The New Record Deal
Have University positions become the new major label record deal for today’s jazz musician? When I moved to New York in the late ’80s/early ’90s, [we] were either looking to play in the band of someone famous or to get signed by a major record label. Today, since neither is an option, university positions seem to be the “new hustle,” as one of my colleagues likes to put it. – Sam Newsome, quoted from Downbeat, June 2010. He is on faculty at Long Island University Brooklyn Campus.
The legendary “record deal” is an endangered species. It was the golden gateway to success throughout the history of jazz. An artist would get signed by a label, go into a recording studio, capture lightning in a bottle, and walk out with a paycheck. More importantly, this was the only way to get your music distributed to record stores across the country, and eventually into the hands of eager listeners. The label would hopefully make money because of the artist’s work and in turn provide a certain amount of support for live performances, in order to sell more records. This circle of life evolved slowly, from 78’s through the compact disc, it was the law of the land. This was the jazz dream.
The record deal provided musicians a needed supplementary income to assist with their performance career. All great jazz musicians spent time in the studio, in order to walk out with a check. Touring was the heart of every career, but the income and exposure from the label’s marketing department, provided the skeletal support and the public image needed for their livelihood.
As jazz aged and became more socially acceptable, it was introduced into academia. At this time, a musician either primarily taught jazz as a career or they would primarily perform jazz as a career. This is not to diminish in any way the greatness of their mission, these early jazz educators were heroes in their own right. They had to create entire curricula, essentially constructing the entire industry of jazz education. They had to bravely defend the art form from the highbrow attacks of traditional classical methodologists deeply fortified within the ivory tower. They have succeeded, the point has been proven. We need jazz education.
There is still a false assumption that this concept of teach vs. play is relevant, even when dancing along the lines of a “teacher who plays” or a “player who teaches.” When a young musician thinks, “I’m going to make it as a player,” what does that really mean these days? Or, “I’m going to be a teacher,” and teach WHAT exactly?
Times are changing. Remember, this year’s Grammy Award for “Best New Artist” went to a Jazz Professor at Berklee College of Music.
The old industry chain of record deal – label – distributor – record store – consumer, is dead and gone. Big labels are toast. Distributors, well… (who?? ‘nuff said). I gotta say though, that I do miss the record stores. I loved flipping through the vinyl and the cassettes looking for new music. The record store was one of the two types of stores I could ever enjoy browsing as a consumer, the other being a good book store.
In addition to the death of the record deal and the disappearance of all that it brought to the table for jazz musicians, touring has come to a standstill. The heart of our artform has some serious cholesterol issues. Gas is above $3 a gallon, as compared to less than a dollar during most of jazz’s history. Jazz clubs can’t afford to stay open, let alone pay the band. And sadly, because of the natural passing of time, the jazz greats, who could lead a band that would always draw a crowd, have all but vanished from the scene. Marquee acts are hard to find these days. The big label marketing machine has disappeared and the next generation of jazz greats is struggling (along with the rest of the music industry) to get their music noticed in the sea of information called the Internet. What was once a trickle of free music has become a flood.
The current industry path for music is: home (or cheap) recording, upload directly to the web, to be downloaded immediately by the consumer. Remember feeling guilty when copying a buddy’s record onto cassette tape? Well that’s NOTHING compared to free downloading. Check this site out, YouTube Mp3. Most kids don’t even own a stereo.
So with touring at a crawl and record income eradicated by free downloads, how does a performing jazz musician stay afloat? Education. Look closely at the touring musicians’ calendars, an unusually high percentage of appearances are within some sort of academic environment. Clinics, festivals and guest appearances at high schools and universities are some of the most lucrative performance venues these days. And if they are lucky, they may even get an adjunct teaching gig in their hometown. This is not an accident. It is however, a secret. Performers still want to be considered jazz musicians, not jazz educators. Because of our twisted vision of marketing (which is still based on the old record label hierarchy), everyone feels threatened. Since there is still money in jazz education, there is a feeling of envy and resentment towards teachers from players who are struggling. There is also an odd feeling of insecurity from teachers who choose not to perform (for whatever reason) and they feel threatened by the image of the touring professional. When the going gets tough, everyone gets jealous.
It’s time for these negative dis-associations to stop. If you teach you CAN play. If you perform, you ARE qualified to teach. It is NOT one or the other, it’s BOTH.
Perhaps the coveted university gig has indeed become the new record deal. Here’s a short (and incomplete) list of performing jazz trumpeters and their respective “labels”:
Donald Byrd, one of my early heroes on the horn, has taught music at Rutgers University, the Hampton Institute, New York University, Howard University, Queens College, Oberlin College, Cornell University and Delaware State University. (source: Wikipedia)
For every jazz trumpeter with a teaching gig, there are at least 10 who are looking, in hopes of finding a good fit. I know some heavy cats in NYC (and elsewhere) who are actively applying for university jobs. It’s a difficult market. They not only are competing with the multitude of recent jazz school graduates, but they themselves may need to go back to school to pursue a graduate degree, just to satisfy the university’s strict employment policies. This is our current reality.
Of course teaching at a university is much more than getting signed to a record label. Don’t let my analogy here belie my deep commitment to jazz education.
Now to finally bring my blog up to date…
Last August (2010) I accepted a Visiting Assistant Professor / Director of Jazz Studies position, at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. This appointment has kept me traveling back and forth between Alabama and New York (and Minnesota). The school’s former jazz director and trumpet professor, Chip Crotts, built a fantastic jazz ensemble program during his tenure here and it’s been an honor to re-establish the program as one of the state’s best jazz destinations. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with these talented student musicians here at JSU.
I have just (March 2011) accepted a tenure track position as Director of Jazz Studies back east at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, to begin August 15, 2011. I’m truly very excited to join their esteemed faculty and to develop a program specifically addressing the needs of a modern jazz musician.
A bit of advice to those musicians who are just graduating college and are planning to pursue a career in jazz: if you are hoping to get a college teaching gig to supplement your performance career, you are now competing with top-level professional jazz musicians. Not too long ago, those same musicians weren’t looking for university jobs, they didn’t need to…
The upside of this future reality is the global exportation of jazz musicians. The young jazz musicians of the world are already coming to the United States to study jazz, and our jazz artists (performers/teachers) are increasingly relocating to other countries to pursue their modern jazz careers. This trend will not only increase, it will become the United States’ primary artistic export to the world.