11 November 2013

The Column: Eddie Myer – Jazz and Plumbing

    The history of jazz is a part of the histories of both the creative arts and the entertainment industry. The latter has been characterized since the birth of the mass media in the early 20th century by a continuing dialectic between those who create the music and those who exploit it commercially, both sides regarding the other across the trenches with a mixture of longing, fascination and hostility whilst remaining irrevocably entwined. Every so often, social or technological changes emerge to tilt the balance of power this way and that, causing the ranks and formations of all sides to disperse and re-group, amidst a storm of speculation and plain old bitching from everyone concerned. Just as the invention of the phonograph led to the birth of the record company executive, so the dawn of commercial broadcasting led eventually to the establishment of royalty collection societies, and the train, bus and airline networks created a touring circuit, leading inevitably to booking agents and musicians with union cards and, if they were lucky, contract riders or at least free drinks at the bar. The multimedia revolution consequent upon the twin innovations of digital capture and storage on the one hand, and universal internet access on the other, has radically altered the musical landscape in many ways, opening up a host of possibilities and problems never before available to musicians, including a host of new opportunities for grumbling, and unexpectedly introducing an army of plumbers into the scene. 

    It has been customary for a number of years now to introduce plumbers into any debate about the current situation for musicians. Jazz players, being as a rule questing and enquiring sorts, are usually aware of the equivocal status they occupy in the wider society, and often like to cite plumbers as figures of irreproachable industry and usefulness, deserving of respectful employment conditions that they, the musicians, feel should be extended to them as well. The wider public and countless busy little internet trolls counter these plumbers with plumbers of their own, whose selfless dedication to grimy and unglamorous labour they contrast unfavourably with the supposedly spoilt and self-serving attitudes of musicians, especially ones who expect to make money. But comparisons between the two occupations  are utterly misleading; like actors, artists and sportsmen, but very much unlike plumbers, the majority of musicians are amateurs; sport, music, acting and art are taught to children in school but this training is not seen as vocational; few expect to be paid for pursuing them, and only a tiny handful expect to make a lifetime’s living. Yet music is as ubiquitous as plumbing, and as present in our daily lives, and equally in need of a professional class to sustain it. Let’s banish these plumbers from the debate, industrious and indispensable to civilized life as they are, as the use of analogy, always introduced in an attempt to clarify a position, inevitably ends up confusing the argument. 

    Never before has music been as ubiquitous and as undervalued as it is today. While jazz fans used to jealously hoard their precious 78s, and travel for miles to catch a rare glimpse of their idols performing, nowadays Spotify and the excellent Jazz on the Tube service provide free access to the entire history of the music. Yet the value of recorded music as a commodity has never been lower. And while live music is more in demand than ever and changes to the licensing laws have removed the iniquitous 2-in-a-bar rule and opened up many new venues for music, rates of pay down at the grassroots have remained frozen for over ten years, or even dropped. A myth has arisen that promotion is such an essential key to musical success that an “opportunity to promote yourself” is a good substitute for a fee.  Jazz has of course made great advances into the world of pedagogy, which provides another source of income, but also results in wave after wave of young musicians fluent in the latest altered harmony and compound rhythms emerging to compete for gigs. 

    On the plus side, the ever-growing use of online social networks provides a useful extension to the wonderfully dedicated fan networks that have sustained the jazz scene for years, ignored as it is by the commercial mainstream. Equally, the cheapness of digital reproduction has made recording and distributing an album possible to musicians in a way that it’s never been before. The music business continues to evolve at a rapid pace but at the moment the benefits to the musicians themselves are far from clear. The level of commitment and the number of hours of sheer dedication required to play jazz to a good standard have not changed. Let’s be thankful for the spirit, the sheer fascination with jazz-and-related-musics that keeps people involved whatever the prevailing winds of fashion or technology may bring.

Eddie Myer

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