Carla Bley: On Her Own
FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about New Music Distribution Services. How did that get started?
CARLA BLEY: That got started because Mike and I had made our own recordings, two for JCOA by that time. Mike’s album was called the Jazz Composers Orchestra and mine was Escalator Over The Hill. What do you do with them once you have them? Do you pile them up in your living room or something? You’ve got to get them distributed. We quickly found out that you have to get these things distributed. How are we going to do that? No distributor is going to want them because we don’t have any reputation. So we got together with 10 different labels that we knew about. I believe they were all European at the time. In England it was Incus. In Germany it was FMP and ECM, Futura in France. It was all these people like us: weird people who got their own money together and made their own strange recordings.
FRANK J. OTERI: And it wasn’t just jazz. It was also contemporary music. Lovely Music was a part of that early on.
CARLA BLEY: That was later. This all started with jazz because that was the only people we knew at that point. There were maybe 10 of us, and we distributed each other’s records. We did this for a couple of years for free. If we have a new record we would send it to all these countries. If they had a new record out they would send it to us. We would each try to distribute them as best as possible: to stores or to friends, take out ads, whatever. We did this for no money, but we soon realized we couldn’t do it. We were losing money. We weren’t in the position where we could lose money. The musicians can’t lose money! So we started charging a quarter for every record we distributed. And then it when up to 50 cents. There was a lot of theft going on. The people who would store our records stole them and sold them to other people. By the time NMDS finally collapsed, we were charging $1.80. We kept saying how much do we need to cover ourselves?
FRANK J. OTERI: I haven’t heard this version of the demise of NMDS. The version I always heard when I was a teenager, when Tower Records had just opened and I went down to the New Music Distribution shop in SoHo a few times—I bought my first Alvin Lucier LP there, might have bought some of my first free jazz albums there—and I was told that NMDS fell apart because of the rise of the CD. All these people turned around and returned the LPs, they were flooded by product that they couldn’t get rid of, and that killed them.
CARLA BLEY: No, I never heard that. I could tell you more about that but it wouldn’t be interesting to your readers.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s completely interesting.
CARLA BLEY: Really?
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh yes, it is.
CARLA BLEY: You know, Timothy Marquand, who was the head or president of JCOA, was just here 2 days ago, and we talked about all this, so it’s fresh in my mind. I think it started going under when our office manager got sick. We didn’t fire him because he was really sick, and then he died. During the time that he was sick he didn’t pay the New York State taxes. By the time we found out about it, the taxes were big—more than we could handle. So when the board that we had gotten together to help NMDS found out that the taxes weren’t paid, everyone quit within one second. I was there at the meeting… I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit, get my coat, my umbrella, out the door. It was just like bam! I think it was hundreds of thousands of dollars…
FRANK J. OTERI: Who was liable?
CARLA BLEY: The board members! That’s why they had to quit!
FRANK J. OTERI: So once there was no board, the State never got the money?
CARLA BLEY: Yes, we’ve been paying it back ever since, along with the musicians and everyone else. So the illness of our office manager was one of the things that happened. After him we got another office manager who was really not the right person. That person was more into world music than into jazz and classical music. They would say, let’s take the money from the sale of the Chick Corea album and buy 20 recordings of this African tribe that nobody ever heard of, or something. And I said wait a minute, we’re looking after our own first. We can’t look after other kinds of music, you know. By that time we were even doing rock ‘n’ roll. We were doing anybody that knew about us, who needed us, and was doing—I guess it was called—new music.
FRANK J. OTERI: New, independent…
CARLA BLEY: Yeah, new music. We wanted to stick with new music and not do world music. A lot of it was traditional. I think that was the excuse. We just couldn’t get bigger. But this guy was just mostly interested in that. We’d get salesmen who would call and say if you take 10 of this, I’ll give you 20 of those cheaper. By that time we were charging $3 an album or something—like whatever Sam Goody would pay or something. We were no bargain. The only thing we were the bargain to were the musicians because we accepted anyone. That was what set us apart. You have an album that you want distributed… sure! Whatever it is! It doesn’t have a cover? No problem! We don’t need a cover. It doesn’t have a number? Can you put a number on it? You don’t want a number on it? Well, okay! Then we took all these…
CARLA BLEY: Yup, and Philip Glass. We were his first distributor. We did Laurie Anderson, Gil Scott Heron. Whenever someone had a hit we’d just fire ‘em. We’d say you don’t need us anymore. Come on, give the other guys a break.
