Jazz Is the Drug

Why the only thing jazz can't sell is itself.

by Alexander Gelfand
Jazziz
September 2007

Jazz Is the DrugThere are a lot of questions I'd like to ask the marketing team at Jazz Pharmaceuticals, the biopharmaceutical firm that recently completed a disastrous initial public offering. First among them: What in God's name were you thinking?

For years, the best known jazz pharmaceutical was heroin, which musicians of the '40s and '50s consumed as if it were cotton candy. Constrained by an SEC-imposed "quiet period" following their IPO, company reps declined to comment on the wisdom of linking their organization to one of the 20th century's most notorious examples of rampant drug abuse. But the company's website, at least, is as high-minded as can be:

"The name 'Jazz Pharmaceuticals' captures our dual philosophy of excellence in innovation and collaboration. Jazz musicians are often virtuosos on a particular instrument, capable of brilliant performances as soloists...Yet at the same time, the best jazz musicians play seamlessly as a group...Along these lines, we aspire to build such an environment – one which values and encourages individual excellence, intensive and productive collaboration, and innovation."

Fair enough. Alas, virtue is hardly a bankable commodity: Jazz Pharmaceutical's IPO priced well below its expected range, which had already been cut by 25 percent, and opened even lower on the Nasdaq Stock Market. To make matters worse, the company posted a loss of $59.4 million last year, and has racked up a deficit of $197.2 million.

And if all that weren't enough to prompt comparisons with the fiscal state of jazz, the company's primary product is a drug for narcolepsy – a disorder that sends sufferers into a deep sleep at a moment's notice. (Better yet, Jazz Pharmaceuticals plans to launch a treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder. If you want to see either of these in action, just spend some time with a bunch of hardcore jazz geeks.)

It's easy to see Jazz Pharmaceutical's travails as a metaphor for the market-worthiness of jazz. After all, this music ceased lost its genuine popularity at around the same time as zoot suits and spats. Notoriously difficult to sell, jazz always seems to be on the verge of complete commercial collapse.

In an essay titled "Marketing and the Jazz Musician," Noel Dennis, a trumpeter and senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Teesside in England, suggests that jazz may be intrinsically unmarketable because it is so hard to define.

"By common consent there is no objective definition of jazz, which makes it almost impossible for a listener to identify or recognise what they are listening to and even whether or not they enjoy the music," Dennis writes. "The amorphous nature of jazz does not readily lend itself to a core product, simply because there is not a strong identity to promote."

That amorphous quality, which some would argue is one of the music's greatest aesthetic strengths, makes jazz difficult to package, promote and sell. Yet as even a casual glance around the contemporary marketplace proves, it also makes jazz an excellent tool for marketing other products.

As a universal symbol of hipness, jazz turns up all over the place, from film soundtracks to television commercials, where it's used to sell everything from toilet paper to SUV's.

"It might not be everybody's favorite music, but everybody understands jazz and has their own interpretation of it," says Neil McGregor, creative director for Montreal-based Jazz Marketing Communications. (McGregor, a Londoner, knows jazz. His father, Alec McGregor, was a leading British trumpeter who played in several prominent swing bands.)

Perversely, the fact that jazz is not for everyone may even add to its cache as a marketing tool. Often, the music and its most stylish exemplars – Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington – serve as tropes for sophistication and refinement, even among those who don't particularly like the stuff. "It's generally associated with a more aware crowd, or a high-brow crowd," McGregor says. Yet you can bet that when Swiss watch maker Oris introduced a line of high-priced , jazz-oriented timepieces, it wasn't hoping to sell them just to jazz fans, any more than Rod Stewart was aiming at the juicy jazz demographic with his Great American Songbook albums.

The emotional range of jazz and its capacity to evoke visual images – something McGregor calls its "impressionistic" quality and likens to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition – may also shed light on its utility as a marketing device. Even the word "jazz" has sales potential. "It's a very exciting word to look at – very exciting, very emphatic," McGregor says. "I can sell an advertising agency called 'Jazz.' I couldn't sell an agency called 'Blur.'"

And so at the end of the day, there appears to be a massive disjuncture between the marketability of jazz, and its usefulness as a vehicle for marketing other things.

Simply put, the only thing jazz can't sell is itself.

Copyright 2007 Alexander Gelfand

Back to Journalism