Updated: Nov 4
Small record labels have been a vital part of the music industry ever since Victor Talking Machines, Edison, and others first distributed recordings. By the mid-20th century, 6 or 7 labels dominated the recording industry, but smaller labels have persisted, and, from the latter half of the twentieth century, their number has increased, particularly in niche market areas. Small labels can offer musicians a tailored package of marketing, superb recording facilities, and the kudos of being 'signed,' which still carries weight, despite self-release being de rigueur. Signing to a label is often the first step an artist takes to establish a music business career. It flags them as someone worthy of investment. Consumers benefit from small labels, too, because they offer quality music recordings from artists they may not have heard of had a small label not signed them.
For as long as smaller labels have brought artists to public attention, there have been conversations where label managers discuss the difficulties of maintaining a market presence when downloads, streaming, and other media provide ways for people to hear music. Some have gone, but many continue supporting talented artists we may otherwise never have heard. How do small labels keep up with the ever-changing landscape they are navigating, changing technology, and the continual shape-shifting of the music industry conforms? How do they work with fleeting market certainties and the moments when, for some artists, a small label may no longer be what they need?
Historically, executives of major labels were the gatekeepers of jazz music, curating artists, and tracks, even marketing one sub-genre of jazz to one part of the population and others to the rest ( E.g., Race Labels in the US). They controlled many aspects of their artists' lives, from how they dressed, where they played, and when they spoke to journalists. Contracts were long and often not to the musicians' ultimate benefit. Now it is different. Consumers choose what they access. Instead of a trickle of releases, they can navigate thousands of recordings via streaming platforms and bypass record labels altogether. They can buy music or listen to it via different means. As an artist, getting your music 'out there' can be as simple as decent home recording equipment, a bit of technical knowledge, and the touch of a few buttons. Yet small labels persist, and many thrive. Is it the passion for the music, or is running a small label commercially viable? What drives executives and owners of small labels, and what do artists get from signing?
Could it be that we are becoming entrenched in receiving music for free, transient tastes and trends? Do young people today not want physical collections of music on their shelves? Do they prefer to access the latest release and be on point trend-wise instantly? Those who know some of the answers are the labels themselves.
The impact of the Covid pandemic on live music led to many jazz musicians and venues having to re-think as their incomes vanished almost instantly. Many told saw no way back, and many looked at different ways to connect and record using technology. Since live gigs have returned, some musicians have gone back to playing live immediately, while others remain sceptical about the recovery of the live scene.
Rather than create a generic piece with generalisations of the viewpoints of smaller labels, I decided to ask five questions to each. Many of the executives told me the questions were difficult because the long-term effects of the pandemic are perhaps yet to be fully realised, but also, they had not yet faced or considered the long-term impact of changes that are taking place. I connected with label executives from the UK, Europe, Canada, and the US, and I am grateful to those who responded to my questions, which were:
How they felt the music industry - particularly jazz – was doing. Did they think it was holding steady or suffering in the face of access to free music, videos, and downloads?
How, in their opinion, do artists feel about the future of jazz music?
Are they could explain how musicians benefit from label support rather than self-releasing?
Do people still buy CDs and vinyl, or do they prefer downloads or downloadable USBs like some artists are now sending out (do you think)?
How do labels see their role in supporting jazz musicians and jazz music?
Views vary, so I felt it essential to provide the opinions of each label executive who answered in their own words. Most of the labels specialise in jazz, but some also cover a broader generic reach, and you can check them out using the links at the end of the article.
There was divided opinion on how the music industry - particularly jazz - was doing. Some consider the industry buoyant; others are not so sure. The uncertainty following the changes the pandemic brought with it, mentioned above, is apparent in the answers.
Martin Archer, owner of Discus Music in Sheffield, told me, "There is always a small but committed audience. It exists perpetually on the borderline of just about worth doing. I think, unlike pop, jazz does not suffer from free/easy online access. Jazz fans like to see live gigs, and the demographic is such that they like to own CDs; downloads are an option for those that don't. Discus sales are around 60/40 CD/Download. In Sheffield, there is plenty of live jazz activity."
