For some time, many music industry critics and pundits have postulated that jazz is dead. Even the great Wynton Marsalis wrote a song called “The Death of Jazz.” Some of these same pundits, and even a few well-known musicians, have since pivoted, and now say rock is dead. If either musical genre could speak, one could envision a Twain-ian like response that “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” though the health of either genre isn’t particularly robust, especially on the jazz side.
Let’s check out some data. According to a 2020 year-end report published by MRC/Billboard, R&B/hip-hop has the highest market share of all US audio streams at 31 percent, followed by rock at 16 percent and pop at 13 percent. Jazz and classical are dead last at less than 1 percent each. Jazz enthusiasts stream less, a lot less, but behaviorally they are also far more likely to purchase physical albums than enthusiasts of other music genres. Jazz has the highest composition of physical album sales of any musical genre at 26 percent (vs. 4 percent for R&B/hip-hop). Click here for a link to an article from Music Business Worldwide with supporting statistics.
Most streaming services today heavily weigh and promote popular songs to maximize revenue. Catering to smaller musical genres, like jazz or classical, just isn’t an effective or efficient strategy for maximizing subscriber growth, engagement or revenue. As a result, less-popular genres are inherently disadvantaged in today’s streaming world.
Let’s look at this from a somewhat different perspective. A zookeeper feeds lions beef because they’re carnivores and it’s their preferred diet. Beef satiates both the animal’s enormous appetite and its nourishment needs. You’d never feed a lion an arugula salad. Similarly, users of streaming services are fed a steady diet of music that they and like-minded enthusiasts will likely consume and enjoy, as determined by a service’s algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI). If a listener likes Kanye West, a streaming service isn’t gonna suggest Charles Mingus. The entire process is quite linear, with little, if any, crossover between musical genres.
Additionally, an artist only gets credit for a stream if a track is played for 30 seconds or more. Many popular artists, recognizing the importance of a song’s initial 30 seconds, try to game the system by making their music particularly appealing in that time frame. The fundamental construct of jazz music is considerably different than pop, which caters to a younger audience that generally has a shorter attention span. In today’s streaming paradigm, a slow-build track generally is a no-build track.
Today’s streaming services largely program and promote to a mass audience, and R&B/hip-hop is solidly at the forefront of streaming demand. That’s not to suggest there aren’t legit business opportunities to target smaller musical genres, like jazz. (I believe there are, but more about that later.)
When COVID-19 forced jazz clubs to temporarily close, many relied heavily on the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for survival. A smaller number also received concessions and lease relief from their landlords. The financial duress ultimately lead to a few permanent club closings, with some survivors still on the endangered species list.
New York’s Jazz Standard and LA’s The Blue Whale permanently closed at the end of 2020, while venerable institutions like the Village Vanguard (NYC) and Birdland (NYC) have struggled with reopening. On the heels of a nine-month performance drought, Birdland, for example, fielded a Go Fund Me campaign to raise $250,000 to keep their doors open. Many club owners, anticipating the realities of a post-COVID world and a need for patrons’ safety, also made sizable investments in ventilation and air filtration upgrades, creating even more pressure on their finances.
A lot of jazz clubs are independently owned and operated businesses, so they lack the deep financial resources of a Live Nation or an AEG. If more and more jazz clubs continue to permanently close, then an important part of the genre’s ecosystem (and a large source of artist revenue) will diminish considerably.
So, what’s so special about jazz clubs? They deliver a level of connectivity with an artist’s onstage performance that’s hard to experience at larger venues. They possess intimacy and ambience. The instruments sound brighter, clearer and sharper, plus jazz performances seemingly always have surprisingly rewarding improvisational elements to them, as jazz artists like to stretch out. In my experience (and others’), the clubs generally have stellar sound and acoustics, a prerequisite for jazz artists and the type of music they play. Why else would so many jazz artists release live club recordings?
For many jazz clubs, a large part of their profit comes from food and beverage sales, as the cuisine served is generally more expensive, upscale and of higher quality. I certainly don’t go to Madison Square Garden expecting to sample the venue’s food, heaven forbid, but dining is a large part of the entertainment experience at jazz clubs like Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center or Jazz Alley in Seattle. Many jazz clubs today deliver both a strong entertainment and culinary experience for their patrons. I’ve been privileged to see many shows at New York City’s Blue Note, the Village Vanguard, Jazz Standard, Iridium, Dizzy’s, Smalls Jazz Club, Birdland and Smoke Jazz Club. My favorite club is Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle. The club has great sound, intimacy and ambience, and they serve a pretty good martini, all in an environment that feels old-worldly. Jazz Alley feels like a 1920s-era club with modern-day accoutrements.
Pre-COVID jazz clubs weren’t necessarily flourishing. Many jazz artists will tell you the number of quality clubs across the country has dwindled considerably over the past decade or so. To drive demand, many traditional jazz clubs, such as Yoshi’s in Oakland, have expanded their booking strategies to encompass more R&B, soul and pop.
Regarding streaming, over a year ago a UK startup launched a dedicated jazz service called jazzed (currently only available in the UK). jazzed is a multi-media offering that includes access to over 10 million tracks, curated audio channels, videos, live concerts, documentaries and articles, all dedicated to the jazz genre. The company offers two tiers: an ad-supported free tier and a more robust Jazzed+ tier at £5.99 a month.
So what should jazz clubs consider doing? Well, for starters, they should explore rejiggering their business models. An obvious solution is widening their booking strategies with artists from complementary genres, and to consider booking more longer-term artist residencies, particularly in a COVID world where market-to-market travel is both a health concern and a significant expense for artists.
Another potential growth strategy is to build a digitally-linked network of leading jazz venues across the US, and then jointly launch a dedicated jazz streaming service in conjunction with a Qobuz or a Tidal, for example. The basic premise is that jazz clubs are stronger as a collective than they are individually.
Participating clubs might include The Blue Note in New York, The Green Mill in Chicago, Yoshi’s in Oakland, Jazz Alley in Seattle, and many, many more. “Live” shows from participating clubs could be streamed nightly on a rotating basis. As any enthusiast knows, real jazz is best experienced as a live art form.
This new jazz streaming service would include podcasts with leading artists, plus curated programming featuring artists’ favorite tracks, all in addition to the jazz libraries already available on Tidal or Qobuz, or whatever platform functions as the services’ strategic partners. Each live stream would be in high-quality audio. To drive engagement, set lists could also be curated or augmented using real time chat with subscribers.
Participating clubs and artists would both benefit from the national exposure the service would generate, while a strong e-commerce engine would deliver incremental revenue for artists (e.g., CDs, vinyl and merch sales) from a wider, larger base of jazz enthusiasts. Since many artists work the jazz circuit nationally, exposure to an artist’s performance in one market could drive ticket demand in another, as an artist’s tour progressed from city to city.
This new streaming service would utilize a paid subscription model, so there’d be a revenue share with both participating clubs and artists. Some jazz venues already stream shows on their own, and could continue to do so. This service would be additive and complementary to whatever a club is already doing on its own.
Well, that’s a snapshot look at a half-baked biz development idea. Feel free to poke some holes; I’m sure you can, but I think you get the concept’s basic premise.
In 1997, Apple successfully launched its brilliant “Think Different” ad campaign. That’s precisely what today’s jazz clubs need to do, think differently. For many, their survival may depend on it.
Header image: McCoy Tyner at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, Seattle, Washington, 2012. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/joe Mabel.