CARLA BLEY: That’s exactly what we did because we couldn’t be swamped by things. Like Chick Corea’s Return to Forever: we said that’s it, we can’t do it.
FRANK J. OTERI: So you did stuff on majors then because that was Warner Brothers.
CARLA BLEY: It wasn’t at that point. No, it couldn’t have been.
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, earlier on his stuff was on ECM.
CARLA BLEY: It must have been on ECM. Yes, it was on ECM. We did ECM. We were ECM’s distributor in the early days. And now they’re my distributors.
FRANK J. OTERI: That is so interesting. How did that change happen?
CARLA BLEY: Oh that’s too long! My life is too long! We could never fit this in. Ay ay ay.
FRANK J. OTERI: This is an important piece of the puzzle.
CARLA BLEY: Okay, ECM was one of those original 10 that we distributed—we, as in we all distributed each others’, we were all equal. ECM had a couple of big sellers, which was the problem with ECM.
CARLA BLEY: No, we didn’t do it by then. I don’t think we were distributing them at that time. Anyway, Michael Mantler, my second husband, and I decided that we were too big for the New Music Distribution Service. We were selling too many records. We needed another distributor because it wasn’t fair. It seemed like we were doing NMDS for our own purposes. We were very high-minded, noble people, you know. I wasn’t just that we wanted to get famous or something. We were at a studio in London doing overdubs with Julie Tippetts for my album Tropic Appetites and Richard Branson came by. He wasn’t a big-time back then, just some rich kid.
FRANK J. OTERI: He didn’t have the airline yet?
CARLA BLEY: [laughs] No, he didn’t have the airline. He did have Virgin Records and he came by and said that he would like to distribute Escalator Over the Hill. I said, okay. You know I’ll distribute yours, too, if you want. And we said, okay. We were sort of thinking that we were going to have to leave NMDS. So, we were distributed by Virgin for about 3 years. I started getting interested in business at the point. I would go to the sales meetings with all the salespeople there and I’d give a little speech about the whole ECM catalog and the WATT catalog because I think he was distributing ECM at that time. But then Richard fired me. I don’t know why. I got really mad at him and I said, you can’t fire me, or something. I chased him around room. I remember I chased him up into the rafters of his house. He was crouched on the rafters up in the attic and I was screaming at him from below. Finally, I realized he was serious and no longer wanted to distribute JCOA and ECM anymore. He was more into the reggae stuff at that point. So I felt terrible. Within one hour ECM picked it up and said, we’ll distribute it. I don’t recall how ECM fit into all this, but within an hour they became our distributor and JCOA’s distributor, too.
FRANK J. OTERI: Terrific! Now your situation, which has been successful for you over 30 years, versus being signed to, say, Sony, or being signed to Verve, or being signed to Blue Note—would you want to be on those labels?
CARLA BLEY: Oh, not now, but of course I did at that point. I used to go around to Teo Macero at Columbia, or Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic, or Frances Wolf at Blue Note—I had my presentation together and my tapes together. And they said, look, there’s no market for this, we can’t do it, very sorry. Finally we had to start it ourselves. We started the Jazz Composers Orchestra and Escalator Over the Hill. We fundraised ourselves: made every penny, put ourselves deep into hock, and made rich people give us money. That’s how we did it. After that point I got interested in that and I didn’t want to leave the outcome of my life up to anyone else. I though I’d rather be my own director. I wouldn’t want to be dropped. A lot of people have been dropped. If I were to be dropped! I would be horrified if I got dropped from something. That time I did get dropped—the distribution by Virgin—that was a horrifying moment, but that was the only time that has really happened.
FRANK J. OTERI: But now you have a product that is completely yours, and no one can take it out of print.
CARLA BLEY: No, ECM just keeps it all in print. They could put it out of print.
FRANK J. OTERI: But you have your own label, you could take it somewhere else.
CARLA BLEY: I would take it somewhere else.
FRANK J. OTERI: You own it.
CARLA BLEY: Boy, am I in a good situation, huh? It’s really great. Wow!