Does Jazz Music Need Star Power?
No matter what metric you use, jazz has become the least popular category of music. Along with classical, it represented just 1.3 percent of total US music consumption according to a 2015 Nielsen report. Legendary jazz man Wynton Marsalis is intent on reinvigorating the genre and recruited Professor Rohit Deshpandé to help him do it.
23 Jan 2017   Christian Camerota

Pop has Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. Country has Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan. Hip-hop has Kanye West and Beyoncé.

Contemporary music is a star-studded affair that employs sex and spectacle as the best revenue boons. This represents a problem for jazz, which has fallen so far out of sync with popular culture that it has ranked dead last in annual album sales several years running. One of the genre’s elder statesmen and few true present-day stars, Wynton Marsalis, has long recognized this troubling trend and is trying to revitalize what was once known as America’s music. But how?

Harvard Business School professor Rohit Deshpandé has been following and advising Marsalis on his efforts. Their relationship began while Marsalis was featured on a panel at the Harvard Innovation Lab focusing on the “Artist as Entrepreneur.” Marsalis sought out Deshpandé afterward for his marketing and branding expertise, and their conversation eventually led to a 2015 HBS multimedia case titled “Wynton Marsalis & Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The case prompts students to apply marketing principles to the various challenges facing the famed New York City venue as it pursues its mission of entertaining, enriching and expanding a global community for jazz through performance, education, and advocacy. It has since been taught widely to MBA students and Executive Education participants as well as trustees and advisors at Jazz at Lincoln Center itself.

“Though jazz is a uniquely American cultural idiom, the case makes for a fascinating discussion no matter what because there is so much at play with this music,” Deshpandé said in a recent interview. “It has rebellion and history and culture and race. There are so many issues that all come out in a single class.”

In the Executive Education program, where students are older and some grew up in or near jazz’s heyday, the focus is typically on restoring or at least preserving the genre’s vibrant legacy.

For younger MBA students, however, who never experienced jazz as the music of rebellion and experimentation, or the kind of thing you cut loose and danced to, the problem is more clinical. In an age of multiple and constant threats to album sales, how can a genre stay afloat by recruiting new and younger audiences?

“There was one student who said it pretty bluntly: ‘Jazz needs sex appeal’,” Deshpandé said. “They were sure it just couldn’t compete with the Beyoncés and Rihannas of the world otherwise.”

Jazz’s waning popularity is ironic, given that it was once as cool and star-powered and, indeed, as sexy as any form of entertainment is today. Much of modern music stands on the shoulders of towering jazz figures like Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane, whose influence continues even if it is unrecognizable to younger audiences. But call it a sign of the times that just two versions of Beyoncé singing Etta James’s jazz standard “At Last” account for almost 20 million views on Youtube—about four times the total number of jazz albums sold in 2014.


Easy as it is to reduce jazz’s decline to a lack of star power, the reality of the situation is much more complex. Deshpandé points to a wide variety of sophisticated issues that plague most arts and cultural institutions today, Jazz at Lincoln Center among them:

The Greying of the Audience: Many arts institutions’ business models are built around season ticket holders, who represent consistent yearly revenues. That audience segment is aging, however, and the model doesn’t work as well for recruiting younger audiences, who are averse to putting money down in advance and have less disposable income.

Value and Values Creation: Deshpandé sees many cultural organizations as being in the business not just of creating value, but of values creation. “If what we’re talking about here is a cultural product and trying to disseminate it, the essence of that product is a set of values,” he said. “So if it’s jazz, it’s the values around what we might think of as America’s classical music. The cultural value there can sometimes outweigh the monetary value. The challenge becomes: how do you get your audience to appreciate and buy into that?”

Segmentation: Who are your customers and how do you segment already-fractured groups? What is the balance between educating potential consumers and talking down to them? These questions are made more difficult when applied to audiences that are increasingly distracted by so many other devices and genres vying for their attention.

Customer Centricity: Deshpandé coined this phrase, which he says is central to the challenge of capturing new audiences. “It’s not giving the customer what they want,” he said. “The customer wants everything yesterday, for free. It’s understanding the life, world, and heart of your customer so you can make them happier.” In this way, cultural institutions need to think creatively about audience engagement and how they can make the music and the experience more fun for their patrons. This could mean working popular music into the jazz lexicon, or encouraging the use of social media during performances. “We ask jazz audiences to file in, turn off their phones, and be quiet for two hours, when we should be thinking of ways to get people excited and participating before the show,” he said.

High Culture: Like classical music, jazz has a canon that many of its proponents are protective of, even if they cannot agree on who should be in it. The sanctity of the canon can be off-putting, especially for younger audiences, and makes jazz culture inaccessible where other genres openly cater to their audience’s identities and interests. “Jazz artists haven’t historically had to explain why they’ve chosen to play what they’re playing,” Deshpandé said. “But maybe going forward they should. I think especially in America, where the conception of art has not been public art, or free art, the burden of proof is on these institutions and the artists if they want people to support them.”

Given these challenges, saving jazz music is a tall order without an easy answer. The upshot for students, however, is the difficulty of the problem makes for the best kind of classroom experience.

“It’s a continuous learning process,” Deshpandé said of teaching the Lincoln Center case. “Every time I engage with it, I learn something new and it heads in a different direction. That’s the magic of the case process—the classroom becomes an atmosphere and a context of discovery. In that way, I suppose it’s quite a lot like the music we’re discussing.”


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