Magazine article The Spectator

The Big Squeeze

Magazine article The Spectator

The Big Squeeze

Article excerpt

Jazz in the new millennium is in a very different world from that of the idealised television retrospective Jazz, directed by the American film-maker Ken Burns, which was shown on BBC television a couple of years ago. The reason is simple. It's competing for the leisure dollar in a highly competitive marketplace that offers a bewildering array of consumer choices unheard of in jazz's Golden Era (1920-60):

DVDs, video games, computers, iPods, cable television, digital cameras and multitask cell phones. Pop music, promoted with ruthless efficiency by the major corporations, dominates the cultural spaces.

Jazz's voice is struggling to be heard. So what's new? Hasn't it jostled with popular culture for the public's attention throughout its history? Of course it has, but the early millennium years present a very different music marketplace from that of the past. In the United States, the world's largest single market for goods, services, technology, capital and labour, there is evidence of a real squeeze on jazz. Business competition is more intense than anywhere else on the globe. US companies look for higher returns over shorter periods than their competitors and look to increasing shareholder value by spending more and more shoring up market share or by taking over other companies to achieve market leadership.

A wave of mergers since 1994 saw a cool $5 trillion change hands. A once chaotic music industry, with an ever-changing array of music labels with names like Chess, Motown, Verve and Blue Note, shrank to four major players: EMI, TimeWarner, Universal and Sony/BMG. These major corporations focused their efforts on promoting a smaller number of pop stars more effectively. As jazz does not produce anything like the huge returns of pop, it has slid down the majors' list of priorities.

Their success in 'streamlining' pop music across national borders -- a lowest common denominator product that could be sold in as many countries as possible -- raises the spectre of a cultural grey-out, a global pop village with youth audiences around the world watching the same television programmes, adopting the same dress codes and listening to the same music.

This monoculture threatens to trample flat a heterogeneous world that allowed diversity to flourish, replacing it with a homogenous, one-size-fits-all product that, far from encouraging diversity, promotes conformity. …

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