Market Share

A couple of weeks before Rifftides debuted in mid-June, The Johnson Foundation sponsored a conference of people from the power structures of the jazz business and jazz education. It was at the foundation’s Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin. The purpose of the three-day gathering was to discuss how to increase the market share of jazz. The foundation has a report on a website created for the conference.
Conventional wisdom is that jazz album sales—an important index of market share—account for between two and three percent of total recorded music sales. That may be an optimistic estimate. I don’t know if anyone has established how much of total attendance at clubs and concerts jazz audiences represent, but if it’s much more than two or three percent, I’d be surprised.
That indicates a tiny share for jazz in the universe of music and entertainment. Naturally, executives who run record companies, publish jazz magazines, produce festivals, and recruit students for music schools want to grow the market. It’s called capitalism, market economics. Succeeding in the richest and most dynamic economic system in the world means growth, no less in the business of music than in the businesses of automobiles and groceries. Movers and shakers in the music establishment are not alone in wanting to see the jazz audience and jazz opportunities grow. So, too, do jazz musicians, two of whom, Billy Taylor and John Clayton, were included in the conference. Taylor and Clayton are important players who are also organizers, producers, executives. The list of attendees includes the names of no journeyman jazz musicians who gig for a living. There are deep thinkers among them. Some should be invited to followup conferences.
Since the mid-1940s, jazz musicians and jazz establishmentarians have been haunted by the swing era. For a few years, by chance and no one’s market planning, jazz was the nation’s—and much of the world’s—music of choice. To say quality popular music was not an oxymoron. High school girls knew the names of Benny Goodman’s sidemen. Blue-collar workers and housewives went to dance pavilions not necessarily to dance, but to stand entranced listening to Jimmie Lunceford’s band. Jazz people want that back. But today’s high school girls know the names of the members of Coldplay. Blue-collar workers and housewives, depending on their generations, are entranced by the remnants of the Grateful Dead or by George Strait, Jennifer Lopez, Slim Thug, The Lost Boyz, Gorillaz, Missy Elliott. The likelihood of jazz supplanting a significant share of the market those performers hold is roughly the same as for string quartets.
Paul Desmond’s cousin Rick Breitenfeld thought about being a professional trumpet player. Desmond told him not to consider a life in jazz unless he could not imagine doing anything else. Most musicians who dedicate themselves to jazz or chamber music cannot deny the compulsion to do so. On some level, they understand that they are fortunate to make even a modest living playing music. I have found that the few who get beyond a modest living are surprised and grateful. The others bemoan the fact that they do not earn in proportion to the sacrifices they make or the satisfaction and inspiration they provide society. They are right to bemoan their condition.
If the Wingspread conference leads to improvement in market share so that those dedicated artists have a higher standard of living, bravo. If it leads to further efforts to grow the jazz audience by diluting the music into new brands of soft jazz, near-jazz, pseudo jazz and unjazz, the market may benefit, but it will do music, and musicians committed to their art, no good.
“Ah, music! What a beautiful art! But what a wretched profession!”
Georges Bizet (1867)

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