The Jazz.com Blog
July 07, 2009 · 1 comment
A few days ago, the National Endowment for the Arts published the summary findings of its study on arts participation in the United States. The media has not given much publicity to this report, but for anyone concerned about the state of the arts in America, the results are a warning sign.
And the findings about the jazz audience in the United States are especially troubling.
Let me share three tables from the survey. The first looks at the average age of attendees at cultural events. The numbers show that the audience for all types of activities is aging, but the change in the jazz audience is so drastic, that one can scarcely believe what the numbers say. According to the survey, the average age of a jazz event attendee in 1982 was 29, but in 2008 the average age was 46. As hard as it is to believe, the age of the typical jazz fan has increased by seventeen years in just two-and-a-half decades.
The most likely—indeed the only plausible—explanation for these numbers is that very few new fans have discovered jazz since the 1980s. The old fans continue to follow the music, but teenagers and twenty-somethings have very little interest in jazz.
A second chart supports this view. It looks at cultural event attendance for people between the ages of 18 and 24. Except for art museums, all other categories show a decline, but the drop in jazz attendance is enormous—a 58% shrinkage since 1982. The conclusion is indisputable. Jazz has lost most of its younger audience.
This is all the more unsettling, when one considers how much jazz education has expanded during the last two decades. When I was in college, jazz studies hardly existed. African-American music of all sorts was kept out of the curriculum. I still recall the chilly response I received when I played Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" for my freshman piano audition. (The requirement was to play a movement from a Beethoven sonata, or something of the equivalent level of difficulty.) Yet jazz was very popular with the students, even if it rarely showed up in a classroom. Nowadays, jazz is accepted at virtually every institution of higher learning. Yet, judging by the NEA study, the students don't have the same level of interest as they did back when it was excluded.
I recently shared in this column my view that jazz was in a state of crisis. Certainly the NEA study only confirms the worst possible interpretation of recent events. Many of us would like to believe that the current collapse in many long-standing jazz institutions is simply a temporary situation, driven by the overall economic malaise. The NEA study suggests that a more chronic problem exists, and that even a reversal in employment figures and home prices won't be enough to prop up the dwindling jazz audience.
If there is one positive sign from the NEA study, it comes from the figures on the online audience for music. Close to fifty million Americans have some exposure to music via the Internet each week.
This could be a pathway toward expanding the audience for jazz and other performance genres. But the current attitude in the music business, which tends to view the web as the enemy, is not a promising foundation for building on this platform. For the time being, the industry is using every tool at its disposal—litigation, lobbying, technology, bullying—to slow down the growth of a web-based audience.
Maybe if they play hardball long enough, they will force people to give up on MP3 files and go back to the jazz clubs. But the evidence of this study suggests otherwise.
Only the summary findings of the NEA study have been made public so far. It will be interesting to see what the full results will show.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia