Thursday, November 17, 2011

Making any money in jazz

Dollar bill.
This is something I wrote last week, but decided against posting, as it can be kind of a downer. I have actually officially banned from my presence discussion of how much being a jazz musician sucks financially. But now it's being thrust upon me- sort of- by this post at Jon Crowley's blog; here a young elite is not pleased with his career prospects as a jazz musician, and has put together a petition to remedy matters:

I am a saxophonist living in New York City. I have lived here for the past ten years, attended and graduated from some of the best music schools in the world. I have toured and played with many of my jazz heroes including Dafnis Prieto, Jean-Michel Pilc, Chris Potter and Richard Bona, and have been a working musician on the scene. I now find myself looking at a broken, antiquated system—a system that no longer serves us and is no longer self-sustaining. The jazz system sends young hopefuls through music schools, charges them upwards of $150,000 and then spits them out into a world where it is almost impossible to obtain the most basic sustenance. We're not talking about low-level products; these are amazing and virtuosic musicians who are struggling for work. How did jazz arrive at this current state? 

He goes on for a good while outlining the state of things, ending with the questionable solution of starting a new "genre", which he wants to be called Stretch. The idea seems to be that giving the music a new name will force society to create an entirely new apparatus for its distribution and performance, which will be better for the musicians formerly known as jazz musicians. I think he could've just as well named it Mr. McFooty's Neo-Olde Tyme Hijinks for the all the likelihood of anyone anywhere ever adopting his genre name, but he does an OK, New York-centric job of outlining some of the systemic problems with the jazz end of the music business. If you choose, you can sign his petition at the

More after the break:

What got me started on this subject was this post from NPR's A Blog Supreme regarding a study of the income sources for jazz musicians, the upshot of which was this:

  • Between 2006 to 2009, the majority of his income came from live performance, whether as a leader or soloist. Touring ranged from a little over 60% to over 91% of his revenue.
  • His U.S. engagements comprise between 56-64% of his touring activity, and Europe is a regular part of his touring schedule as well, comprising some 20-38% of performance revenue.
  • In comparison, money earned from recording was a much smaller, but not negligible portion of his income, ranging from nearly 3% to nearly 18% of his income. Money earned from composing grants and commissions tallied much the same way, accounting for nearly 3% to over 20% of his income.
  • "Knowledge of craft" — i.e. teaching, giving clinics, producing records and advising — accounted from between .3% and 3.6% of his income.

I believe this information is near-useless to people entering the field, as the authors seem to have narrowed their study to just the top few % of musicians who earn their living strictly by touring. For most of the musicians I know, this distribution is inverted- they earn much more teaching than they do performing. And this ignores the many people- possibly the majority of jazz musicians- with day jobs, or who must supplement. The common condition for jazz musicians today- and I mean excellent players, who would've made up the upper middle class of working musicians 20+ years ago- is to muddle through putting together a living from a variety of sources on a highly individual basis.

Which leads us into the abyss with this piece- Careers in Jazz- written by Seattle pianist Bill Anschell, which opens with this famously dark passage:
Every year, university programs spit out thousands of jazz musicians sporting hard earned diplomas and high hopes. But when these graduates hit the first formal rite of jazz passage – a desperate trip to the local pawn shop – they learn that the diploma is literally not worth the paper it’s printed on. Entering school, their dream was simple: To perform music they love for attentive audiences in jazz clubs, concert halls, and festivals, and to earn a fair wage for their efforts1. But set loose from the nurturing womb of the campus, they quickly experience the shock of an indifferent and often hostile new reality.

...and goes downhill from there. Now, Anschell wrote it to amuse himself, though many find it to be oppressively bleak. But anyone who has spent any time in the business will recognize the situations/archetypes he presents, even if you don't feel that, say, teaching privately is "the final stop before suicide."

I'll go into my own feelings about this another time- let's just say for now that I'm very positive about being a musician, and don't think I have as much angst about this subject as do a lot of my peers. More on that soon...

UPDATE: Oh, and you'd have to be out of your God-damned mind to rack up $150,000 in loans getting degrees in jazz. Please don't do it.


  1. Great post Todd. I really like the Anschell article.

  2. Maybe you should start a petition to change the name of jazz to Mr. McFooty's Neo-Olde Tyme Hijinks?

  3. Sure, why not? We'll see what sticks. I'm really looking forward to the sub-genres- Cool Mr. McFooty's Neo-Olde Tyme Hijinks, Smooth Mr. McFooty's Neo-Olde Tyme Hijinks, Modal, etc...

    Bill's piece is right on the money, but pretty brutal- he caught a lot of flak for it when he originally put it up. But he made it clear that it applies to him as much as anyone. He's a really great piano player and is on several things on Origin.