Yes, I’m still pissed off about the Jazz Fest West cancellation, and I’m even more pissed off because I’m seeing the same R&B’d-out lineups happen at other festivals too.
I am very much over staying quiet about what’s bothering me in this industry, and I am well aware this might make me unpopular in some circles. Know what? I’m past the stage of giving a shit. I would rather stand for what I feel is right and stand alone than follow a crowd when the crowd is heading in a direction I am not okay with.
If you see yourself or your event in my writing, then lace up the shoe and wear it. I won’t retract a single syllable, nor will I issue a single apology to anyone whom I may offend/piss off. So don’t even bother writing to me about it. I am expressing my sole opinion, and if it’s unpopular or if it pisses people off – that’s fine. Maybe it’ll get people to think a bit, too.
I do, however, hereby make a pledge that, with the sole exception of Capital Jazz Festival, which has consistently put on an event that’s balanced across all three major genres that it offers and openly acknowledges as offering – jazz, soul, and funk – I will not put one red cent towards a festival or event that over-dilutes its lineup with R&B and continues to bill as a jazz festival.
I will not buy tickets to a diluted event. I will not offer my photo services, even to the detriment to my own income. I will not attend, not even on a guest list.
Because I have truly had enough, and I do NOT support what’s happening to the festival lineups. I am not okay with it. I am definitely not okay with it. Nor are quite a few people I know. I enjoy Capital Jazz because Cap makes every effort to ensure that all genres get equal weight.
I have witnessed Newport Beach Jazz Festival morph into something I barely recognize in the space of the two years since Scott Pedersen had stopped being in charge. I have borne witness to what happened with radio station playlists after Broadcast Architecture came on the scene and “architectured” the playlists to where my own beloved CD101.9 had become an unpalatable loop before its demise. I saw what happened after CD101.9 flipped. I saw clubs and venues that were known for having a variety of contemporary jazz suddenly begin saying, “There’s no market for jazz” when it had previously been a fairly consistent stream of their revenue. You may have seen it in your cities too, that same chain reaction: a station becomes unpalatable, people stop listening, them boom! it flips, then suddenly the local events dry up because everyone parrots that “there’s no market” – when their market is still right where it was, but it’s just not being catered to anymore because the radio ceased existing and prior thereto, the lineup got so homogenized that it became just plain boring.
And I am seeing the same pattern emerge with festivals with the demise of Jazz Fest West. The past three years, lineups got diluted more and more with R&B. Now JFW collapsed. How much do you want to bet that this has given every naysayer who said, “Jazz is dead” at the radio station shutdowns more fuel to the fire? How much do you want to bet that everyone who had trash-talked jazz before will now have additional grounds for doing so, because not even the jazz festivals are truly jazz festivals anymore in lineup? This is all only adding to the extremely mistaken impression that jazz, whether straight-ahead, smooth, acid, whatever, doesn’t carry an appeal, when few things are further from the truth.
Before people say that jazz is dead, let’s first check that that isn’t deliberate.
Let me also remind you that I was behind the scenes in trying to put on a festival event – as a bookkeeper. This was an eye-opening experience to the very harsh realities of the business aspect of the music business. I know full well that without securing a major sponsor, it’s next to impossible to make the event happen. Yes, you do have to play politics too, whether you like it or not. Market research becomes a lifeline. And the event I was working on just couldn’t pull the sponsorship together. Jazz Fest West, however, had financial and media backing that the event I was working on just didn’t have and couldn’t get. Whatever JFW’s cause of demise actually is, I still firmly stand by my previous hypothesis that the lineup was a huge contributing factor to its collapse. They had the sponsors. They had a long-standing rep to fall back on. They had media presence and advertising, even in the post-collapse climate. But the lineup had changed in recent years and it just wasn’t the lineup that Jazz Fest West was known for in the past. The damage is done.
Whether or not the festival will make a comeback, I don’t know. But jazz is something people travel quite a ways for – I’m not referring to myself here, but rather folks from Europe who would board a flight just to hit up a jazz festival in the US – and if they look at a lineup and say, “Not worth it”, what do you think they’ll tell other fans?
Whether local to the fest or to their country, in today’s world of social media and word of mouth, how would that affect ticket sales for that particular event?
