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natesmith124

natesmith124
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New York, New York,
Birthday
December 31
Bio
I'm a musician, blogger, and like to fancy myself an entrepreneur, filmmaker, and travel blogger . I use Open Salon to post thoughts that I feel pertain to broader cultural dialogues in the US, most recently the state of jazz, my chosen profession.

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NOVEMBER 18, 2011 3:07PM

Can Jazz Learn Anything from the Occupy Movement?

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If you're part of the creative arts and you're viewing what I'm willing to bet is changing about your everyday life and your livelihood as separate from the themes of the Occupy Wall Street protests, you're not seeing the complete picture. The fate of the creative arts not only mirrors the gradual trends afflicting the American economy and personal income relative-to-inflation of the last 30 years, it dovetails almost seamlessly with what's happened to Life in America since the bursting of the Real Estate Bubble.

 My discipline, jazz, has been at the mercy of three large scale forces acting on it - two external and the third, I would argue, internal - that mirror the forces acting on the American job market as a whole.

The Decline of the Jazz Proletariat 

The first is a gradual, followed by a rapid, decrease in paid performance opportunities. As I'll discuss below, this is distinct from a shrinking audience, the boogeyman critics and musicians alike are wont to blame, usually with scant evidence. It's also distinct from a decrease in the money being spent funding the art, while that's certainly also diminished. Anyone looking to dismiss the theory of Shrinking Opportunities could point to the increase of corporate underwriting for things like festivals (North Sea, anyone?) and growing prevalence of jazz Performance Seasons of a kind that used to be exclusively the domain of Classical Music and Ballet companies (Jazz at Lincoln Center in its shiny new performance space(s)). No, I'm not talking about those gigs either, though later on I'll try to tie their existence to the larger issue of unemployment in the US being a more nuanced picture than is widely understood.

No, I'm talking about Proletariat Jazz. Paid opportunities for Up-and-Comers to showcase and refine their art, and make a respectable bankroll doing it, at the behest of small, independent businesses like clubs and restaurants. Of course I haven't done a scientific survey on this, but I feel the combination of my anecdotal observations as a jazz musician and Basic Economic Common Sense presents a compelling enough case. When I think about everything that's gone right for me as a musician - playing opportunities, opportunities to present my compositions, any time things were looking up - it was usually tied to the success of small business. A new restaurant starts offering jazz one night-a-week for a decent rate, and all of a sudden there's a demand for our services and the phone rings. A new venue starts offering paid slots to original music acts, then all-of-a-sudden we’re writing more music and calling more players to play it. We’re getting experience in two important ways - first, we’re honing our craft. If the Beatles needed years playing in Hambourg strip clubs to get good enough for the British Invasion, creative artists of all ilks hone their skills by rote repetition and gradual refinement. Second, we’re networking. I don't care what anybody says - the best single way to Climb Up and play with better and better players is to call them for gigs. (People are too busy to do jam sessions that don't pay, but when a club is paying people Make Time.)

Now those venues are vanishing. Some are popping up in their place, but the overall trend is that venues that paid for jazz are gradually being replaced by venues that charge exorbitant covers and give the musicians a small cut, if they're being replaced at all. Why? The economy sucks! There's less money floating around - consumers who in better times would have given a music bar a chance are staying home, and restaurants/bars that would in the past have taken the risk and burned the calories necessary to build an audience for their jazz night (and maybe even broken even or taken a slight loss but persevered out of a love of the Music) are operating at so close to the margins they're going with Sure Things like DJs, Indie Rock bands, and acoustic singer-songwriters.

The upshot is there are fewer opportunities for journeyman musicians to hone their craft. I'll commit a Jazz Sin (more on why I disagree with the taboo below) and say the phone has been ringing less these days, and it's no coincidence - every "job" I've lost was tied to a venue closing, or ceasing to feature jazz artists. Musicians are then forced into the Pay to Play clubs, where they inevitably view every gig as an Investment to Build Their Name, and mirror the venues' reticence to hire unproven talent, which creates a Matthew Effect within the scene. Those with Work (musicians already highly employed) are considered assets, both because their name on the bill will increase attendance (and, hence, money and notoriety) and because Every Gig Needs to Kill, and you need proven, reliable people on them. You get better at the music by playing it, but that's getting harder and harder.

