11 March 2007

Who gets to go?

There was a time when I refused to show any inclination whatsoever towards moving to New York City. Every midwestern jazz player practically drools over the thought whether they've ever been there or not, which meant that my need to be different just for the sake of being different was in full effect. Sadly, I've still never been there, but now that I know a little bit more and have had some frustating experiences here in middle America, I have finally started thinking seriously about taking the plunge. What else is there to do?

The level of playing has never really intimidated me. That's not to say I expect to fit right in, but no matter where I live, I expect that I'll have to confront it anyway at some point in my career. If I don't, that will mean that I either got complacent or failed entirely. Competition is healthy and inspirational; why not embrace it?

What bothers me much more is the money question. A 2006 Worldwide Cost of Living survey conducted by Mercer Consulting named New York as the most expensive U.S. city and the 10th internationally. Rent.com says:

The overall cost of living here is 364% compared to the national average, making it just slightly less than California's Silicon Valley, the most expensive area in the nation. Average apartment rentals go for $1,600 per month, with utilities costing an average of $189 per month.

So, has money become the greatest determining factor in who among us naive young musicians is able to actually get up and strategically place ourselves in the center of the action? It's hard to believe that it hasn't. That's a dire situation in my opinion, not nearly as dire as the larger question of access to music education generally, but it is a result of the same deplorable phenomenon, namely of middle and lower income people being priced out of music on some level. One way that the internet will never really be able to bring us closer together is by facilitating in-person collaborative musical performance. Geographic isolation is a tremendous barrier to musical collaboration, so it's not so far-fetched to think that there really ought to be a "musical capital" of the world or country where we can all be available to each other. An astronomical cost of living, however, kills the whole thing.

It's not that wealth and artistic vision necessrily preclude each other, but in order to continue being a Mecca for artists of any kind, a scene must select for the latter and not the former. What's the consequence of the opposite case? A fetishized rat race dominated by brats with more money than talent. That's what college music programs are. That's what I want to get away from. That's what kills music. The thought of encountering a "real world" manifestation of that is nauseating. I'm crossing my fingers now.

I'm somewhat on the fortunate end of things. If I decide to go, I will find a way to make it work financially. However, none of the possible scenarios look easy. Maybe that means that the people who do manage to survive there are exceptional in many different ways. Maybe that means that there's a grain of truth to all of the idealization and mythology surrounding the place. On the other hand, that's part of the problem: mythology » co-optation » commodification » fetish, and then it's entirely too late to really get in on the action because there is no more action.

Having never actually been to the place, I probably don't know what I'm talking about, nor am I saying that music has to be made by poor people to be any good, nor am I slamming native New Yorkers. (although before posting this, I did check with a friend of mine who grew up there, and she made many of the same observations). It's something that makes me wonder, and the more I think about it, the more apparent it gets that as long as the cost of living remains so disproportionately high in our musical capital, and as long as the country as a whole continues to hemorrage decent-paying jobs to the third world, wealth will continue to eclipse talent as the primary determining factor not only in who gets to go to NYC, but in who gets to play and even listen to music in the first place. This is the major issue facing American music right now and it is seldom if ever discussed. The topic that does get discussed semi-regularly is the cost of going to jazz clubs. Maybe that will eventually lead to a more comprehensive discussion.


paul bailey said...

nice blog...

if you want to play jazz you should move there (at least for a few years). its probably the last holdout for the real thing.

Nick Zielinski said...

the last holdout for the real thing?

did you read that in The Jazz Educator's Journal?