Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Global warming can be fun!

It's really "unseasonal" at present - daffodils out, also camellias, crocuses and even a rhododendron. The magnolia in front of Kenwood House is coming on apace. I've even seen the first APPLE BLOSSOM(!) on a tree. And yet we are still not out of January. So, with the sun not yet high enough to warm things, it shows how warm the weather has been. I recall that we were nearly as advanced last year, but then a cold snap came in February.
Could it be the first of many such Januaries to come in the future, or is it just another one off?
Whatever, it certainly is great to be amazed every day by things being wrong and working out.
(A bit like jazz?)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

If you want to see how to run a music industry, look to jazz

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.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Which is more "risky" - an album by Beth Rowley or Portico Quartet?

Something I don't understand from the way that major labels work is their attempt to play catch up and mimickry with each other. That certainly doesn't chime in with what I can recall of portfolio theory when I worked as an economist. In that, you invest in a range of stocks, with a small amount in high risk, high return.
But what record companies seem to be doing at the moment is compete with each other to sign vocalist upon vocalist. Trying to have them follow in the steps of Amy Winehouse recently, but without the extra drug and behaviour "baggage". Each is quite an expensive "investment". It seems ironic that it is left to the small labels, such as Babel, to spend its (my) money on higher risk artists - more creative and less likely to sell fast. Even if the actual absolute amount spent on, say, releasing an album like Knee Deep In The North Sea is a fraction of that spent on Beth Rowley, in terms of the percentage amount that Babel has in total available to spend it is high -probably 10% of my annual budget. Certainly, I have noticed that Portico Quartet is now number 1 in the HMV jazz chart, and I can confirm that it has nothing to do with any payments for racking space to HMV. It also means that we can make a profit much quicker than the majors can. We are also much more flexible
Perhaps the major labels have a problem of high fixed costs (not just "flowers and fruit" or their powder equivalents which alone totalled £20,000 a month at EMI). Staff overheads mean that the actual cost of recording an album is low relative to the marketing, and admin costs. Also that the corporate machine is much slower.
Is it "safer" to release vocalist number 36? And to push her hard, so as to dilute the quality out there, such as Babel's own Christine Tobin or Paula Rae Gibson because one doesn't get the chance to hear them away from venues such as the Vortex. Surely it's safer to spend a fraction and get albums of the quality of Polar Bear's Held On The Tips Of Fingers into the stores. Which didn't make incredible sums of money for Babel, once one paid for manufacture, copyright and royalties, but certainly has made a profit on a lower level of sales. Meanwhile, an album such as Billy Jenkins' Songs Of Praise Live! will give me a lot of pleasure for a relatively low outlay and have a much more important long-term importance. (By the way, when Babel started, there was discussion with Polygram (the predecessor of Universal) to release the work of Billy. They were a bit frightened, though Wulf Muller, still one of the heads there, is a great fan. The album finally came out as Suburbia. Have a listen and let us know if you think that it's a better thing to release than some of the other stuff appearing on UCJ.)