[JPL] Digital sales boost indie jazz labels
mft at mftjazz.com
Sat Apr 22 18:50:40 EDT 2006
*Digital sales boost indie jazz labels*
By Dan Ouellette
Friday, April 21, 2006; 10:59 PM
NEW YORK (Billboard) - Though it is deemed a national treasure for its
innately American legacy, jazz is plagued with an identity crisis.
While the genre has spread the world over, fueled by its freedom fire of
improvisation, jazz at home has been marginalized as a music that has
veered from the mainstream and settled into either a mature museum-like
relic or a sorry state of abstruse elitism.
A perpetual sales underachiever, jazz in 2004 and 2005 garnered a
minuscule 2.8 percent of total U.S. album units sales. Faced with such
prospects, the major labels have downsized or eliminated their
instrumental jazz rosters, sometimes seeking greener sales pastures with
jazz vocalists and crossover artists.
But independent labels continue to check the erosion and blaze ahead as
torchbearers. Jazz indies can tolerate lower sales thresholds than the
majors, allow more time for artist development and offer their signees
greater autonomy and freedom to create.
What's more, jazz indies and their artists -- from new acts to
major-label refugees -- are benefiting from the Internet, which
facilitates targeted marketing, offers new promotional tools and
provides an outlet for slow-selling titles that might not have a home at
"We're the labels putting out the new records and introducing lots of
new artists," says Garrett Shelton, director of marketing and A&R
(artists and repertoire) at New York-based Sunnyside Records, whose
roster includes saxophonist Chris Potter and vocalist Luciana Souza.
"People are looking to us more and more."
To succeed in the long term, such labels must attract the right talent.
But they also must build a catalog with legs and develop a brand
associated with quality recordings.
Jazz indies long have been risk takers who balk at the status quo. In
the '50s and early '60s, indies such as Blue Note, Prestige and
Riverside introduced, nurtured and championed youngsters of the day,
including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins,
Cannonball Adderley and Wes Montgomery.
Today, jazz indies range from the Universal-distributed Concord Music
Group -- which currently has five of the top 25 slots on Billboard's Top
Jazz Albums chart -- to contemporary specialty labels like Rendezvous to
micro upstarts like Cryptogramophone and Artizen.
While these labels focus on jazz as an art form, "that doesn't mean we
can't be smart business people," Shelton says.
He cautions that "good business fundamentals" are essential to surviving
in a realm where a hit recording reaps sales of 15,000-20,000 units.
(The title that put Sunnyside on the map, Souza's 2002 breakout album
"Brazilian Duos," has scanned 15,000 copies.)
These days, the fundamentals include Internet marketing and digital
sales. At Sunnyside, downloads represented 10 percent of revenue in 2005
and are on pace to surpass 15 percent of the label's business this year,
The same trend is seen for jazz at large. Digital downloads represented
3.1 percent of U.S. jazz album sales in 2005, and have increased to 6.3
percent of the market for the year-to-date, according to Nielsen
SoundScan. For indies, downloads represent an even larger 8.2 percent of
'THE GREAT EQUALIZER'
"At the retail marketplace, indie records are hard to stumble across
because there's so little space," says Matt Balitsaris, a guitarist and
founder of New York-based indie Palmetto Records. "The Internet has
proven to be a great equalizer," he adds.
Jazz indies cite strong digital business at iTunes and Rhapsody as well
as eMusic, the subscriber-based service that carries only MP3 music from
The top jazz seller at eMusic since its September 2004 relaunch is "The
Best of John Coltrane." The site's top 10 jazz list for the four weeks
ending April 14 also includes such off-the-beaten-path discs as "Live at
the Vision Festival" by avant alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc and his
tentet (on Ayler Records) and "Come In Red Dog This Is Tango Leader," a
free improv session by guitarist Charlie Hunter and electronics drummer
Bobby Previte (on Ropeadope).
David Pakman, president/CEO of eMusic, reports that jazz is the site's
third-highest-selling category, garnering 16 percent of total downloads.
He explains that jazz is strong at eMusic because the site focuses on
the 25- to 54-year-old demographic.
"We're selling to people who care about jazz," Pakman says. "It's not
rocket science. We're going after people who we feel are underserved.
Retail doesn't care."
Not so fast, counters Kevin Cassidy, Tower Records executive VP of
retail. "Indie jazz is as important to Tower today as it ever was," he
says. "Given the trend of major jazz labels offering more eclectic types
of artists and music, much of what could be considered core jazz or
current jazz is being offered by the indie world ... Tower considers
indie jazz to be an important component of our offering to consumers
both in-store and online."
Flying in the face of all these declarations of jazz-indie strength,
Nielsen SoundScan numbers indicate that the indie share of the jazz
market declined from 14.89 percent in 2004 to 13.31 percent in 2005 and
13.23 percent year-to-date. The overall jazz albums market fell by 8.8
percent in 2005, compared with 2004.
While acknowledging the low sales totals for jazz, Cassidy says, "This
audience represents an active, purchasing and passionate part of the
RIDING THE 'TAIL' WIND
Faced with this contracting market, jazz labels -- like those in
classical and other low-selling genres -- hope to benefit from the
Internet's much-touted "long tail." According to this distribution
theory, companies can thrive by selling smaller quantities of more products.
The long tail means that jazz labels can develop artists based on the
promise of a long-term contribution to catalog sales.
"Pop has to have quick sales, but jazz doesn't follow that formula,"
says Peter Gordon, founder of Norwalk, Conn.-based Thirsty Ear
Recordings, which expanded into jazz with its modern-improvisational
Blue Series, curated by jazz pianist/label signee Matthew Shipp.
"Jazz recordings stand up over time," Gordon says. "You work with a
five- to 15-year plan and hold your ground. ... What a major label calls
marginal, we call a hit. That's the cost of freedom."
All jazz independents agree that developing the label as a brand is
essential. This is the most important thing to establish, says Roy
Tarrant, founder and president of Switzerland-based Kind of Blue
Records, which recently launched with such titles as "Gypsy Swing! The
Django Reinhardt Festival--Live at Birdland" and the Classical Jazz
Quartet's "Play Rachmaninoff," featuring a jazz super group comprising
pianist Kenny Barron, vibes player Stefon Harris, bassist Ron Carter and
drummer Lewis Nash.
Tarrant points to the brand recognition of such '50s and '60s American
labels as Blue Note, Impulse and Atlantic as well as the '70s success
for European label ECM.
"ECM created a brand," he says. "It matched quality music with
minimalist graphics, first with American musicians such as Chick Corea
and Keith Jarrett before recording and breaking European jazz talents."
Kind of Blue, Tarrant says, "took five years to prepare, to make
recordings, finalize a 'look' and then get the records out." He notes
that by "adding quality recordings to the brand, the whole catalog
should go on selling."
Creating a brand image in the marketplace is also key to MaxJazz, label
founder and president Richard McDonnell says. Its gatefold CDs sport
handsome and identifiable graphics. "We've found from our business reply
cards that people are buying other MaxJazz releases, which indicates
that people are willing to take a ride with a label they know and
trust," he says.
While MaxJazz introduces new artists to the jazz world (including
vocalist Erin Bode and pianist/vocalist John Proulx, whose debut will be
released later this year), the label has also become home base for
former major-label musicians, such as guitarist Russell Malone and
pianist Mulgrew Miller.
"They like the artistic freedom here," says McDonnell, a former jazz
saxophonist who worked as an investment banker. McDonnell hastens to
add, "We're not driving Ferraris. But we are emotionally satisfied."
© 2006 Reuters
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