Jazz Recording Artists Go Into Business for Themselves

Jazz Recording Artists Go Into Business for Themselves

by Larry Blumenfeld

copyright © 2005 The Wall Street Journal
Reprinted with permission.

When trumpeter Dave Douglas took the stage at the Village Vanguard jazz club in early February, he introduced not just his new five-piece ensemble, Nomad, but his new company, Greenleaf Music.

"I started a new label," he announced, "because you can sit and complain about the record business until you're blue in the face. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is."

With that, he pressed his mouthpiece to his lips and began "North Point Memorial," an elegiac piece from his debut Greenleaf CD, Mountain Passages.

Artist-run independent labels are nothing new, especially in jazz. (Decades ago, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach formed Debut Records; singer Betty Carter once founded her own BetCar imprint.) But established jazz musicians are going their own way in surprising numbers today, touching on age-old and new business issues.

In the 1990s, major record labels were reinvesting in jazz. Mr. Douglas was among the banner signings of RCA's reactivated Bluebird jazz label. Now these companies are abandoning jazz, mostly because corporate consolidation has forced a bottom-line consciousness intolerant of the music's modest sales. (The Recording Industry Association of America estimates jazz to represent less than three percent of the overall music market; among the 11 genres tracked by Nielsen SoundScan, jazz experienced the sharpest sales decline during the past year.)

Mr. Douglas's concept for Greenleaf — a collaboration with industry veteran Michael Friedman — addresses basic truths about the jazz business: Today's artists have expansive stylistic palettes and far-flung audiences; the Internet and other alternative means have forever altered music marketing; and major labels, once viewed as prerequisites to success, are no longer primary outlets for career advancement.

"It's time to broaden the sense of where our music is going, and to have labels that reflect that sense," Mr. Douglas says.

Greenleaf responds to common complaints about record labels: unrealistic sales goals; royalty formulas that frustrate artists, often deferring earnings until the label has realized a substantial profit; and a sense that artists are shut out of marketing and distribution decisions. The label offers artists 50/50 profit-sharing deals, and makes them partners in other ways. "The musicians will know everything we do," Mr. Douglas says, "and will serve an integral role in the marketing process."

Bandleader and composer Maria Schneider has departed even more radically from the traditional business model. Her Concert in the Garden earned a Grammy Award this year for Best Large Ensemble Jazz Recording — perhaps the first such recognition without a single CD available in stores. Ms. Schneider has forsaken her former label, Enja Records, to command the business side of her career through the Internet platform ArtistShare. Her latest recording is available only online.

"The experience with Enja got me on the map," Ms. Schneider says. "But this model is better for me. It gets rid of the middlemen, going directly to my fan base. Also, it allows me to share much more than just the CD."

Click onto Ms. Schneider's Web site, and you'll find a tightly organized list of options resembling the marketing brochure of a savvy non-profit arts organization. An MP3 Download Participant ($12.95) earns access to the music; a Limited Edition CD Participant ($16.95) gets the actual CD (only 10,000 were manufactured). For $65, a Composer Plus Participant receives samples of music scores and sound clips from rehearsals. And Bronze Participants ($250) are listed in the liner notes as "helping to make this recording possible."

"For so long, artists were happy just to get a record deal as some sort of recognition," Ms. Schneider says. "Now people can set up their own rules of the game." Through ArtistShare, Ms. Schneider has sold 4,000 copies of her CD so far — roughly one-fifth of her previous album's sales — but has earned far more money than on past projects. She seemed as happy about breaking even (her recordings involve big budgets) as about getting the Grammy nod. Other notable jazz musicians, including guitarist Jim Hall and pianist Danilo Perez, now work through the site as well.

Last month, bassist Dave Holland, a celebrated jazz veteran, released his latest big-band CD, Overtime, on his new imprint, Dare2 Records. The album made its debut in the top 10 of Billboard magazine's Traditional Jazz Chart. The move ends a 32-year relationship with ECM Records.

"I have nothing but affection for ECM, and I'm proud of that association," Mr. Holland says, "but, generally speaking, labels are not prepared for long-term development of an artist anymore. And that's what jazz requires. These days, labels need an artist's music to sell well from the start. They find it hard to lend the type of support that builds an audience over time, and to alter their standard modes of marketing as the situation may demand. This, and changes in the music market in general, have opened up avenues for artists to find alternative ways."

Mr. Holland thinks about offering fans instant music downloads after hearing a performance. And he mentions another incentive to start a label: the importance of owning his own master recordings (in most cases, labels own recordings and pay artists a royalty). "For our children and grandchildren, it would be nice to own our own work," he says.

Ownership of masters is a major concern. "It's the 'in perpetuity' part," Mr. Douglas explains. "Keeping music in print. A new jazz recording may not sell well now, but 50 years from now, somebody is going to make money on the reissue of these master tapes. It keeps happening." (Mosaic Records, for instance, has realized significant sales for reissues of Thelonious Monk's earliest Blue Note recordings, which sold poorly in their day, and for the work of lesser-known musicians such as pianist Herbie Nichols.)

