Jazz record labels are singing the blues

Pop Music

August 18, 2002|By Fred Kaplan | By Fred Kaplan,Boston Globe

NEW YORK -- Way back in 1968, on an avant-garde album called Congliptious, trumpeter Lester Bowie slyly asked, "Is jazz as we know it dead?" Then, after taking a blazing solo, he replied, "That all depends on what you know, heh, heh, heh."

If Bowie were still alive, he might not find the question so funny. Jazz is not dead, but few would call it healthy.

Americans spend $13 billion a year on compact discs, but jazz CDs account for less than 3 percent of those purchases, according to the Recording Industry Association of America -- and this has been the case, consistently, for the past decade.

Even this figure probably overstates matters, since it includes sales not only of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins but also of Bob James and Kenny G.

The typical jazz CD, even one by a fairly well-known artist, sells about 3,000 copies. A disc that sells 10,000 is considered good business. If it sells 20,000, it is, in the scheme of things, a hit.

In one sense, this is nothing new.

"Jazz has always been marginal," says Michael Cuscuna, a longtime producer for the Blue Note label and co-president of the reissue house Mosaic Records. "You look at albums from the '50s and '60s that are considered classics now -- many of them sold 3,000 in their day."

The difference is that, back then, there were also jazz stars -- musicians such as Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Cannonball Adderley, who sold hundreds of thousands of albums and so provided their labels with enough of a profit cushion to support less lucrative artists.

Reissues do well

There are no jazz musicians today who can float a label. Even Wynton Marsalis, perhaps the most famous living jazz musician, doesn't sell many records; he doesn't even have a label. Columbia Records recently dropped him from the roster, finding the prestige of his presence far outweighed by the hefty fees he has been demanding.

(Record company insiders say Marsalis shopped himself around to other labels but was turned down because he wanted too much money, in one case asking $1 million per album. Even taking inflation into account, nobody paid Coltrane that kind of money, one executive said.)

Given the economics of recording these days, many labels prefer to put out reissues of past hits rather than try to create new ones. They're cheap to make, and they sell well.

Miles Davis' 1959 classic, Kind of Blue, continues to sell a few thousand copies per week -- a best seller by jazz standards. Coltrane's 1964 A Love Supreme has sold 500,000 copies since it came out on CD.

Pianist Andrew Hill says the albums he recorded for Blue Note in the mid-'60s sell far more copies now as reissues than they did 35 years ago.

The abundance of reissues on the market cannot help but hurt the new issues. One jazz publicist recalls asking a few years ago why pianist Danilo Perez's Panamonk, a highly praised Latinized album of Thelonious Monk tunes on the Impulse label, was selling so poorly.

"Look," one distributor told him, "you've got Danilo Perez in one bin selling for $16.99. You've got a reissue by Monk himself right next to it selling for $10.99. Which one would you buy?"

Pretty faces

Besides reissues, the other kind of jazz that sells well is vocal jazz, especially if the singer is pretty and her songs have pop-crossover potential. Diana Krall's last two albums, on the Verve label, each sold more than 1 million copies. Even the debut album by Norah Jones, a pleasant lightweight at best, has sold 500,000 and counting. This is why every jazz label is scouting and signing young, attractive singers.

It costs $20,000 to $30,000 to record a modest album for a major label -- say, a quartet or quintet, playing in a studio for two days. Simply to master a CD -- to transfer the music from tape to compact disc -- costs about $3,000, which is more than an entire recording session used to cost. Profits under these circumstances are almost out of the question.

And profits are just about the only question. Blue Note is owned by EMI. Columbia is owned by Sony. Verve and Impulse have been swallowed by Seagrams / Vivendi / Universal. "The problem is not so much that a jazz label is owned by a liquor company," says one producer. "The problem is the cost of pumping an album through a large company, with all the overhead. A small independent label can do fine selling a few thousand copies. A bigger label needs much larger numbers to justify the investment."

Some of the new owners of these bigger labels have simply decided to call it quits. "For a label like Atlantic to get out of jazz tells you something seriously bad is going on," said an executive at another label. "I mean, this is the label that recorded Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus."

Small independent labels have generally been the source of the most innovative -- and often the most enduring -- jazz. Many of the jazz labels now seen as classic -- Blue Note, Impulse, Riverside, Prestige -- were the small indies of their day.

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