‘It Can’t Be Done’: The Difficulty Of Growing A Jazz Audience

Last week, we published a much-discussed blog post about the connection — or lack thereof — between jazz education and the development of new audiences. It examined a viewpoint by pianist, composer and music professor Kurt Ellenberger, and concluded by challenging Ellenberger to suggest some ways to win new audiences. Here is Ellenberger’s response. –Ed.

Since my Huffington Post article on jazz education and audience development, many (including this very blog) have asked “Well, if education isn’t the answer, what’s the solution? How do we develop and maintain a strong jazz audience?”

Audience development is a complicated issue, and it’s not limited to jazz. Every artist and arts organization is trying to answer the same question. We’ve identified a problem and we’re going to “build” something to solve it. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

It’s not simple. It’s so complex, in fact, that I think that the question itself is actually a linguistic deception, a euphemism perhaps, that cleverly masks the enormity of the task. When we ask “How do we develop and maintain a strong jazz audience?” what we are really saying is “How can we convince millions of people to alter and expand their aesthetic sensibilities and their cultural proclivities so that they include jazz to such an extent that they will regularly attend concerts and purchase recordings?” And that statement itself is embedded within another Herculean task: “How can we convince people to embrace music that is no longer part of the popular culture?”

Assuming that many readers here are probably jazz or classical music people, I think it might also be helpful to consider the question from another angle. Imagine for a moment that country music is on the skids, suffering from poor sales and anemic concert attendance. Nashville commissions a consulting firm to work on building the audience for country music. Is there anything they could do to get you to become a country music fan? Or a heavy metal fan? Or trance?

I anticipate responses to these questions to the effect of “Well, those styles of music are harmonically and rhythmically quite simple, and the pieces are very short, so it doesn’t appeal to me very much. I need more content in my music.” This identifies yet another problem area in this discussion: namely, the fact that most of the music we are trying to build an audience for is cognitively demanding. So we’re looking for some marketing, education, packaging or programming strategy that will influence and/or supersede both personal taste and the enormous pressures of the dominant popular culture; at the same time, we’re asking people to commit to an art form that will tax (and probably frustrate) their capabilities before, hopefully, delivering a heightened aesthetic experience.

That’s a tall order that seems insurmountable. Frankly speaking, it can’t be done, at least not as part of a prefabricated “strategy” to build an audience. You’d no sooner be able to create a sustainable audience base for jazz as you could for medieval plainchant. If a solution existed, wouldn’t one of the thousands and thousands of creative artists, agents, managers and the many jazz collectives, societies and alliances have found it? I realize that this is not what anyone in the jazz community wants to hear, but I also don’t think it is helpful to continue pretending that there is a solution out there somewhere, just waiting for us to discover it.

Jazz simply needs to continue doing what made it great in the first place: engage with popular culture in an intelligent, nuanced and sophisticated manner, as some successful groups are doing today. If there is any hope of audience building, this is where it lies. It must be organic, visceral and culturally relevant, qualities which cannot be consciously conjured by an audience development committee.

What we’re really talking about when we complain about the jazz scene (and the arts scene in general) is not that jazz is dying creatively, or that it’s lost its vitality. It’s that there isn’t enough work and the work that’s there doesn’t pay enough. Those of us who were born between 1950 and 1970 came up in a very different environment than that which exists today in at least three ways:

  1. Technological developments have made it very hard to earn money from recordings. If you can attach it to an email, stream it or download it, it’s going to be very hard to make money from it. This is especially true for a niche genre in the fine arts.
  2. The gig scene is severely truncated. When I was in my twenties, there was plenty of live music work — theatre, pop bands, some recording work, parties, weddings and, of course, some actual jazz. It was possible to eke out a reasonable living just playing music, but that work has largely dried up. (Let’s face it: Most of that work is not artistically satisfying anyway. It’s either party music or background music, not exactly the stuff of artistic dreams.) And, as I’ve written about previously, the pay hasn’t kept up with inflation. Where it was possible to make $25,000 a year in 1984, you’d need to be making $52,000 in 2010.
  3. Private and public sources of arts funding are drying up. We’ve experienced an “arts funding bubble” during the last 60 years, and that bubble is bursting. In Art Lessons: Learning from The Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding, the late Alice Goldfarb-Marquis details how a surge in public funding for the arts occurred in the middle of the last century created an artificial demand for artists and arts organizations of various types (dance, music, theatre, etc.). She also identifies how those benefactors began to move away from arts funding in favor of other charitable donations (hospitals, education, etc.) that provided them with the visibility and cachet that the arts no longer provided. We’ll be lucky, therefore, if those sources maintain the funding they are providing now, because they certainly aren’t going to substantially increase funding during a time when the national debt is already a matter of grave concern. (I’ve written about this before.)

