened in 2013 and includes two concert venues, classrooms, a digital lab, and meeting rooms and offices.
When its venue closed due to the pandemic, SFJAZZ was able to quickly launch its digital offerings due to its extensive archive of high-quality recordings of performances made at the SFJAZZ Center. ”COVID did not so much provide the opportunity, because we were ready, but it was a significant accelerant,” says Greg Stern, SFJAZZ CEO. “We had the platform, the content, and very quickly launched an initial product offering initially called Fridays at Five, a jazz performance from the SFJAZZ archives, streaming each Friday at 5pm.”
To support Fridays at Five, SFJAZZ created a digital membership level that allows viewers unlimited access to these live performances for $50 annually. SFJAZZ gained 15,000 new members during COVID, more than 60 percent from outside the Bay Area, a targeted objective during the pandemic. When rights are cleared, performances remain archived on the SFJAZZ website for some weeks, often behind an additional paywall. SFJAZZ also created a digital “tip jar” called the 50-50 Fund, inviting audiences to help support the artists on the digital stage during the pandemic lockdown. The Fund generated over $600,000 for artists in 2020-21.
The SFJAZZ digital platform quickly expanded with behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, rehearsals, and other video content, as well as integration with the organization’s YouTube channel, which serves as promotion for the digital offerings available only to SFJAZZ members. Additionally, many of the organization’s educational offerings became available in a digital format, including its digital lab and production courses.
The SFJAZZ Center has reopened for in-person performances and events, using staff who now are essentially managing three venues: two performance spaces at the Center and the virtual performance platform. The digital effort is undergoing a reset, says Stern. “We are looking at this as a start-up and analyzing what investment will be needed to break even in two to three years.” The financial model will take into account the full costs of producing digital offerings and will look at the revenue mix needed to support the efforts. Meanwhile, a visit to the SFJAZZ website shows a refreshed app available on all platforms, multiple ticketed events with digital tickets available, the Fridays Live series, and special events and programs for digital members.
SFJAZZ has also expanded its online education programs, aiming to reach more of the middle school students that are the target audience for Jazz in the Middle (JIM). Established in 2001, JIM is an in-person program that places jazz musicians and poets into middle school humanities classrooms to explore jazz history through social, historical, and creative lenses. A robust online application of the JIM program could greatly expand the number of students reached and include geographies beyond the Bay Area. For adults, SFJAZZ offers online masterclasses, instruction in software and recording processes, lectures, workshops, and more, all designed for current and future musicians.
Taken together, SFJAZZ’s robust program of in-person and digital performances and educational offerings are helping to encourage students, families, audiences, and artists to perform, share, understand, and appreciate jazz. And, what was once a unique Bay Area center for jazz is becoming an essential digital hub for jazz fans and musicians everywhere.