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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Staking a Claim - Part 1

Peter Hum in a recent blog juxtaposed the phenomenal video download statistics of Lady Gaga, and the inexorable rise of the manufactured pop star (no talent necessary, only lookers need apply) with the difficulties jazz in which jazz finds itself regarding numbers - Hum mentions that Brad Mehldau’s best selling CD sold only 34000 copies, and I believe Wayne Shorter’s first Quartet CD ‘Footprints’ sold around the same number of units.

This is undoubtedly scary stuff if you believe that jazz is in some kind of competition with music from these other genres, or that jazz even inhabits the same universe. Personally I don’t feel that what I do and what Lady Gaga does has anything in common at all beyond the surface similarity that we are both connected to music in some way. I think a noticeable characteristic of pop music these days is how little the music itself – the actual notes and chords, form and structure – features in terms of its percentage of the whole package. Music plays a tiny part in the success of people such as Gaga or Britney Spears – so much more is concerned with looks, marketing, merchandise tie-ins etc.

Of course popular artists have always needed to cash in on their looks (if any – some people such as Elton John or Rod Stewart wouldn’t have had a chance if they were attempting to break into today’s pop market), and their image was always important. But the importance of the visual image took a quantum leap forward with the appearance of music videos in the 80’s, when the talents of the video directors and camera people could be used to create striking visual images to accompany music that was essentially vapid rubbish. That process has grown exponentially in the intervening years to the point where a Gaga or a BeyoncĂ© is the product of a frighteningly huge machine that ties in visuals with marketing, with merchandising, websites, Facebook, Twitter and all of that. The actual act of music making plays a smaller and smaller part in this behemoth as the multi-nationals drive for ever bigger profits from an ever-widening circle of merchandising opportunities.

Jazz cannot compete in that world

Jazz shouldn’t even try.

There was a time when jazz was of course a popular music, and then when rock and roll took over in the 50s and onwards, jazz was still seen as something that had some relationship to pop music and people like Miles Davis could sell very respectable amounts of recordings and be mentioned in the same breath as pop stars. But I think we have to let that go altogether – popular music – of the huge selling variety – has NOTHING in common with jazz any more. Contemporary pop music has nothing in common with jazz in either the musical or the aesthetic world it inhabits. And I think some kind of over-the-shoulder looking at the behemoth of the pop music industry does us no good at all – not only can we not compete with that world, we’re not even involved in the same industry in my opinion. It’s like being a small boutique winemaker and being concerned about what Coca Cola is doing. The product is different and the market is different.

The market we are in is – I agree – tiny in comparison to that of pop music, but that’s neither here nor there. In fact I would say that the more the two musics diverge in form and approach, the more opportunity there is for jazz to develop and flourish in the marketplace. But we have to accept that our marketplace is both small and specialised. We have to realise that our customer base, though not huge, will be discerning. And like most boutique products, we can grow our customer base by clearly identifying what is different and good about what we do. We have to stop trying to be seen in a market that is just so huge and so different to ours that the quest for recognition is hopeless. We don’t have the tools or the resources to fight such a war – rather than try to snatch territory from such a giant foe, we have to be happy with our own territory, develop it, let it speak for itself, and then inevitably some people who are looking for an alternative place to live other than than the cheap, facile, and crowded musical country they currently inhabit, will want to come to where we are and will want to partake in the quality of musical life that we have to offer.

In taking such an approach we have to accept that the financial rewards of operating in such a relatively small musical country, will be less than the rewards available to those who make it into the upper echelons of the pop music empire. So what can we reasonably expect as jazz musicians operating in our own musical territory? Well I think being able to make a living playing the music isn’t an unreasonable target to aim at – anything beyond that would be a serious bonus. And it IS do-able, despite all the doom and gloom being spread among the online jazz community these days. Despite the outpourings of woe, I personally know literally hundreds of people who make their entire living from jazz – including me. I’m an Irish bassist who started playing in a country with little or no jazz tradition – I still live in Ireland, yet here I am writing this blog in South Africa, where I’m working, and I’ve just been chatting to a bassist from the US, and there’s a guy here from Turkey – all of whom play jazz for a living. So it can be done – we just need to take care of our own business and be as good as we can be and develop what we do. Quality DOES have a market, no matter what the doom-merchants may say. We may see the relative lack of large CD sales for someone like Brad Mehldau as being a barometer of how bad things are, but these days CD sales – even for huge acts in pop music – form a tiny part of the economics of the music business – the real money is in performing. And Brad Mehldau is no different in this regard – Brad’s diary is pretty full, you can be sure that he’s as busy as he’s ever been – CD sales or no CD sales.