Paul Jolly, Executive Producer of 33 Jazz Records, said, "I'm not convinced the industry is in a good state when looking from the perspective of a record label. Income is suffering because of the impact of streaming, downloads, and the falling sales at gigs, due to the diminishing
access to CD players, etc., at home, in the car, and as an add-on to computers. There is also the overall situation with the cost of living. Can you afford to go to the gig and buy the CD?"
Ben Cottrell, manager of Efpi records, commented on broader issues affecting the music industry. "Artistically, it's very healthy, but it's hard in almost every other way. Speaking for my band, I don't think that access to free music is a huge issue for us directly. I think most of our audiences like having a physical product, and streams/videos, etc., are more a promotional opportunity than direct income. But I feel the devaluing of music and the arts in society more widely is definitely an issue long term, and yes, that comes from global corporations, who have a financial interest in that message – but that message is also spread by Government policy and actions, e.g., their lack of interest and investment in arts in education (from schools to university level), lack of urgency in (and understanding the importance of) helping musicians/artists/crew work in Europe post-Brexit, and the public messaging that people like Fatima the ballerina should retrain. Yes, government commissions into streaming are good, but I don't think this government has any appetite to impose regulation on markets, so I'm not sure what the impact will be."
Martin Hummel, Director of Ubuntu, gave some figures which provide context. "The music industry is growing! Worldwide, in 2021, recorded music revenues grew by 19% to nearly $26 Billion (£23 Billion). The UK, which is the world's third-largest market, grew by 13%. Worldwide streaming grew by 24% and now represents two-thirds of total revenue by format. So, the industry is healthy, to say the very least. Jazz (assuming we can define what jazz is!) represents only 1% of the total market. However, anecdotally, this minuscule genre has been more than pulling its weight. The jazz journey has expanded into embracing various forms of other music genres – hip hop, West African, world music, folk, and ambient, to mention just a few – which, as a result, have intuitively expanded its audience reach and appears to be attracting comparatively younger audiences. Streaming is here to stay, and we need to embrace this. Video provides another channel to deliver the music experience. Putting Covid and its impact behind us, it's an exciting time to be a jazz artist."
Jon Madof, co-founder (with Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz) of Chant records, New York, added, "The music industry is anything but steady and stable. It's moving and changing all the time and, in many ways, has flipped entirely on its head from where it was ten years ago. But I don't think it's worse; it's just very different. For starters, most music fans of all genres expect to be able to listen to music at no cost. That's a reality that labels and artists can complain about all they want, but it's a reality nonetheless. But the reality also includes worldwide distribution at almost no cost, the ability to build a fan base, crowdfunding, radically reduced recording costs, and many more things that - in my opinion - make this a wonderful time to be an independent artist or label. We just have to change our mindset and realize that time moves forwards, not backwards."
Ernesto Cervini, jazz drummer, publicist, and co-owner of TPR Records in Toronto, Canada, gave his opinion."To be honest, I believe all of the music industry has suffered from the proliferation of free music and streaming. There has been an explosion of creativity following the pandemic, which has led to some creative approaches and models to try and help make music creation a profitable endeavour once again. I think the jazz industry is particularly affected by this, as it is creative music that primarily requires collaboration."
