Fiction and Anecdotal Musings on the Economics of Jazz

In yesterday’s/Sunday’s hard copy of the New York Times, and in the Thursday March 11 edition of the digital New York Times, there was an interesting article by Nate Chinen on pianist Brad Mehldau’s new record, “Highway Rider,” which is a collaboration with rock producer Jon Brion.  Among other things Chinen revealed that Mehldau’s best selling album, 2003′s “Largo,” another collaboration with Brion, has only sold 34,000 copies.

This number startled me.  Evidence suggests that Mehldau, at age 39, is among the most famous and acclaimed jazz musicians under age 50.  Yet, his best selling record has only sold 34,000 copies in 7 years?  It makes me wonder how low the figures are for Mehldau’s acoustic trio recordings, which are state-of-the-art but probably not as exciting for consumers who bought “Largo” because of Brion’s rock production.

What analogs in literature would there be for Mehldau?  Hip, young innovators who are near the top of the field and have sustained it for more than a decade?  Jonathan Lethem?  Michael Chabon?  Zadie Smith?  I’m pretty sure those writers sell more than 34,000 copies of their best known works.  Chabon probably sells four or six or ten times more than that, even at twice the price of a compact disc or download.  This makes me feel better about the state of literature at the moment.

Of course, Mehldau’s trio also plays 50-75 theater shows a year at (an educated guess) $15K to $20K per show.  But those shows – at least domestically – are heavily subsidized.  Mehldau’s trio could certainly sell out Duke University’s 700 seat Reynolds Theater (I saw him sell out a similar theater at N.C. State a few years ago).  But at $30 per ticket for adults, $5 per ticket for students, a good number of complementary tickets to friends and VIP’s, plus publicity and printed matter, staff and security, catering and piano tuning, and many more incidentals, Duke would lose significant money on the show.  That’s for a sell-out.  That’s for the top end jazz in America today.  Mehldau’s the only one who makes any money at those theater shows but he’s got to pay two brilliant, world class musicians (Jeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier), travel expenses, plus probably at least one road manager, a personal manager, and an agent, and probably a publicist.  The net profits aren’t that great, especially when you consider the tireless effort and dedication these musicians put into it.

When Mehldau plays the Vanguard for a week or two with his trio, they don’t make all that much money, even though it’s one of the most highly anticipated gigs on the New York scene.  You can do the math on the Vanguard’s capacity (123), accounting for comps, and $35 ticket prices including a $10 minimum, 12-14 sets per week at most.  Without knowing the Vanguard’s balance sheet and income statement but only imagining that it isn’t cheap to run a club in New York, you realize  that one of the prized gigs in jazz is basically a chance for Mehldau’s trio to woodshed together nightly and make the same money as one subsidized theater concert at Duke University.  If that much.

I don’t know the numbers, but I imagine the Mehldau Trio makes most of their money for the year in Europe, given higher fees and the value of the Euro.  But how much toil is taken by spending so much time in planes and trains and hotels.  If you are over six feet tall it is rough, I know that.

I’m fascinated by this topic.  Once I heard novelist Annie Proulx say that when she’s conceiving a story she starts with geography and economics and the stories grow from there.  The stories are about how we adapt and survive.  Love and art and entertainment and religious faith are intertwined and sometimes inextricable from basic levels of survival.  I’d like to write about the economics of jazz and compare yesterday (the years of the Sixth Avenue loft, for example) to today.  I’m not sure it was much better back then.  I remember asking Roy Haynes what it was like to play the clubs in the vintage post-War New York jazz heyday.  Roy, who I imagine saw the doe eyes of a young writer and went for the kill, told me it was miserable.  He said he wouldn’t want to do it again.  You worked 6 sets a night from 9pm to 3am five or six nights a week.  Roy collected fine clothes and luxury automobiles, so he did well.  But he was at the very top of the pyramid, and he still had to maintain a brutal schedule to make it big.

I’m also intrigued by the economics and culture of the secondary jazz markets of the jazz heyday, like cruise ships and dining clubs and resorts and motel bars and beer-and-pizza joints.  In Richard Yates’ classic 1961 novel, “Revolutionary Road,” set in a NYC commuter suburb in western Connecticut in 1955, protagonists Frank and April Wheeler take their friends Shep and Milly Campbell to hear the Steve Kovick Quartet at Vito’s Log Cabin out on Route 12 near their home.

When Frank first suggested the two couples go to the Log Cabin, April protested, “Oh, no, darling.  They’d hate it.  It’s terrible.”  Frank replied, “No, I don’t think they’d hate it.  I bet they’d like it.  It takes a special kind of taste, is all.  I mean, the thing about the Log Cabin, you see, is that it’s so awful it’s kind of nice.”

Sounds like a lot of metal and alt-rock dives of today.

Yates describes the drummer Kovick as “artistically awakened and nourished by the early recordings and movies of Gene Krupa.”  Kovick’s career went nowhere and here he was many years later playing Vito’s Log Cabin.  Yates’s gift was rendering ordinary human mediocrity – often painfully – and he never did it better than describing Kovick : “There was a negligent grandeur in the way he took the stand, the way he frowned over the arrangement of sticks and brushes and hi-hat cymbals and then peered out, beetle-browed, to ask if the spotlight could be adjusted a fraction of an inch before he settled down; and there was elaborate condescension in the way he whisked and thumped through preliminary fox trots or handled the gourds for Latin-American interludes; anyone could tell he was only marking time, waiting for the moment when he could tell the boys to cut loose on one of the old-time Benny Goodman jump numbers.  Only then, once or twice an hour, did he give himself wholly to his work.”

Adjusted for inflation, Steve Kovick probably made nearly as much at Vito’s Log Cabin as Mehldau makes at the Vanguard today.

-Sam Stephenson

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