All That Jazz? You Probably Don’t Know That It Is Now the Least Selling Genre in the Country

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Posted March 18, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Classical, you are safe. Jazz is now considered out of touch when it comes to music buyers

At one time in life, jazz was popular music. That’s been well over a half century ago.

Since the bustling musical genre once dominated by names like Ellington, Cole, Ella and Sinatra shifted into grayer areas of popularity by morphing into easy-listening, adult contemporary, smooth jazz and a herd of other sub-genres, the traditional sounds of jazz have fallen out of favor with most American consumers.

According to data coming from Nielsen’s 2014 Year-End Report, both jazz and classical music represent just 1.4% of total U.S. music consumption a piece. But classical music had a slighter edge over jazz.

The news isn’t exactly what most jazz lovers would come to expect. Especially since forms of jazz have found new life in other genres, like hip-hop (Robert Glasper) and crossover artists like Ledisi, who is signed to a traditional jazz label (Verve) but is usually tossed into R&B territory. Artists like Michael Buble are usually dumped in traditional pop categories, which is quite unfortunate when referencing the survival of jazz. Last year, jazz pro Tony Bennett topped the Billboard charts with his duet album with pop star Lady Gaga (Cheek to Cheek). That disc, which took home a Grammy award, is also tossed into traditional pop categories. And as of January 2015, the album has sold 524,000 in the U.S. alone. Keep that number in your memory bank as you continue reading.

Economists believe the broken culture of music consumption is what is eating away at the genre the most, especially since much of its sales before depended on physical album sales. Since the few brick and mortar stores and larger superstores have poorly stocked the genre, it makes it hard for their traditional base to acquire its products. Data coming from streaming and digital sales also point to a downward trend with traditional jazz patrons. According to surprising data, it’s the only genre that saw a decline between 2011 and 2012 in the realm of digital album sales. And that is because most jazz lovers are used to purchasing physical copies, whether it is compact disc or vinyl.

Here are the hardball numbers on jazz:

In 2011, a total of 11 million jazz albums (CD, cassette, vinyl, & digital) were sold, according to BusinessWeek. This represents 2.8% of all music sold in that year. However, just a year later, in 2012, that percentage fell to 2.2%. It rose slightly to 2.3% in 2013 before falling once again to just 2% in 2014. That 2% is a very bad sign for the genre, particularly when it’s compared with the best-selling album of 2014 so far. Taylor Swift’s 1989 sold 3.7 million copies for the first few months this year. All of the output coming from jazz couldn’t even reach the entirety of sales from Swift’s album from this year.

Remember that number of 524,000 from a paragraph ago? The Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga album might be a positive for the genre, since it surpassed the half-million mark. But most modern-day jazz albums hardly have this type of Midas touch. Remember when Herbie Hancock’s tribute album to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters, knocked the socks of the competition at the 50th annual Grammy Awards when it won Album of the Year? It beat out hardcore competition from Kanye West, Amy Winehouse and the Foo Fighters. Although the disc sported big cameos from acts like Tina Turner, Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae, that album had no best-selling acclaim going into the award show. After winning the coveted title, River went from selling 54,000 copies to 114,000. Still, that number is considered huge when compared with the modest and poorly sold albums in the genre.

Today the rest of the genres tower over jazz like China towers over a small town in Mississippi: 30 percent of music consumers support rock, making it the most popular genre in the country. Hip-hop and R&B (e-hem, mostly hip-hop) followed with 17.2 %. Then comes pop with 14.9%, with country trailing not far behind with 11.2 %.

According to the website JazzLine, they put their literary axe to the root:

“This is indicative of an aging listenership that is slow to adapt to new technologies. As more and more traditional record stores go out of business, it’s becoming harder for these veteran stalwarts of the genre to access new releases, while the few digital natives that actively listen to jazz are clearly finding it difficult to carry the numbers.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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