David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: business, distribution, history, technology, @musings info

Jazz: adapt or die

In my lifetime jazz has never been as popular as ... um, popular music. And by "popular" I mean all of the radio-friendly pop that has been aired from about 1960 onward.

There have been three big changes in the music business over the past century.

The first was brought on by recording, which allowed music to spread beyond the neighborhoods and regions of its origin.

The second was brought on by advertising, which is inextricably tied to radio broadcasting. Although recording had begun to monetize music, participation was limited to those who had the means to record and distribute the music. Commercial broadcasting vastly extended the ability of business people to exploit music and - not coincidentally - opened up new marketing channels for those who created recordings.

The problem with jazz, I think, is that it has - at least since the late 1950s - been "outsider" music. The "serious" jazz musicians have always sought to create something extraordinary, creating new musical languages that alienated much of their potential audience. The "light" jazz genres, on the other hand, have aimed to become pleasant and unchallenging. Neither extreme spoke to a new generation of music fans in the way that heavily marketed and promoted pop music was able to do through unyielding repetition and promotion through multiple channels.

That promotion, of course, was driven by demographics. Younger listeners are more likely to buy something on impulse or to conform to the norms of their self-identified social group. Listening to jazz required intent and attention; these are attributes of more mature, less impulsive consumers who identify more with family and work than with their peers. These folks are a tough sell because their needs and interests are much more fragmented than the younger audience.

Computer technology and the internet are driving the third big change in music. Anyone with a few hundred dollars and a musical instrument can craft a listenable recording. Someone with talent, patience, a good ear, and a couple thousand dollars can create a recording that's (technically at least) every bit the equal of most of the recordings created during what many of us consider to be "the golden age of music".

Big-time distribution remains unchanged, of course; despite the internet, there are barriers to entry that most of us will never overcome. But for virtually no money, any one of us can "distribute" our creative output to a worldwide audience. We may end up with ten "fans" by just throwing up a few links on a web site. But we've seen time and again that those willing to put in the work of honing their craft and becoming self-promoters can monetize their own music without any "help" from a middleman or gatekeeper.

If you've been paying attention you've noticed that there's already a plethora of would-be middlemen trying to figure out how to insert themselves between artists and fans. That's a sure sign that these people think that internet distribution of music is the next big thing.

At any rate, jazz is not dead. It's out there. It's changing. Yes, there are still some people who cling to "classic" jazz, just as there are some (admittedly, many more) who still cling to "classic" rock.

Meanwhile there are plenty of artists attempting to build something new upon the rambling foundations of jazz. These artists will probably never do an international stadium tour (to be fair, the percentage of acts doing this is vanishingly small compared to what happened in decades past), but many of them will have enough confidence, persistence and business savvy to build up a loyal following of fans willing to contribute to the support of the artist. This support will be unlikely to become the sole source of income in most cases. Rather, it will be one source of income in addition to working at other music-related jobs.

Jazz is not dead. It's growing a third eye and a prehensile tail...

August 16 2009 05:08:58 GMT