Thursday, July 30, 2009
The eternal frame
As I continue to work through the details of the Industrial Jazz Group's upcoming east coast tour, and the logistical and fiscal realities of that operation come into greater focus, I keep coming back to a question about audience.
I'm pretty sure we're going to get a good turnout of fellow musicians for our shows (we usually do), but when it comes to music-fans-who-are-fans-only -- i.e., non-musicians or amateur musicians, who actively and regularly invest in the music they like -- how are we gonna get more of this latter group to give the IJG experience a try?
It's a question with ramifications both narrowly selfish and practical (we need to expand our audience or I am gonna lose my shirt) and broadly philosophical (where will jazz be in ten years if jazz musicians / academics / critics are, and continue to be, the primary jazz fans?).
Of course, those philosophical ramifications are probably only relevant if, as I guess I'm assuming, jazz is in danger of becoming a closed system.
Not that closed systems are necessarily bad for audience development. They seem to work in sports, for instance. Consider: most sports fans participate in a given sport before becoming fans of it. For many, the process of becoming a fan -- following a given team, going to games regularly, buying the merchandise, investing in the activity -- is a way of maintaining an interest in the sport, especially once an individual discovers that he or she can't (or doesn't want to) play it professionally (for whatever reason).
Alas, in jazz, this model seems to break down somewhat. For one thing, fewer people are interested in playing jazz than are interested in playing sports. (Right?) And of those who become interested in playing jazz, I would bet that a higher percentage stick with it as a career (particularly once they get as far as forking over hard-earned cash for an expensive music degree). The process creates a glut of professionals, and fewer jazz-savvy non-professionals to consume the stuff the professionals produce.
Which just takes us back to the original problem.
The thing that may be difficult for jazz musicians (actually, musicians in general, but jazz musicians in particular) to get a handle on is that most fans, regardless of how much they might be "purely" inclined toward certain music on its own terms, and regardless of how much they may or may not even realize this underlying dynamic, simultaneously want a story -- a context or frame for their listening. And not just any story / context / frame, but the right one; something compelling, that helps to draw people in or galvanize their listening experience.
Isn't that kind of what liner notes used to do?
For instance, with jazz, one of those stories -- one of the compelling contexts / frames that attracted listeners who were not necessarily also players, or professional players -- used to be the countercultural narrative: the idea that jazz was part of a quirky (or dangerous, or exciting) alternative to the American (consumerist, bourgeois) mainstream -- including, eventually, the "commodified counterculture" that characterized much rock. (Note that such stories don't necessarily have to be true to be effective.) I know that's what attracted me, long before I actually had the chutzpah to try studying or playing or writing jazz. Jazz was an expression of rebellion, and it intersected with so many of the other rebellious narratives of my youth (both personal and cultural).
It seems almost silly and quaint now to make this observation, because jazz has since been championed by forces that are anything but countercultural (if indeed anything can be "countercultural" anymore). But going back all the way to the beginning, that story was at least occasionally an important part of the way jazz reached outside its base (to the extent that it reached outside its base at all). I'm not even sure how conscious it was (probably not very), but it worked.
And so (talk about "jazz of the future"!) what story or context or frame has replaced (or will replace) the old one(s)? What compelling conversations about or around jazz will appeal to those who are not themselves already intimately bound up in the art form?
If you're already making great music, and you can answer these questions, then congratulations! You win.
[Image credit: Rodrigo Baptista]