Tuesday, December 20, 2005

If jazz is in such bad shape...

If there is one common theme in the world of jazz news, it has to be the old "jazz is dying/jazz is dead/someone is trying to bring a new audience to jazz" story that comes around every six months or so in some major publication.

We all have heard the doom and gloom stories, how jazz has a 2 percent marketshare (and that's including Kenny G's sales!), how the audience is old, and supposedly getting smaller, how the major labels are out of the jazz business, how there are no new "innovators" in the music, et al. But let's turn some of that conventional wisdom around and see what's REALLY happening in the jazz world.

1) If jazz is so bad off from a financial perspective, why are there so many new jazz cds (and reissues)? December is the one month of the year when my office is not flooded with new jazz releases (the industry pretty much takes the month off, leaving it up to retail to do their job and move the product). While I don't have the hard data to back this up, I would bet that there's probably 1/3 more new jazz releases today than there were say 10 years ago, at the height of the "new lions movement." And probably double the number of new jazz releases of say 1965 or 1955. Now granted the industry and the country have changed so much in those years, technology now allows a part time jazz musician to record, edit, master, duplicate and promote his or her own new jazz release when in the past, that was simply impossible. Surely many of these releases lose money, but that happens across the board in the entertainment industry, so we can't hold that up as some sign that jazz is faltering. After all, if it is SO terrible out there in the jazz world, why so many new cds? (not including reissues). If this isn't a sign that jazz is "healthy" it is at the very least a sign that the music is not on life support.

2) Major Labels aren't signing artists
So what? Jazz has never been a music that was truly embraced by the recording industry establishment. From the end of the swing era to the 1990's, jazz artists, even the biggest names, Monk, Coltrane, Parker, Ella Fitzgerald found themselves recording on smaller "independent" record labels. Norman Granz's Norgan/Clef/Verve label was an independent before falling into the MGM family. Blue Note was a two man operation for decided before being swallowed up by Liberty and later EMI. Of course Prestige, Riverside and on the west coast Fantasy and Contemporary were independent as well. Only CBS really had a viable jazz division, and it was still fairly small. RCA always had a limited artist roster (Paul Desmond, Sonny Rollins). Impulse was started as the jazz division of ABC, which itself was an "indie". Argo/Cadet were part of the Chicago based Chess family, again, independent. Atlantic began as an independent too, and was for the bulk of the time it specialized in jazz. Even Creed Taylor's crossover success with CTI in the 70's was on an artist owned label (though distributed by a major). In the 1990's someone got the idea that if a jazz artist wasn't "signed" (I hate that word) to a major label, something was wrong. That system was not sustainable for the big corporate concerns that run the show, so of course, they got out of the jazz business. But lo and behold, a new crop of independent labels and more recently, artist run outfits have taken hold and are a much more healthy fit for the music. So the loss of "the majors" really isn't that big of a deal.

I'll pick up this discussion later, and talk about the myth of the "dying" jazz audience next time.


Blogger Greg Kline said...

All these stories also seem to ignore the interest in and market for jazz in Europe, Japan and elsewhere in the world. The music has an active audience outside its country of origin.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Michael McArthur said...

Hey Joe, this is an awesome blog. Do you publish an RSS feed? That would make it so much easier for some of us out there...

10:59 AM  
Blogger Joe M said...


1:25 PM  

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