4.15 - that's the percentage of sales shared by the jazz (2.15%) and classical (2%) music genres in the United States market in 2012. This includes the legends of the genres in popular culture (Louis Armstrong, Leonard Bernstein, etc.), current artists working within them (Diana Krall, Josh Bell, et al), artists whose individual musicianship trumps that of most everyone else (Igor Stravinsky, Thelonius Monk) and those who simply make us cringe (Kenny G).
But why is this? Why is it that the two genres of music that take the most training, practice and patience in order for the artist to perfect and be able to competently perform hold such a modicum amount of sales in the United States market? Even despite the fact that these two genres are regarded highly enough by our culture to be taught at every school with a music department and are considered forms of fine art.
However, I am not specifically speaking of the jazz and classical genres - I point them out because they principally consist of what it is that I am referring to: Instrumental Music.
Think about it, what was the last instrumental song that went No. 1 on the US popular charts? How about top twenty? Top forty?
In the 1930s and '40s (arguably the very beginning of American popular music) instrumental music was the norm and many of the greatest pieces of popular music from that period were instrumental: Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine;" Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing;" Duke Ellington's "Take the A-Train;" Glen Miller's "In the Mood." Ironically, all of the aforementioned song titles do have lyrics written for them but it is the instrumental versions that are best remembered and seemingly embody that musical era.
Fast forward the clock to the 1960's and instrumental music was still commonplace: 103 instrumentals cracked the Billboard top 20 - nine of which went number one.
In the 1970s there was a bit of a change - many pop/rock groups were no longer doing purely instrumental works but were having featured instrumental sections (i.e. solos for guitar, keyboard, sax, etc.) many times these instrumental sections were found at the end of a song allowing for long improvisational solos at live concerts. During the decade, only 45 instrumentals reached top 20 status on Billboard's pop chart roughly half of these had success directly due to a movie/television connection or were arrangements of previously familiar material - Beethoven literally went No. 1 in America in September of 1976 nearly 150 years after he died in Europe.
The 1980s and 90s saw a continuation of what was established in the '70s - only to a lesser extent - with artists vying for MTV airplay the focus fell more on an image and less about the performance. As such, the majority of instrumental music that found its way into the mainstream was originally written for movies and television.
By the turn of the century to today, instrumental music (and even featured instrumental sections) has become all but extinct in the realm of popular music (and by popular music I am referring to any new music that is being played on commercial radio - or marketed in a very similar fashion). The proof here being that no instrumental has reached the top 20 since Kenny G's "Auld Lang Syne (Millenium Remix)" in 1999 and since that time only three have found their way to the top 40 (the last being "Axel F (The Frog Song)" by Crazy Frog in 2005 - which is a remake of Harold Faltermeyer's Beverly Hills Cop movie theme).
And for those of you keeping track, the last instrumental work to attain the top spot on the pop charts is keyboardist Jan Hammer's "Miami Vice Theme" in 1985 - the last one to top the pops not originally written for movies or television was "Rise" by Herb Alpert in 1979 - but the piece received plenty of television help to attain the No. 1 spot. The last instrumental without the assistance of visual media to go No. 1 was, arguably, 1975's "The Hustle" by Van McCoy and the Soul Symphony (I say arguably because the song is predominantly instrumental - it does include vocals with tangible words); otherwise, the honor goes to the 1973 Barry White composition "Love's Theme."
So, what is it about instrumental music that Americans are no longer able to understand and appreciate?
Perhaps the answer is that in the last few generations Americans have become less and less musically inclined and every corner of our popular culture seems to exacerbate the diminishing of the typical American's appreciation and knowledge of music as art. This goes beyond the slashing of public school budgets where, typically, music and art are the first things to suffer from the cuts.
Looking at yesteryear, my grandfather speaks of the days in his youth when just about everyone competently played at least one instrument, how every village had its own community band and when artists came to town they found local players to be the backing band (Chuck Berry, for instance, made great use of local musicians when he toured).
My grandfather's generation (my grandfather was born in 1930) is basically the first to live their entire lives with easy and immediate access to music due to the inventions of radio and records; yet, it was still expected for a child to learn an instrument. Before these inventions if you wanted to hear music you had to perform it yourself, go to the symphony or find someone playing on their front porch, at the barbershop or in the local tavern. Now, at the flip of a switch we can have immediate access to high quality music (radio, television, computer, etc.).
One effect of having immediate access to music is that less and less people learn how to play an instrument; simply because it is no longer necessary to play in order to have access to music. With having less and less people playing, the quality of those who do play also gets diminished (i.e. the talent pool is smaller).
Basically, with less people playing any musical instruments there is a less understanding of music due to the fact that there are many people finding no purpose in learning anything about the art. Also there is no understanding of the challenges in learning how to play an instrument (particularly at a high level) and therefore no relation to those who are able to perform an instrument at a high level. With this lack of musical knowledge American ears have become lazier and lazier.
How many Americans realize that John Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the USA," John Cafferty's "On the Dark Side" and "What I Like About You" by The Romantics are all basically the same thing? Or that Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" and Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" share the same basic melody? (In fact, Ravel's "Bolero" found its way into many rock/pop songs throughout the '60s and '70s.) To this end, if we put different words to a given tune - for many - it becomes an entirely new song. However, it isn't necessarily the same in other countries (remember Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," with composition credits given to Joe Garland, did you know that its main melody is a carbon copy of "Tar Paper Stomp" by Wingy Manone - recorded circa 1930?).
