Monday, May 28, 2007

Aging audience?

Mark Sandow has an interesting piece on his blog about the aging audience for classical music, and the various reactions people often have, such as denial. It's a major issue that faces almost all arts organizations to some extent, but really is not even an arts issue any more - overall our population is again. Teachers, government officials, corporate types - just thumb through any national publication and you'll likely see articles about how some remarkably high percentage of the population of _______ is aging, about to retire, not being replaced by new workers, etc.

But classical music is especially challenged in this area. Jazz is too. Just go to a jazz concert or a festival, and observe the audience. It's not the most youthful group. Thankfully, the jazz audience isn't quite as old as the classical audience, and it's certainly more diverse. A recent study (2006) by the Jazz Alliance International (PDF download) says that 41 percent of the jazz audience is under 39 year old, which quite frankly surprised me. Another 37 percent are between 40 and 55. I had expected the numbers to be much older.

Now let's think about those numbers and ages for a moment. Those 41 percent of people under 39 years old, did not grow up in a world where jazz was popular music. And most of those in the 40-55 age group didn't either. These are children of the rock and roll generation. They obviously came to find out about, or enjoy jazz at some point - but when? And how? This is the information I'd like to find out. I often ask people who become members of the station how they found out about the station, and how they got into jazz. Some have stories of growing up listening to mom and dad play records by Dave Brubeck and Shelly Manne, or going to see the CTI All Stars at the Warnors Theatre as teenagers. But most of them seem to have stumbled across the music as adults. And I say "stumbled" because it often seems more like an accident, as opposed to "seeking out" the music. They happen across the radio station, like the music, and get become "jazz fans". Maybe they had some early exposure to the music at home, but most of them probably (my conjecture here) we're active jazz fans in their teens or twenties.

If true, this dispels the myth that jazz has no future if it's not "pop" music. Pop is targeted to a teen audience, and if yesterdays teens of the (1960's and 70's) are becoming jazz fans in their 30s or 40s. It also dispels the myth that adults musical tastes are set in stone by the time they reach adulthood.

It also raises some interesting questions, such as: If most jazz fans become jazz fans as adults, and most are doing so in some sort of accidental manner, how can we "nudge fate" a bit and make things a little less accidental, and do some real audience development? Another interesting stat: 41 percent said that the reason they don't attend more jazz events is... inconvenient location. Again, not what I expected.

Sandow also raises another issue that I've been thinking about, and I'm not sure if I agree with him. He says there is a ray of hope, because the number of young people PLAYING classical music has stayed the same over the years. Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that those student musicians would then become the next generation of classical fans. First, if this was the case, wouldn't we see less of an overall "aging" of the classical audience, if all those young students from 20 years ago are now active in the classical "audience?" Second, and more important, I'm not sure that most young people who are in a jazz band, or classical ensemble are interested in the music itself. I had a discussion with a local high school band director a few days ago. Keep in mind, this is a school with a very distinguished music program in both classical and jazz. I asked him how many of his students in his jazz band would be jazz listeners in 10 years. He said maybe three or four. Now that's certainly higher than the average high school population, but it's still not great. The same goes for the kids in their classical ensembles. They may play Mussorgsky or Holst, but they have no interest in going home and listening to classical music, or going to hear an orchestra or chamber ensemble perform.

Also, another question that turns conventional wisdom on its ear: Are jazz musicians part of the jazz audience in a significant way? I always remark at the relatively small number of musicians I see at local jazz events. Maybe they all have gigs on those nights, but I doubt it.

All of this, to me, points to the need and importance of a strategic effort at audience development for jazz. It can target young kids, the pre-teens who don't yet have closed minds to something that sounds "weird." It can also target adults who might someday "accidentally" find out about jazz. But instead of waiting for fate, it can be proactive, and get in front of them, in an accessible, yet not "watered down" way. It can show them that jazz is something they already like, and enjoy, they just don't know it. It can show them that jazz doesn't have to be dry, boring or stuffy. It can show them that jazz is relevant and a lot of fun. But as long as the majority of our effort at jazz education is focused on attempting to crank out the "next" John Coltrane, we might be missing the point. Of course traditional jazz education is VERY important. But we have more musicians today than ever before, a record number of jazz CDs released every year, and fewer and fewer venues and listeners to support them.

Now, I'll admit there might be some problems with my conclusions. The jazz radio audience, the jazz purchasing audience and the jazz event audience aren't necessarily the same audience. The JAI survey was apparently some sort of web survey, so I don't know how accurate it is. Nor are my anecdotal observations reliable in any sort of statistical method. But at the very least, I think this is an issue that needs to be discussed some more. We need some reliable research on where jazz listeners come from, when they become jazz listeners, and why. I've only begun looking into this issue, so I'll keep you up to date with anything else I come up with.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Joe, I will use myself as a data point. I am 27. I started listening to Jazz in high school. I was interested in the rap and R&B stuff in the beginning but my mom didn't want me to listen to that stuff, so I heard this Jazz stuff on the radio that had a similar "beat" and started exploring it. I bought Jazz using the BMG music service and pretty much picked at random at the beginning. Got into Ramsey Lewis and David Benoit, things like that. I started taking up the trumpet and got involved in the Jazz band, and got hip to Dizzy and Bird, and that's how it started.