But the increasing scarcity of small venues is affecting not only developing musicians, but Already Great Musicians who either because of luck or life choices aren’t part of the “jazz 1%”, and even those who are. All but the most mainstream venues are struggling for funding, and the good-paying tours are a smaller and smaller pie being divided – as I’ll discuss later on – into an ever greater number of pieces.

You don't need a PHD to spot the parallels to the economy as a whole. There used to be two paths to the American Dream - earn your way into the elite, either by being born into it or by working hard and being tenacious (and lucky), and going to the Right Schools, OR get an Honest Job, work hard, save up, buy a house, etc. That "second way" to succeed has been in gradual decline since the '70s and since the economic disaster of '08 has all-but-vanished for all but a handful of lucky folks. The First Avenue is still Wide Open, giving rise to the biggest misunderstanding of the Unemployment Crisis and the Occupy Movement - that because it's still possible to get a job, and to live very well - actually better than ever  - if you're (very well) college educated (and lucky), that There Is No Crisis and people should just Stop Complaining. (Herman Cain is probably the most recent public figure to give voice to that fallacy.)

 Exactly the same thing is at work in the jazz world. Back in "The Day", you could be a prodigious talent and go on the road with Miles Davis, or you could find the right teacher, work hard, move to a scene, play night-after-night in the clubs until you got good enough to go on the road with a big band (for which there was money), continue to improve, network, play with more-and-more elite artists, etc. When you read the biographies of the greats, you're taken aback by how many decisions were driven by Money. "So-and-so had five nights a week out in LA, so we packed up the car and moved out there, and that's how I met You-Know-Who." (Actually, even the prodigiously talented had to go through this same Dues Paying process, which worked like a Great Leveler - people like Charlie Parker, a once-a-generation genius, shared the stage with a great many musicians whose records we don't buy, but who earned a living, and they all came up together.)

Gradually, since the '60s, the Journeyman Gigs vanished. But even recently, you could still find enough work to develop into a good musician. Now, I contend that that's finally gone. There is now One Fewer Path to success as a jazz musician*, and that's to get one of the exceedingly few gigs with stars, and tap into the corporate money, most of it at festivals, most of it overseas. In short, you're either part of the “1%” or you're un - or at least - under - employed. The only path to success (and it's not success like the 1% of Wall-Streeters, more like a comfortable middle class salary playing music after a lot of hustling) is to Join the Elite. Don’t get me wrong – that’s possible – if you work hard enough and are tenacious enough, but it’s gotten a good deal harder.

(*There is a Third Way I'll discuss below, part of why it's not all bad news.)

The Rising Bar

The second force at work on the jazz and creative arts communities is the ever-better-educated workforce. (And by itself, of course, this is an exceedingly positive thing, leading the music to new heights of talent and creativity.) But the advent of ever-better music education (Booker T Washington? HSPVA?) and, less-frequently-discussed but perhaps an even greater factor, the Church-Based music education system (Gospel Chops?) means an ever-growing supply of prodigious  -basically Tour-Ready - 18-year-olds coursing into the market at a time when all opportunities but the most elite, corporate-underwritten, performance opportunities are vanishing, and this means fewer opportunities for musicians who might end up just as great, but who develop later in life. When journeyman musicians forced into the Pay-to-Play clubs are calling people for the gigs they need to achieve entrance to the Elite Ranks, the work is increasingly going to Prodigious Young Musicians when it’s not going to established greats.

The analog in the workforce-at-large is the Law of Diminishing Returns with college degrees. In the 1970s, a Master's Degree was often sufficient for entrance into the upper-middle-class. As more and more people got master's degrees (and as blue-collar and non-management white collar jobs gradually attrited or went overseas), the ante was raised. PhDs and professional degrees (like MBAs, JDs, MDs, DDSs) became the Price of Admission. Now admission to the upper levels of management at a “white-shoe” firm often requires PhD-level math expertise and/or presidential charisma. Admission to the management ranks of the Best Firms has always required a degree from a brand-name school as well as a personal connection and some luck, but now even rank-and-file positions at the best companies are hard-won. Luckily, there's still mostly enough work to go around that you'll likely find a gig with an MBA, especially if you don't set your sights on your dream job. Not So in the creative arts, for the reasons I've discussed.

