Careers in Jazz
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Jazz Classes, in Detail

"The Industry"

We’ve all known the awkward kid taunted throughout his school years.  He’s the first to be bullied, the last to be picked for sports teams, and the least likely to land a date; his only recourse is to plan his eventual revenge.  Entering adulthood, he channels his rage into his career, fighting his way, dog-eat-dog, to the top.  Whether a greedy CEO, an evil slumlord, or a powerful politician, underlying his every move is the subconscious desire to exact payback on his early enemies and redeem his tormented youth.

So it is with the child who is drawn to music, but simply has no talent for it.  No matter how much he practices, he never makes it past third chair in band, never gets to play in rock bands with his friends, and is never picked to solo in stage band.  Undaunted, he pursues a music degree, majoring in jazz—the most challenging and hopeless musical form.  He gets called for a few scattered gigs at first, then never called back, shunned once again for his tin ear. 

It doesn’t take him long to discover that there’s only one path to success; best of all, by taking it, he’ll be able to wield devastating power over those who have rejected him.  Without looking back, he joins “The Industry” or its periphery:  label executives, radio programmers and promoters, critics, arts administrators, booking agents, soundmen, and recording engineers.  Collectively, they ruthlessly bully working musicians and ensure that the jazz world will forever be a career cesspool.

Describing the industry’s destructiveness could be a full story in itself, but for the sake of brevity, here are single examples of how each of its component parts might suppress an artist.  In reality, the examples are endless, and the whole—the machinery’s ability to demolish aspiring musicians—is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Booking Agent:  Promises the client a polka band; books three jazz artists and a French accordion player, omits all details until the day of the gig, then assigns the artists a complete setlist for the evening— all authentic polkas—and insists they wear lederhosen and pretend to be German.

Critic:  In a race against his peers to discover and give birth to the next Chosen One, finds the least accessible new artist on the scene and writes a review glorifying his music as simply too sophisticated for less enlightened ears, provoking the other critics, in the spirit of competition, to trash the young artist as “utterly without talent,” destroying his career before it has even begun.

Soundman:  Working with an acoustic jazz trio in a small hall, uses the concert as an opportunity to show off massive new gear.  Tapping into finely honed heavy metal sensibilities, mixes the kick drum and bass above all else, rocking the house with his thunderous, state-of-the-art subwoofers.

Recording Engineer:  In the middle of a sensitive song where the band members are interacting at an artistic level previously unknown to them, accidentally hits a button that not only destroys the take, but sends a deafening, ear-piercing squeal through the headphones.

Arts Administrator:* Diverts and sucks dry the scant dollars that governmental agencies and charitable foundations earmark for jazz artists.

Club Owner:  Books a jazz artist for a weeklong stint, persuading him to cancel several lesser gigs already on his calendar.  Shortly before the week begins, dumps him for a better-known Smooth Jazz* act.

Radio Programmer:  Conducts focus groups to determine which new jazz CDs are least likely to distract “listeners” in their office environments.  Broadcasts these discs exclusively, rejecting any music that is remotely assertive or interesting, thereby convincing the station’s audience that jazz is, indeed, dead.

Radio Promoter:  Charges artists exorbitant fees in exchange for pestering radio programmers to play the artists’ new recordings.  Easily gets compliance of the radio programmers, who are happy to be relieved of the task of sorting through hundreds of new CDs that arrive every week from other hopeful, but less wealthy, musicians.  Thereby ensures that airplay goes to the artists with the most money, rather than to those who make the best music.

Record Label:  Signs an artist to an exclusive deal, does nothing to promote his music, then discards him as used goods, yesterday’s news, tomorrow’s Gig Whore.

These disparate industry segments don’t lend themselves to generalization, beyond their destructive effect on the jazz environment.  However, those who reach the top of their profession—particularly the more highly paid record label executives—may share certain characteristics:

Identifying Signs
  • Blood on their hands
  • Blatant displays of excess, including expensive cars, single-malt scotches, cigars, and professionally reconstructed women
Survival Techniques
  • The industry itself is a survival method for those drawn to jazz, money and power, which are otherwise never found in the same place.

    When times get tough, label executives stay afloat by moving from bankrupt company to soon-to-be-bankrupt company. Recently they’ve discovered a more sure-fire survival technique, stacking their supposed jazz rosters with artists who actually have nothing whatsoever to do with jazz. This fires up a “jazz revival,” wherein the public—now fed a diet of pop music labeled as jazz—suddenly discovers that it likes jazz after all.

Update: The jazz industry in the digital age

The industry, as described above, still exists, but breakthroughs in digital technology have created promising new opportunities for better exploiting naïve jazz artists. Digitally enabled predators include jazz-specific web-hosting sites (charging more than double the typical web-hosting fee in exchange for burying the artist’s information among hundreds of his peers), database companies selling lists of email contacts (primarily addresses of festivals that don’t accept unsolicited materials), and international “promoters” who request CDs from artists looking to perform at festivals abroad, then sell them on eBay. All have in common that—in a field where there’s not nearly enough to go around—they siphon money directly from artists, further reducing their minimal incomes by preying on desperate, false hope.


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