Four Questions About All This Undead/Winter Jazzfest Business

Steve Coleman (saxophone, center) performs with his band, Five Elements at the Winter Jazzfest 2011. Coleman is one of the notable musicians who signed and distributed a petition seeking better pay at the Winter and Undead Jazzfests. i i

Steve Coleman (saxophone, center) performs with his band, Five Elements at the Winter Jazzfest 2011. Coleman is one of the notable musicians who signed and distributed a petition seeking better pay at the Winter and Undead Jazzfests. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR
Steve Coleman (saxophone, center) performs with his band, Five Elements at the Winter Jazzfest 2011. Coleman is one of the notable musicians who signed and distributed a petition seeking better pay at the Winter and Undead Jazzfests.

Steve Coleman (saxophone, center) performs with his band, Five Elements at the Winter Jazzfest 2011. Coleman is one of the notable musicians who signed and distributed a petition seeking better pay at the Winter and Undead Jazzfests.

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

In recent years, New York's Winter Jazzfest and its summer cousin, the Undead Jazzfest, have become Kind Of A Big Deal in the jazz world. They've been commanding over-capacity crowds and tons of good press about the glorious overload of music, including some from this blog.

Yesterday afternoon, news came that musicians are seeking better pay from these festivals. As Nate Chinen reported for the New York Times' ArtsBeat, and appended at his own blog, a group of past, present and future festival performers are asking to meet with the festivals' producers and representatives of the local musician's union. Although the exact terms of compensation for these festivals is undisclosed, an online petition requests that the festivals "respect community standards of pay and other conditions" — suggesting that previously, those standards were not sufficiently met.

This comes one week from the beginning of the 2011 Undead Jazzfest. At four days and two boroughs, it'll be the biggest event of its kind to date.

If you've been following the growth of WJF and Undead, the question wasn't if this was coming, but when? And how? These events have low admissions fees, dozens of musicians and bands, few (if any) commercial sponsors and all the overhead that comes with running multi-venue productions. They aren't making a lot of money; they can't pay much out. But as these events became more popular, it seemed inevitable that musicians would eventually ask to be paid more — or at least at "community standards of pay."

Now that we know when, and how, here are some follow-up questions:

  1. What set this off? For the first year of Undead, and the first few years of Winter Jazzfest's current incarnation, musicians were ostensibly OK with earning substandard rates — they agreed to it, after all, and generally seemed to enjoy being there. Perhaps the promise of some other things also influenced their decisions: exposure to influential presenters and journalists, young and hip crowds, chances to hear their friends play. Now, this is no longer enough. (Not that it should be.) What catalyzed this action?
  2. Is there the potential here for a work stoppage? The musicians who signed the petition have played, and in many cases plan to continue to play, the Undead and Winter Jazzfests, as well as other events run by their proprietors, Search and Restore and Boom Collective. That tells me that they've enjoyed playing these events, and are not interested in driving these festivals out of business. They are about making these events more sustainable from a labor perspective, and "striking" would not be a gesture of goodwill toward that end. But what sort of leverage will they bring?
  3. Why is this public now? With the 2011 Undead Jazzfest less than a week away, do the musicians expect this to be resolved prior to the start of the event? Are Search and Restore and Boom Collective able to absorb being over budget if they are asked to settle before this festival?
  4. Who will pay? A major reason that Undead/Winter Jazzfests are so fun for most people is that they privilege the consumer. Lots of very good music, for cheap. If the organizers are forced to raise more money in order to continue running these events, who will step in? Will there be public grant funding? Will sponsors or large donors emerge? Will ticket prices rise — and if so, by how much? How would that affect attendance?

As disclosure, I will again point out that I wrote a short essay for the Undead Jazz Review, the magazine and program guide for this year's festival. I did not accept any compensation for it.

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