On The Record



Photo by Ione

When a funding organization gives one fifth of their allocated budget to one composer’s orchestral music, is that money really well spent? When organizations commission a work that doesn’t live beyond its first performance, how many listeners are really being served? But if you record it, they will come. Eventually. It may take time. And isn’t that the point of a recording—to document the work or works of a composer? To make it available to a potential listener, performer, or fan so that is does not evaporate after only one performance?

I know, I know, there’s been a lot of blather about CDs going away, yet every composer I know still wants one out there either to use as their demo or something to sell at concerts. The cost of actually making CDs has come down over time. Anyone able to work at home on a computer can do their own recording, mastering, and even manufacturing. But, with this freedom the market has become totally flooded, which makes it that much more difficult for labels to sell their music. As a consumer/listener/musician, I applaud this. But as someone who runs a label, I’m not so happy. (Talk about schizophrenia!) And while legal downloading is showing promise even for us, the day of the download being our savior is still far off.

I believe there is a strong need for a “superfund” for labels releasing music outside the commercial mainstream to receive money on a yearly basis which is not necessarily tied to specific projects. I am curious if funding organizations that are interested in recordings are looking at the models of how they give money. There is nothing wrong with giving money on a project by project basis (though that of course means someone outside the label is making artistic choices for the label when push—or money—comes to shove). But why not also find a way to give directly to the labels with proven track records?

A “superfund” could help out many smaller record labels without them having to go through the sometimes arduous and often luck-of-the-draw process of a project-by-project review. A yearly fund of a million dollars would give 100 labels $10,000 to work with each.

Why a million dollars? Where would it come from? Well, hell, more than a million works for me too! A million just seems like a nice round, easy number to work with, and it does not seem like such a stretch for any well-endowed foundation to come up with. But if not a foundation, well how about one dollar each from a million new music fans? We cannot survive without help (or higher paying jobs). Again a superfund (slush fund?) would just take the edge off. At least for me. And if some foundation or foundations want to get together and kick in more than a million—please. PLEASE!!!!

It is difficult to assess how labels might react to that, or what, economically, it might mean to them. At my label, I do not put people in the studio. I usually work from a finished recording and pay for mastering, cover design, and manufacturing. So I can usually get a recording out for $2,500 or so. And, as I have no employees and do not take a salary, for me $10,000 a year would insure that I could continue doing business without actually having to worry about how sales (or lack of them) would impact the label. And then any sales, grants, etc. could, as they do now, help fund other recordings. Now for some labels, $10,000 might be just one recording’s budget. Every label works within its own economy.

I run my own label, Pogus, and work for the XI Records, Deep Listening, and Mutable Music labels in addition to occasional freelance work for other labels. My label is on a shoestring budget drawn mostly out of my own pocket. So the thought of having a guaranteed $10,000 would let me know I could put four or five projects out a year with no questions asked—and I could probably do more with my own income. Pogus has been running since 1988. It started with two partners and four LPs. The partners dropped away and I could not fund the first CD until 1992. Since then the label has put out 34 CDs. I’ve finally worked up to four or five releases a year that I can afford and manage. Pogus releases current and archival works of experimental and electronic composers. XI Records, curated by Phill Niblock, releases works by experimental composer-performers, usually two or three releases per year. Mutable Music, curated by Thomas Buckner, releases mostly jazz and improvisational works, six recordings per year. And Deep Listening, curated by Pauline Oliveros, releases four or five CDs per year. If any CD sells more than 300 pieces in a year, at this point in time that is a very successful recording. I tend to not see that number too often.

Much of the thinking about the superfund came up because of the folding or cutting back of activities by labels such as CRI, Anomalous, OO Discs, Periplum, and Frog Peak. I am sure there are many others. I also know that the Cary Trust has cut its funding for musical endeavors, and that there seems to be less and less foundation interest in recordings. It is as if they have gone on to other, sexier topics while we all slog along trying to sell music.

One way to keep the numerous recordings in these catalogs alive in the 21st century could be a digital downloading revamp of the New Music Distribution Service (NMDS). NMDS was a distribution service for new music back in the days of vinyl LPs. Unfortunately, in the end, it could not pay its bills and stiffed folks, so bringing up the name is not always such a good idea. But the thought behind it was sound.

In the end, what I think we are talking about here is making sure that wherever the “business” of music takes us, there is content: something for a listener, streamer, purchaser, whatever, to listen to. Whether it is the New World Records database for libraries or even just getting into iTunes, emusic.com, etc.—content is still needed and so there are going to be labels needed—especially as the purchasing of CDs and the downloading of music at the moment are two different sources of income.