In the good old days, record labels were the sugar daddies of the music business. Jazz musicians loved and hated them all at once. They not only assumed that labels were making oodles of money off of their talent, but that they were slipping it to them sideways at the same time. All this may have been true – in the good old days. These days most major labels have jettisoned their jazz imprints, and unless they’ve got a huge star, a huge catalog, or a huge bank account, most indie jazz labels are artist owned, and struggling.
Every business involves risk. If you’re smart you find a business where the risks are few and the benefits are great. If you’re not so smart, you go into the record business. It has always been assumed that since record companies were making so much money, they should take all of the risk. They should not only pay for the recording, production, manufacturing, promotion, tour support, publishing and mechanicals, they should pay a nice fat artist fee - in advance - and give the artist a piece of the action on the back end as well. Oh, and artists should retain all publishing and all other rights worldwide, at all times, in perpetuity. Seems pretty fair to me.
But what if there are no profits? What if masters will be losing instead of gaining value over time? In a world where CD sales are diminishing by 20% per year and downloads haven’t come close to taking up the slack, many jazz labels are struggling just to break even. If most new commercially available jazz CDs sell between 600-1500 units, and the average break-even point is somewhere around 3000 units, how can independent jazz labels survive, let alone take chances on edgy or unknown artists?
So, here's a thought. What if the process of making CDs could be approached as a partnership? What if the artist and the label could agree to work together toward creative solutions where both sides are taking equal risks? Granted, artistic risk is real, and should be factored into any given situation. But the real world has shown that mediocrity outperforms artistic risk nine times out of ten...and of course 86% of all statistics are completely made up.
There has to be something in between the label as pimp, and the label as...um...service provider, where artists have to pay to play. Yes, there are contracts and lawyers, and record deals, all intended to protect everyone's interests. But there are also ways of working together that acknowledge that artists can’t have careers without record labels, and record labels can’t have record labels without artists.
When I was thinking about starting a jazz label ten years ago, I wrote my friend Ed Michel, producer of a few notable musicians (John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, Andrew Hill, Keith Jarrett, etc.), and asked if he had any advice. He wrote back, “I recommend you become a heroin addict instead. It will be more fun, you’ll spend less money, and you’ll be dealing with a better class of people.” I never took his advice, but I now understand what he meant. I’m just surprised my friends and family haven’t arranged an intervention yet.
I’m very lucky that most of the artists I work with believe that as a producer and label owner, I’m working as hard as I can to get their music into the world, and that the job is getting more difficult and less lucrative as time goes by. I think that’s why for the most part, these artists are willing to work with me to make the whole process more creative and cooperative, and to share some of the risk when it is appropriate and fair.
You see, at the end of the day, musicians and record labels share the same addiction. And, that's one of the reasons CDs will survive a little while longer...at least until a better drug comes along.