Jess Knights On Staying Connected In Modern Music

Artists growing in a mid-level market like Calgary’s have a particular set of challenges. They have a selection of respectable clubs and venues to play, a reasonable sized population to perform and market their recordings to, and a community of artists to collaborate with. That said, the population pool isn’t enough to support a full time musical life playing four or five nights a week as a proper world class market like New York or London would, and Alberta is also geographically isolated enough to make touring logistically difficult. 

As such, young, talented, and relatively established musicians like Jess Knights find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Places like Calgary and Edmonton can show an artist that they are talented enough to entertain and pack a room, but they may not be able to support them financially. 

Jess Knights — 52 (1).jpg

SubText caught up with Jess over the phone to hear thoughts on the music industry and making it work in the online era. Her summer saw even more commendable strides after over a decade of actively performing in and around Alberta and Western Canada, as she played the main stage at the Calgary International Blues Festival over August long weekend, and spent time in Toronto recording for a second album’s worth of material, some ten months after her first EP release in October of 2018.

As we chat, Ms. Knights comes across as remarkably self possessed, well spoken and articulate. She may not be a grizzled veteran of the Western Canadian music scene, but she’s been around enough to know the score and have an idea how to make a splash and keep interest high for working artists. More than likely, much of that current exposure and knowledge comes from a full time position working at the National Music Centre as Programming Manager for her 9 to 5.

“The climate is changing as far as music distribution goes,” she explains at one point. “A lot of artists are opting to release singles or EPs to be able to reinvent themselves more frequently with their style or to keep their audience engaged. When releasing an album sometimes it’s harder to leverage singles off that album. So sometimes it’s in artists’ better interest to release singles and keep that engagement on a regular basis rather than saying, ‘Here’s all my songs at once!’”

Cover art for Jess’ 2018 EP   Won’t Wait

Cover art for Jess’ 2018 EP Won’t Wait

It’s a phenomenon linked inextricably to the larger digital internet age we’ve shifted to in the 21st century, and one with equal challenges and benefits, it would seem. 

“The game is so different now. If you don’t play the current game you’ll be left in the dust. Digital streaming platforms, Spotify, they’re capitalizing on artists and in releasing singles you get that instant reward, whereas releasing albums you get that response like, ‘Oh I heard that one single they promoted, but there’s an album?’ It’s harder to get that traction.”

Herein lies one of the problems with creating art in the Internet Age. When content and traffic is paramount, there is some pressure for artists to create more, to ensure there’s more content to share and promote one’s brand. I ask her: is there pressure to make more music simply to ensure she is staying relevant and on the radar? 

“I write because I have to,” is the response. “I try not to write with the goal of release, because I think sometimes that added pressure can stifle your process. If you get in the studio and say ‘I’m gonna write a hit!’ then it just won’t work. For me, the writing process really has to be organic, it has to be without expectation, and it’s usually through the production process, getting together with my producers, that’s when things start to take shape. Then I can say, “this has the potential for commercial success,” and “this one doesn’t but it’s important to me so it could be important to other people,” so I’ll just release it anyway but it’ll be available only online rather than something I push commercially.” 

That subtlety in identifying how to use what songs where strikes me as the type of distinction an artist can only make with a fair amount of experience. It’s one thing to write a tune, it’s another to use it right and play it to truly willing ears. Jess agrees: “I think as a young artists understanding the market is the biggest thing you can do for yourself, knowing when something has the potential to be commercially successful and when something might just have better success with your interior audience on streaming or online digital platforms.” 

“We have to adjust to our climate. I have a full time job, I perform and tour and I take full advantage of that, but I recognize where I fit into this new economy. Not only that, but we as artists are so fortunate in Canada, our government gives out some of the largest amounts of grant funding. You have to be proactive and if you stay on top of it good things can come with time.” 

Listen to old BassBus pal Jess Knights online, and support her live show

Written by James Nason

James Nason