The problem of free jazz: part 2 – the return

Quote from something I* wrote back in 2009 under the title The problem of free jazz:

So my point is not that there shouldn’t be free jazz, but, I suppose, should it be quite this good?

Quote from Tony Dudley-Evans** (in his A response to the original Jazz Biz post):

Now I defend the use of free gigs provided that they are not affecting attendance at the ticketed events (which I don’t think they do); free gigs provide the opportunity for less established bands, whether consisting of young jazz graduates or older veterans of the scene, to play in front of a good sized audience and get their music known.

Comment from Brian Homer*** (in reply to Tony’s post – see link above):

I would argue that free gigs do run the risk of distorting the jazz market. I suspect that many people mainly go to free gigs and probably don’t then go to see the same bands play at paid gigs. There have been many recent instances of national bands and musicians playing at free or very cheap gigs when they should be attracting a better paying audience. And people may choose not to pay to see a local band when they are on for free somewhere else in the weeks before or after. Free gigs whether supported by pubs and bars or by public subsidy do risk developing audiences who then don’t value musicians enough to want to pay to see them. I’m all for public subsidy and contributions from bars etc and the development of jazz in Birmingham has benefited from it and continues to do so, but in the longterm I don’t think completely free gigs are good for the sector unless they truly are showcasing only musicians in the very early stages who are perhaps not ready for paid gigs.

This Friday in Birmingham:

Dan Nicholls’ Point X is playing at the CBSO Centre. This is a Jazzlines gig. Tickets are £12.
The Jon Lloyd Group is playing at The Red Lion. This is a Birmingham Jazz gig. Tickets are £12.
The Ivo Neame Quintet is playing in the Symphony Hall Cafe Bar. This is a Jazzlines gig. It’s free.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions. Mine remains: hmmm!

* I am a freelance jazz writer and blogger with no affiliation to any organisation.
** Tony Dudley-Evans is Artistic Adviser to Jazzlines.
*** Brian Homer helps to organise (and his company supports) Birmingham Jazz.

Note: If you read the first The problem of free jazz post, you might find the references to Birmingham Jazz confusing. What was then Birmingham Jazz is now Jazzlines. But Birmingham Jazz remains as a separate organisation.

Categories: Opinion

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19 replies

  1. Hello Peter,

    What does “hmmm!” mean?

    I think you hit the nail on the head in 2009 when you said “I just wonder if that listening public knows quite what a good deal it is getting.” How would you feel about the quality of the music you were hearing if the word “free” was replaced by the phrase “fully subsidised”?

    • Thanks Corey, much appreciated.
      “Fully subsidised” I like. It is more accurate. When a promoter uses it in place of “free”, I’ll buy you a drink! 😉
      However, whether a gig is free, fully subsidised, partly subsidised or not subsidised at all has, I think, no bearing on how I “feel about the quality of the music”.
      To go off at a slight tangent, there is one difference for me between a free gig and a ticketed gig: I have decided I shouldn’t review a free gig. Sounds silly, I know, but my reasoning is this: if the audience is being asked to pay for a performance, it feels appropriate for me to comment critically upon that performance. When it is being given for free it feels inappropriate to judge it. I hope that makes some kind of sense?

      • I can see why you’ve said that, but ultimately it doesn’t make sense to me as you could critique a performance based on the fact that it was fully subsidised using public funds.

        I doubt many promoters would use “fully subsidised” though: it isn’t a phrase that comes up in general conversation. But perhaps it should. 😉

      • I see what you are saying, but I think arguing that the people who have just sat down without buying a ticket have in fact paid for the gig out of their taxes is a subtlety too far. I mean, what they personally would have paid would be so small as to make it closer to nothing than to an entrance fee. Maybe when jazz is publicly funded at the same level as, say, opera I might change my policy.

      • But you will be waiting a long time. Putting on an opera costs more than putting on a gig. It just does: the time, the number of people [including musicians]…

        There’s no point arguing that it’s “only just” as popular as jazz, or that it brings in the same revenue but gets more money and it’s not fair. That just won’t work. People bequeath money to The Royal Opera House in their wills. There are people with money that WANT to give money to opera. Comparing jazz and opera is a false equivalence and I’ve thought for quite a while that doing so doesn’t get anybody anywhere. Even if the subsidy for opera were to fall [and I think it should], that wouldn’t mean anything to the public subsidy for jazz. They are just not thought about the same way.

        The second point is that by saying that the public subsidy is “closer to nothing than […] an entrance fee” and thus you don’t think it’s worth reviewing, a less charitable person could say that perhaps the taxpayer should not give money to the arts at all, if it’s that small and not worth reviewing.

        But this is me, and what this is what I say: the amount of subsidy IS small, and the potential for seeing something amazing is large, and yes it IS subtle. So subtle that if someone doesn’t review it and tell people, it will go and no one will notice.

      • I understand all you are saying and agree with most of it. I only mention opera as it is often used as a comparison with jazz when public funding is mentioned on the grounds, so I understand, that the public audience for jazz is the same numerically as it is for opera. I have nothing personally against opera.
        I probably should mention with regard to not reviewing free gigs, that this is a fairly arbitrary and self-imposed rule mainly because I can’t review everything. I think you might agree that I do write quite a lot in support of jazz on this site as it is…

      • “[…]that this is a fairly arbitrary and self-imposed rule mainly because I can’t review everything.”


