I’ve been meaning to discuss the recent brochure published by the National Endowment for the Arts for awhile now; finally, Ted Gioia’s thoughtful post at jazz.com has provided me with the inspiration to chime in.
I disagreed somewhat with Mr. Gioia’s Chicken Little take on the state of jazz today, but this time I can’t argue with the fact that the NEA findings are indeed ugly news for the jazz community.
The report lists 11 key findings, nine of which have something specific to say about the state of the jazz audience (findings 3 and 4 are somewhat tangential to jazz specifically.) After the jump, I’ll take a look at what each one means for the (un)changing demographics of the jazz audience.
1 ) One in three adults attended an art museum or an arts performance in the 12-month survey period
Interestingly, jazz was put into the same category as classical music for their breakdown, but separate from “Latin, Spanish or Salsa.” The former pulled in over 31 million attendees in the past year, while the latter had an audience of about 11 million. Plays, musicals and art museums were all more popular with the general public.
I was surprised and somewhat dismayed to see jazz being paired with classical music for this study. Fortunately, this is the only part where the two are linked. I’ve always believed that once jazz is treated in the same way as classical music — as an essentially dead music written by dead people — then we’re really in trouble. When the Federal Government is buying into that categorization, I think that’s a pretty good sign that the idea has caught hold.
2 ) Smaller percentages of adults attended performing arts events than in previous years
Between 2002 and 2008, jazz experienced a decrease in audience attendance for the first time since the NEA has been publishing this survey. That by itself is no good, obviously, and it’s worse when you consider that the rate of decline appears to be accelerating. This is due in large part to the fact that jazz is not attracting new listeners, which takes us to the next finding:
5 ) Long term trends suggest fundamental shifts in the relationship between age and arts attendance.
This is the one that stood out the most in terms of jazz participation. The median age for the US population increased from 39 to 45 between 1982 and 2008; the median age for those who listen to jazz increased from 29 to 46 during that same time. That’s a 17 year increase in median age over the past 26 years, meaning that very, very few younger people are joining the ranks of jazz fans. Percentage-wise, the overall size of the jazz audience between the age of 18 and 24 decreased by over ten percentage points, a rate of decline of nearly 60%! There are simply not very many people my age or younger who care about jazz anymore. Not a good sign for the music to continue to have an audience. As a comparison, the classical music audience only increased in median age by nine years in the same time span.
Jazz was once a hip thing where you’d show off your LPs with your buddies and eagerly await the next Wayne Shorter release. Today, the dynamic has changed. I first noticed this trend when I ran a jazz show for my college radio station a few years ago: all of the really cool stuff was back in the LP section, where students had collected a bunch of really neat and varied stuff to play on their numerous jazz shows. In my time, there were a bunch of weak promo CDs that nobody had listened to (nor should they have); the station’s music budget had completely shifted to indie rock. At one point, I was the station’s only jazz DJ.
6 ) Arts activity rises with education level. Yet even the most educated Americans are participating less than before.
This is another interesting point that shows how the jazz audience has changed. Among college-educated arts-goers, jazz didn’t take nearly as bad of a hit as classical music, opera, ballet or non-musical plays. I believe this has to do with the fact that many of those youngsters listening to jazz in the 80s have since received college degrees. As a result, jazz is catching up to the other art forms mentioned as a music that is appreciated more by better-educated Americans. This is also consistent with the growth of jazz as a field of academic discourse since the mid-1970s.
7 ) Adults generally are creating or performing at lower rates — despite opportunities for displaying their work online.
Here’s where the silver lining for jazz starts to appear in the NEA findings. While every other category of performing arts saw statistically significant declines, jazz has held steady in terms of adult participation in performance. That also speaks to my general perception of jazz today: most of the people I know who dig it can play it to some degree.
I would posit that this is especially true among the younger generation of jazz fans. I believe this because our exposure to the music is very different from that of the older generation of jazz enthusiasts. Ted Gioia, for example, posted a very enjoyable read about his coming of age as a jazz fan: he found out about it through books and magazines. Of course, it’s almost becoming redundant to talk about the demise of the jazz print media these days …
8 ) Most Americans who enjoy artwork and performances on the Internet do so frequently
Again, good news for jazz, as so much energy is being put into figuring out how to make the music viable online. I don’t think it’s particularly revolutionary to suggest that the Internet holds the key to the future of jazz as far as distribution, marketing and audience goes.
9 ) As in prior years, more Americans view or listen to broadcasts and recordings of arts events than attend them live
No surprise here — however, as we consider the changing demographic of the new generation of jazz fans, it is important to reconsider the aesthetic of jazz recordings. We’re well past the LP glory days of Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. Today, jazz remains relevant because of the nature of the improvised performance and the virtuosity and expressivity of acoustic instrumentalists. How that translates to the digital age remains to be seen.
10 ) Schools and religious institutions engage many adults in live arts events
Most of my peers came into the music through either their family or through school. I was incredibly fortunate to learn from Ben Medler, a hip 25-year-old at the time who turned me onto Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins while teaching me the basics of jazz trombone. Many others today are being taught about jazz through their schools, and I believe that is slowly becoming the main source of “market share” as far as jazz exposure in adolescence goes. This shift is having an important effect on the tastes of the new generation of jazz fans.
11 ) School-aged children often attend performances outside school, according to their parents
This reinforces the emerging power of our educational institutions to shape the tastes of the next generation of the musical audience. Of particular import, I believe, is the emphasis on helping kids understand the beauty and power of musical expressivity through acoustic instruments and one’s own voice, to contrast with the exclusively digital interface that most young people now encounter with regards to their musical experience.
Overall, the news is pretty dire. The audience is shrinking. New fans aren’t finding the music. Avenues that have brought thousands of jazz fans into the fold in the past are dying. The educational establishment lacks a central purpose with regards to jazz education. However, I believe that the way forward can also be found inside the numbers. The NEA survey reflects the inevitable trending of the jazz audience; the key will be how those who care about the future of jazz work together to adapt to the changing reality.