Maria Schneider, a composer in the jazz genre, shared that David Bowie’s influence on her was significant, although not necessarily in a positive way.

Maria Schneider, a composer in the jazz genre, shared that David Bowie’s influence on her was significant, although not necessarily in a positive way.

Maria Schneider is one of the world’s most distinguished composers for jazz orchestra, a key collaborator for David Bowie and a seven-time Grammy winner – but it’s likely that you won’t have heard her work, and never will. This is entirely by design.

During the early 2000s, Schneider was outraged by the practice of illegal filesharing. However, now at 63 years old, she is focused on challenging streaming platforms. She believes that business models based on data exchange pose a danger to democracy, ideas, and creativity.

In 2014, Schneider spoke to the US Congress about the ongoing struggle of removing her music from filesharing websites. She has since taken legal action, including a three-year fight to allow small copyright holders access to YouTube’s content ID system in order to identify videos that violate copyright laws. However, this lawsuit was dismissed in June 2023, shortly before it was set to go to trial.

It’s not unexpected that the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s 30th anniversary compilation, titled Decades, is not accessible for streaming or purchase in record stores. Instead, the album can only be obtained through the crowdfunding platform ArtistShare, which Schneider has utilized for over 20 years.

The musician, who is also a conductor and pianist, started promoting her cause in response to the emergence of websites like Napster and Limewire that provided free music downloads. She recalls people suggesting that all musicians should give their music away for free, but she disagrees, emphasizing the immense financial and emotional effort that goes into creating music.

Schneider has been making these points for two decades, but her anger is undimmed. Speaking on video from her home in New York, in front of an imposing bookshelf featuring some of her Grammys, she speaks in tumbling sentences, her voice breaking on occasion as an argument reaches its peak.

In response to filesharing, music producer Brian Camelio founded ArtistShare in 2000, with artist Schneider as its first member. In addition to providing fair compensation for artists and increasing transparency about music consumption, fans who pre-ordered music would also get a glimpse into the creative process of the musicians.

Maria Schneider in the studio in 1992 at a recording session for her debut album, the Grammy-nominated Evanescence.View image in fullscreen

Schneider’s experience involved the process of creating, which can be a solitary and difficult task. She describes the struggle of not having any ideas, comparing it to the feeling of being at the end of the world. One evening, her father called her after keeping up with her progress and expressed concern. He questioned, “Who would want to purchase from someone who admits they don’t know how to write?”

However, she successfully overcame obstacles and in 2005, her album Concert in the Garden made history as the first album to be funded by fans, and the first to be released exclusively on the internet, to win a Grammy. Despite this achievement, ArtistShare did not gain widespread popularity and many may view it as outdated. According to Schneider, being a musician now means being invisible unless you give away your music for free. As of today, she is among a small group of musicians, such as Joanna Newsom, who have chosen to not make their music available on streaming sites. This decision comes with the trade-off of limited visibility in exchange for the opportunity to earn a fair living solely through their art.

According to the individual, many people work for companies that understood the power of music and movies in attracting viewers. They used these forms of entertainment as bait to collect data and then use it for targeted advertising. The individual specifically criticizes Spotify for being more focused on data than music. They mention an employee who stated that data analysts made up the majority of the company’s early staff. The individual believes that any exchange of personal data for music should be taxed, stating that it is an exchange of valuable items. However, they would prefer if music was not tainted by these exchanges and valued differently.

She expresses her disappointment that many musicians simply accepted this situation, but she never gave up. If more musicians had taken a stand like she did, things would be different.

Maria Schneider and the Norwegian band Ensemble Denada perform at the Jazzaldia jazz festival, San Sebastián, in 2019.

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Schneider was raised on the outskirts of Windom, a small town in rural Minnesota. She fondly recalls her childhood in this seemingly isolated place, where she felt it was the center of everything. The vast open landscape allowed her imagination to roam freely, often daydreaming of passing cars containing talent scouts from New York who could hear her practicing piano. Looking back, Schneider recognizes the absurdity of these thoughts, but also acknowledges how the vastness of her surroundings sparked her creativity.

Her early musical memories are precise, like the first time she heard the crunchy, sharp 11 chord that later would become an important harmonic colour in her compositional palette. “It was like tasting a pickle for the first time: at first eww, and then ooh.” Early experiences of flying – with her father, who had a small company aircraft for his job in agriculture – would also shape her music, which cycles through feelings of acceleration, taking off, coasting, reflection, deceleration and landing.

Schneider’s music has a topographical quality to it. Her album, The Thompson Fields, draws inspiration from the landscapes of Minnesota and her work as a whole feels like a vast landscape. Instead of individual band members taking turns to play solos, Schneider seamlessly blends her ensemble to create a continuous flow of sound. She credits jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer with this approach and also mentions Gil Evans, who mentored her and was known for his work on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. Both Brookmeyer and Evans challenged traditional big band structures and encouraged improvisation. Schneider explains that she wants her music to bring the focus away from individual performances and into a collective experience.

Later on, Schneider joined forces with David Bowie in the “us” area. Bowie, who had been exposed to her orchestra in New York and appreciated her earlier, more melancholic music, visited her apartment in 2014 with the intention of working together on a song. Despite having some moody ideas but no words, Schneider inquired about the possible theme of the song. Bowie responded with a wide grin, “Who knows, maybe vampires?”

Schneider recalls that David preferred a dark tone and I followed suit. This led to the release of the single Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) in 2014, which was included on Bowie’s last album Blackstar. This marked a change for Schneider, who credits Bowie for inspiring her to return to a grittier sound that she had been avoiding in her recent work.

“When David entered the scene, he proved that darkness can be enjoyable,” she recalls. Right after Schneider completed The Thompson Fields – the height of her peaceful and distinctly ungritty musical period – Sue came on the radio. “It was such a contrast. I sent an email to David asking: ‘What have you done to me?’ He responded: ‘My mission here is accomplished.'”

She expresses, “I feel like he deeply affected me,” and perhaps not positively. When she utilized that emotion in her own musical pieces, there was a noticeable presence of fury: her works Data Lords from 2016 and Don’t Be Evil from 2017, which sarcastically alludes to Google’s previous unofficial motto.

Listening to Decades, you are struck by a body of work that thrills even throughout its bleakest passages – those knotty works that an algorithm may well ignore. In the liner notes, Schneider writes: “Even after all these years of writing, it’s still a mystery how written music, combined with performance, can impart the very essence of one’s emotional experience while creating the piece. One thing I know is AI won’t manage that.”

Maria Schneider’s album Decades is available for purchase on