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June 9, 2007

The last holiday season for CDs?

Last week I read that 2007 would probably be the last holiday season for CDs. With the loss of deep catalog stores like Tower, and the emergence of branded retailers like Starbucks, many smaller labels are worried that the only CDs available in stores will be mass marketed pop titles. I don't think we've quite arrived at that point yet, but with retail sales plummeting 20% per year, and downloads barely taking up the slack, what's an independent jazz label to do? About the only venues for selling independent jazz CDs would seem to be the label's website, artist sales, a few independent shops, amazon.com, a few chain stores, and websites like downtownmusicgallery.com, northcountryaudio.com, jazzloft.com, squidco.com, and our own indiejazz.com.

While it may still be a few more years before brick and mortar sales diminish to the point of inviability, this doesn't mean that CDs or CD-like objects will disappear forever. Artists, fans and collectors still want them, and CDs are becoming less expensive to produce. However a change in perspective may be all that's required to find and develop new markets for physical sales. In the coming years, selling CDs may become more like selling water than selling widgets. Water is all around us and people can get it for free, but some folks will always pay a few extra bucks for fresh, clean, clear water in a bottle because someone convinced them it's better. We know our CDs offer greater value than downloads. Therefore it becomes our responsibility to educate people about this and point them to our website. People who download our music will probably appreciate the audiophile sound, beautiful packages, and great liner notes, and other goodies that come with the physical CDs. We just have to convince them of that.

Ultimately our job as a label is to represent our artists, and to actively seek-out an audience for their music. The musicians we represent create music on the edge, so they may never break through to the top tiers of media awareness. That means we must educate people about our artists through creative online marketing, and by word of mouth. If we can find, develop, and engage our audience, we can ask them to support our music directly by buying products from our websites. Pound for pound, direct sales can generate more income per unit than wholesale sales, and once we know who our customers are, we can continue to market to them directly. Together with downloads, direct CD sales can be a powerful way for independent jazz labels to make up diminishing brick and mortar sales.

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June 13, 2007

Who's your daddy?

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.

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Adam Rudolph Alex Cline's Band of the Moment Alex Cline; Nels Cline: Alex & Nels Cline; Downbeat; Continuation; Coward Alma Lisa Fernandez Angel City Jazz Festival 2009 Angel City Jazz Festival 2009 Live Review (Day 1) Angel City Jazz Festival 2009 Live Review (Day 2) Angel City Jazz Festival 2009 Photos Antonio Sanchez avant-garde Ben Goldberg Bennie Maupin Bennie Maupin & Dolphyana Bill Stewart Billy Childs Jazz-Chamber Ensemble Billy Corgan Billy Hart Bob Sheppard California Jazz Foundation Cameron Graves Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band Carol Robbins Charles Mingus; Son of Watts Musical Caravan Project; Azar Lawrence; Nate Morgan; Henry Franklin; Alphonse Mouzon; Prayer for My Ancestors Charles Owens Chops: The Movie Chris Barton Cryptogramophone Records Cryptonight Darek Oles Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy David Anderson Pianos David Witham Denman Maroney Devin Hoff Double M Jazz Salon Downbeat 57th Annual Critics Poll Dwight Trible Eagle Rock Center for the Arts Eclipse Quartet Edward Vesala Electric Lodge Eric Dolphy Eric Von Essen First Friday Series at the Museum of Neon Art G.E. Stinson Global Village Monday with Maggie LePique Go: Organic Orchestra Gravitas Quartet Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival; Peter Erskine Greg Kot Gregg Bendian Hale Smith Hannah Rothschild Hans Fjellstad Harry Partch; L.A. Weekly; John Schneider; REDCAT Horace Tapscott; Horace Tapscott Tribute Concert; Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra; the Ark; Jazz Bakery; Ruth Price; Jesse Sharps; Austin Peralta; Isaac Smith Huffington Post Hugh Hopper Ikeda Kings Orchestra improvisation Initiate Ivan Cotton James Newton Jason Robinson Jay Bennett Jay Hoggard jazz Jazz at the Plgrimage Jazz Bakery Jazz Explosion III Jazz Journey with Eddie B. Jeff Gauthier Jeff Tweedy Jesse Sharps Jim Black Joe Zawinul John "Drumbo" French John Fumo Kamasi Washington Ken Coomer Ken Kawamura KJAZZ 88.1-FM KPFK 90.7-FM KXLU 88.9-FM Larry Goldings Larry Karush Larry Koonse Learning How To Die Leimert Park: The Roots and Branches of L.A. Jazz Les Paul Lester Bowie Lily Burk Memorial Live at the Atelier Los Angeles New Music Ensemble Los Angeles Times Luis Bonilla Maggie Parkins Marcus Rojas Mark Dresser Mark Zaleski Mel Morris Michael Davis Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Mimi Melnick Motoko Honda Museum of Neon Art Museum of Neon Art; MONA; Many Axes; Susan Rawcliffe; Scott Wilkinson; Brad Dutz music blog Myra Melford Nasheet Waits Natsuki Tamura Nels Cline Nels Cline Singers Nels Cline Singers with Jeff Parker Nestor Torres Nick Rosen OC Creative Music Collective Oguri Open Gate Theatre Sunday Concert Series Pannonica Rothschild Peggy Lee Peter Bernstein plays monk Rashied Ali ResBox at the Steve Allen Theater RISE with Mark Maxwell Roberto Miranda Rod Poole Ron MIles Royal/T Cafe Sara Parkins Sara Schoenbeck Sarah Thornblade SASSAS Satoko Fujii Scott Amendola Scott Colley Sky Saxon Tribute Sonship Theus Spirit Moves Spirits in the Sky Steuart Liebig Terry Riley The Gathering The Jazz Baroness The JazzCat with Leroy Downs Thelonious Monk Thomas Stones Tom McNalley Trilogy Van Morrison; Astral Weeks; Scott Foundas; Jan Steward; Music Cirle; SASSAS Vincent Chancey Wayne Horvitz Wayne Peet Wilco Wilco; Nels Cline Wilco; Wilco (The Album); Nels Cline Will Salmon