Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Music and Tax Policy

One of the reasons I posted about the difficulties violinists and cellists have been having lately with the airlines is that these things have an effect on the music world. If you make touring very difficult for musicians, they will do less of it.

I just ran across a fascinating article that shows the impact a tax policy can have on music. It was originally in the Wall Street Journal, but behind the paywall. I saw it here. The article explains how the big band era was brought to a premature close by a new cabaret tax. Anywhere people were dancing and singing suddenly got hit with a 30% tax on receipts. This 30% made it impossible for cabaret owners to hire big bands. Here is how it went:
Dramatic shifts in popular culture are usually assumed to result from naturally occurring forces such as changing tastes (did people get sick of hearing "In the Mood"?) or demographics (were all those new parents of the postwar baby boom at home with junior instead of out on a dance floor?). But the big bands didn't just stumble and fall behind the times. They were pushed.
In 1944, a new wartime cabaret tax went into effect, imposing a ruinous 30% (later merely a destructive 20%) excise on all receipts at any venue that served food or drink and allowed dancing. ... [I]n the next few years, struggling nightclub owners were trying every which way to avoid having to foist the tax on customers.
The tax-law regulation's ... exception had the biggest impact. Clubs that provided strictly instrumental music to which no one danced were exempt from the cabaret tax. It is no coincidence that in the back half of the 1940s a new and undanceable jazz performed primarily by small instrumental groups—bebop—emerged as the music of the moment.
 We musicians, especially classical musicians, tend to think that all musical trends come from us. If composers decide to write atonal string quartets, then that's what will get played. But there is only a grain of truth in that. The fact is that we respond, just like everyone else, to economic incentives. If we can't make a living writing atonal string quartets, then maybe we will start writing film scores or maudlin musicals. Or, in this case, start playing non-dance music in small ensembles.

It makes you wonder what the long-term impact of the Internet will be on music...

Here is a little bebop from 1946 with Stan Getz and Max Roach:

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