Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Do Jazz Enthusiasts Get Around Much Anymore?

"You are the music while the music lasts"-- T.S. Eliot by flickr user Chovee

When the NEA released results from its 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the numbers on jazz got plenty of attention. From trade journals to the popular press, reporters latched on to the decline of young audiences for jazz, as captured by the national survey. Writing about the study in The Wall Street Journal in an article titled “Can Jazz be Saved?,” drama critic and former National Council on the Arts member Terry Teachout concluded that jazz musicians who want to keep their “beautiful music alive and well have got to start thinking hard about how to pitch it to young listeners---not next month, not next week, but right now.”

What was the empirical basis for such remarks? The concern stemmed from two data points. First, the median age of jazz audience members in 2008 had grown much more rapidly than the median age of U.S. adults---more rapidly, indeed, than the median age of audiences for other types of performing arts events. In 1982, jazz-goers were the youngest of performing arts audiences. They were, on average, 29 years old. By 2008, they were about as old as the average American adult: 45 years old. Secondly, from 1982 to 2008, the share of 18 to 24-year-olds who attended a jazz performance declined by 58 percent.

Since the NEA findings came out, some researchers have challenged this reliance on age-associated variables to tell the story of declines in arts attendance. The most prominent of these researchers has been Mark Stern, University of Pennsylvania, who reported his findings in Age and Arts Participation: A Case against Demographic Destiny (2011). But other researchers, in their own ways, have complicated the narrative about young audiences and arts attendance. One of the most interesting tales has emerged from jazz itself.

In 2009, with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and others, the Columbus, Ohio-based Jazz Arts Group began the Jazz Audiences Initiative, consisting of an attempt to survey jazz ticket-buyers in 19 cities nationwide. A combination of print and online surveys was used to generate 4,855 fully completed surveys, a response rate of about 13 percent. The random sample included audiences from six large presenters and 13 university presenters.

Although the results cannot be taken as representing the entire U.S. population of jazz-goers, the study unlocks the potential appeal of jazz for distinct audience segments. Unlike the NEA survey, which, while larger and nationally representative, focuses on self-reported behavior instead of personal preferences, the Jazz Audiences Initiative survey permits analysis of “attitudinal variables” affecting jazz attendance. In what kinds of settings would people like to see jazz? Do they regard jazz as “background music,” or something more? How does jazz figure in their music collections? And how do they rate specific jazz artists?

Based on the survey results, the researchers were able to identify six “segments” of the potential market for live jazz: “Knowledgeable Musicians”; “Jazz-Centered Omnivores”; “Urban Culture Dabblers”; “Standard Fare Partners”; “Social Butterflies”; and “Comfort Seekers.” Each segment has its own demographic and behavioral traits. For example, “Knowledgeable Musicians” and “Social Butterflies” are among the youngest age groups, and the most technology-savvy. The former segment expresses profound loyalty to jazz artists; the latter segment is highly “price-sensitive,” and while less knowledgeable about jazz, shows interest in learning more about the art form. Already the storyline starts to diverge from conventional wisdom about jazz and young audiences.

This research was conducted by the consulting firm WolfBrown, which has established a reputation for arts engagement strategies including market segmentation studies. The researchers have brought this perspective to bear on an analysis of the NEA's own survey data---notably in a report released earlier this year, Beyond Attendance: A Multimodal Understanding of Arts Participation.

Inspired by WolfBrown's recent work, I asked one of my colleagues to run new numbers from the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Unbeknownst to many, the survey does contain one or two questions about participants' "listening preferences," in addition to actual attendance patterns. It turns out that young jazz-goers (18 to 24-year-olds, many of whom presumably fall into WolfBrown's "Knowledgeable Musicians” and “Social Butterflies” brackets) are equally likely to pick "oldies" as "contemporary" as their favorite type of music. Indeed, across most age groups, oldies is chosen as jazz-goers' top listening preference. The only exceptions are jazz-goers from 25 to 34, who choose “Contemporary," and 35 to 44-year-olds and 65 to 74-year-olds, who pick jazz as their favorite.

Based on these stats alone, one can argue that an eclectic range of musical tastes is dormant in many arts participants, who may well find themselves tapping their feet at a jazz concert or swinging in a jazz club, no matter which genres they identify themselves with most strongly. If fewer young adults appear to be attending jazz performances, this does not mean they are not interested. They may be won over by venues and settings that foster audience participation through music-making, learning, and socialization. Given this breadth of dynamic experiences, is it any wonder that jazz has been called the most democratic of art forms?

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