Death and Transfiguration?

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

The story of the death of the record industry has become almost a cliché in the pages of most daily newspapers and in shoptalk around music industry types. Yet amazingly recordings continue to arrive in the mail almost daily. Sure, this has not been the best of times for selling recorded music (most of us are still mourning the recent demise of CRI), but has it been a good time for selling anything?

We keep hearing about how P2P pirates have eroded the economic well being of everyone who makes music because they download and trade digital files containing the latest Britney single instead of buying it. But for many of us who compose, perform, listen to, or otherwise consume an alternative longer form musical reality, whether pre-composed or improvised or something in between, the trickle down theory comes up somewhat dry. The D.I.Y. bootleg recordings of music by Elliott Carter or Ron Carter are not hurting the sale of the big label recordings of their music. There really aren’t bootlegs or big label recordings of most of this kind of music out there! In fact, if this music is what excites you, you have to turn to small independent labels to offer it to you. And people who listen to this sort of music, which requires focused attention over a significant time span, would not usually be content to listen to it in a less-than-ideal audio state, unless it’s a rare no-other-way-to-hear-it performance.

Once upon a time, music beyond what marketers think would be most likely to sell was a prestigious component of the catalogs of every major record label. And we have the majors to thank for many definitive recordings of music by composers ranging from Charles Ives and Duke Ellington through to Milton Babbitt, Ornette Coleman, and Pauline Oliveros. In the world of so-called classical music, great American composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Philip Glass once had exclusive contracts on major labels guaranteeing that anything they composed would be made available on a composer-supervised recording and disseminated to the widest possible audience. In the world of jazz, revelatory musical thinkers like John Coltrane and Miles Davis were given carte blanche to record anything they wanted at any time live or in the studio and recommendations were solicited from them about who else should be recorded. Today, the live jazz album, once a mainstay of recorded jazz, has largely disappeared yet great live jazz performances continue on an almost nightly basis all over the country.

Now, a substantive majority of music that merits repeated listening—whether classical, jazz, or even alternative rock and so-called world music (another meaningless genre name), is being released only on independent labels. And, ironically, many important back-catalog items once issued by the majors are only available now on independent label imprints, which these labels have painstakingly licensed from the majors.

But since much of this music has a niche audience it is not economically viable as a large industry. By going it alone, independents don’t have the current pop-craze cash cow to dip into and must compete with each other for limited grant money and other potential financial resources. And, by operating outside the mainstream security blanket of the majors, independents also don’t reach as many potential listeners as a result of weaker distribution channels, poorer marketing and publicity potential, and lack of recognition from the record industry at large, which is why year after year the Grammy Awards are such a joke to people who care about much of the important music being made today. It’s a situation that perpetuates the niche and ultimately makes it even smaller.

In the past few years, after the majors eroded most of their involvement with new “classical” music—anyone remember Argo, Point, and Catalyst?—they’ve now disseminated their jazz rosters as well, leaving many of today’s most significant players to turn to independent labels. So we thought it was the right time for NewMusicBox to focus on the current state of jazz recordings. Carla Bley, who has been releasing her music independently for her entire career, had a lot to say about what you have to do if you want to make music your own way. To add some further fuel, we asked Yusef Lateef, Matthew Shipp and Ratzo B. Harris, all of whom have recorded for both major labels and independents, to compare their experiences with majors and indies. David R. Adler provides a thorough survey of some of the leading independent jazz labels around right now, which will help you find the music you want to hear, and if you’re an unsigned jazz musician, might even help you know where to start looking for that ever elusive record deal. John Kennedy ponders the lessons of being an independent artist in any genre of music; we ask you to offer your comments as composer, performers, people within the music industry, and concerned listeners.

If this music we all love is to survive—and more than just survive, but actually flourish—and attract new practitioners and listeners, we need to find new ways to nurture it. I don’t believe that the state we are in is hopeless as so many in the critical community would have us believe. Rather, it is a sobering warning about where things could be going if we just sit idle and do nothing. If the old model has eroded and dies, we must create new models.

Ours might be the greatest time for new music the world has ever known in terms of its sheer volume, its staggering variety, and ease of accessibility if you know where to find it. The trick is spreading the word about it and never closing your mind or your heart to a new idea.