Top 50 JAzz Blog

Monday, December 16, 2013

Whither the Professional (jazz) Musician?

Ronan Guilfoyle's post, Amateur Hour, raises interesting questions. Will the "democratization" of technology undermine traditional approaches to musicianship (i.e.-practicing/dedication)? Will free downloading take the ultimate toll? Will only the very musically elite make a living by performing for only the very fiscally elite? 

Another question rises by extension: if the class of professional musicians shrinks what, if anything, is lost? After all, most people probably see pro musicians (not the ones who are "stars") as another brand of professional, as in doctor, lawyer or CPA. They might see them as Mandarins or anachronisms, but probably not as martyrs to technological change. 

Historically, by expanding the pool of instruments and making it possible to more cheaply manufacture better ones, technology has had a hand in expanding the class of professional musicians pretty continuously since the Middle Ages-a broader base of players has meant more high quality musicians. 

Music eventually became an expectation, not a lagniappe-a process that has gone so far that music is not only ubiquitous, it's now actually intrusive. Easy to infer how that effects the level of esteem accorded professional musicians.

In the early-mid 20th century, technology, in the form of recording and radio, had a more radical effect, causing widespread panic in the world of professional music. Protracted battles were fought among shifting alliances of musicians, the musician's union, the recording industry and the radio industry. 

An equilibrium was reached, which resulted in probably the longest period of stability among these blocs (plus TV), lasting from the end of the last big musicians strike in 1948 until the era of free downloading and cheap home studios gained steam in the 1990's. There were technology changes during those 40 years-FM, LP's, stereo, cassettes, 8-tracks and CD's. While musical tastes changed (including a diminution in the fiscal and cultural status of jazz musicians), technology didn't cause tectonic shifts in the status of the professional musical class. 

Have the complete landscape changes in 
music production and distribution since the 1990's meant a boon or a death knell to pro musicians as a class?
Figures from the Department of Labor Statistics can provide some perspective. I added up all those who are listed as "musicians, singers" in all of the industries listed. In other words, anyone who is being paid above the table to be a professional. Want to guess the total number? It's 38,970, out of a US population of 311.6 million. That's .000125%. I haven't found statistics that would allow us to see if that percentage changes from decade to decade. My guess is that it shrinks every year.

Arts statistics on Symphony orchestras show that since 2000, attendance, with a couple of year's exception, has been declining; gross revenues have been declining slightly less, which just means they're charging more per ticket. Of course, their expenses always go up.

The middle class of professional musicians is clearly diminishing as money flows to the top and to the broad-based bottom or is not spent at all. 

Lack of potential income will eventually take its toll on domestic enrollment at music schools and conservatories, but I don't think that technology will diminish the work ethic of young musicians. Just as, in the 1960's, scores of teenagers opted to pick up guitars instead of trumpets, fewer young folks will struggle to master the II-V progression and more will master ProTools. There will still be a cadre learning Bird solos. 

Young people have always found ways to obsess, compulse and drive their neighbors insane. Those who have the savvy and energy will undertake to leverage the internet, while codgers like me will continue to be trampled in the digital stampede. 

This is just a very small part of the picture. I realize that. But it's about all I can muster this go-round. Now, it's time to practice.

A couple of articles:

A nice article shows graphically how many units a musician would have to sell to make minimum wage.

This report compiled info on artist's revenue streams. 

This page, focusing on jazz musicians, has bad news


Ronan Guilfoyle said...

Thanks for a thoughtful and informative post Steve - the discussion continues, though I admit I have no idea where it will go, it's just guesswork - hope I'm wrong……...

Steve Provizer said...

Thanks for reading, Ronan...There seem to be trends, but if anyone says they know where it will all go, they're probably bringing an agenda of their own.

pwlsax said...

The last-mentioned study brings up a point that's worth thinking about - jazz musicians are an under-studied group socially. Jazz, the music, resists categorization, and jazz musicians probably do, too. They tend to network and help one another out only if they're close collaborators, because in a way, jazz players from different styles or communities are strangers to one another.

None of which is much good for the music as a profession, but "it is what it is," and more and more often, it isn't what it was.

Steve Provizer said...

The degree to which jazz and its practitioners are culturally "marginal" types is interesting. It's tough to make comparisons generation to generation, as you can read the anecdotal history of jazz however you want to.

It's possible that as jazz fragmented into different styles, identification among jazz musicians also fragmented. At the very least, it's always been somewhat notable when people known as practitioners of a particular style played or recorded with people from a different "camp."

Actually, I think it's reasonable to think of Ellington's bands as big umbrellas harboring different schools of stylists; surely one element of the singularity of his music.