Maria Schneider: Is There Anybody Out There?

“The data lords are gathering data and giving it to organizations that then manipulate us with the things they know about us, things that we don’t even know about ourselves,” says five-time Grammy Award–winning composer, conductor, producer, and band leader Maria Schneider. “They give our data to any company that’ll pay for it to manipulate you, specifically targeting your vulnerabilities. It takes away freedom of thought, a true discourse where people are thinking for themselves. Count me out.”

The Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra’s new double album, Data Lords (ArtistShare), addresses surveillance, corporate overreach, and governmental failure to deal effectively with social media platforms, making a musical case that these data-gathering machines abuse our rights while reaping millions.


“I grew up in Windom, Minnesota,” Schneider says. “We were surrounded by farmland. My dad was an engineer and he designed machinery for processing flax. He held quite a few patents. He invented things that are still used on every combine to this day for processing flax straw. So, I understood the idea of creating something and pride of ownership.”

Over the course of eight albums (four released on the independent, pro-artist label, ArtistShare), Schneider has become a fierce activist for musicians’ rights and copyright. In 2014, she spoke at a hearing on Section 512 of Title 17 before the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet (footnote 1). “My livelihood is being threatened by illegal distribution of my work that I cannot rein in,” she told the subcommittee. “The DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] creates an upside-down world in which people can illegally upload my music in a matter of seconds. … It’s a world with no consequences for big data businesses that profit handsomely from unauthorized content, but with real-world financial harm for me and my fellow creators.”

Beyond her role illuminating the infringing power and abuse of the data lords, Schneider makes music—and that music is a wonder. Schneider is, arguably, the world’s finest exponent of the jazz orchestra, which she learned at the hand of no less a master than Gil Evans.


Schneider’s ninth album, Data Lords, is available as a double CD or hi-rez files, from ArtistShare. It’s a stunning work, a work of deep beauty, nightmarish tableaux, penetrating dynamics, pastoral visions, and composing brilliance. Like a single organism singing in broad swaths of tone, color, and dynamics, Schneider’s orchestra—most of the members have been with her since 1993, when she held a residency at Greenwich Village club Visiones—comprises some of New York’s finest musicians, including tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson, and pianist Frank Kimbrough.

Disc 1, The Digital World, frames the issue: “Today, in blank or bleak moments, we all instantly grab for the companionship of a device to fill a vacuum with prefabricated entertainment, behind which some camouflaged company stalks every nuance of our (or our child’s) behavior to manipulate us downstream”; that’s from Schneider’s liner notes.

Disc 2, Our Natural World, reflects Schneider’s rural upbringing and its sounds of nature and feelings of ranquility. About the disc’s final song, “The Sun Waited for Me,” Schneider wrote, “[there exists] the simple and reassuring truth that the sun and everything in this world is there waiting for us—patiently and loyally. To feel its power, we just need to make the choice to get up, go out, look up and connect to its magnificence.”

Ken Micallef: The title of your new album, Data Lords, sounds ancient, yet also modern.

Maria Schneider: It’s like they’re the lords and we’re the serfs. We’re just little workers to get the [data companies] more data so that they can control us and get more power and more data while making us feel like this is all for us, but it’s really not. And it’s anything but democratic. It’s the epitome of corporate greed and surveillance. They use phrases like “fair use” and “freedom of speech,” but they’re the opposite.

Micallef: How did these ideas come to motivate you?

Schneider: At the beginning of the internet, I was so excited, because I had started using ArtistShare, and the internet gave me the freedom to sell directly to people, to know my audience and build these relationships. But suddenly, when everything started being on YouTube and available via Google search, you couldn’t control it. The absurdity is, the laws that protect this, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, were made in 1998. These companies developed their models, sneaking around the law so that nothing could trap them. YouTube claims, “We’re not a publisher; we’re just a platform.” If your music is posted on YouTube, you have to take it down yourself. If you put my music up, they don’t ask you one single question. But when I want to take it down, I must swear under penalty of perjury that it’s mine. YouTube wanted everything to be free. If you’re protecting your work, they come at you like you’re a vicious Luddite. They’ve created this culture where nobody wants to pay anything for music. Their idea of a legitimate company is Spotify. Really? Where 90% of the music is splitting 1% of the financial pie? It’s ridiculous.


Micallef: What does ArtistShare give you that other labels do not?

Schneider: ArtistShare gives me complete transparency, so, everybody who buys my music, I know who they are, and I can connect with them on an ongoing basis. ArtistShare affords me to be part of the free-market economy, which in the USA, last time I looked, is still a free market—unless you’re a musician. On YouTube or Spotify or on any of these services, they set the price, which is tied to how many plays you get. It doesn’t matter if, like me, you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a record, or if you’re a kid making music in your bedroom. We’re all priced the same. Then they decide what they can pay each person for each play. With ArtistShare, I can change the price of my music or I can give it away for free. It’s a willing buyer/willing seller economy.

Micallef: Disc 1 of Data Lords sounds ominous, dark, foreboding. Disc 2 is more pastoral, calming, and tranquil. Is this dichotomy contrasting a possibly dark AI future with a human-centered, rural past?

Schneider: Absolutely. The internet draws us all in, it sucks us out of ourselves. It’s more stimulation and contact and information than any human can handle. When I was young, I had swaths of silence. Before email, I devoted time to sitting in silence, thinking about music, pondering music. My touchpoints in the world were with people, with music, discourse around a dinner table. So, I sometimes find myself having to kick the world of the internet away, turn it off. I’m drowning. Then I find myself out in nature or reconnecting with poetry, talking with people, or sitting outside in silence. Really listening to music, things that inspire other music.

Micallef: Do you write on piano? Do you score using Sibelius?

Schneider: I do everything pencil and paper. I work largely at a piano. I’m super old school.


Micallef: Why two separate works?

Schneider: Right around the time I testified before Congress, when I was getting just hot and angry over Google, I wrote this music that was disparate, so yin and yang. A friend said, why don’t you make two records? So, Data Lords is two records showing the two faces of what so many of us are struggling with.

Micallef: Your band never swings in a conventional sense. Why is that?

Schneider: As much as I grew up just loving Count Basie and Thad Jones and Ellington and all that, from a rhythmic standpoint, my music, it’s taken kind of other directions.

Micallef: And yet, you seem to use rubato a lot as kind of a color. Am I right?

Schneider: Yeah. That might’ve come in too with drummer Clarence Penn, this idea that the big band doesn’t have to be something that’s always just chugging along in an unchangeable time. I also love classical music and the play of time—faster, slower. And so, pieces like “Sputnik” on Data Lords, there’s no time per se in that song.

Footnote 1: Enacted in 1998 as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Section 512 established a system for copyright owners and online entities to address online copyright infringement.

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