Wealth, Equity and 21st-Century Jazz

The economics of being a jazz musician in the San Francisco Bay Area was the topic of a roundtable discussion hosted by the Center for New Music this past Tuesday, June 12th [2018]. Featured representatives were Cory Combs, executive director of InterMusicSF, and musicians Darren Johnston, Lisa Mezzacappa, and Destiny Muhammad. Leading the conversation was Adam Fong, executive director of C4NM. Mario Guarneri was there too to represent Jazz in the Neighborhood. Altogether, about twenty people—mostly jazz musicians—came out to participate in the lively dialogue.

Concerning wealth, where does the money come from? A list of funding agencies compiled by C4NM was distributed, but it was noted that access to these funds is very competitive, especially for individual musicians. Grants are usually awarded for a specific purpose, which leaves musicians without a stable income once their project is completed. Nonprofits rely heavily on support from individual donors and corporate sponsors, but this type of funding is often not available for independent musicians and ensembles.

An obvious source of money is through ticket sales, the gate or the door. Garnering a large enough audience to pay the bills is difficult for both musicians and presenters. Obstacles to gathering a large audience include presenting in random venues, competition from other events and other non-live forms of entertainment, and simply the somewhat rarefied nature of the genre. Bringing in new and younger jazz audiences would certainly be beneficial.

In the SF Bay Area, it seems that most venues pay a percentage of the door, so if the audience is small, the musicians receive very little money. There are a few presenters who guarantee musicians a set amount upfront—Jazz the Neighborhood being one of them. For those venues that do guarantee, Jon Jang noted that musicians can negotiate for pay that compensates them fairly. Miles Anderson, a musician who has literally paid his dues, cautioned that when musicians work for little or no compensation, an environment for low paying jobs is perpetuated.

On the other hand, the current gig economy provokes an environment where the lowest bid can often be the deciding factor. How can equity be achieved under this market-based model? Much of the discussion centered on how freelancers can survive in the gig economy. Among the issues and ideas that were raised, organizing was a solution that all agreed would be valuable, particularly organizing at the local level. This includes smaller organizations working collaboratively to wield a greater influence. Historically, unions have helped workers gain economic equity. Is this a role they can continue to play in the 21st century?

The notion of local jazz music was another topic of conversation. What is its value and to whom? Clearly it’s valuable to local musicians, though not always monetarily. But do local communities benefit? In what ways, and can that be improved? Do audiences really care if the musicians they hear are local are not? To what extent should institutions like SFJazz and city goverments be supporting the local scene? These questions leave room for much more dialogue and paths toward action.

The roundtable, Tracking Series #2, was organized by the Center for New Music, 55 Taylor St. San Francisco. These quarterly events are designed to catalyze and build a community of new music researchers to demonstrably improve gender and racial equity within the field of new music. Tracking Series #1 was entitled Going Public.

— reported by Jan Woo