I guess I did do more seeking out than most people, but it shows that there are people who are so moved by music that they are willing to do that. But I think it also implies that there will always be new people drawn to Jazz because the music is so powerful and influential.

I also think that the web is a place to promote Jazz that is largely untapped. I think that what we need is a spokes person for Jazz on the internet, to make Jazz appear exciting to the average person. Something like what Gary Vaynerchuk did for the wine world.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great food for thought. I started getting into jazz about 5 years ago (I'm 31 now). I had become bored with rock and its variant forms. I picked up some jazz sampler CDs and just explored anything that sounded attractive. I had always thought of jazz as either being really dated (Dixieland type) or tuneless meandering (avant garde, free jazz), but quickly learned about the many flavors of jazz.

The biggest hurdle jazz has to overcome with people now is that it takes more effort to truly appreciate it. I know it was very hard for me to get used to hearing compositions that were not variants of "verse verse chorus verse verse chorus bridge, etc."

It's a pipe dream to ever think that jazz will return to the same level of prestige it once held in the U.S., but I think with some effort the audience can be increased. I'm just not sure how.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I am 56 and started listening to jazz about twenty years ago.

The precipitating factor was the invention of CD's and the fact that I had bought a CD player. Now what was I going to listen to that was any good?

I had grown out of rock music and was not particularly enamored of classical music, so jazz was all that was left.

It took me a long time to develop my own taste, partly because my natural initial tendency was towards the more avant garde performers like Mingus, whereas I now am more oriented to the Great American Songbook and its best practitioners. Hell, these days I can even listen to a little Bing Crosby and I never miss the Malcolm Laycock Show on BBC radio. (You can replay the show any time.)

(I could write several thousand words here, but will keep it short.)

I think when one is young, one is influenced in musical tastes by contemporaries and a desire to fit it, but as one gets older, one becomes less conformist.

Although I have been listening to jazz for 20 years, (though actually I bought my first Ella LP in 1968), and jazz is a part of my daily life and probably a drug of addiction for me, I don't think I have ever met or spoken to anyone who was really interested in jazz, other than on the Internet.

It amazes me as an immigrant to the United States that jazz, which is arguably America's greatest contribution to popular culture, has practically been consigned to the Memory Hole--as far as most people are concerned it never even existed!

I have very little interest in going to live concerts. Too expensive, and the music is dead. When jazz WAS the popular music of America, then it was a living thing.

The last concert I went to was Toots Thielemans several years ago in Sarasota, Florida, and, yes, the audience was very old, as was Toots. Still he played splendidly, though I still prefer my CDs from a musical point of view.

On the other hand, I think it is a wonderful thing that you can now buy CDs with some of the greatest music ever recorded for no more than the cost of a takeout meal and a beverage and have a digital recording that has the potential to give pleasure to several generations of one's family, though whether they will ever listen, who knows?

8:07 AM  
Blogger Vasco said...

It is always heartening, though, to hear of a new convert. My recommended list of 40 Best Jazz CD's includes a Louis Armstrong collection that includes most of the hits of his latter years including Hello Dolly. Not the greatest Louis from the jazz fan point of view, but I included it because one of the Amazon reviews written by a young woman says:

I am definitely a hard core rock 'n roll girl, and this is the first jazz album I have ever purchased...and it blew my socks off! How can you not love Louis Armstrong?!! That gravelly voice, the depth of emotion when he sings...

His music is timeless and I don't think it matters what genre of music you love, you can't go wrong adding this to your collection. After listening to this cd, I am definitely going to look at purchasing the album Best of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Their duet on this cd "Our Love Is Here To Stay" floored me. Her silken voice and his gravelly one are an amazing combination.

Could be one of those jazz fan is born moments akin to a religious conversion.

11:40 AM  
Blogger mickey carroll said...

This is just some input from a seasoned song writer musician .

I think song writing should be paying attention to world community in regard to
it's struggle and life experience . Example ( Song For My Son ) is a song about children weapons or a son away at war . It is culturally diverse because of it's performance .This song has over 50.000 views and growing on You Tube . I invite you to view it and hope you enjoy .

All the best

12:44 PM  
Anonymous Mus14 said...

Jazz still has a future in this world. Musicians are constantly adding jazz to other genres of music. I listen to jazz and other genres of music myself.

3:50 PM  

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