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A Reality Check for Jazz Musicians

There are three types of jazz musicians in the world today: the professionals, the students and the hobbyists. All three are equally important for the survival of each other and the survival of jazz music itself.

The Hobbyists:

Individuals who either love listening to jazz as a pastime, or play jazz as a pastime. Jazz is purely a means of enjoyment and an escape from other realities of life; a hobby. They have a day job or are retired. Jazz hobbyists are just like sports fans who watch the games or might even play on a club team.

The Students:

Individuals who caught the jazz bug and are either attempting to pursue jazz/music as a full time or part time career. They seek to play jazz at a higher level and are making their way from hobbyist to professional. Most often the students are young and are going to college for music, but of course there are the exceptions.

The Professional:

Individuals who treat jazz music (or primarily jazz) as a career. Jazz professionals play gigs, they tour, they teach, they record albums, and they write music books. Jazz and music in general is the means by which they make their living, and is not simply for enjoyment.

The economic jazz triangle:

The hobbyists and the students need there to be professional jazz musicians so that jazz music has a thriving network of fandom to feed into. They need new music to listen to, musicians to look up to, shows to go see, lessons to take, books to practice out of.

The professionals need the hobbyists and the students, otherwise it would be impossible for them to economically survive. They need people to listen to their music, go to shows, take lessons, buy their books.

Jazz music needs the students. The students are the future professionals that will continue to lead the jazz music industry. They must be nurtured and an economic future must be secured for them.

But what all three of these types of jazz musicians need is a reality check. They need the cold hard truth.

Reality Check #1

This is a reality check for the professionals.

Increasingly, jazz has become viewed as art music. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but professionals must realize this. Jazz is taught in high schools and you can get a jazz degree in college. It is not popular industry music, and it is not marketed on popular industry music stations.

Therefore the jazz hobbyists and students are limited. No, jazz is not dying or going away, it’s just that the world has changed! The jazz audience is a very particular demographic.

Lots of professionals complain that there are not enough gigs out there. They complain that work is scarce. What they have to realize is live music isn’t as prevalent in any genre of music as it used to be. No, it’s not just jazz. With the age of the internet, album sales aren’t really a very reliable way to make money…but then again was it ever?

The point is: the world has changed, so you have to adapt!

Facing reality #1:

  • Become a jazztrepenuer. A what you say?! That’s right, a jazztreprenuer. That’s my fancy word for an entrepreneur who is a jazz musician. If you want to make any kind of a living, you better start getting creative. Start thinking like a business man and less like a musician. How can you make money off your craft that isn’t so obvious? How can you utilize today’s technology to promote your music or your lessons? Take this website for example. Learn Jazz Standards is a blog/jazz resource that supplements our income as jazz musicians. We’ve chosen to use an online presence to do what we love, help others, and also make some money while doing. But don’t just follow our path! What’s your path? How can you make money from your talents in unexpected ways?
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t rely only on gigs, teaching, or any other single form of income. If you want to make a living as a musician, you better be pulling in money from multiple different directions. You can’t make it all off of one thing! Identify something else you can do, and go for it.

Reality Check #2

This is a reality check for the students.

So you want to be a jazz star? The next Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, or Pat Metheny? Great! I hope you make it and I hope you work really hard. I promise no matter what, it will be worth it. But here is the truth: your chances are slim.

Now, I promise I’m not just saying this because I didn’t make it there. I know this sounds harsh and maybe like a slap in the face, but I want you to know what you are getting yourself into. I’ve been in your shoes. The jazz stars of today are the very few who made it to the top. They are exceptional players who worked harder than everyone else, and were also in the right place at the right time.

I live in New York York city and I see and hear hundreds of incredible players who’s talent should be taking them all over the world…but it’s not. There are only so many seats available on the train. But please, do not let that get you down!

Facing reality #2:

  • Start thinking now, how to become a jazztreprenuer. Don’t assume anything about where you will be when you leave college or wherever you are at now. Prepare now for what the world will look like for you as a professional. Start getting creative today.
  • Examine your options. Similarly to the call of a professional, you must figure out what different things you can do to make a living. Don’t rely on one thing to make things happen for you. Look for open doors and don’t be too picky.

Reality Check #3

This is a reality check for the hobbyists.

You are the lifeblood of the jazz economy. The professionals are having a harder time making money and they need your support! The students are the future, and while they are supporting the professionals now, soon it will be their turn. You are the most sought after individuals in the jazz economy!

Without your support, the professionals will not be able to give their services to you, and without your support there will be no future work for the students.

Facing reality #3:

  • Know of some local jazz musicians in your area? Go to their gigs! Jam session? Show up to play. Show them your support and enjoy some music. If you and your friends show up, the venue owner will keep them around, other venue owners will notice and wallah! New gigs are born.
  • Buy the album don’t download it for free. If there is a jazz artists you like, choose to buy the new album rather than listen to it on Spotify, or god forbid, pirate it.
  • Keep doing what you do. Jazz hobbyists just love jazz and want to listen and play it. Keep doing that! We need as many of you as we can get.

What do you think? Join the discussion in the comments below.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. I love jazz, but it is dead. Especially down south Texas. Guess its You Tube for me. This is good website though.

  2. Hi Brent, I'm a student and love the work you do on here! Very valuable to all of us. It's seems to me that live music (across all genres) needs to become cool again. I know that 20 years ago, musicians could make a living doing gigs 5/6 times a week. Our culture has changed as a result of technological change, of course, but maybe we can make concerts/gigs a desirable event to visit once more. What do you think?

    • Hi Harry, thanks for your comment. Well I think there are a lot of things at play here. First and foremost, as you've said, technology has changed entertainment drastically even over the last 10 years. Smart phones, social media, netflix, music streaming…etc. Entertainment is more than ever an instant gratification kind of thing. Before the age of technology came around, one had to leave the home to go see a play or a musical performance to get entertainment. Now this isn't so necessary. In a way the value of actually seeing a live musician play music has gone down.

      I believe the economy has something to do with it as well. I'm speaking mostly in the case of the United States as I can't speak with confidence about the others. When the recession hit, people stopped going out as much. Restaurants, clubs and bars started closing. Venues didn't have extra money to pay for live music. An increasing amount of musicians started playing for low wages or students and hobbyists even playing for free, which further damaged the music economy. The value of live music went down.

      I like to believe that live music will come back around again. People will start realizing the value of seeing raw talent in the flesh again. People will start seeking out more personal entertainment instead of impersonal forms of entertainment we have now. I can't say this will happen for sure, but I do hope so, and I know that live music of course will never die.

  3. Great article Brent. I am most definitely a hobbyist, took your advice and went to see Randy Bernsen last night in Fort Lauderdale. Great Jazz Fusion, and great conversation also.


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