On the one hand, the people involved in jazz are really stupid. The chance of survival as a musician or as someone trying to eke out a living as a promoter, record label or similar are slim. At an informal lunch hosted by the Vortex yesterday, one thing that came up is how low fees and incomes can be. Have been. And still are.
Nevertheless, the thing to note is that it survives and, in many ways, is thriving. We don't get the range of articles such as those about EMI which dominate the online blogs and newspapers daily at present. The Vortex gets mentioned in the preview section as having gigs to go to, or gets reviews in the arts section. In the phrase "music industry", the word "music" should take precedence over the word "industry".
Is it quality of music or is it commercial success? Usually regarded as alternatives for one another, many jazz albums and musicians clearly have the former - I am proud of the quality of all the Babel albums - and certainly the most successful jazz albums of all time have both. Look at Kind of Blue of the Cologne Concert.
But from a point of view of survival jazz is up there. And surely one should look at a label like ECM as a model. Great music, for the most part at least, long-term commitment to many of its artists, and a back catalogue second to none. Manfred Eicher has a shrewdness which leads to certain frissons with musicians. I have heard many, and can relate a few on a person-to-person basis if you want. A mild way of how he winds up people to create tension, but also affectionate, is from some David Torn interviews on youtube.
The range of jazz on the label is still incredibly diverse. At the Vortex last weekend, we had a hell of a contrast. Andy Sheppard preparing for a new album, David Torn's Prezens creating a rock jazz improv with Tim Berne, Tom Rainey and Craig Taborn, and Matthew Bourne, in trio with Dave Kane and Steven Davis, also getting ready to record with Annette Peacock. He has been able to create viable commercial successors to Keith Jarrett, Kenny Wheeler and their like. Perhaps an ECM doesn't quite have the full quality seal that it had 10 years ago, but still worthwhile. Meanwhile, I understand that classical and other "non jazz" now take up over half of the new releases annually.
ECM is one of several models of which to be proud. Siggi Loch of ACT, a protege of the Erteguns, Alan Bates, originally Black Lion and now Candid. And then those small mavericks like Leo Feigin of Leo Records. And so on. Passion and a long-term view drive them on. And on. And on. If you look to the short-term bottom line, as I understand the shops are doing too much, nothing will appear. (It so disappoints me that the Dune catalogue, with such a great foundation in terms of Soweto Kinch and his ilk, is still so thin after 10 years. Come on Gary. Go for it, Janine.)
I like to think that Babel has created something important too, with a lot of imperfections in methodology that I don't want to discuss here. I have the biggest release schedule coming up ever for the first half of 2008, Outhouse, Bourne Davis Kane, Big Air, Christine Tobin, Phil Robson, Big Air, Paula Rae Gibson. The complete range of music all loosely linked by the word "jazz".
The bigger labels don't know how to handle the opportunity that they are given when releasing Acoustic Ladyland (on V2). I understand that their V2 album, Skinny Grin, didn't do much better commercially than Last Chance Disco, despite what must have been an outlay much, much higher. A squandered opportunity, similarly with Polar Bear. I would have hoped that the move to a bigger label would have provided a great showcase for this music.
By the way, on the EMI front, I hope that they look towards their jewel of Blue Note and Bruce Lundvall, to show a direction. A back catalogue second to none, as shown by listening to Jamie Cullum on thejazz as I write this, new multimillion sellers like Norah Jones and money reinvested in new stars of the future like Robert Glasper.