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Pandemic Jazz

Photo: Mark Lennihan.
Emmet Cohen (left), Nicholas Payton, Russell Hall, and Kyle Pool livestreaming one of the weekly jazz concerts Cohen launched from his small apartment when the pandemic struck.

I was listening to Christian McBride hosting “Jazz Night in America” (streaming weekly at WICN, here), and he made me want to learn more about the young musician Emmet Cohen.

Allen Morrison wrote at about Cohen’s pandemic venture at the Guardian: “It’s the most exclusive jazz concert in New York. Only about eight guests can attend the weekly shows, by invitation only, squeezing into the 32-year-old jazz pianist Emmet Cohen’s fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem. Meanwhile, thousands more around the world tune into livestreams of the event on Facebook and YouTube.

“Live From Emmet’s Place started as a near-desperate response to the disappearance of gigs for musicians when the Covid-19 pandemic began. Ninety-four shows later, the weekly concert featuring Cohen, his trio with bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole, and a roster of guest musicians who represent some of the jazz world’s leading lights, has evolved into the most highly watched regular online jazz show in the world.

“Talking on a recent Monday afternoon four hours before showtime, Cohen, a one-time child prodigy who has become one of his generation’s most highly regarded jazz pianists, was chilling in a T-shirt and shorts. At this hour, his one-bedroom apartment seems relatively spacious by New York standards. But that’s only until the technicians – a piano tuner, a sound engineer, a videographer – start arriving and setting up equipment. …

After two and a half years, [it’s] been transformed from a ragtag live shoot using only an iPhone into a hi-tech, multi-camera production with pristine sound.

“The superior production values would count for little if they were not in the service of a charismatic, often dazzling, trio of performers. Partly it’s Cohen’s energy, exceptional musicianship, and likable personality. Partly it’s the appeal of his inclusive brand of jazz, incorporating the entire tradition of the genre from the 1920s to the present day. And partly it’s the joy and esprit de corps with which the trio perform, evident in Cohen’s frequent ear-to-ear grin and the trio’s telepathy.

“At first, the current music scene in Harlem was the central focus of the show. ‘There’s such a high concentration of great musicians living here, right down the block,’ he said, citing regular guests like saxophonists Patrick Bartley and Tivon Pennicott and trumpeter Bruce Harris, all rising jazz stars on the New York scene.

“ ‘There’s a rich history of great jazz musicians living in this area: Billie Holiday lived on the corner, Mary Lou Williams up the street, Thelonious Monk would hang out here … all the stride piano greats would play Harlem rent parties. Duke Ellington and his whole band lived here, Sonny Rollins … So, it just felt very natural to host a Harlem rent party, but an updated, digital, virtual version, where we could invite people in to try to make the rent and get the musicians paid at a time when people were really struggling.’

“These days, Live From Emmet’s Place has an audience that averages about 1,000 fans each Monday night on Facebook and YouTube, but videos of most of the shows, as well as dozens of individual songs, have logged tens of thousands more views on YouTube. One video, featuring the sparkling French-born jazz singer Cyrille Aimee, has racked up 4.6m views.

“ ‘I wanted to figure out how to create an online community where we could play and make money. When you play at [the New York City jazz club] Smalls there are 80 people, if you sell out; at Birdland, 250. When we did the first concert from the apartment on March 22, 2020, after one week the livestream had 40,000 views. For a jazz group to reach that many people requires months, if not years, of touring.’ …

“In its pre-pandemic infancy, the webcast’s unlikely success could scarcely have been imagined. In February 2020, Cohen and the trio were flying high. … ‘Suddenly we had no gigs and no idea when we would play again.

“[The show] quickly became an international ‘communal gathering,’ Cohen said. ‘And community, in a time of hardship, turned out to be the most important thing.’ …

“ ‘When I’m on the road,’ Poole said, ‘people say to me, “I’m part of the Emmet’s Place community.” ‘ …

“ ‘The pandemic caused incredible destruction and dismay, but there was a silver lining,’ Cohen reflected. … ‘The fact that we’re a family, Kyle, Russell and me, showed the brotherhood and what it means to be a band in a time of crisis.’ ”

Live From Emmet’s Place can be viewed most Monday nights at approximately 7:30 PM ET on Facebook and YouTube. More at the Guardian, here. And at NPR, here, you can click on links to several of the musical numbers.

French speakers, Rejoice.

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Photo: The Home Depot.
Easy-care succulent plants are media stars in China.

A new craze in China shows a revealing side of the natural character, including the determination to find online fun that no government could possibly object to. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone objecting — unless the fad were to lead to depletion of the planet’s succulent plants.

Rebecca Tan writes at the Washington Post, “There’s a group of burgeoning new stars on China’s live-streaming scene. They’re painfully photogenic, diverse in age and origin, and offer up vividly different performances as the seasons change.

