The Jazz.com Blog
January 12, 2009 · 7 comments
I hate to spoil a birthday party. But the current celebration of Blue Note Records' 70th anniversary inevitably brings with it some invidious comparisons between the current jazz scene and the way it was back in the day.
I am not talking about nostalgia for the great Blue Note acts of yesteryear—although certainly there is reason to look back fondly on those past masters. (Fans looking to take a walk down memory lane, should click here or here.) Rather I am more concerned about the business side of the equation, and what it is doing to jazz music today.
With that in mind, I am offering a list (because, as you know, blogs must have lists) of the “Five Things Today's Jazz Record Labels Could Learn from Blue Note.”
(1) For heaven's sake, stand for something
Once upon a time, jazz record labels stood for something. The people who ran them had an aesthetic vision. Sometimes that vision was even more important than the bottom line. Labels had personalities. They might be quirky or eccentric or stubborn, but you always knew who they were.
But not any more.
I once knew what Concord stood for as a label. But today I have no clue. Is it a smooth jazz label? Is it a mainstream label? Was it bought out by Starbucks? Who knows? The same is true of Verve, which once had one of the most distinctive personalities of any label. But if you visit Verve’s web site today, and listen to the music playing for site visitors . . . well, let’s just say that you won’t be reminded of Norman Granz and J.A.T.P.
Yet at least those two labels have some heritage and lingering brand value, and are thus better off than most of the current outfits releasing jazz, who have less personality than an emoticon in nine-point font. Can anyone describe the personality of a Chesky or a Justin Time or a [fill in the blank] release? What a change from the indie tradition of the past. For a knowledgeable jazz fan, each of the following names has a resonance and meaning, a history and heritage: Soul Note, Pacific, ECM, Riverside, Commodore, Fantasy, Contemporary, Delmark, Muse, etc. Even tiny outfits, such as Discovery or Biograph or Nessa meant something. But how many current brands have that type of potency in their name?
Blue Note in the 1950s and 1960s had the strongest personality of them all. Yes, Blue Note could surprise you by signing artists outside of the hard bop idiom. But even these releases added to the allure of the label, and prevented the Blue Note sound from becoming a cliché. The end result was a tiny indie company that eventually had more clout in the jazz world than the majors.
This ability to project a personality is the single biggest advantage a small label has over the huge corporations that dominate the entertainment industry. The indie operations of today should learn from Blue Note and use this leverage.
(2) Build the careers of your artists over the long haul
How many labels today can match the long-term commitment that Blue Note showed to the musicians on its roster back during its glory years? Even an artist such as Andrew Hill—whose records sold poorly at the time—was able to record a dozen leader dates for Blue Note over the course of a decade, and also show up as a sideman on other projects for the label.
Don't minimize the importance of artists such as Hill or Grant Green or Tina Brooks in building Blue Note's reputation. Even fans who preferred Lee Morgan to Andrew Hill loved the label all the more because of its continued allegiance to something other than dollars and cents. Much of the Blue Note mystique today derives from those gritty records that never got much airplay, but made a statement nonetheless. Part of the statement was about integrity.
It’s hard to find that type of loyalty these days (although there are a few examples). The jazz world would be much better off if the corporate beasts that run the show had more allegiance to their artists. They call it a stable of artists for a reason . . . It is supposed to reflect stability. Judging by what I see, maybe its time to change the name to the “Unstable” of artists on the roster.
(3) Remember: It is no crime for a jazz record to sound good
I am suspicious of any approach to jazz that consistently disregards (or actually scorns) the enjoyment of the listener. Strange to say, many opinion leaders in jazz don’t have “listener enjoyment” on their list of key criteria for a good jazz record. In fact, there are some who actually think that a jazz record is all the better, the less it is enjoyed. (This latter viewpoint is slowly losing credibility in the jazz world, but the operative word here is “slowly.”)
Blue Note never had this problem. Blue Note was willing to stretch the ears of its fans, but it didn’t insult them. A fan could buy a half-dozen Blue Note LPs at random, and be assured that listening to them would mostly be a pleasurable experience. As a result, a lot of Blue Note music got significant airplay, and some songs even became hits.
Think about that for a second. Acoustic jazz instrumentals played by world class players that climb the charts? No you don’t see that very much these days. Then again, there aren’t many labels like Blue Note around any more.
(4) Don’t get caught up in the quest for glamor—jazz is not a beauty contest
I have noted elsewhere that good looks seem to play a disproportionate role in determining who gets a record contract these days. This was always true to some degree in the world of pop music, but didn't become a major problem until the rise of music videos. Then the infection even spread to jazz—which had been mostly immune to this way of evaluating "talent"—and over the last ten years it has become so pronounced that it is almost laughable.
Somebody should tell the music industry moguls that people still “listen” to music, and that the song on the radio doesn’t sound any better if it's Britney and not Ella. More to the point, the overall impact of this approach is a dumbing down of jazz (and other forms of music), the promotion of acts without career staying power, and the gradual distrust of the fan base—who are smart enough to understand what is going on. After all, if the record label doesn’t care enough to promote the best talent, why should the fan care enough to buy the CD. And if some jazz fan wants to ogle attractive bodies, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue costs about half of the going rate for a compact disk.
Blue Note was, of course, the anti-glamor label during its heyday. Fashion models rarely found their way on to a Blue Note LP cover. Instead fans got to ogle hot, sweaty musicians. Heck, you hardly even got a color photo (those four-color separations cost money, folks). But no one complained. You didn't want to see those guys in high-def anyway. Get real . . . jazz fans knew that Hank Mobley didn’t look like Montgomery Clift. So what? (to borrow a useful jazz phrase).
When jazz artists start looking like Montgomery Cllift, then you need to start worrying. I think we need to start worrying.
(5) Earn the loyalty of your customers
Have you every purchased a recording without knowing anything about the artist—but just because you had so much trust in the values and integrity of the label? I have too. But not as often as I once did.
Only a few labels generate that type of loyalty. In my case, I can think of releases that I purchased from Blue Note, ECM, Folkways, Deutsche Grammophon, Arhoolie, and a few other companies . . . based solely on my confidence in the people running them, and their commitment to the music.
Loyalty of this sort requires a number of ingredients. But Blue Note had them all: musicianship, audio quality, creativity, a larger vision, a respect for the intelligence of its audience, etc. The type of goodwill this builds is incalculable, and this is why the Blue Note catalog continues to sell well even when the records are a half-century old. It’s funny how the labels that are so focused on maximizing the sale of records this week, this month, never make it to the half-century mark. There is a lesson in that.
Okay, go back to the birthday party. Have a drink; eat some cake. Let's sing a song in syncopated time for Blue Note, and wish the label 70 more prosperous years. But let's also remember the reasons why this label got to a venerable age in the first place. They haven't aged at all.
This is blog article was posted by Ted Gioia.