        [and, look: I do understand this. No one asked you to start writing about the music, but you do: and it’s a good thing that you do, because without people like you, there would be very little else, and the scene would be screwed much more than if labels were to disappear tomorrow. Without labels, we’d still have digital distribution and self-production. Without reviewers, we’d just have self-promotion. And that would be bad for the listener.

        And I guess that’s the point I’m making: you don’t want to do it, because you can’t review everything. But then, who? And how well will it be done? If we both agree that these fully-subsidised gigs should be reviewed – and if Jazzlines were to start booking younger bands, those groups would certainly value the reviews – then how do the *two* main players in Birmingham encourage the development of appreciation of the music through writing? I have said that for a long time now that jazz education/development is happy to develop players, but not listeners, it seems]

        but that isn’t what you said at first.That’s new information! 🙂

  2. I think the timing is an important factor – free gigs at 5.00 seem like a good idea to me (something they do a lot on the South Bank); it attracts a new audience, often people who wouldn’t normally listen to jazz but who happen to be at the venue.

    • My understanding is that the 5pm gigs in Brum tend to attract a regular audience who go specifically for those gigs. I agree the timing is fine I just think that having such high profile musicians does not actually provide audience development or new audiences that will then pay for other gigs.

  3. I’ll leave Peter to explain hmmmm…. but Ivo Neame in a free gig that is not a young and not an unestablished musician is exactly the kind of example I was thinking about in my post. As it happens it is on early so will not clash with the later gigs. But I think the audience for that gig probably won’t move on in great numbers either to the Jazzlines gig or the Birmingham Jazz gig. And having the chance to see Ivo for free doesnt necessarily encourage that audience to come along on another occasion to either organisations gigs where he has played before and will I hope play again. Subsidy is fine but in my view should support the development of a robust jazz scene not provide free gigs of such high quality to audiences who should be able to make a contribution. And just to be clear my comments are in a personal capacity and are not meant as a general criticism of the Jazzlines program which continues to bring an interesting and varied program to Birmingham. And my personal feeling is that more cooperation between jazz promoters across the city in areas like marketing could benefit everybody.

    • “Subsidy is fine but in my view should support the development of a robust jazz scene not provide free gigs of such high quality to audiences who should be able to make a contribution.”

      Since most subsidy is gained by application and then spent by the organisations who apply, is this better directed to the organisations that apply and gain enough subsidy to this, if they are clearly not doing this already? It’s been a long time since I’ve been/played in Birmingham [I used to play pretty regularly at The Drum], so I don’t know the city as well as I used to: apologies, but don’t Birmingham Jazz or Jazzlines both receive subsidy?

      You’re spot on about the marketing cooperation – some of these things just take conversations, I guess.

  4. I would make two points. As Peter Slavid says, the 5pm sessions attract a different audience many of whom are new to the music. Maybe only a few go on to ticketed gigs, but nonetheless they become aware of jazz, enjoy the experience and realise how good the music is. Most have not been to a ticketed and probably won’t in the future, but I suggest that we are not actually losing audiences as a result of the ‘free’ sessions. Secondly, we do attract a small but significant number of people to try out ticketed events. I think of Charlotte Glasson who after playing two ‘free’ events went on to pack the Red Lion for a ticketed event.

  5. I clearly agree that the Ivo Neame Quintet is not a young unknown group, but, in view of other events and the need for a grand piano, the Symphony Hall session was the only opportunity to present this particular group in Birmingham. It is on a Jazz Services tour and we at Jazzlines like to support these tours. They only happen if the leader gets six gigs over a short period, i.e. in something like a tour, and it is difficult to do that these days.

  6. As a Board member of Birmingham Jazz through most of 36 years I have seen the idea of free access to audiences. It’s original purpose was to showcase local musicians and at non-traditional times. Often some part time players have got a live gig in open or reception spaces (often as background) to headline acts. In my opinion as the band booker for B Jazz that any band that can cam and a proper fee and ticket price should ever play at free events. If Ivo is on a Jazz Services tour then every other gig on that you will be ticketed. This is unfair to all those promoters and audiences who have to work hard to make it all pay.

    As regards Jazzlines programme called Rush Hour Blues (sic) that is all subsidy mostly ACE, and I puzzle to understand why. If ACE want to improve reach and penetration why support that audience that, according to TDE, has no sell on? I have been to many of these events. They (particular illy now 5 o’clock a time I cannot make to early) that is an afternoon out for the same worklessness people, with a packed in the same seat……

    These events do nothing for Jazz development either the music or the audience.

    Birmingham Jazz book good bands, with a reasonable return for them, against the relative national experience. The audiences are always good. They appreciate the efforts taken to get the music ice and listen and appreciate the return they get for their ticket price.

    Free Jazz (other than the exceptions) is not valued in the same way (listen to the amount of talk at Ivo playing at RHB) and a distraction from the real wonder of live jazz

  7. Sorry about the spelling changes due to predictive text. I’m off to the pub

  8. Tony is right about Charlotte but I think there was some time separation between the gigs (and maybe she had achieved more prominence?) and although it is difficult to tell always why people come the addition of Chris Spedding did, I think, make a difference. I guess we will have to agree to differ but I do think it is healthy that we can debate jazz in Birmingham and that Peter has provided the forum to do it. Long may jazz in Birmingham continue to develop!

  9. I just worry that in Brum people haven’t got the money to spend or at least aren’t into spending money in the arts like they do in london. All the rich people live in london and that’s pretty logical that they might pay money to see live entertainment. Free gigs could have greater benefit in my view if there was more money about so that the one didn’t detract from the other..

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