These days, no matter where you are, it is impossible to escape American popular culture - movies, music, fashion, etc. In music, groups that want to make it big target the United States and foreign groups have lyrics written in English and sing them with American accents (perhaps most notable of these "English as a second language groups" are ABBA and Scorpions). Even native English speakers use a similar approach to broaden their marketability - The Beatles, U2 and Adele have all recorded with American accents on their songs that became popular hits in the United States.
How many Americans commonly listen to music in a language they do not understand? I encourage you to do it some time, what you will find is that the vocalist becomes another instrument and what matters most in the song are the elements that make music musical (and artistic): melody, dynamics, density, structure, timbre and more. Basically, you wind up listening to instrumental music.
This means that most non-English speakers grow up listening to a lot of instrumental music - which explains why jazz and classical music (and the musicians who perform them) have a greater share of the markets, and have more readily available performances (and more lucrative ones at that), in Europe, Asia and South America than they do in the United States.
Thanks to the advent of MTV, music has become more and more about the visual rather than the aural - it has become more important to have a great video rather than great music. The concert experience no longer is dependent upon a musicians ability to interpret the songs selected for performance but are loaded with light shows, pyrotechnics and/or dancers - and often a live performance is an attempt to replicate what was recorded and captured in a studio setting. (All that comes to my mind as I write this is Katy Perry's halftime performance at the 2015 Super Bowl - she bounced around the stage the whole time and lip-synched her much of the performance to a track that was pumped through the arena's public address sound system - only to be joined by Lenny Kravitz who pantomimed his guitar playing. How many could truly call that an actual performance of live music? How many viewers realized that musically several of the songs Perry performed had the same general melody?)
The American culture has become visually dominant (or more aptly dependent) to the extent that music without visual appeal cannot command the attention of an audience. Music has become a background element - a side dish served with the main course. Think about it, many people "listen" to music while working, exercising, driving a vehicle, playing a game, cooking, writing, talking, etc. Yes, the music is present but it isn't the focus of attention it is a backdrop - an accompaniment to something else.
Which is the difference between hearing music and listening to music. When actually listening to music it is where 100% of your attention lies without any outside distractions taking you away from the musical experience (whether they come in the form of sight, taste, smell or sound). At the end of a listening session you should be mentally exhausted because you focused your attention on every nuance throughout the duration of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony," Miles Davis' "A Kind of Blue" album, even popular music like Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" or "I'm a Slave 4 U" by Britney Spears (Yes, even popular music can have artistic qualities to it but the music must be listened to in order to be fully appreciated).
Visual dominance (or outside distractions) are not the only problems, the larger problem is the dominance of thought. Most people have no idea what to do with abstraction in general; in order to fully appreciate abstraction one must be able to turn off their thought process, or at least push their thoughts to the side.
This is not as easy a task as it may seem. Take the time to go to a modern art exhibit or museum and make note of how often you find yourself thinking: "I could have done this" or "That looks like something a third-grader did" or "Why is this in a museum" etc.
Most people are unable (or unwilling) to let the abstraction affect their emotions directly; the experience must be filtered through interpretation. In many ways it is a crutch we all use to deal with fears that state, "I don't understand this and if I admit that I don't understand this I'll look unsophisticated, ignorant and stupid." These types of fears fill the mind with noise and the audience member is unable to see, hear, taste, feel... Dare I say, unable to understand and appreciate the art presented before them.
The same happens with instrumental music. Suddenly, without any lyrics, there is nothing for the mind to latch onto and the projection of emotional values becomes more difficult. However, as soon as there are lyrics speaking of love, hate, loneliness, etc. The listeners emotions are easily tapped and accessed. The listener no longer has to interpret the music being performed (and perhaps even interpreted) by the artist. This is why songs with lyrics in your native tongue and pictures of tangible objects are easier for most people to appreciate and understand.
Being a form of abstract art, which instrumental music is by its very nature, takes effort by the listener in order to be fully appreciated. In the same manner, sampling a winery's selection doesn't instantaneously turn one into a wine connoisseur nor does staring at colors (which we all do everyday) automatically turn any of us into an expert on color schemes. Regardless the medium, fine art is far more demanding for both the artist and the audience than popular art ever will be.
This rather unfortunate trend in the American culture seems to be irreversible, and the popularity of rap music (and TV shows like "American Idol") seems to be a clear indication of this trend.
Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate rap for what it is, but it does not promote the full development of musical ears. If a song truly has musical substance it can be played in a purely instrumental fashion (whether by solo piano or guitar, to a woodwind quintet, or all the way up to a full orchestra) and we would still be able to recognize the piece and be able to enjoy it (or loathe it if we didn't care for it in the first place).
The lack of musical substance becomes clearly visible in much of American popular music. Many popular songs use just a few chords (three or four), have a melody line that doesn't change much (see Katy Perry) and their isn't a wide variety of dynamics, density, texture or timbre in much of what is popular - nor are the songs used as a vehicle to display instrumental, improvisational and/or musical prowess; however, we certainly could argue that popular music shows off the prowess of a recording engineer.
Perhaps this trend promotes the appreciation of poetry but certainly not the appreciation of music as a form of fine art. If we were to reverse this trend, we need to make a conscious effort in promoting the abstract aspects of music. For instance, play more instrumental music in schools, teach kids how to play an instrument instead of how to sing. Maybe even going as far as only teaching school kids instrumental music as their exposure to music outside of school would be dominated by non-instrumental music anyway - it would be a way of balancing things out.
This problem extends far beyond the American disinterest for jazz and classical music; it is a problem for high quality music in general. The dominance of words and visuals in the American culture has lead many to believe that listening to rap or watching music videos is the full extent of what music has to offer. If this continues, they will be missing a huge part of what - not just music and art but - life has to offer.