“Succulents.

“The thick, fleshy plants have been growing in popularity in China for nearly a decade, but only recently collided with live-streaming in e-commerce, a $60 billion industry that got a massive boost during the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people are logging on daily to admire these vegetating celebrities, oohing as chattering hosts turn and twirl them around, showing off blushes of new color, entire centimeters of growth, or — what a treat! — some velvety new leaves.

“ ‘For me, it’s a must-watch every day. I can’t not watch it, I’ll feel like I’m missing something,’ said Yang Weichun, 39, of Zhejiang province. Before live-streaming drew her into a passion for succulents, or ‘duorou’ in Chinese, her phone used to be filled with pictures of her two sons, 13 and 16. Now, her phone has space only for pictures and videos of her several hundred plants, which she scrolls through daily to feel at peace. Unlike teenage boys, she noted, succulents never throw tantrums.

“ ‘My sons say, “mom is silly to buy so many succulents, what is it for?” But when I look at my succulents, these useless things, I feel really happy,’ said Yang, a business executive with 14-hour work days. ‘It’s like unconditional love.’

“Yang is a top client at Gumupai Succulents — one of the many succulent nurseries in the mountainous region of southwest China run by 30-somethings fleeing their former lives in cramped cities. Equipped with selfie sticks and ring lights, these online-only merchants are part of what Chinese media calls ‘new farmers.’

“A former fruit-peddler who auctions off fruit online as ‘Brother Pomegranate‘ garnered 7 million fans. A once-struggling beekeeper found riches through Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

“Succulent sellers have found their success through live-streaming, described by Forbes as ‘the Home Shopping Network, but with charismatic, trendy anchors.’ On platforms like Taobao Live, sellers host videos that last 16 hours a day or more, blurring the lines between commerce, entertainment, and social media.

“Jialu Shan, an economist who studies China’s digital market at the International Institute for Management Development, said live-streaming caught on because it cut out the middleman between buyer and seller, offering more transparency and intimacy in a country often short of both. Instead of relying on Photoshopped or filtered images, buyers can examine products in real time, pose questions to sellers and swap notes with other users. …

“In China, home to nearly 1 billion Internet users, there are some unique outgrowths to traditional plant-rearing.

“Demand is on the rise for ‘succulent fostering,’ merchants say. A growing number of (wealthy) clients want to own succulents but aren’t in a rush to get them right away — or ever, actually. They prefer to outsource the parenting part of plant parenthood, content with watching their wards grow through pictures, videos or maybe the occasional visit.

“According to state-run broadcaster CCTV, more than 80 percent of succulent sellers now provide fostering. One seller told local media that when he started fostering mid-pandemic, he only wanted to take care of a few succulents on behalf of friends in hotter places. Now, he has 5 acres of land and 270,000 foster plants. A 37-year-old seller from Yunnan, who asked to be identified by her live-streaming name Queen of the Strange Flower, said she has 600 clients who have left plants under her care — some for as long as four years. …

“Yang is Gumupai’s biggest foster client, with hundreds of succulents under their care. She wants eventually to retrieve all her dourou — she recently bought a house with a large garden expressly for this purpose, she said — but she’s in no rush. She’s working toward retiring at age 50, at which point, her succulent-rearing skills will be more up-to-mark, she said. And in the meantime, she can see her plants whenever she wants, a collection of pin-sharp pixels on her phone screen.

“ ‘In the past, I wanted to travel and see all of China’s grand rivers and mountains. Now, I don’t have any of that desire at all,’ Yang said. ‘I just want to be in my garden, raising my succulents — just that simple.’ “

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: BT Archive
An advertisement for the London Electrophone Company.

This is where I trot out sayings like “There is no new thing under the sun” and “Everything old is new again.” They may be clichés, but they reflect my delight in learning about a 19th C. invention that foreshadowed the 21st.

Natasha Kitcher, a doctoral researcher in the department of communication and media at Loughborough University, UK, writes about this at the Conversation.

“The idea of streaming live theatre into people’s homes,” she notes, “goes back to the Victorian era. From 1893 to 1925 the London Electrophone Company streamed the sound of live theatre into the home using a telephone device known as an Electrophone.

“Inventors of the time, including Alexander Graham Bell, had looked at the telephone and seen something that could be used to reach large groups of people – they understood that telephone cables could be used to deliver information from one person to many, and not just for one-to-one conversations.

“Music concerts, scientific lectures, church services and theatre shows were ‘streamed’ into the homes of those that could afford it across the country. For those with a smaller budget, listening salons were created. For the first time, you could experience a show without being in the theatre. This was, of course, well before the first live radio broadcast in 1920.