I think it’s clear that obtaining a reasonable income in jazz and classical music is becoming exceedingly difficult. Those of us who grew up in the arts bubble were very fortunate to come up in an era that was, relatively speaking, flush with cash, which makes the new reality very difficult to accept. But historically speaking, this was an aberration. Beethoven had money problems, Mozart died broke, and I’m sure that we’re all aware of the many incredibly talented and influential jazz musicians of the last 75 years who needed benefit concerts to pay for medical care and funeral expenses as they entered middle and old age.

I suggest that we consider doing what many classical and jazz musicians that I know have done during the last decade. It’s not an earth-shattering proposition that we haven’t heard before: a separation, as it were, of church and state. Make money doing something else, and keep your music pure.

Play only what you want to play, don’t play casuals, weddings or anything else that isn’t artistically satisfying. Let the young players do that work — they need the experience, we don’t. Write and play music without concern for “selling it” or “marketing it”; do it because it’s fun to do and do it with people you enjoy playing with. Rent a venue and put on concerts of your music, but don’t expect to make a profit. A very small percentage of these projects just might garner enough attention to make them financially profitable, and an even smaller percentage might become “famous,” but most won’t.

What I’ve seen from people who have left the “business” behind is that they are generally much happier. Granted, it’s not an easy decision to make. We have so much of our self-image invested in the romantic mythology that swirls around jazz, and that mythology includes the idea that a “day job” is a cop-out, the kiss of death, not something that a “true artist” would ever do. So while the pressures of the dominant culture may be very difficult to overcome, the pressures of jazz culture are equally as daunting. But it seems to me that if a creative and artistically independent life is the goal, then the solution, in an era of dwindling support and an apathetic public, is to finance it with other productive work.

As aggravating and depressing as all of this may be, I don’t see it as a “doom and gloom” scenario; to the contrary, I think that jazz is actually thriving, not dying. In one of my first blog posts, I stated the following:

…we live in a time of remarkable creative growth for music in general, and for jazz in particular. With the ability to record and distribute music independently and inexpensively, and the resultant unlimited access that this provides, we’ve seen an explosion in musical activity in all genres, jazz included. Visit CDBaby (for example) and search for jazz, and you’ll find a staggering number of accomplished jazz artists, mostly unknown, making music of all kinds under the “jazz” umbrella (including genre descriptions that defy description like “Industrial Fake Jazz”). And look at the tremendous quality and quantity of European jazz being produced, with its unabashed blending of styles which has led to many heated discussions on how jazz is defined at this juncture in the 21C. There are so many amazing musicians creating such a fantastic smorgasbord of new jazz, that one can hardly even keep up with a small percentage of it.

In short, this era exhibits unparalleled creative activity and creative potential for jazz and for the arts in general … despite the issues I wrote about previously, there are reasons to be very hopeful about the future of jazz from a creative viewpoint.

Jazz as a creative force is not going away. In fact, I would go so far to stay that it will never go away because of the depth of its materials, its rich history and canon, and its openness to new influences.

Wasn’t jazz a street music to begin with? A hybrid that drank from many wells and remade itself every decade (much to the chagrin of many artists then and now)? Why not write music that utilizes electronics and looping, hip-hop, rap, gamelan, minimalism, trance, rock, yodeling, country and anything else that you listen to and find interesting? These things will happen because people need to express themselves, not because they need to land a gig.

And that is why I think it is unwise to finance art through art. Separate church and state, and maybe, just maybe, an audience will coalesce around your music. You’ll be as surprised as everyone else.

Kurt Ellenberger is a pianist and composer, and writes at Also Sprach FraKathustra.

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