Why do we insist on underestimating our audiences?

The idea for the post you are reading was in part instigated by this post by Andrew Durkin about this post by Anthony Dean-Harris, and the procrastination inertia was broken by these two tweets by Lucas Gillan.

To summarize quickly, in case you didn’t read all the stuff I just linked above: Anthony is afraid to play Nels Cline on his radio show, because he thinks it will drive away listeners, and Lucas linked to a video of Christian Scott on Jimmy Kimmel Live and then asked, “I really wonder what the studio audience and viewers at home, most of whom probably don’t even know who Thelonious Monk is, thought of it.”

There are so many places to go with this, but I’ll start with, why do we insist on underestimating our audiences? People like honest music, even if they don’t know it already, or know or understand the history behind it. As one piece of evidence, I offer up this man. It is not at all uncommon for me to talk to people at the Open Ears Series that will tell me that they don’t really know jazz, and just wandered in to the club, but enjoyed what they heard. (NB- Open ears usually programs fairly left of center, and sometimes just downright weird stuff) Audiences sense honesty and react to that. One doesn’t have to know Monk or his music to get into a young man making a passionate musical statement. BTW Scott’s tune on Kimmel wasn’t all that out. It was just a guy wailing over a simple harmonic vamp, while the drummer went nuts. If he played guitar instead of trumpet, we would have called it classic rock.

It is our job as musicians, radio programmers, bloggers, and friends to spread the word about good music. It is not our job as musicians to guess what people want to hear, it is our job to make the music that we hear, and do it honestly. It is not the job of radio hosts to pander to some perceived infantilism in the audience, it is the job of radio hosts to play good music. We don’t need to pander to audiences, or even nurture audiences. Good music will do the nurturing, all we have to do is let people know that they are welcome to come and listen and make of the music what they will. We just have to invite them in. They’re grown ups, they can listen for themselves.

2 thoughts on “Why do we insist on underestimating our audiences?

  1. Beautifully said, especially this:

    “It is not our job as musicians to guess what people want to hear, it is our job to make the music that we hear, and do it honestly.”

    I wish I could be as optimistic in general when it comes to the idea of good music nurturing audiences. (Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I am — sometimes even excessively so.) It’s hard to avoid being influenced by whatever microcosm of the music industry I happen to be inhabiting on a particular day.

    I guess the bigger point is that audiences are never monolithic, and that sometimes they come to the table with ears open to change, and sometimes they don’t. And when media people go into the relationship with the assumption that audiences should never be challenged, that can become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Just riffing here, but I really like what you wrote.

  2. I agree. The risk (and reality) is that some people will not like what we do, but that’s ok, some people do like it.

    Maybe nurturing an audience is the wrong term. Good music will find the ears that want to hear it, if we give it a chance. We need to stop “protecting” people from good music.

    BTW Lucas clarified that he hoped the Kimmel audience would dig C. Scott. I think I misread his intention a bit, not that that changes anything I wrote.

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