Mr. Douglas ran into saxophonist Branford Marsalis at the Village Vanguard some months ago and gave him a bearhug, in thanks: Mr. Marsalis left Columbia Records three years ago, after some 20 years, to launch his own label, Marsalis Music.

"Like a lot of musicians, Dave was inspired just to see it happen," Mr. Marsalis recalls. For a short time, Mr. Marsalis had been responsible for signing new artists to Columbia.

"The Columbia executives told me they wanted to return to jazz's glory days. But they and other major labels have actually said in no uncertain terms that they can't be interested in what we do." With Marsalis Music, the saxophonist has accomplished precisely what he set out to do at Columbia, releasing albums by pianist Joey Calderazzo, saxophonist Miguel Zenon, and guitarist Doug Wamble in addition to his own music. The label continues to grow modestly, on its own terms, with sales for Mr. Marsalis's output rivaling his Columbia track record. The company is small enough to customize its marketing approach for each project, Mr. Marsalis says, and it offers a royalty provision that provides payments to artists from the first album sold.

Meanwhile, executives at most major labels have reduced or altogether eliminated active jazz rosters to focus almost exclusively on reissuing classic jazz.

"It's plain-and-simple economics," said Verve Records President and CEO Ron Goldstein. "For whatever reasons, jazz artists don't seem to be connecting to the audience that's out there. And given the state of the industry, established labels might not be the best place for them to achieve their goals. I keep waiting for someone new to come along — even one artist who will be today's Miles Davis or John Coltrane."

But the musicians who carry these legacies forward revel in the possibilities of the here-and-now.

"I think it's easier to reach your core audience than it used to be," says Mr. Douglas. "People who are interested in my music now make a point of putting themselves in the path of the information."

Not all corporate-run labels have shied away from jazz. The Nonesuch imprint of Warner Brothers Records has made jazz an integral part of its eclectic mix of genres. And Blue Note Records continues its stalwart support.

In general, these labels welcome the upstart independents. "They're far from a threat," says Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall. "They may end up raising the water level for jazz in general and, if they're truly innovative, may have something to teach established labels."

For musicians, these new ventures are a source of empowerment in the face of uncertainty. "There's a good deal of hand-wringing going on in the music industry right now," says Ms. Schneider. "But for creative musicians who are willing to be creative businesspeople, these are the best of times."


C o m m e n t s

Independent labels 1 of 11
David W. March 25, 05

It's good to see artists declaring independence and going their own way with their own labels. In every case mentioned here, it seems certain that excellent music, along with greater benefits for the artist, will result.

I'm somewhat leery, though, about seeing this as a one-size-fits all panacea. It's probably revealing that there was no mention here of exactly how much it cost the artists to record, produce, and promote their new "product" (if I may use that horrible term). I've been told by several artists (albeit in different genres) that the cost of hiring good studio folks, and then going about the business of promotion and distribution, is something that only people with substantial personal assets [or support from someone who has them] can achieve. One artist --a folk-oriented guitarist who hired only a handful of studio musicians for a very simply-produced CD-- had to sink her entire life savings into the project, just to pay the band. That was pretty daunting for a woman of seventy, who has no health insurance.

Another vocalist, a soul/blues singer whose style requires a bigger studio ensemble and more elaborate production, met with disaster when she decided to go it alone. "I went bankrupt," she told me. "I had no idea! My CD is over $30,000! Just to do the production, and that’s not including putting ads in the paper, paying a publicist, all those things that you need to have a good CD.”

The result, I fear, may be more reliance on synthesizers instead of "live" musicians -- that, in fact, is where several artists of my own acquaintance have been heading. They're not happy about it, but they feel as if they have no choice.

There are a lot of other issues involved here -- for one thing, there are the class-bias implications of this increasing reliance on Internet sales and downloading, even though --as "we" tend to forget-- not everyone owns a computer. In fact there are genres [e.g., Mexican Norteno music, southern soul/blues] whose fan base contintues to consist significantly of peopl who don't [Soul/blue vocalist Bobby Rush actually sells casette tapes, along with CDs, at his shows, because he knows that a lot of his long-time fans don't even own a CD player, let alone a computeer). I don't know, but I'm willing to bet that a lot of folks in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, and other areas that we jazz lovers tend to reify as the hotbeds of rootsy improvization don't have personal Internet access either.

I don't mean to be a killjoy here; again, I applaud all artists who are able to establish alternative ways of getting their music hear. But I also think we need to remind ourselves that there's are certain class privileges involved in having the savvy, the know-how, and the access to resources to be a entrepreneur. I'm uneasy with irrevocably melding those priveleges to the opportunity to make, and record, one's music.

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