Complain Less Shed More

Now we come to the most controversial part of this piece - the force that, in my opinion, is acting against the prosperity (or at least the psychological wellbeing) of creative artists, but which is not a force from without, but rather a pathology that stems from within the community, and that's the Complain Less Shed More mentality, and its first cousin the Blame the Musicians (otherwise known as "Mouldy Fig") trope. ("Shed", for readers not familiar with Jazz Lingo, comes from "Woodshed", and just means to practice your instrument.) (See also: "Killing", "Vibe".) Broadly speaking, Complain Less Shed More just means that a lot of players without gigs have no gigs because they Aren't Very Good, and should focus on improving Themselves rather than complaining, and if you're noticing the obvious kernel of truth you're not alone.

But I want to be careful about our nomenclature, and define "complain" as distinct from "observe". To Complain, in the sense detractors mean it, is to waste energy bemoaning something you Can't Change - energy that would be better channeled into affecting something you Can Change. To Observe, however, is to be honest and open about the conditions on the ground before either working to change them, optimizing your efforts to work within them, or simply deciding to opt out. What I see in the jazz community is the proactive taking-stock-of-bad-news-before-deciding-what-to-do being lumped together with sitting-on-your-ass-bemoaning-things-you-can't-change under the banner of Complaint. The Keep Your Head Down ethos evolved for understandable reasons - the arts have always been inherently unfair, and always rewarded inhuman amounts of dedication and willingness to persevere after rejection, to say nothing of the need to avoid dwelling on the ample helpings of Bad News structural to any arts scene.

But today is different. What's afflicting the creative arts community today is no less calamitous than that afflicting the entire workforce - I don't mince words when I say Jazz has an Unemployment Problem - but it's not being owned-up-to or taken stock of. Instead, an entire community of people whose lives are affected by forces outside their control is facing those forces as if they were individual crises, every day comparing their success to that of their peers on Facebook, at each juncture either making the Orwellian vow to Work Harder or simply deciding to Quit.

What to Do

The silver lining is that, contrary to the Conventional Wisdom, the audiences are there. Even as the decline of Small, Paying Venues exerts downward pressure on employment opportunities, there’s ample anecdotal evidence that audiences are not only out there, but hungry for good creative art as an alternative to the mass-produced, one-size-fits-all faire we’re all being fed. As I’ve written elsewhere, the scene today rewards entrepreneurship, because while the number of megaphones is shrinking, the number of people willing to hear what you have to say is steady.

Multiple approaches have shown success, from self-produced CDs and tours to parts of the world with “thirstier” markets, to disabusing ourselves of the need to play jazz exactly the way our forbearers did (just as they themselves disabused themselves of the need to play it exactly as their antecedents did) and making more personal – and hence more sincere, more like to resonate with audiences, more accepted at cross-genre clubs and venues - music from the same source materials, to communities that function like staffing services, offering a built-in audience to potential venues (and in the process broadening the palate of venues) and using the leverage commensurate with that value to negotiate fair rates for musicians. These solutions have been addressed elsewhere, and are tantamount to reinstating Glass Stegal, and campaign finance reform amendments. In other words, finding the solution isn’t the problem. Finding the collective awareness of our problems and collective will to address them is.

And it’s on this particular point that I feel creative arts communities could borrow a page from the Occupy playbook. Not because we’re all entitled to gigs (we’re not), and not because there’s an identifiable villain, like Goldman Sachs, depriving us of them (there’s not). And not because agitating in some kind of angsty, undirected way will improve our lots (it won’t). But the Occupy Movement fostered the gradual awareness of three fundamental truths – 1) Something’s Amiss, 2) It’s bigger than just me - it’s affecting All of Us, and 3) It’s not Our Fault, or at least Not Exclusively Our Fault. (And, I guess, 3b - Just working harder as an individual is no longer sufficient to solve it.) By waking up to the fact that those same realities afflict the jazz scene, and by talking openly about it, we’re taking an important first step. If we recognize that potential talent is going untapped and potential performance opportunities unexploited, maybe can redirect our energy away from the type of “zero-sum” “fighting over scraps” activities hallmark to unenlightened disenfranchised communities. Are stones going unturned with respect to funding opportunities for nonprofits? Should some mentorship be dedicated to Late Bloomers instead of aimed exclusively at Prodigies? Finally, are we in some cases training too many people for a job market that can’t support all of them, because there’s money in music education, and would a frank discussion about that be beneficial? At the very least the community could benefit from an awareness that we’re in this together.

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