Jazzonomics

How do musical artists stay afloat in a dodgy economy?

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In the mid-1890s and early 19th century, few of New Orleans' earliest jazz musicians could afford to play their instruments full-time. So the artists practiced after work, played weekends and tried to answer the eternal musical question: How well can you play? For a few, the music they loved was transformed from a hobby into a profession when cornet player Buddy Bolden started New Orleans' first jazz bands, and by doing so transformed American musical history. (Scroll down to continue)

Stanley Crouch -- writer, social critic, MacArthur Award winner (and regular on The Root) -- has thought a lot about those early years. When asked to consider how contemporary jazz musicians survive a whipsawing economy, he set aside work on the first volume of a biography of stellar alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Then he said that only selfless commitment may lead to steady employment. But finding the time, and proper remuneration, to play professionally wasn't easy in Bolden's day or now, says Crouch, "because a life in music is not for punks."

It's even harder in jazz today as CD/album sales have plummeted. In 1999 the Recording Industry Association of America said that jazz sales were 3 percent of all recording sales. By 2008 they were 1.1 percent. In 2000 Soundscan reported that 18,416 jazz albums were sold; nine years later, fewer than 12,000 jazz-genre albums were purchased.

Jazz still has fans, and popular young stars such as trumpeter Etienne Charles, double-bass performer Esperanza Spalding and drummer Kim Thompson attract audiences.

But gray and bald heads dominate jazz audiences. In 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts reported that jazz's fan base had a median age of 29. By 2008 it had aged up to 46, while the percentage of fans under 24 kept falling.

Jazz festivals and free concerts still attract crowds. New York has the CareFusion Jazz Festival and Vision Festival. Each spring the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival serves up an eclectic brew, and in the fall the San Francisco Jazz Festival and the Chicago Jazz Festival play to tens of thousands.

Fewer Jobs, More Musicians

But with jazz clubs closing or on life support, and competition for gigs stiff, how do jazz musicians earn a living? Individual popularity, particular venues, contract-negotiation skills and the type of instrument played all make a difference. Even leading a band is no guarantee of top pay, since a hot sideman could be the crowd magnet -- and get more money.

It's hard to pin down what jazz musicians make because they and their managers won't divulge numbers. Since 2002 Parade magazine's "What People Earn" issue has listed only one jazz musician -- and she earned $20,000 annually.