J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Downers

It is a new year, but the outlook for the music industry continues to look glum. In fact, recent indicators suggest things will only get worse from here. In the short term, the ongoing writers strike will have a serious financial impact on the many musicians who rely on lucrative studio work. This represents a lot of lost work for composers, orchestrators, copyists, and musicians, not to mention those employed by labels specializing in soundtrack releases. However, the more serious developments for industry are of a systemic nature.

Recently, radio insider/blogger Brian Maloney reported on hard times for broadcasting companies:

“So far in 2008, Wall Street has continued to slaughter broadcast industry stocks, sending several into official penny- stock territory (under $5/ share).”

Yet, he points to the continuing popularity of talk radio, as measured by Arbitron ratings. Maloney, a talk radio veteran, decries that radio belt-tightening has disproportionately affected talk formats, so far. Numbers are numbers, though, and it will not be long before executives come to the conclusion that Sean Hannity has:

"‘Music radio is going to be in trouble.’

So said radio talker and Fox News host Sean Hannity this week at Arbitron's consultant fly-in.’

In five years when every car has an iPod connection and you can listen to anything you want, what is music radio going to do?’”

Commercial radio said goodbye to jazz long ago, though I understand there are a few scattered survivors out there somewhere, servicing the Land of the Lost or the Bermuda Triangle. For the rest of the music industry, this would represent a major blow in terms of lost ASCAP and BMI clearances, as well as promotional exposure. Yet, with top 40 stations playing the same characterless songs in relentless rotation, can the industry be that surprised if they start to lose stations to talk and sports formats?

For jazz, a much more ominous note came in the announcement of Barnes & Noble’s holiday sales. It turns out music ruined their Christmas. According to PW:

“Holiday sales in the November 4 to January 5 period fell short of expectations with same store sales down 0.4%; B&N had expected same store sales to be up in low single digits. The retailer blamed the shortfall on music sales which it said were ‘significantly below forecast.’ Excluding music, comp store sales were up 0.8%.”

If one department can drag down sales increases throughout the rest of the chain, you can expect it to lose retail space in stores. Which niches genres will feel the brunt of the cuts?

Of course, the real problem is not with jazz. We are what we are. Everything else lately has just been bad. When was the last time you heard of people sleeping outside to be first in line for a new CD? When was the last time you rushed out to buy a new release on its on-sale date, rather than waiting to get it cheaper on-line?

Truly, the digital download revolution is an unresolved challenge that will continue to hang over the industry’s head. Yet, quality is a more fundamental issue that could actually be addressed. People do not want to buy a twenty dollar CD with only two decent tracks. They will just download them from i-tunes for two bucks.

Again, I would argue this does not apply to jazz. Jazz musicians by their nature are used to producing rewarding improvisations night after night, so they are better able to produce interesting takes in the studio than the more Pro-Tools-reliant pop acts. Since jazz artists are also expected to mix originals with standards, they are also better able to program balanced CDs. Of course, nobody is looking to jazz to save the industry. One just hopes our niche will not be cut any further, as they music business continues to contract.

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