Archive for May, 2009

The Commercial Demise Of Instrumental Music

Monday, May 18th, 2009

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TURN ON THE radio for music and you will hear vocals. Sure, your city may have a public radio station with a jazz show (usually rebroadcast from another location) or perhaps a few hours of orchestral music. But you will have to look hard for either and maybe wake up early or stay up very late to hear the show. The rest of the time, and on every other station, you will hear no instrumental music.

Smooth jazz is the last genre of popular music I can recall where an acoustic instrument can “star” rather than merely back up a singer. But over the past two years at least fifteen major markets, and several smaller ones, have dropped smooth jazz from the radio altogether. That includes New York; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Denver; and Houston. In other words no radio station in those metropolitan areas today broadcasts smooth jazz.

Okay, some of us might say smooth jazz never deserved to be on the air in the first place. Some might say it isn’t really even jazz. That’s not the point. The point is that it features musical instruments more often than vocals and is spiraling down the same drain as all other jazz.

Here’s another disturbing fact: About three years ago the national music chain, Guitar Center, reported for the first time in its history the sale of guitars was down rather than up. That means fewer people now take the trouble to learn the instrument. Some may be learning keyboard instead but that is because of computers and digtal music, not because they are becoming concert pianists.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Hollywood to get my clarinet overhauled. It is the top repair shop in southern California. The guy who works on my instrument has a reputation as one of the best in the country. He says things are a little slow, especially because fewer young people now play clarinet. The same is true of the guys in the shop repairing flutes, oboes, bassoons, and English horns. They stopped selling and working on saxophones nearly twenty years ago.

Do you detect a trend?

Times change. Instruments evolve. Tastes vary. Nonetheless I find the demise of instrumental music very disturbing.

Hideous Albums

Sunday, May 10th, 2009


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HAVE YOU EVER heard horrible jazz on the radio and wondered how on earth it got there? One big reason is vanity record labels.

Around 1980 I noticed the vast majority of selections the Los Angeles area’s two jazz stations played ranged from mediocre to objectionable. From time to time, of course, something good or even excellent snuck in. On the other hand, the selections I disliked featured instrumentalists whose work was barely competent, pretentious, obnoxiously inelegant, lacking good taste, or any combination of the above. Why would a responsible business invest time and money to record such refuse?

Well, the record business had changed. Even in the 1980s big labels were having trouble earning a profit on jazz recordings and substantially had cut down their releases. By no means were the big companies immune from producing mediocrity or worse. But generally their releases were a little better than those by some smaller companies.

And those smaller record companies released the majority of albums. They were, and still are, part time businesses by amateur empressarios who like jazz. They have enough discretionary income to record and release a CD regardless of whether it earns a profit. Such people may be good at their “day jobs”, even well intentioned and kind hearted, but often they have no ear for music.

Today nearly every jazz release comes from a small, part time company; the big guys and their accountants have decided virtually any jazz is bad business. Hundreds of small labels exist and it is so easy and relatively inexpensive to record an album they produce more releases than the dozen or so remaining jazz shows in North America can play. As a very successful record producer explained, “Everyone with a computer and a recording program is now my competition.”

The result has been an avalanche of mediocre to hideous albums. Radio station program directors sift through a hundred or more each month. Sometimes the best recordings are from tiny companies the directors have never heard of so they discard them without a listen. Companies with enough money to churn out albums regularly thus become familiar. Good or bad, their CDs receive the exposure. And often they are bad.

Higher Education and Style

Monday, May 4th, 2009


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SHOULD ANY KIND of music or art really go out of style? For a valid genre to go out of style seems as ridiculous as the color of your hair going out of style. Well, I guess gray hair has always been going out of style but you know what I mean.

Do you know who decides whether a variety of music is in style? Not you and me.

Radio stations, record companies, and (surprise!) colleges and universities make those decisions. Radio stations and record companies dictate what musicians record the “sonic entertainment” we can find and buy easily. Radio stations make certain we listen to only what they and the record companies want us to hear. We all know they control popular music. And we also know if we want to hear something different, we must devote a lot of time to searching for it on the Internet. Unfortunately most of us refuse to do that.

But how about colleges and universities?

While everyone knows those who can do and those who can’t teach, most of us don’t know that music department faculties have influenced the direction of jazz, orchestral composition, and chamber music for about three generations. They are the people who discourage those who would emulate Mozart or Duke Ellington and all but force them to find another direction. They require students to compose with intellect rather than emotion. They teach them the classic genres are better left dead; invent something “new” (even when newer isn’t better).

College and university teachers have a lot of influence, and not just because they give out their often meaningless grades. The other reason is that the primary breeding ground for jazz and orchestral music is now the college campus. Know why? Because it is unusual for the aspiring acoustic music composer or instrumentalist to make much money in the “real” world today. He must teach in an academic environment to earn a living. Can you imagine a less nurturing environment for the next Louis Armstrong or Johannes Brahms?

Because what does the academic environment place above all else? Intellect. Theory. Experimentation. Emotion has virtually no place in academia. Unfortunately it is the cornerstone of the arts. Well, it used to be. And that is one reason our musical (and artistic) culture has decayed. If it ain’t got heart, it don’t count. Yet in school it only counts if it appeals to the intellect. The ultimate irony!

So next time you hear a young musician wasting incredible technique on drivel you will know why. And if that musician or composer is from a state college or university, you can be proud that those are your tax dollars at work.