How can we engage more audience?
It is the eternal question for non-profit performing arts presenters and practitioners. I have been asked this question many times at various conferences, meetings, grant adjudications, masterclass, etc. My answer is always the same.
Early arts education is the only true marketing for Jazz and creative music.
I grew up in Japan where (at least when I was there) there was no such thing as elective in arts classes until you were a senior in highschool. Until then, every student had to partake in all kinds of arts activities whether you like it or not. In first and second grades, everyone had to play diatonic harmonica and play simple songs in the key of C. This involves many skills. You have to know how to get around a harmonica. You have to be able to read simple music in 4/4. You have to have hand-eye coordination. You have to be able to count. You have to do all of the above all at once. In 3rd through 6th grades, students switch to the soprano recorder. Then you’ll move onto the alto recorder in 7th grade. And so on and so forth. Simultaneously, many students in Japan are required to participate in some sort of choir activities. We love choirs. Lol.
I started playing the piano at the age of 4, thus, music classes were breeze for me but imagine if you have never touched an instrument and you don’t know how to read music. It’s a lot. By consistently participating in musical activities for prolonged period of time, especially if you suck at it, one will gain at least an understanding and respect for the art form. One will really get that it actually is very hard to play music. And to play it well? That is really very hard.
People who had early arts education - a consistent and prolonged program - will not easily dismiss Jazz and creative music when they eventually encounter them. They won’t say, “Oh, they are just noodling and it’s just gibberish.” They will at least know that it’s not easy to get around the instruments because they were forced to work with them once. They understand the music has some sort of structure because they played songs in the past, or least tried to do so. When these people run into Jazz and creative music, they have many entry points and they have abilities to at least try to understand. They are able to find some sort of ways to relate. Their soil has been turned over and there is a possibility of growth there.
Same thing with visual arts. Contrary to my experiences with music classes, I was terrible at any sort of visual arts. I had to do pencil sketch, watercolor, oil painting, pottery, wood carving, wood printing, sculpture… you name it, I did it at least once. I was not very good but I think I kind of enjoyed them, lol, and I came to really know how difficult they are. When I see people expressing themselves beautifully and soulfully through visual arts, I’m in total awe. Because I know it takes real skills, hard work, and talents. Even if I don’t like the style or subject matter or whatever, I can always find things that I appreciate about any artwork. I had a consistent and prolonged and hands-on exposure to visual arts. My soil has been turned over and something has been growing there ever since.
I think this sort of explains why the listenership is pretty large in Japan, Europe, and any other countries that offer consistent early musical education.
I know that there are number of music outreach programs in the US that are geared towards middle and high school students. It’s always better than nothing. Yes. But I think by the time they get to middle school, they already know what they like to listen to. Taste in music is like taste in foods. It’s set fairly early on and it’s really hard to expand or change. If a kid likes, oh I don’t know, Ariana Grande, it’s a stretch that one (or few) outreach concert(s) will expand his or her listening pallets to Miles or Trane, let alone something more adventurous. It will be casually dismissed. “Oh, that’s nice but I’m not really into that.” You can disagree but I think that is what is happening and that is what I see.
I have seen outreach programs done for younger kids, as well, but listening to one jazz concert once every few years is not going to create audience base, either. It might pique interest in a few students who may eventually pick up instruments but what I am talking about here is creating a market and consumers who will support this music for years to come and from the results (or lack thereof), these programs are not very effective for that. If anything, resources are scattered and wasted in this manner.
Sometimes, a marketing campaign or an editorial in the New York Times will bring in new audience to The Jazz Gallery but they don’t stick. You can’t market this music to people who don’t already enjoy it. That is what I have seen over and over for the past two decades.
In order to engage more audience, you have to first raise possible audience members. For Jazz and creative music. We have to have a long-range plan. Not a short-lived marketing strategy. The most effective way to ensure that there will be substantial number of consumers for these art forms - adventurous, challenging to the minds, and thought-evoking - is to teach them young. Let them have hand-on experience with it and let them struggle with it. Not a one-off but something consistent and for a long period of time. Once we do that for about 10 years, then, yes, we can talk about actual marketing campaign because then, and only then, we’ll have a market to market to.