In straight-ahead jazz and more experimental realms, it’s a given that times are tough: Album sales are negligible, musicians are underpaid and underexposed, and careers are increasingly punishing, do-it-yourself affairs. It’s sometimes assumed that “smooth jazz, ” the lighter and glossier pop-jazz that came into heavy rotation in the ’80s and ’90s, must be where the money is. Surely this palatable groove-based music, often scorned by the jazz community as not jazz at all, is an easier route to commercial success, with broader support from the music industry and the masses.
Or is it? Reports indicate that smooth jazz, or “contemporary jazz” as it’s known on the Billboard charts, is in fact seeing a dramatic downturn. And the genre’s crisis points to larger historical questions about jazz, nomenclature and mass appeal. “Every month I hear we lost a radio station somewhere, ” says veteran keyboardist and producer Philippe Saisse. New York’s CD101.9 switched to classic rock in early 2008 and then to all-news. KIFM 98.1 in San Diego—arguably smooth jazz’s world headquarters—went adult contemporary in early 2011. Stations in Chicago, Sacramento, Philadelphia and many other markets have dropped smooth jazz and switched formats as well. “It’s a lot smaller than it used to be, ” says Allen Kepler, president of Broadcast Architecture, the consulting firm that launched the Smooth Jazz Network in 2007. “The big change for us is that it’s no longer such a popular format among the big broadcasters like Clear Channel and CBS and those large PPM markets.” (More about the ratings measuring device PPM, or Portable People Meter, to follow.)
The ripple effect is profound, given that entire careers in smooth jazz were built and maintained via terrestrial radio. “It’s becoming harder and harder to put together tours and concerts in cities that don’t have radio stations, ” Saisse adds. “The problem for a lot of us, ” says famed saxophonist Dave Koz, “is that we know the way it was. We have one foot on one piece of land that was in the past … and we’re using our other foot to find some semblance of solid ground. For people just coming up, new artists, it’s a different story.”
Former Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, an in-demand sideman and producer, also speaks of declining album sales. “Now I see appalling figures, ” he says. “I see a No. 3 record on the [Contemporary Jazz] chart and I find out that they have only 3, 000 sales.” Even top-name artists? “Yeah, it could easily be, ” Haslip adds, recalling a time when Yellowjackets “would easily sell 100, 000.” (The band’s 1987 top seller, Four Corners, moved 350, 000 units.) “Those numbers just don’t exist anymore.”
Keyboardist Jeff Lorber, who co-produced his latest release with Haslip, has some fun with the suggestion that people involved in smooth jazz might be heading for the exits: “No, they’ve already gone through the exits, they’ve taken the freeway home and they’ve gone to bed.”
Few would argue that smooth jazz is uniquely bad off. Record label dominance is over, digital music and media are ascendant, the business is being entirely remade, and opinion on the brave new online world is sharply divided. “On my desk right here I’ve got a check for zero dollars and 78 cents from YouTube licensing offers, ” Saisse deadpans. “I’ve got some Spotify checks here for zero dollars nine cents. So it’s not quite making up for the royalties that we used to get from radio [laughs]. But I’m working on it. I’m collecting my zero-point-78-cent checks and we’ll see what happens.”
When people think of smooth jazz they often think of Kenny G. But G, who got his start in Lorber’s band, is an anomaly. His total album sales, reportedly topping 75 million, give an illusory picture of the kind of money that was ever available in the genre. According to John Ernesto, manager of the Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, Penn., “The way things are today, there could never be another Kenny G, because he relied on radio and record sales.”