How does one assess the long-term prospects for a jazz label?
Running a label myself (indeed I almost wrote “being”!), and also being actively involved in a live music venue (the Vortex), I am constantly looking at the legacies of live and recorded jazz and how – and indeed whether – to pass on to the next generation, especially as my hair gets whiter.
Unlike in many more formal organisations, where there is a structure that makes people retire, this is not the case for jazz and improvised music, which is much more fluid and flexible. Musicians often play until they get too sick. Sometimes it is put down to the lack of pension help, but I feel that it is often due to their continuing creative juices flowing.
In the past couple of years, I have seen an exhibition about the German FMP label (which actually stopped releasing after 216 albums) and a documentary film about the Blue Note label, which continues today.
What gives a label its ‘legacy’? Is it continuing to release recordings, or is it at least to have the recordings available?
Blue Note has taken the former route. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf sold the label in 1965, being forced on the back of almost too much success of ‘Songs of My Father’ and ‘Sidewinder’. And left a formidable catalogue which had been carefully nurtured by them. Careful curation, proper rehearsal, the best recording engineer (Rudy van Gelder), beautiful photos by Reid Miles led to some of the most dynamic releases by great jazz musicians. If one thinks of jazz, especially in the era 1955-1965, Blue Note is at its heart. There was also a great mechanism for recording and cataloguing this legacy – the 12 inch LP which could have sound quality and a physical size which allowed for designers to run riot.
But after that, Blue Note has perhaps lost a bit of its creative (if not necessarily its commercial) way. Its continuation today, currently under the aegis of Don Was, certainly respects its past, but perhaps is looking for clever ways of exploiting it, rather than necessarily creating the innovation of the future. And that’s where a strong argument for having labels with limited lives lies, in my view. Also, because the label has such a strong identity with its first generation founders, that it becomes impossible to escape when creating the music today.
The shadow of the founder(s) can be so strong that everything gets falsely judged not just in its own right, but in comparison to the originals. This can make it oppressive. For example, much of the Blue Note film is based around the Blue Note All Stars, directed by Robert Glasper with a stellar line-up and the recording production by Don Was. All clearly have a great respect for the label’s tradition but mainly, for me, it is taking me back to the originals rather than listening to the new recording in its own right.
There are probably record labels in other sectors, such as Motown, which have created a similar strong identity and then dissipate it. Classical music doesn’t perhaps have such problems because of the diversity of the music and musicians that it can associate with. Certainly very few limit themselves to particular interpretation. Though here again we have the issue with labels run in association with particular individuals/groups, such as Auvidis and Jordi Savall.
The name and its associations become so strong that it becomes a millstone to its successor A&R people rather than something to build on.
FMP did a different thing and took the second route. Founded with a very strong concept by Jost Gebers, with Peter Brötzmann and Alex von Schlippenbach in 1968, it forged an incredible relationship with a particular genre of music, linking this with live performances (such as the Total Music Meeting for many years in Berlin) inextricably linked particularly with the scenes in London and Amsterdam. Perhaps its apotheosis was the box set of Cecil Taylor recorded in Berlin in 1988. The exhibition that I saw of this (in Munich a couple of years ago) really documented it all so well and certainly put the argument persuasively that this label is a key creative strand of the latter part of the 20th century. And the completeness of the archive – sonically, cinematically and in documents – seems to justify this. Exploitation of this , such as through such an exhibition, was, to me, revelatory.
So, most importantly the labels created a legacy in terms of an incredible back catalogue, with very strong quality control and individuality. This is a most thrilling part of a label. I have always believed that it is vital to keep the music available and respected. Spotify has gone a long way to helping this happen, with the sad demise of outlets for the beautiful physical product.
As a record label myself, I won’t deny that there have been some releases that have not been as good as others. But I would argue that all releases on Babel have had a validity, such as documenting a particular artist at a particular time, or giving longevity to a project which only had limited life in real terms.
With these criteria in mind, it becomes more possible to judge the nature of labels. How necessary is their continuation as a means of recording and releasing music? For me, it is about the catalogue being available and being able to be assessed. For example, it has been wonderful to be able to listen to much ECM back catalogue through Spotify which wasn’t available for a long time. OK, some of the technical quality may have been lost, but not so much as to lose the innovative nature of the music. Great to hear, for example, Lookout Farm or First House.
So continuation of a label in terms of new releases may not be the best route. While it is possible to have cases where the label continues and changes, nevertheless for it to end in terms of new releases is not necessarily a bad thing. I was talking to Adam Baruch a few weeks ago, who runs an incredible blog called the ‘Soundtrack of My Life’. For him, for example, the number of “essential” ECM recordings over the years has declined. A mixture of less innovation, but also perhaps some commercial criteria which have overpowered? But to have still the full catalogue of music available somehow is vital and for it to be brought to the public’s attention. So, rather than spending on new (perhaps more mediocre) releases, money could be spent on making the best of incredible history? The music will always be new for someone. I was listening again to Sidewinder recently (one of the albums too commercially successful which led to Blue Note’s demise from its initial strong phase). It’s still incredible and worth going back to.
And there are other similar labels, such as John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
However, I have a totally other viewpoint about live music venues and festivals. They must be allowed to continue because that is where the innovation comes from for the future. But that is another matter and for another blog post…..