“Made possible thanks to the work of Frenchman Ernest Mercadier (who first patented headphones), the Electrophone used primitive headsets, copied from the French Théâtrophone (although, unlike the Théâtrophone, the Electrophone did not use stereo technology). …

“The Electrophone worked by sending information through telephone wires into a central receiver in the home where one or more headsets could be installed (each additional headset came with an extra cost). The sound listeners heard would be from small microphones secreted behind the footlights at the front of the stage.

In church services the microphones were hidden in fake wooden Bibles.

“Each Electrophone performance was a genuine live show taking place somewhere in the country – most commonly the big London theatres, such as the Adelphi Theatre or Covent Garden Opera. In 1896, the Musical Standard reported users from the time saying they could hear audience members in the theatre ‘rustling like leaves’ during the performance, which was broadcast live as it happened.

“Streaming genuine live shows meant that the listener at home experienced the start, end and [intermission] of a show just as if they were there. If someone slipped up or forgot a line, this would be just as obvious to audience members listening on headphones as it was to those inside the theatre. And Electrophone listeners could enjoy the experience of finding out ‘whodunit’ at the same time as audience members sitting in the stalls.

“The Electrophone cost £5 [$6.60] a year when it was first available for subscription in the 1890s – equivalent to around £120 [$158] today – and the unobtrusive nature of the technology involved meant that there was no need to reduce the size of the theatre audience. The London Electrophone Company paid for the technology to be installed in the theatre, the National Telephone Company (later the Post Office) would pay for the upkeep of the telephone lines and the theatre would receive a share of the Electrophone Company’s profits – exact records of how profits were shared are yet to be uncovered.

“Subscribers could pay an additional fee to be connected to a theatre for the season, such as the Covent Garden winter season. The high cost of the Electrophone (much more than a Netflix subscription today) almost certainly meant it was mainly used by the wealthy, but sets installed in hotels, public gardens and exhibitions were operated by the use of coin slots and, for a smaller fee, people could listen to snippets of live theatre and musical broadcast.

“People unable to attend the theatre, for whatever reason, could listen at home – just as French novelist Marcel Proust did in the early 20th century when he was too sick to make it out of his house.”

More here.

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06blockbuster-jumbo-v2

Photo: Ryan Brennecke/The Bulletin, via Associated Press
The Blockbuster store in Bend, Ore., has 4,000 account holders and adds a few new ones every day.

As people turn away from “old media” toward ever evolving “new media,” the oldsters who are able to hang on sometimes do really well. That seems to be the case in this Last One Standing story.

Tiffany Hsu of the New York Times wrote in March, “There are only two Blockbuster stores left in the world. Very soon, there will only be one.

“The second-to-last Blockbuster, a squat blue-and-yellow slab wedged next to a real estate agency in Western Australia, will stop renting videos on [March 7] and shut down for good at the end of the month. Two stores in Alaska, part of the final group of Blockbuster outlets in the United States, closed in July.

“That will make the Blockbuster in Bend, Ore., one of a kind: a corporate remnant, just off the highway, near a cannabis retailer and a pet cremation service.

“But this is no elegy for Blockbuster, no lament for how Netflix killed the video star. … This is about the ability of the Bend store, like sturdy links in other dying chains, to live on and avoid being turned into a pawnshop or a fast-food restaurant.

“Some Tower Records stores still thrive in Japan long after their parent company declared bankruptcy and closed all of its American stores. There is a Howard Johnson’s in Lake George, N.Y., that is the lone survivor of what was once the country’s largest restaurant chain. Such holdouts have bucked the norm in the retail and restaurant industries, which have shed stores by the hundreds in recent years. …

“When Sandi Harding, the general manager of Bend’s Blockbuster store, heard that she would be running what is effectively the Lonesome George of video-rental chains, she posted a giddy message on Facebook: ‘Holy Cow it’s exciting.’

“The Bend store became a Blockbuster franchise in 2000. It has about 4,000 active accounts and signs up a few fresh ones each day, Ms. Harding said. Some of the new customers are tourists who have traveled hours out of their way to stop in. …

“ ‘It’s almost re-energized us, that we’re the last one,’ Ms. Harding said in an interview. ‘They treat us like celebrities.’

“A local beer maker, 10 Barrel Brewing, crafted a special beer, the Last Blockbuster, and served it at a party at the store. Two filmmakers raised nearly $40,000 on Kickstarter to finish a documentary about the location.

“One possible explanation for the store’s long life: Bend is in a region that the city’s mayor, Sally Russell, describes as having ‘huge expanses with really small communities’ that often do not have easy access to the high-speed internet necessary for content streaming. …

“ ‘It’s like with old vinyl, and how everyone wants to have turntables again,’ she said. ‘We get to a place where something out of date comes back in — there’s definitely interest in keeping this almost-extinct way of enjoying movies alive.'”

More at the New York Times, here.

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