Can Jazz be Saved?

The Wall Street Journal ran a story today about the diminishing audience for jazz. The story cited a Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) in participation with the U.S. Census Bureau. It was the fourth survey of its kind since 1982. The predominant findings in the latest report showed:

1. Since the last survey in 2002, Jazz audiences shrank from 10.8% to 7.8%.
2. In 1982, the median age of a jazz fan was 29. Today? Jazz fans have a median age of 46. The audience is shrinking and aging.
3. They aren’t getting that old, though: Older people are also less likely to attend jazz performances today than they were just six years ago. The percentage of Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 dropped 30% in 2008 from 2002.
4. College-educated adults are seeing less jazz: the audience for live jazz has shrunk to 14.9% in 2008 from 19.4% in 1982.

Why is jazz losing its audience? I asked a good friend, someone I think has great taste in music. I read him the stats and when I finished, he chuckled and said that he was not surprised.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because Jazz is boring.”

So I asked him why he thought it was boring.

He gave me two words. “No energy.”

Anyone who ever listened to any Louis Armstrong, without whom I think Rock-n-Roll owes some thanks, would disagree. Sure, much of jazz has a different kind of energy. I’m thinking Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker. Its an energy not unlike like the strange, pasty girl in your 9th grade social studies class who had a nose ring and jet black hair, and wore a Ramones t-shirt over a plaid Catholic school girl scort. You don’t think she’s pretty, but you can’t help but stare.

According to the author of the WSJ article, the problem seems to be that Americans think Jazz is a high art. Evidently this is a bad thing. In the thirties, however, and up through the fifties, jazz was an everyman’s type of music. My own parents never made it beyond a high school education and they loved jazz. It was the music of their courtship in the forties. Around the mid-sixties, with the “Bitches Brew” period, jazz became music for elite intelectuals, as the WSJ article states, it now appeals to the same high-brow audience previously reserved for opera and classical music.

The article points out, rightly, that marketing is what jazz needs in order to be saved. It has to reach out to a younger audience, but I think it also needs to bring back some of the faithful. The NEA, in my opinion, should target ads at saving jazz. Imagine a commercial (radio or TV) with snippets of songs from some of the more venerable jazz standards. The music itself can sell. Of course, the NEA is unendingly strapped for money, so it’s a bit like my fashion diva pals telling me I should wear more Prada. Local arts organizations and cities themselves could join in, sponsoring more Jazz concerts in civic parks, and cajoling local corporations and TV stations to pitch in. Finding the funding to save jazz is not an easy task, but raising public awareness is essential in any marketing campaign. Rebrand jazz, not for the elite, but as music for the everyman. After all, in 1987, Congress deemed jazz a national treasure. Raising awareness of American jazz classics—and substantial new artist in the genre—seems like a worthy cause for the charitable arms of savvy corporations wishing to appeal not only to a niche upper-end market, but to make a name for themselves to the masses as a company helping the arts.

Saving jazz goes back to a marketing fundamental: Great things without publicity don’t have a reputation for being great, just obscure. I’ve said it before. It’s all marketing, always, and nothing seems to escape from this reality. Not even underappreciated national treasures.

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