The Jazz Audience Smells Funny…

There has been a lot of bad news lately about the decline of the jazz audience. The recent NEA study on arts participation in America revealed that the median age of the jazz audience has risen 17 years since 1982, from 29 to 46, and that the percentage of young people, ages 18-24, who attended a jazz concert in a year fell from 17.5% to 7.3%, a decline of 58%. No one can dispute that the jazz audience is getting older, and smaller. However, I think that reality is more complicated than that. In my experience, there are in fact several different jazz audiences.

There is an audience of young people who come out to see other young people perform. This audience usually includes friends of the musicians, who may not regularly listen to a lot of “classic” jazz. The venues where these young musicians perform are often not traditional jazz clubs; rather, they may be bars, restaurants, or illegal after-hours speakeasies. These places charge a small cover, or none at all. At some of the venues, there is a built-in clientele, who listen to and enjoy the music, but did not go out exclusively to hear a particular artist perform.

For example, one of the hip spots in Los Angeles for young musicians to play is the Seven Grand Whiskey Bar, in Downtown.  Several nights a week, musicians play from 10:00-1:00.  Sometimes the music is by singer-songwriters, sometimes straight-ahead jazz, and sometimes freely improvised funk.  Yet, while it seems like the bar always has more patrons on weeknights than any of the established jazz clubs in LA, I wonder how many of those patrons would respond “Yes” when asked question 1A by the NEA, “did you go to a live jazz performance during the last 12 months?” Certainly the friends of the band would. But how about all the people who came out for a drink, and caught a set by the band?

There is also another jazz audience, at least here in LA.  They are older.  They attend concerts at Walt Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.  And they are wealthier. They seem to enjoy getting dressed up, going out for a nice dinner, and then seeing a concert in a grand venue.  It’s an event – a whole evening of entertainment, and they are willing to pay for it. Yet this audience rarely shows up at smaller jazz venues, and is even less likely to go out of their way to hear unfamiliar artists.

Now, I haven’t come up with any great solutions for the shrinking size of the youth audience, or their relative lack of funds.  But I have an idea for a way to bring the richer, older audience into contact with younger musicians.

I recently went to see Dianne Reeves at Disney Hall, where she was performing with Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo. The place was packed, with the older, richer audience filling the room, and a few of us youngsters up the cheap seats.  It occurred to me that since most of these people were out for a full evening anyway, why couldn’t the show have more than one act? Major institutional jazz venues could steal a page from the rock handbook, and schedule opening acts.  They could book a young artist to perform a short set, maybe 30 minutes, before the main act.  They could do this without having to pay the opener very much, as most young artists are accustomed to playing for peanuts.  I’m sure there are plenty of musicians who would do it for free, since opening for a packed house at a venue like Disney Hall would be more exposure than you could get playing hundreds of club dates.

If these major venues booked local artists as the opening acts, than the promotional effect would trickle-down to the smaller jazz clubs throughout the city.  Let’s say that a young, local musician opened at Disney Hall for 2000 people.  If 20 people liked her enough to purchase her self-produced album after the show, which is a mere 1% of her audience that evening, they might also like her enough to come see her perform live in a local jazz club the next month.  And I know that there are plenty of jazz clubs where 20 people is the difference between a half-empty room and a packed house.  I just think that this is an opportunity that we are missing.

Booking opening acts is certainly not a solution to the broader problem.  But since I’m not going to be headlining Disney Hall any time soon, I’d like more young musicians to be able to get a crack at the older, wealthier jazz audience before it dies out completely.

Published in: on July 16, 2009 at 7:36 pm  Comments (7)  

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  1. When I saw Etta James at the House of Blues a few years back, a young artist named Amanda Dumas did a 30-minute opening set. She wasn’t a blues artist, more of a folk-pop singer-songwriter. But it was related enough, and I enjoyed her as much as – if not more than – Etta. (Nobody throw tomatoes at me, please.)

    All of which is to say, having an opening act is a great format, and it makes the headliner seem all the more important, so it seems like everyone wins.

    • Hi Angela,

      Thanks for reading! I like that you mentioned that it makes the headliner seem more important – I was concerned that headliners would not be receptive to the idea of sharing a bill with someone.

      Do you have any ideas for pitching this to the big institutional venues? I’m not sure what the opening act really can offer them.

  2. This is a great idea and clearly correct — the Vancouver Jazz Festival has been doing this for years, pairing local acts with national headliners — except for the truly appalling suggestion that not paying opening acts for a concert in which the headliner earns tens of thousands of dollars is in any way remotely acceptable or just. “Exposure”? That’s so often just another word for “exploitation.”

    • I’m glad to hear that Vancouver is doing this; I think it’s probably more common at jazz festivals than concert halls.

      Also, I agree that musicians performing for meager pay is unacceptable, but it’s all too common, and that’s a whole other essay.

      I also think, however, that this might be one situation where “it’s great exposure” might not be total BS.

  3. I’m not above performing for meager pay — we’ve done it many times. What I’m objecting to is the suggestion that it would be remotely okay to normalize the practice of the headliner getting $20,000 and the opening act getting $0 plus “exposure.”

  4. […] Rubin at his very interesting and sometimes controversial blog twentydollars has a great point on this topic, and he made it three weeks before the WSJ piece.  Consider it a prebuttal: No one […]

  5. […]                                                           Twenty Dollars, The Jazz Audience Smells Funny… […]

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