By Gabrielle Bohrman
Samara Joy McLendon. Photo courtesy of her website.
Jazz vocalist Samara Joy McLendon is no stranger to high-profile performances. So, when her professor asked her to acknowledge a recent scholarship benefactor by recording a video at home recently, she wasn’t expecting anything beyond a thank-you. To her amazement, the video received 4,000 Facebook views by the next morning. In just four days, this grew to more than a million and included Tony-Award-winner Audra McDonald.
The Purchase College senior has sung in front of packed audiences at prestigious New York City venues, including the Blue Note and Smalls Jazz Club. This time, she sang a single song to a computer screen in her Yonkers living room. The results changed her career.
“It was shocking because I approached the video more like an assignment,” McLendon said. “I didn’t think it would be seen on an international level.”
Viewers from Italy to the Philippines reached out to her from around the world on Facebook. Her mailing list mushroomed and her Instagram following tripled. Capitalizing on the viral moment, McLendon launched a GoFundMe campaign to finance her first album and is only $200 away from her $8,000 goal.
Now at 1.5-million views, McLendon’s video proves that fresh artistic content can go viral during the virus pandemic, when getting seen online matters more than ever. With the live-performance industry on an indefinite hiatus, livestreamed concerts are crucial for musicians who want to continue engaging their fans.
“The constraints posed by the pandemic have forced all artists to promote more content online and that ratchets up the clutter factor—it's a direct effect of social distancing,” said Stephanie Kellar, who teaches music business and management at Berklee School of Music.
Sprout Social, a social media analytics tool, reported that media and entertainment companies increased their social-media posts by an average of 8.9 a day in late March. Less established artists faced a steeper learning curve compared to industry giants like Live Nation Entertainment.
Kellar said that while there is no secret formula to going viral, most viral videos contain something that is universally appealing.
“What I think is extraordinary about this video is that this artist is straight-up standard, classic jazz,” Kellar said. “You could be the most talented artist in your genre, but if your genre is so narrowly defined that it becomes a niche, that's going to make it more difficult for you.”
Jazz is far from the most popular music genre and has a much smaller audience market than pop or R&B. According to Nielsen Music’s 2019 Year-End Report, jazz accounted for only 1.1% of total U.S music consumption and 0.3% of video streams.
Pete Malinverni, who accompanied McLendon on the piano, believes their video’s unaffected nature contributed to its popularity. Malinverni, head of jazz studies at Purchase, helps choose the annual Ella Fitzgerald Scholars, a tuition-free scholarship for jazz-voice majors from the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation which McLendon received in July.
To thank the foundation, Malinverni asked her to record a Fitzgerald song with him. The two filmed their parts separately and edited the videos to play side-by-side. The final result had the old-school charm of the great jazz piano/vocal duets, such as Billie Holiday and Bobby Tucker.
“A lot of the stuff that gets posted today is super-produced, and pitch-corrected, with all kinds of backing tracks,” Malinverni said. “This is just two people singing and playing an instrument. And I think there’s something about that which lands more righteously with people.”
McLendon sang Duke Ellington’s 1947 “Take Love Easy,” later popularized by Ella Fitzgerald in 1973. Alpha Data, Rolling Stone’s data provider, noted an increase in “chill” music streams since the start of the pandemic. According to a Chartmetrics report, people preferred relaxing music during uncertain times.
“I think the song had a really good message for us right now,” said Alexis Cole, who runs Purchase College’s Jazz Voice program and trains McLendon. “And I think Samara strikes a chord in people. They love her sweetness and genuineness.”
After receiving numerous requests from new fans who wanted to hear more of her singing, McLendon started a campaign to fund an EP and, within three days, her crowdfunding efforts exceeded her original $4,000 goal. So, she shifted her goal to a full-length album of jazz standards. She has already enlisted several collaborators, including jazz drummer Kenny “The Jazz Maniac” Washington and Grammy-nominated producer Matt Pierson. She’ll record at Sears Studios Oct. 23 and hopes to promote the album on tour next summer if clubs reopen.
“If I was performing at Mezzrow, or Small’s or Dizzy’s, I would only be influencing the people in front of me, not necessarily those around the world,” McLendon said, acknowledging her new outlook on virtual performances. “Every performance is one you should approach with integrity because you never know who is going to see it.”
About the Author:
Gabrielle Bohrman is a senior Arts Management and Journalism Major. Prior to attending Purchase College, she danced professionally with the Orlando and Richmond Ballet. She has interned at the Performing Arts Center, The Stood, and the Neuberger Museum on campus and is excited to contribute to The Beat this semester.