Friday, March 28, 2014

Viewer Mail: Minimum Wage, etc...

Time for Viewer Mail! This recently came in and was regarding an earlier post about musicians working for less than minimum wage.....

Hi George, I'm surprised this post has no comments. I just had a couple thoughts to add. First, I find it odd that some people are willing to pay up to $85 to see a jazz concert, yet other times people will leave barely a few dollars in a tip jar. I think this disparity confuses people on what live music is worth. The big names that come to places like the SF Jazz Center (in San Francisco) are able to rake in the money, but local musicians can barely make minimum wage. 

Being a jazz fan and non-professional jazz musician in my mid-twenties, I can say that I am one of the youngest attendees at the majority of jazz shows I attend. Usually the crowd is a bunch of much older grey-haired couples. My guess it that they have good taste and lots of money to spend.

I don't know the answer, but I think the price for jazz needs to meet in the middle from $0 and $85. The majority of people don't understand or appreciate jazz. For me, it is so much about the live performance and seeing what happens in that specific concert. I've taken new friends to jazz shows who afterwards come to this realization. I think younger crowds might be latch on more if it were more affordable, and if jazz musicians and jazz fans did their part in introducing people to the music as a meaningful performance art, and not as just background music at a restaurant or bar.

Re: digital innovation -- I wish jazz artists would embrace bootleg recordings. Wouldn't it be amazing if after going to a jazz concert, you could purchase a digital download of that specific performance? I still wish I had brought my recorder to the Bill Frisell and Greg Osby duet I heard last year. Any thoughts on why this isn't common practice?


Thanks, R.C. I totally agree with your sentiment. Just like the rest of our society, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There used to be a solid middle class of musicians, in the not so distant past; musicians could do club dates, weddings, restaurant gigs, hotel gigs, studio work, jingles, and so forth. Jazz musicians could tour Europe and Japan and make a killing. Much of that has faded away, unfortunately. There was a time when jazz musicians had a minimum in terms of how much they would take to play a local gig; now, playing for the door or for tips is practically the norm. The very idea of a "professional musician" is becoming a lofty goal rather than a real career option. This is not to say it's impossible to make a living in music. People are still earning a living, it's just that you have to be open minded and much more versatile than ever before. Most musicians do some teaching, and have to do many different types of gigs to make it all work. At least, the mere mortal musicians have to have many irons in the fire; the superstars are mostly doing fine( although I hear rumblings about loss of record sales for some of the bigger jazz artists. Still, they aren't worried about being kicked out of their apartment).

I think much of the problem comes from the devaluation of music and culture in our society combined with the willingness of musicians and artists to work regardless of pay. Musicians like to play, so they will find a way, even if it means renting a hall themselves and losing money. In terms of jazz gigs, musician's unions have traditionally done very little to create a minimum standard of pay. (The musician's union in New York City, Local 802, of which I was never a member, is geared mostly towards orchestras and Broadway musicians. A friend of mine went to a 802 meeting and asked what he should do when a jazz club asked him to play for the door. "Don't play there!" was the response.)

You are right about the disparity in terms of pay, or the perceived value of the concert folks are attending. Recently, Wynton Marsalis, who is one of the most famous jazz musicians of our time, performed in Portland. Tickets were at least 100 dollars if not more! However, you might have trouble getting folks to pay 6 dollars at Camellia Lounge to hear Randy Porter or Steve Christofferson, two world class pianists -who truthfully aren't as famous as Wynton Marsalis, but who offer jazz piano as good as you would need to hear in any given evening. I mean, 6 dollars! It's kind of a travesty. I think a lot of people get caught up in the hype, and hype beats actually understanding the musical merit of local jazz masters.

It's interesting what people WILL spend money on; people will drop 100 bucks easily on a fancy meal, and then complain about a 6 dollar cover charge. People will buy expensive computers, ipods, and ipads, and then download music for free. People will buy weed, beer, and whatever else, and then say, " I can't afford to go hear music tonight." Everyone loves to make an excuse. Some of those people( music students) are planning on being working musicians in the future; some of them will be in for a rude awaking when they find that there are even fewer opportunities. "I wish there were more places to play...." Well, no one supported the venues which put on jazz, so they stopped having jazz(or any live music.)

This might be unrelated, but it's interesting to me that students will pay many thousands of dollars to attend a jazz program to have us teach them information that is available for free on the internet. You can find chord scale theory by looking for it on Google, not to mention the first page of almost every Aebersold book. You can find transcriptions online for free. Heck, you can hear all of the classic albums for free on youtube! The missing link is the scene. What students are missing is the connection with the masters. Pay your cover charge, go hear master musicians play, write down the tunes they play, go home and learn them, and do that for a few years. Then, when you feel like you know enough of the tunes that the masters know, you go down again and ask if you can sit in. This is basically what I did in Baltimore and D.C.; I went to The New Haven Lounge, The One Step Down, Blues Alley, Bertha's, Twins Lounge, and so forth, and listened to the local heavies like Bob Butta, Tim Murphy, Charles Covington, Reuben Brown, and countless others, and tried to figure out what they were playing and doing. Although I was extremely shy, I would eventually ask to sit in, and then I started to become part of the scene. This is where it is at for me in terms of jazz as a living art form. It's not just a class in school, or an abstract idea; jazz is meant to be PLAYED and LISTENED TO! Go down and hear some tonight! Maybe don't buy weed this week so you can hear some music that will keep you high for the whole week!

As far as recording gigs goes, I think the older guys are a bit protective about live taping because there is the fear of having bootlegs that are released without paying the musicians. In a way, this idea is outdated only because no recorded music is selling well, so releasing a bootleg for sale is sort of wasted effort! Some artists do have that technology together in terms of recording the gig and then having it be available right afterwards, but I guess it takes work to make that happen. It's not impossible, though. Maybe I'll try that at some point: record the gig, and then either burn CDs or make download codes available.

This brings up another point about live performance; when you hear greats on recordings, oftentimes, it's only about one tenth of what they can really do overall.  I remember hearing people like Gary Bartz and Charlie Young in Baltimore and Washington  D.C. ; they would really stretch out on their solos, in a way that you wouldn't hear on a 6 minute studio track. The real fans want to remember those gigs. I know there is an underground bootleg trading network, and if it helps to keep the music alive, I'm not against it.

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