Digital sales boost indie jazz labels
By Dan Ouellette
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 traditional retail.
“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
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, Shelton reports.
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 sales
‘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 indie labels.
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 public.”
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
“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
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.”