Saturday, May 30, 2009

The State of Jazz Today.

There has been a lot written about the health (or lack thereof) jazz in this country and around the world. This concern was heightened because of the news out of New York that The JVC New York Jazz Festival was canceled this year for the first time in 37 years. Coupled with the recent demise of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE), the cause for concern among jazz fans was understandably heightened.

Yes, the health of jazz should be questioned. it really a bad thing that the major festival in New York was canceled?
It is clear the current approach for jazz marketing/ promotion has caused the demise of the music. Unfortunately artists, critics, and promoters became very comfortable with the state of affairs; they were very comfortable with the idea that the "big names" could go to one or two major festivals a year either here or in Europe and be paid handsomely. They no longer needed to take road trips through all the smaller cities here in this country. The problem is that once the musicians stopped visiting all the smaller towns, interest overall in the music waned.

Radio stations started to change with the lack of exposure to live jazz locally; and there was no inherent fan base to protest. The festivals had become the major way for the "name" artists to disseminate their music. The problem with all festivals (and as was stated previously), is that it gave the artists and audience a false sense of security. The artists were paid exorbitant fees, and the fans saw the artists at reduced prices or free because of sponsorships. Well lo and behold, the sponsors controlled the music.
NYC just found out about that when the major sponsors pulled out of the JVC festival in NY; the first time NY will be without a major festival in 37 years. The fans will not pay the actual ticket price needed to pay the artist's fees. So the music cannot be supported in its current form and structure. The ticket fees paid must be able to support the artist. If 200 people are willing to pay $50 per ticket for a certain artist, then a $10,000 fee is justified. Unfortunately, with the lack of radio airplay, and lack of local media interest (for example, the Los Angeles Times recently dropped any coverage of jazz music or jazz musicians), there is a huge educational curve for the public in regards to the jazz artists that marketing techniques cannot overcome. Finding 200 people in a small market to pay $50 for an artist, no matter how heralded, is not feasible with the current state of the music.

The jazz musicians will state that the market in Europe is strong, and indeed there appears to be larger groups of fans in Europe. But let's examine the reason for this. It is clear that the arts in general and jazz in particular benefit from governmental subsidies; much more so than can be depended on in the US. If there were no subsidies, then the opportunities found in Europe would be much less. Concurrently, the opportunities to hear the music would be less, and the music there would be in the same shape as here. The same economic factors playing out here in this country are operating all over Europe and the world.

I submit there are still great numbers of jazz fans, only an increasingly smaller number willing to pay for the privilege to listen. What is the solution? Exposure. If this music is exposed to the young people, they will listen and appreciate it. It is a misnomer to think that the music is too complicated for the young people to understand; there is essentially no difference between the youth of the early 30's and today. (or of the 50's for that matter). Kids will listen if they are exposed to it. Bottom line, we have to develop a new market for the music.

Kids that most of America wrote off in this last election cycle propelled Obama to victory. The same thing can and must happen in jazz. Now before you consider me naive and out of touch with "the real jazz world", it is quite clear the current approach is not working. No one is too big to fail; not General Motors, Chrysler, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, David Sanborn on anyone else. There must be a fundamental restructuring of how jazz is funded; the days of $40,000 artists and festival money is over. The artists might still be able to command those fees individually, but if they are really about the music surviving, they would realize how important it is to perform in smaller venues for lesser fees. This will insure the music begins to become popular again. There is no overnight fix for this. But unless we continue to reach out to the youth, and show them that this music is vibrant, not ancient, we will lose this battle for good. Then you will have the proverbial "greatest solo never heard".

There is also a movement among some to provide alternative forms of Jazz in order to boost the popularity. There is inherently nothing wrong with that approach, as long as the music maintains the essential elements of jazz. Improvisation is a must, and the energy levels and "soul" must be preserved. The contemporary efforts of artists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Kirk Whalum, Gerald Albright, and others have maintained the essential elements of jazz. Unfortunately so-called "Smooth Jazz", depending on the artist, fails in this fundamental test of the music.
In my opinion, jazz music in all of its valid forms can and will be embraced by new fans around the world.

