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Denny Armstrong

April 28, 2008

Jazz as an Unprofitable and Endangered Genre

The history of jazz is a storied progression of a genre whose influence can be
linked to tribal cultures in West Africa. Labeling a musician or musical work as jazz is to
not give full respect to the diversity and intricacy of its many facets. Up against
innumerable obstacles on the road to majority acceptance in “White America”, jazz has
proven to be as difficult to perform professionally today as it was during its inception.
Jazz has survived on the passion and artistic expression of its musicians in a society
driven by marketing and profits. In an era where industry standards are primarily
propelled by record sales and mass appeal, major labels have endangered the future of
professional jazz musician.
The idea of being labeled as mainstream goes hand in hand with a musician’s
ability to achieve mass appeal. That is to say that a professional musician must be able to
combine artistic expression with good exposure in order to generate personal financial
stability. The biggest obstacle to gaining reception for the jazz community is the stigma
of the audience demographic that has been attached to it. Since the emergence of the
compact disc in 1984, reissues of albums have out sold new artists considerably, and
there appears to be no change in this trend (Jeffri, 1). There is no question that jazz is
often labeled as a genre for an older generation. The biggest “stars” in the jazz world
include the likes of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and numerous others that continue to
be the only artists that are recognizable to younger generations of music fans. The genre
has been labeled as African American music, and for that reason alone it faced issues with
acceptance to the majority population often referred to as White America.
As social issues changed in the United States so did the negative connotation of
playing African American music. However, as the social ramifications of playing African
American music evolved in the music community over the last twenty years the focus had
shifted to gaining reception for genres such as Rap and R&B. Cultural identity has long
been the anchor for musical progression in the United States, which has provided every
genre with an association to a particular race or culture. The labeling of genres is usually
accompanied with the notion that each respective genre is defined as black or white
music. An example of the prevalence of this issue can be seen in an interview with
Wynton Marsalis. When conversing about racial undertones and the belief that popular
music is inferior to “Classical” or “Jazz” music Marsalis stated

…classical music is not white music. When Beethoven was writing music, he
wasn’t thinking white or black. Those terms became necessary in America when
they had to take white artists and make them number one because they couldn’t
accept black artists. We constantly have historical redefinitions to the take artistic
contributions out of the hands of people who were designated black (Musician, 3).

