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Listen to Your Listeners

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By Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal

“People who want to play jazz actually outnumber those who enjoy or even tolerate it, let alone pay to hear it." Of all the provocations in a provocative satire of the jazz world, this was the one that seemed to cut deepest. It appeared in an article titled with sly simplicity “Careers in Jazz," written for AllAboutJazz.com by pianist Bill Anschell. Republished this summer, the essay was far and away the website's most-read article in 2009, when it first appeared. Now the article is being passed among economist-bloggers as a comic case study in market dysfunction.

The piece presents a tawdry taxonomy of the sad and self-deluded types struggling to make music without starving. Mr. Anschell can claim to have occupied many of the various categories in the course of his own journeyman journey. A small sampling: “Gig Whores" (who will play any music at any venue with any lame band in order to pay the rent); “Jazz Educators" (who train musicians who, unable to make a living performing, become jazz educators themselves, thus perpetrating a “vicious cycle"; and “Arts Administrator" (one who “Diverts and sucks dry the scant dollars that governmental agencies and charitable foundations earmark for jazz artists").

The basic picture—a pathetic scuffle for crumbs—inspired sadder-but-wiser grins in the jazz world. But it also sparked outrage and anger among those who were unamused: “How does mocking the people who perform the music that the author professes to love help to create more jazz?" one musician sputtered (seeming to miss one of the basic points—that one doesn't need more of a good for which there are too few consumers). Musicians continue to pick sides on the story.

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