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 (C4NM) on June 12, 2018 as part of The Tracking Series. Featured representatives were Cory Combs, executive director of InterMusicSF, and musicians Darren JohnstonLisa Mezzacappa, and Destiny Muhammad. Leading the conversation was C4NM Co-Founder, Adam FongMario 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. Members of the discussion noted that while grant-making and award philanthropy is important, it is not always of use to most musicians, as it can sometimes feed into celebrity culture rather than local artist support. 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. A substantial portion of the wealth in the Bay Area (and beyond) lies in corporations; however, only the larger arts organizations are best positioned to have staff dedicated to corporate outreach.

Given these barriers to local musicians, the conversation naturally leaned towards advocating for fair wage at the gig level. An obvious source of money is through ticket sales, that is 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, 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. There is some momentum gathering to push houses like SF Jazz to become unionized. This would improve wage transparency, put more money into the local union by requiring out-of-town acts to pay dues, and more. As Suki O’Kane, longtime local artist pointed out, artists and domestic workers were the original gig economy. Now, with companies like Uber, Postmates, and others, the role of the freelancer is taking a larger role than ever in our economy. Perhaps there is a way make a concerted effort towards unionization or some sort of broader solidarity between free-lancers to organize a movement for more equitable wages in this new 21st century economy.

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. While valuable, can we identify key attributes and can we communicate specifically what is unique about the artistry of the local Jazz scene? Do local communities benefit? In what ways, and can that be improved? Do audiences really care if the musicians they hear are local or not? To what extent should institutions like SFJazz and city governments be supporting the local scene? These questions and the possibility of what role artistic institutions and governments could play leave room for much more dialogue and paths toward action.

However, right or wrong, larger institutions like SF Jazz or SF Symphony are not set up to support the local music scene, the point of entry is simply too unattainable for most local artists to be significantly involved. (Somewhat) understandably, they present only the biggest names and international talent to fill enough seats to keep their operational costs at bay. So, conversations around how such institutions do not provide enough for the local scene, while they may be valid, they may not be productive. However, it is of particular insult when such institutions parade a locally supportive mission, or utilize their locally inspired roots to attract funding without truly supporting or understanding the local scene.

The evening ended on a positive note with Destiny Muhammad, local jazz harpist, leading the conversation. Reminding everyone of their responsibility towards each other, Muhammad encouraged musicians to support each other, whether that be presenting each other, donating when possible, hosting, or even just showing up for each others’ events. Like many artistic disciplines, Jazz thrives when musicians collaborate and create an organized, communicative, supportive community. Everyone agreed that there is a strong need to fight against the competitive and occasionally territorial reputation of SF Jazz scene. While it’s certainly not to say that musicians can get by solely by supporting each other, it is to say we won’t get by without supporting each other.

The roundtable, Tracking Series #2, was organized by the Center for New Music55 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.

– by Riley Nicholson, based on a report by Jan Woo that appeared in the Jazz in the Neighborhood newsletter, June 17, 2018