So let’s stop worrying about what’s happening in pop music and in the music industry – let’s just make our own music as good as it can be and then find the best way we can to get it out there and get our music to the most amount of people. And how can we best do that? Well that’s a whole other discussion............. TBC


  1. Inspiring post, Ronan! I agree that we jazz musicians operate in a completely different world than the pop stars. I had similar thoughts after watching the Grammy's this year, which I talked about on my blog:

    Here's to making a living playing the music we want to play!

  2. It is not only the Jazz musician who faces the question of how to make a living doing what they love. Most musicians are in that same boat, except that the ones who imagine themselves to be the next Pop Star have more fuel for their fantasy. Anyone who is playing music and isn't in the "Pop" spotlight will have to work harder to earn a decent income. I don't know anyone in Portland, Oregon who is playing original or even cover "Pop" music that has it any easier than someone playing Jazz, Folk, Classic Rock or Calypso.

    As you point out, it not an impossible situation - it is simply one that requires knowing what you have to offer, knowing who wants to pay for what you are offering, and figuring out how to let them know where to find you.

  3. I think your point about it being difficult for people playing any original music, regardless of genre is well made. Jazz musicians often have the naive view that everyone involved in rock or pop makes more money than they do, whereas the reality is that in rock or pop you either make a fortune or you make nothing. I know very few middle-aged rock musicians who are making a basic living by solely playing their own music - they've either 'made it' a long time ago or they're doing something else.........

  4. I think it serves no useful purpose for 'Jazz Musicians' to act as though they have some special burden other musicians lack. We are all up against the same problems trying to make a living as creative people, and we need to find our commonality in order to be able to help each other. Unless that isn't what you want, in which case, you know what to go do with your bad self. :-)

    I don't know of any middle aged rock musicians who make a basic living playing covers, let alone their own music.

  5. Interesting question/post.

    The other day I walked into the classroom where I teach (a well known jazz school somewhere in Europe), only to find my students chatting furiously among themselves. One of them then turned to me and said : 'what's our future for playing music?' We then spent the next half hour talking about where were we going in this day and age of CD, online music, live music etc. There wasn't any final points but the future looks kind of uncertain for (and to) them. You can say that we're (whoever all the we's are) lucky to earn a living doing and playing music, in this case jazz. But most musicians are actually making a living in the education spiral, preparing the terrain for the next wave of teachers, whom are being taught now.

    There are of course a some 'high profile' players who only play, and they are of course lucky. Added to that I think that the instrument you play - in my experience bass & drums are needed by most groups can also help when when talking about 'only' playing for a living. I had a quick look at your official gig list (I imagine you have other stuff not mentioned) which didn't seem enormous, and would be surprised to find you buying a Porsche from those alone, and if I understood correctly you also are the director of the Conservatory in Dublin jazz section. And to be more to the point, I can't imagine what Coltrane, Parker, Basie and the likes would have said if you told them that in the future they'd of had to supplement their pay by getting a 'teaching job'.

    Finally, I think that Lennie Tristano was kind of the 'ghost of the future' when jazz and earning are looked at closely. He was of course a difficult personality and a special case, but however, since he decided to only play the music he thought important it was impossible to make a living, consequently he made a school and taught. Warne Marsh was in the same boat etc. And I'm the list goes on.

    I look forward to continuing playing jazz live and getting paid for it, how long it will last who knows.

  6. Well said, very well said. I never thought of it before, but you're absolutely right... there are more differences than similarities between jazz and pop. I especially like your boutique "wine maker" analogy. The most important thing--to me--is to keep jazz alive. And I applaud you, all jazz musicians, for your unwavering dedication.
    Finally, as a listener (rather than a jazz musician), my hope, my sincerest hope is that, over time, more and more people will come to discover that beautiful art form called jazz.

  7. Excellent analysis, one that resonates for me, living in a country (Jamaica) with an outsized jazz tradition that's been all but buried and forgotten in the waves of popular expression (reggae, dancehall) that followed.

  8. Hi Ronan. Once again you've eloquently expressed this sentiment which I think most jazz musicians espouse. I think we're all mostly trying to get at the same point which is that basically making art and making money are two different (if sometimes overlaping) spheres. I would personally prefer to see the discussion of social relevance stay seperate from that of aesthetics. I elaborate in my blog
    PS I enjoyed greatly playing with you at the Banff jazz workshop years back.