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How to Succeed in Arts Management Without Compromising Your Values
When I was in college, I went to a cowboy bar in San Jose where young Randall Kline had convinced the owners to let him promote jazz music on Mondays.
I still recall my dismay that evening, sitting at a table watching Joanne Brackeen’s trio play a sizzling hot set—and wishing the bartender would turn off Monday Night Football on the big-screen TV. He never did. Those crusty bar regulars would have caused a ruckus.
I don’t think they liked the jazz music much, or the small cadre of fans who had come out to listen to the band. But they weren’t going to let it ruin their evening of hard drinking and rooting for their team.
That's where Randall Kline started.
And now? Somehow he grew from those humble roots into the founder and artistic director of the preeminent West Coast jazz organization, SFJAZZ, which operates a $65 million showcase concert facility in the heart of San Francisco's Civic Center.
But one thing hasn’t changed: Randall still presents creative music of high artistry with no compromises or attempts to jump on trends and bandwagons. And the band no longer has to compete with Cowboys and Lions and Bears.
I’ve just learned that Randall has announced his retirement from SFJAZZ. I’m not sure what his plans are for the next phase of his life, but I would love to see him teach other organizations how to promote music and cultural events. Because I haven’t met anyone who has done it better.
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People often tell me that you can't really promote jazz or other sophisticated art forms without making compromises. They explain that you need to bring in rock bands and other commercial acts, and embrace a range of other gimmicks and marketing tricks, just to keep with the times and stay afloat. Some jazz festivals even book entire line-ups without a single jazz musician—that seems like a dirty trick, no? If you ask them why, they will tell you they don’t really have a choice. They’re merely accepting reality.
But look at SFJAZZ, and you see that even in the toughest environments, there's a way to flourish while remaining faithful to your core mission and doing the right thing.
And nothing has been tougher than music event promotion during the last two years. It's testimony to Randall's dedication that he brought his organization safely through the pandemic crisis before letting himself step aside. But who can fill those shoes?
And, even more to the point, what’s his secret? How did he built SFJAZZ from nothing?
There are only a handful of long-term success stories in jazz management, but almost every one of them is built on a leader with strong principles—almost to an extreme degree. Consider the case of Manfred Eicher, who has thrived for a half-century at ECM, while so many other labels have come and gone.
The irony is that these failed competitors thought they were more pragmatic and market-driven than Eicher, more willing to adapt to the times, and follow the most promising trends. It must be bitterly disappointing for them to watch this stubborn German entrepreneur find success where they have failed—and by the outrageous method of staying absolutely committed to his core values.
That shouldn’t be allowed. What’s the point of selling out, if it doesn’t get rewarded?
Randall Kline and SFJAZZ teach us the same lesson. This organization has thrived by gaining the trust of audiences, donors, musicians, city officials, and a wide range of other stakeholders. And you don’t gain and retain that trust without having an absolutely rock solid vision of who you are, what you do, and how you do it.
I fear that lesson is lost in the noise of arts management as it is currently taught and practiced.
Then again, if I hadn't seen it happen in San Francisco, I might not think it were possible. But seeing is believing. It started in a dismal cowboy bar, and now it’s the beacon for jazz on the West Coast.
He did all this during a period when jazz had almost disappeared from mainstream American culture. In one of our conversations, Randall addressed this challenge—but, in a characteristic manner, refused to accept it as an obstacle.
“I have been asked how I can hope to succeed when others haven’t. But I never thought there was a fixed limit to the jazz audience. I hate the phrase ‘Keep Jazz Alive.’ You hear that during pledge drives and fund-raising campaigns. Jazz couldn’t be more alive than it is right now. The goal is to push forward, not look back.”
I'm sorry to see Randall go. But let’s use this occasion to celebrate what he's done—and try to learn from it. And, please, whoever takes over at SFJAZZ in his place, don’t abandon the vision that made its success possible in the first place.