This belief identifies some of the undertones that have categorized popular music, and the
progression of artistic expression in the United States. There appears to be a degree of
segregation both in race and age of each particular genre’s audience. By stereotyping
music, society has consequently given truth to those beliefs. This in turn has popularized
genres that appear to be artistically less expressive, but have found validity due to
perceived reception and mass consumption.
Defining the degree of reception or an artist’s popularity is as easy as trying to
place a specific musician into a genre, especially when Jazz is concerned. Our society
has been increasingly driven by profitability which is quantified with statistics, most
importantly record sales. It is difficult to find accurate statistics for albums sold, as there
are numerous organizations that supply statistics for record labels. The Recording
Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the leading source for most statistical inquires
related to the music industry. However, the RIAA’s information is only from sales in the
United States. The RIAA has reported that over the last twenty years the sales of jazz
music has declined significantly. In 1989 roughly 6.5 million dollars were spent on
music of which the Rock genre accounted for 41.7%, Pop 15%, and Jazz accounting for
only 4.9% of total sales. In 2006, nearly twenty years later, the total amount spent on
music had jumped to 11.5 million dollars of which rock accounted for 34%, Pop 7%, and
Jazz declined to only 2% of sales (RIAA). Jazz has found itself in dire straits as the
music industry’s increase in commercialization, demand for image appeal, and
implementation of mass marketing techniques have left the genre appearing archaic
compared to newer genres.
The decline in jazz sales can be contributed to a number of different industry
standards that have subsequently began phasing out the ability to work as a professional
jazz musician. Jazz has existed for a number of years independently, where producing
records for a number of musicians took priority over finding the next superstar. Modern
comparisons between jazz musicians and those of “popular” music mean relying heavily
on record sale categorizations that previously did not exist. The music industry is in an
era where your success is ranked in sales categories such as Gold (500,000 Albums),
Platinum (1 million albums), or Diamond (10 million albums). These accomplishments
have now become the benchmarks associated with success (RIAA). In the Jazz
community an album that reaches 10,000 albums is considered a good achievement,
while 20,000 records sold classified the album as a big success. In decades past an
independent label could sell 3,000 copies of an album and break even on the recording
costs. Today it costs nearly $30,000 for a major music label to record an album. Of that
budget $3,000 is allocated for transferring the recorded material to compact disc (Kaplan,
2). The cost of transfer was more than most independent labels budgeted for an entire
session in the era before the compact disc (Kaplan, 2). Without substantial sales numbers
it is not profitable enough for major labels to produce albums for jazz musicians.
Multiple major labels have strayed away from jazz including Atlantic Records
who dropped their entire jazz department nearly six years ago. By not giving younger
generations the opportunity to purchase albums in a mainstream way the industry has
given truth to the stereotype of Jazz as a genre for an older population. Gary Giddens,
who critiques jazz for the Village Voice, commented that “Guys who make jazz records
are asking themselves, Who are we making records for? The people who run the record
companies don’t care. You don’t hear it on the radio, you don’t see it on TV, you don’t
see it in the stores”(Kaplan, 2) This idea has constructed a belief system that has begun
to trickle into the burgeoning generation of young musicians who relate Jazz to a dying
genre, and consequently will move on to be involved in more accepted genres of music.
The notion that the Jazz Musician is a struggling breed is further explored in an
article entitled Jazz musician: the cost of the beat which chronicled a study entitled
Changing the Beat: A study of the Worklife of Jazz Musicians. The aim of the study was
to collect information on how the jazz community is organized and the resources they
have available to them in order to assess the challenges that the artists face. The need for
this particular study stems from declining jazz sales, creating the need for a proactive
approach in assessing the level of financial assistance needed in the community. By
collecting this information fellowships such as the American Jazz Masters Fellowship
which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts are able to more accurately and
efficiently distribute their financial resources. The assessment of these needs becomes
difficult due largely to the fact that the definition of a jazz musician varies greatly. The
research showed that out of the sample population only 63 percent of the musicians who
reported playing or singing jazz considered themselves professional jazz musicians
(Jeffri, 2). Based off of a questionnaire administered to the sample it was found that the
jazz musician has succumbed to a more business oriented definition of being a musician.
Those who identified themselves as jazz musicians shared a higher correlation with
earning an income for their music with being a professional musician. In fact, only 45
percent of those considering themselves jazz musicians earned half of their income by
playing or singing jazz (Jeffri, 4). These results do not bode well for the livelihood of the
Jazz community whose talents require such incredible time commitments that it is now
nearly impossible to make a living as a professional jazz musician.
The music industry has created a system driven on profit that has begun to slow
down the progression of music. Jazz is an example of a genre that is being phased out
due to stereotypes that have been justified by major labels. Subsequently, this
justification has driven musicians in the jazz community to the status of starving artists.
Where artistic expression used to be the key to a musician’s success, that ideal has been
replaced with the notion that talent is synonymous with marketability and mass appeal. If
the current trends continue jazz will find itself returning to an underground community
that lives through the passion of musicians who can afford to express and create
artistically without financial compensation.
Reference:

Jeffri, Joan. "Jazz musicians: the cost of the beat. " Journal of Arts
Management, Law and Society. 33.1 (Spring 2003): 40(12). General
OneFile. Gale. Northern Arizona University-AULC. 22 Mar. 2008

Kaplan, Fred. "With Sales Flat, Jazz Industry Has Lost Its
Groove. " Boston Globe (Boston, MA). (August 5, 2002): NA. General
OneFile. Gale. Northern Arizona University-AULC. 22 Mar. 2008

Lester, Sonny. "Retailers need to jazz up stores. (music record
retailers). ." Billboard. 106.n13 (March 26, 1994): 10(1). General
OneFile. Gale. Northern Arizona University-AULC. 22 Mar. 2008

"Soul, Craft, and Cultural Hierarchy." Musician Magazine 1-9.

"2006 Consumer Profile." RIAA . 2007. Recording Industry Association of America. 18
Mar 2008 <http://www.riaa.com/keystatistics.php?content_selector=consumertrends>.