[Dixielandjazz] Is Jazz Dead?

Bob Fawcett Bob Fawcett" <fawcett.r@rogers.com
Fri, 9 Aug 2002 20:28:39 -0400

Although not just referring to OKOM I found this article in Canada's
National Post interesting.
Jazz industry singing the blues
Even Coltrane's label getting out of the business

Fred Kaplan
The Boston Globe

MILES DAVIS: Kind of Blue still sells a few thousand copies a week.

Calgray Herald
DIANA KRALL: Last two albums each sold more than one million copies

Louis Armstrong is a jazz star from the 1950s and '60s, but who is his
modern equivalent?: (Photo ran in all editions except Toronto.)

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.

North Americans spend US$13-billion a year on compact discs, but jazz CDs
account for less than 3% 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, 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.

There are no jazz stars today -- no instrumental musician 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
US$1-million an 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's 1959 classic, Kind of Blue, continues to sell a few thousand
copies a week -- a bestseller by jazz standards. Coltrane's 1964 A Love
Supreme has sold 500,000 copies since it came out on CD.

The 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 lively and 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?"

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 one 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.

As one producer puts it, "We're all looking for the next Miles Davis and the
next Diana Krall."

Another difference about the jazz world, besides the absence of stars, is
that 30 years ago, even selling 3,000 copies was enough for a label at least
to break even. It's not nearly enough now. 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. In recent weeks, Atlantic Records, now owned by AOL Time Warner,
dropped its jazz department, scuttling such brilliant and reasonably
well-selling musicians as saxophonist James Carter, guitarist Marc Ribot,
and pianist Cyrus Chestnut. "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.

Yet their contemporary counterparts have a new problem: getting their
records to the marketplace. They're getting hit by both ends. The large
distribution companies, which used to carry small labels, don't find it
profitable to do so anymore. The large retailers have a cash flow problem.
Tower Records, which has been hurt by corporate overexpansion and Internet
downloading, now waits a year before paying suppliers -- far too long for a
small distributor, forcing many of them simply to stop doing business with
the superstore.

Meanwhile, few commercial radio stations play jazz these days, and public
stations are dropping music altogether in favour of news and talk.

"Guys who make jazz records are asking themselves, 'Who are we making
records for?' " says Gary Giddins, long-time jazz critic for The Village
Voice and author of several award-winning books on music.

"The people who run the record companies don't care. You don't hear it on
the radio, you don't see it on TV, you don't see it in the stores."

With costs so high and the chance of profits so dim, many executives,
particularly at the large labels, are less willing to take chances.

"You've got an ultra-conservative industry right now, and that's
unfortunate," says David Baker, one of the top jazz recording engineers for
the past 30 years.

"Safe bets have never been the world that jazz has flourished in."

Executives are so uncertain about the market, they've forgotten what used to

"The jazz labels that thrived in the '50s, '60s, even the '70s -- they had a
sound, an identity," Baker says.

"You may not have heard of the new guy they were pushing, but you figured
you'd better check it out, you knew it would be exciting. Now you go and buy
a record, you don't know what you're in for."

Giddins agrees. "The great jazz labels used to have these distinctive
features that made them look cool," he says. "Impulse covers had those
orange spines. Riversides had those cool photos of Monk. Little things like
that gave these records cachet. They did this -- just like the cigarette
companies do this -- to get hold of a young, unformed audience."

Is this the problem? Have the jazz producers forgotten how to make jazz look
cool? Would today's best young jazz musicians -- Dave Douglas, Don Byron,
James Carter, Jason Moran, Ben Allison -- sell more records if their covers
were more hip and their promotion more expansive?

"There's this general perception that jazz is dead music -- dead guys, old
guys, old audiences," says Chuck Iwanusa, president of the Jazz Alliance

It doesn't have to be that way. Chevrolet commercials show a car zipping
down the highway with Herbie Hancock's Cantaloupe Island on the soundtrack.
A lot of people think the music is cool, but they don't even know it's jazz,
Iwanusa says. "Why can't Chevy show a picture of Herbie? Just to show, 'Hey,
this guy did this music -- he's still alive.' "