Monday, June 15, 2009

Jazz Survival 101

Eugene Marlow posted a very interesting and thought-provoking article on yesterday. We have posted it below and are very interested to see what your thoughts are. Please feel free to comment and discuss!

Jazz Survival 101
by Eugene Marlow

As of early June 2009 there are plenty of indications that the American economy, let alone the global economy, is still mired in what many are calling the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We see rising unemployment—predicted to top 10% before it’s over—an increasing number of failing banks, bankrupted car manufacturers (once the jewels in the crown of America’s economic prowess), still rising residential foreclosures, lower tax revenues on the federal, state, and local levels, and expanding deficits.

Reports of the commercial and residential real estate market indicate contradicting trends; clearly, though, the commercial market is overbuilt while the residential market might be coming to a plateau and some price stability. Consumers are saving more (a good thing in the long run), but spending less (not good for retailers in the short run). Foreign companies are buying parts of American companies (not necessarily a new trend), and China, in particular, owns a significant portion of this country’s debt. This also is not a new trend. In 1980 right before the start of the first Reagan administration, the United States was the world’s creditor nation. Today, we are the world’s debtor nation. What a difference almost 30 years makes!

All in all, it’s not a pretty economic picture.

On a more local level with respect to the music world, the picture is also spotty. On a recent visit to Swing 46 on New York City’s restaurant row, owner/manager “John” indicated to me they were holding their own. That night George Gee and his nonet were performing. The dance floor was virtually packed. It was noisy and festive. But John also indicated that, appearances to the contrary, financially it was not great, but he was still in business. Birdland, Blue Note, and The Jazz Standard all seem to be on a solvent economic keel, but there are rumors and anecdotal reports that Jazz At Lincoln Center is, to put it diplomatically, “having money problems.” So, too, the Metropolitan Opera. Not surprising really. The fallout from the Bernie Madoff debacle notwithstanding, many corporations and foundations have dramatically reduced their contributions to deserving organizations. Some have ceased funding altogether.

Further, in New York several “venues” have closed, for example, the ill-fated Brazilian-oriented club Cacha├ža that I wrote about several months ago, and Lola’s, the soul-food club, that hopes to reopen in another location. Sweet Rhythm has reported low audience attendance. And “non-club” venues have closed or are about to: Manny’s on New York City’s 48th Street “music row” shuttered on May 31 because Sam Ash Music stated “it wasn’t carrying its [economic] weight.” And then there’s Patelson’s right across the street from Carnegie Hall’s stage door. While Patelson’s is not a jazz-oriented music shop, it nonetheless represents an important aspect of the music world: printed classical music. It was one of “the” key places to go in New York City to find almost anything printed when it came to classical music. Its fate is representative. All over New York you see “Available For Rent” signs where once were thriving retail outlets of all kinds. Even when retail outlets associated with music and entertainment, such as restaurants, are doing business, they are rarely reaching capacity.

Let’s bring this down to the jazz world, and more specifically, the jazz musician. I recall listening to a talk a few years ago by an executive of Local 802 who was in involved in negotiating film-recording contracts. He reported that at one time New York’s musician local had over 40,000 members. As of a few years ago it had fallen to around 10,000. It’s well documented that CD sales of all genres are down, way down. Today, a CD is more often than not, a musical resume, rather than a product for profit. At the same time, the cost of attending a live jazz concert, regardless of venue, is out of reach for many, especially young people and those of limited economic means—the very same folks who need to hear the music to understand and appreciate its cultural relevance. Meanwhile, academic jazz programs all over the country are turning out highly skilled young musicians with little or no business training and fewer places to play, giving rise to an apparent growing number of non-traditional venues for performance purposes. At the same time the economic value of a musician’s skills seem, for most, to be in decline.

Jazz radio is shrinking. The Boston jazz station just shut down. And all over the country, arts editors, let alone jazz or classical music reviewers, are losing their jobs. Local newspapers, often a source of promotion and support for local arts, are ceasing to exist. There are exceptions, of course, but everyone, everywhere seems to be feeling the economic pinch.

This current, deep recession is exacerbating a much longer trend: the diminution of the social and economic value of the arts, let alone jazz, in the United States. Yes, there is recognition of the arts as a contributor to the economy. In a recent issue of Chamber Music, the official publication of arts organization Chamber Music America, Margaret M. Lioi, reports in her editorial that $50 million for the arts was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill. These funds went directly to the National Endowment for the Arts.

When the House voted on the final bill, Democratic Congressman David Obey, who sponsored the bill, explained why he thought it was important to retain NEA funding in the stimulus package: “There are five million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5% unemployment—or are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.”

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