Bottom line: the "stars" and other representatives of the music must make their music more accessible to fans around the country. Yes, this will result in smaller performance fees initially, but as the audiences rebuild for jazz in general, all of jazz will benefit from the increasing exposure and popularity.
The $40,000 question is:
Will the current "stars" of the music be willing to contribute to the overall health of the music by touring in venues that fans can afford?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Rush Limbaugh and Jazz?

Ordinarily, there could be no obvious connection between the Rush Limbaugh, and jazz, specifically in America. But there is. And it's not good.

First, some background. Prior to 1996, the radio airwaves were tightly controlled by the FCC. There were provisions that prevented monopolies from forming; to insure diversity on the airwaves.
All of this changed in 1996. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act was signed into law. This law deregulated the industry; specifically it removed the statutes that prohibited one company from owning more than 3 radio/tv stations in any market. The original intent of the law was supposedly to spur competition and provide more diversity. In reality, the opposite occurred.
The old regulations allowed for smaller (niche) radio operators to be in the marketplace. The new rules allowed broadcasting behemoths like Clear Channel, Viacom, Salem Communications, Radio One, and other large operators to dominate a market. Instead of spurring competition, the large companies consolidated their positions, becoming bigger and bigger. bottom line is that deregulation has caused the lack of diversity on the radio waves:
(Cut, copy and paste links)

So what does have to do with jazz? Have you listened to your local radio choices lately? There is much more syndicated programming; the Dayton Jazz station just changed formats. That means there are NO jazz stations anywhere in the Cincinnati/Tri-state. (No, the "Smooth music station at 1480am Cincinnati doesn't count). The reason there is a lack of diversity is because three or four conglomerates dominate every market. So there is no chance for jazz stations to survive, even if there were listener and advertiser support.

One of the behemoths is Clear Channel. Clear Channel is going through profound financial difficulties; the local sports talk radio station (1530 Homer)fired all but one of their on air personalities. Radio One went through a similar consolidation with their talk radio; now programming more syndicated shows at the expense of the local on-air personalities.

Well, what does Rush Limbaugh have to do with it? At a time when Clear Channel is going through a profound financial crisis, causing more jazz programming to go off the air, they signed Rush Limbaugh to an exorbitant contract with a $100 MILLION Bonus!!!
(Cut, Copy and paste link)

So, while Clear Channel withers on the vine, canning local on-air personalities, and virtually eliminating jazz from the musical landscape, they are letting Limbaugh get fat (literally) off the resources of the company. That is deregulation in a nutshell; choking the diversity out of the musical landscape.
I suspect there is a certain amount of irony. Clear Channel has not only spawned Rush Limbaugh; they have spawned other "commentators" like Bill Cunningham in Cincinnati, and Michael Savage nationally. Now it seems that the king "commentator" of all, Limbaugh, may be directly contributing to the instability of the company.
Poetic justice.

What about the internet? Prior to 2006, there were a multitude of internet stations; allowing niche markets to expand exponentially. this all changed in 2006 with the institution of increased royalty fees; spurred on by the big Radio Companies. This essentially shut down most of the smaller internet radio operators; decreasing the diversity of music.

In some markets, NPR, (public radio) is an option. Not in this market, save for WGUC digital channel 2.

What is the solution? It is imperative that we as musicians, promoters, and fans reach the next generation; to introduce and encourage jazz music among our young people! Take the time to introduce as many young people to jazz as possible. Use iPods, other mp3 players, and other novel ways of distributing the music. But make sure the kids get the music.
During the recent Presidential campaign, President Obama reached out to the youth through the internet. Now it is documented that only 27% of the country call themselves Republicans. Younger people have decided to follow the Democratic party in droves; this portends to change the electoral landscape for years to come.
We can do the same thing in jazz. By getting the kids involved early, we can literally change the musical landscape; rendering Clear Channel irrelevant.

And, by the way, make Clear Channel, Salem, and others who are responsible for the reprehensible state of our music, pay for their transgressions by boycotting their advertisers. (especially Limbaugh advertisers).

Now...go out and hear some live jazz!!!