Don’t tell me there’s no new artists to put on a fest with. There are plenty of new artists, but the challenge is weeding through them. It used to be that the radio stations had done that quality control for us. Now who’s doing it? Who’s the quality control? If the audience doesn’t see or hear a new artist, then how do they even know the new music is out there? The Internet is drenched in new musicians; how do we weed out who the good ones are? Online radio stations and interviews are only one piece of the puzzle; the real determinant of success is the live show. Spaghettini’s is a historic launchpad of jazz talent of all hyphen-jazz iterations possible, but Spags doesn’t have to operate alone. Newport Beach of 2012 and prior had a separate stage for up-and-coming artists, and if you may recall 2011, a young kid with a tenor sax slightly bigger than himself came out on the side stage, then onto the main stage with Dave Koz, and kicked some serious ass on both. You may know him: Vincent Ingala? A Spags regular who packs the house each time? Look at where he is after that 2011 Newport Beach event. And he got there without the jazz radio climate; this was all in the aftermath of the great shutdown, and he got where he was because Scott Pedersen took a listen to his debut album, all of which being self-produced, and decided that this kid had a shot. He could’ve so very easily booked Eric Roberson, who’s a pretty well-known soul singer, in Vincent’s stead, and drawn in a slew of R&B/soul fans. Instead he kept an all-jazz fest and launched a career.
There are many more like Vincent. I would rather they get a shot at a festival timeslot as opposed to, say, Stephanie Mills, whom I can say a lot about, and so can other artists. I would rather that Chicago, NYC, and other major cities had a Spaghettini’s all their own to launchpad this new talent. If I had the capital and the time, I would gladly go to Philadelphia and reopen Zanzibar Blue, have that be the East Coast version of Spags.
The bottom line is that the music business is a business. A cut-throat, merciless, opportunistic business that, the more I think about it, is no less competitive and brutal than the real estate market in NYC. I worked in that market, and if I had to choose between music and real estate, I would ask if that’s even a real choice. Excepting perhaps that music has a lot more benefit than lease signings for small closet studios, the two industries require a lot of business moxie, in nearly equal amounts.
Five years ago, I made the decision that I was going to keep the jazz world as a permanent part of my life, and first thing anyone told me was, “Music business is 10% music and 90% business” and since I first heard that I. Got. Schooled. in what that really means. I cannot even tell you the importance of the business aspect of this industry when it comes to the festivals. Nor can I understate the importance of knowing one’s audience and appealing to them. New audience nearly always finds a way into the event, but the importance of knowing what the audience is looking for cannot possibly be overstated.
This is all. about. business.
The proverb “penny wise, pound foolish” carries a lot of weight in nearly all service-based industries. Music performance is, at the core of it, a service-based industry, and it is very much subject to that rule. If you’re R&B-ing out a lineup of a festival as a way to put butts into seats, ask yourself how long that will last for if, as a consequence thereof, you’re putting off your long-term jazz attendees. Yeah, you’ll have bigger attendance numbers – for how long? If you have a high ticket price to meet your break-even point a little faster than you would at a lower number, you’ll get your sales from the people who want to come for the new lineup – but not from those who can get the same/similar/more desirable lineups cheaper elsewhere, and who aren’t likely to come back as a result. What’s more important: short-term revenues or long-term longevity? Faster time to arrive at break-even point? These are all decisions that every event planner, of any event, of any genre or sort has to make. Jazz festivals are only one example. And each and every one of them is a business venture. Make absolutely no mistake of it. Yeah, cold, but that’s what it is. Don’t think that the music is the primary motivation. Business is business, and business is first.
So let’s actually look at things in terms of sheer consumer-based economics. We, the consumers, need to make clear our expectations of what we want from our entertainment. If the promoters deliver, okay, great. If they don’t, then don’t be shy about seeking it elsewhere. This is how changes are wrought. If you are not okay with something, staying silent will only ensure that your demand is not adequately met.
Jazz Fest West is a cautionary tale to a lot of festivals, and whatever reasons it has collapsed for, my observations completely notwithstanding, it all needs to go to serve as a preventative example, so such a collapse can be avoided in the future.
I firmly assert that no festival with a majority R&B lineup that continues to bill itself as jazz, anywhere in the world within a plane’s reach, will get a penny of mine. Capital Jazz continues to get my patronage because they had consistently put on an all-around balanced lineup and have been straight-up about their jazz-and-soul mix from the beginning – and continue to keep it balanced. I already see my friends, long-time jazz lovers all, stop attending regular festivals because the lineups have no appeal anymore. They’re doing no more and no less than what I’m doing already. What I’m doing is being vocal and vociferous as to the reasons why. I’ve already seen a swathe of radio stations die out. I don’t want to see a swathe of festival shutdowns to follow, but I will also not put a penny of my money to support something I don’t believe in.