Time For A Reality Check

Jazz funding initiatives are like spending $100,000 for a memorial service
to a musician whose life could have been saved by a $5,000 operation

 –  Marty Khan from The MOJO Plan

Face it, Khan. The big problem with you is that you’re a goddam Communist.” This statement was made to me by a former colleague over my criticism of Ronald Reagan’s fiscal formula of benign neglect and trickle-down economics that set in motion the mess we’re in today. It was reiterated to me about five years later when the Performing Arts world “welcomed” Jazz into its hallowed halls with a similar agenda. The answer to the question as to why I had never been brought to the table when the blueprint to “save Jazz” was drawn up by a committee of the standard crowd of advocacy professionals was explained by one of the primo committee members with this criticism: “If you were involved, you would have wanted the money to be distributed quite differently.”

Indeed! And there’s that Communist thing again. Unquestionably, I would not have recommended shoveling 20 mill into a bunch of plantations in the expectation that they would trickle it down into the house, the yard and the field in some vague appropriation of equitability. And now, 20+ years into the hopeless agenda, the results are no different than the results of tax cuts for the rich. No jobs, no growth, no product sales, no nuthin’ for anybody other than those who already have – peppered with a smattering of anointed artist recipients to prove that the system works.

Re that communist thing…in truth, I am a capitalist. It’s just that I don’t see capitalism from a loot and pillage viewpoint – profit over everything and screw the other party if it puts more money in the hands of our shareholders kind of thing. I’m ok with somebody spending 30 grand on a bottle of wine, as long as everybody else can afford a bottle of $3.99 Chianti. So, call me a Socialistic Capitalist if you are obsessed with categorization.

But I’m also a slave to arithmetic – the 10 pennies in a dime; 10 dimes in a dollar type of math. I don’t believe that if you project five million dollars in profits and only make three million that it should be called a loss of two million – as it is by today’s business logic. Likewise, I don’t feel that cultural institutions spending half a million dollars producing a concert that pays the artist $25,000 can legitimately justify it by its enormous overhead (as the former Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center admitted – and to his credit, also lamented).

So that brings us full circle to the reason why I was told I was left out of the planning sessions over 20 years ago when the facility-based funding initiatives for Jazz was launched.

The concept was simple. Throw about a million dollars each at 20 presenting/education organizations over five years and something good is bound to happen. The recipients would “undoubtedly” take the network concept seriously, work together to create a context of audience development and performance opportunities and somehow make things better for Jazz. Who needs a plan, when blind hopes are so much easier? The actual result was that rather than seeing themselves as 20 water towers that would collect and dispense water to the fields that needed irrigation, too many of them saw an opportunity to own the water and dispense it in a way that would primarily benefit themselves on their quest to replicate the T-Rex monolith of J@LC. Combine greed and power with the egoistic yearnings of the executives in charge to be the “face on the facility” (a sad development that has run as rampant through the Performing Arts world as acne at an adolescent chocolate eating contest) and only the few will succeed at the expense of the many.

And for 20 years, money has continued to be thrown at these facilities and related programs not even in the blind hope that eventually something will “happen” but rather out of a continuum of unfocused and knee-jerk, non-specific “ideas” developed by the same unfocused individuals whose myopic visions launched the original initiatives.

So, like tax cuts for the rich and smaller government are the mantras of the manipulative right-wing squawkers to fix the economy, pouring unfathomable funds – nearly one billion dollars in the past 20 years – will somehow give jazz what it needs to thrive.

Let’s return to the water tower/irrigation metaphor. Imagine that the nation is starving for food. Some wealthy individuals decide to address the desperate situation by giving 50 entrepreneurial farmers a million acres each to cultivate. From these farms, each of which is producing enormous quantities of food, thousands of smaller farms could be spawned, creating countless jobs and enormous productivity designed to accomplish the lofty goals.

But imagine if these farmers, instead of developing the land for the intended benevolent and pragmatic results, instead decided to focus upon specialty, highly expensive product – Kobe beef, grapes for ultra-expensive wines and champagne, truffles, etc. etc. Or chose an entirely different route, and used the properties to build supermalls, sports complexes, luxury condos, etc. The products could be marketed to the upper levels of world society and make 50 people incredibly rich.

And as of now, there is a capital campaign underway for one of the top recipients of the funding initiatives. The campaign is (as I understand) successfully raising 300 million dollars to build a new facility – club, concert hall, recording and rehearsal studios, offices – in a city filled with clubs, concert halls, recording and rehearsal studios, and office space; all needing to be utilized. What wonderful things might be done with even a fraction of those funds on behalf of those who have been left out of the equation – the musicians (and audiences) for whom they are supposedly being provided?

The “what if” quotient is not simply a “Gee, I wonder what might be a good idea to do instead?” Totally viable, comprehensive and integrated concepts and programs have been created and circulated by highly capable, accomplished and committed professionals in a succession of efforts over those same 20 years. Unfortunately, they have fallen upon deaf ears and blind eyes who instead point to the existing programs as being all that Jazz and its artists need.

These programs would totally alter the landscape of the Jazz business and creative environment – in legacy preservation, audience development, city-by-city scene development, product distribution and performance opportunity. They all contain revenue components designed to make them self-sufficient within three to five years each. If all of them were to be launched simultaneously on a three to five-year plan, they could be done for less than one year of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual operating budget – or 20% of the aforementioned capital campaign. In the next installment, we will outline a number of these programs and their related costs.

I’m not saying that folks should stop giving to these institutions. If they think that they are actually doing something worthwhile for Jazz, that’s fine. However, it’s important to look at the empirical evidence and realize that there is an enormous need that is not being addressed right now…and every year hundreds of millions of dollars are being squandered under the misleading sense that the needs are being addressed. It’s time to face reality and give some new ideas the opportunity to address these issues. Stay tuned.

 

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