Mike Hanson has a profound knowledge of how the music industry has changed. Hanson is the Founder and Director of Thelonious Punk Productions Ltd, a multi-media company creating theatre, podcasts, and music projects based in London. Their independent label is Thelonious Punk Records. Before Thelonious Punk, Mike worked in music radio and helped launch BBC Radio 6 Music, where he worked for more than a decade before moving to Radio 2. He observed, " In my view, the music industry seems to be recovering post-pandemic. For years now, music has been reliant on live music. Streaming services have made earning a living via record sales almost impossible for most professional musicians. Some might be lucky enough to land a sync, but most made money on live performances (and flogging merch. at shows). So it's good to see people going back to clubs, but it's still not enough, and Brexit and the cost of living have made it even harder. I suspect this is the same in all genres, including jazz, although I have recently been to the Piano Bar Soho and Ronnie's and was glad to see both packed out. I recently saw a tweet from an indie band announcing the cancellation of their upcoming tour because it just wouldn't work financially. Very sad. As I said, the decline in physical and digital sales has been a long trend. I always found it odd that people were willing to pay £100 or more for a ticket to see the (Rolling) Stones for a one-off experience but chaffed at the idea of shelling out a measly £10 for their new CD, which they can enjoy repeatedly forever. Never made sense to me."
Two label executives sum up the current situation. Cory Weeds, the owner of The Cellar Music Group, says, "The music/jazz industry changes daily, it seems. I think it's very healthy in terms of content, but the way people consume it is constantly changing. The key thing remains to figure out how to monetise things in a meaningful way, like streaming, etc." Louis Marks, CEO of Ropeadope LLC based outside of Philly, PA, adds, "Jazz and related genres are thriving in a cultural sense, but always struggling for revenue. The streaming age has created an ecosystem where emerging artists are drowned out by the sheer volume of content. Live music was holding things together, but recent events have made this much more challenging for artists."
Ryan Meagher, Director of PJCE Records, a US label focusing on Portland-based artists composing original music, commented on the generational differences in how people access music. "Quite honestly, the music industry in its current model is not a sustainable one for anyone. No one is being compensated fairly, including the streaming platforms, so many of us are vilifying. When you ask about free content, you hint at what I believe is the real root of the problem. The fact that we don't have to, as consumers, pay for the music we listen to means that we aren't valuing recorded music like we once did. I have students of music that want to become musicians who have never purchased music. That doesn't add up to me."
Marco Valente, founder/owner of Auand Records based in Bisceglie, southeast Italy, talked of changing listening and buying habits. " jazz is a niche, and it has held for a few years, but my figures say it is suffering now. People used to buy CDs at the end of gigs, but now it seems it happens less and less. All the talk around vinyl is not worth the investment. On the other hand, my French distributor said they can still sell several thousand when an album works well."
Valente also reminded us that free listening has been an option for decades. The difference is that now, listening for free does not always mean sales will be made.
"I'm unsure if this trend is because of free online music. When I was a kid, I listened to a lot of free music through the radio and cassettes, but then I wanted records I liked. It's just a matter of generations changing."
So opinions vary. Some see jazz in a very positive place right now, and some not quite so much. They also understand the change in attitude as younger people have always accessed free music on the radio, for example, but the transition to purchasing it and monetising the music for labels and their artists seems to have declined.
On how they believe their artists see the future of jazz, there was a concerted view that there is positivity, perhaps not surprising when you consider these are the people creating the music.
Martin Archer succinctly stated, "Musicians will always make music happen, grow, develop - it is an unstoppable force."
Paul Jolly agreed, " I and most of my artists feel that the music is in a good creative space at present – younger jazz artists are expanding the genre – via original writing, encompassing free forms of improvisation and working outside of the American songbook tradition.
Artists are also expanding the range of places to play – there's been a significant rise in the use of visual art galleries and pop-up venues."
Ernesto Cervini said, "I think my artists feel optimistic about the future of this music. Jazz has always been music living in two camps – honouring the tradition while simultaneously reflecting on the day's popular music. Because of this, jazz will continue to evolve!"
Ben Cottrell's thoughts are, "Creatively, things are really positive. There's loads of great jazz and improvised music happening at the moment, lots of people doing exciting and innovative things, and I think that inspires people. Financially, logistically, emotionally, etc., it's less positive and less secure –'twas ever thus, of course, but I think it's even worse post-Covid and post-Brexit for British and UK-based musicians. It's good that awareness is increasing through higher profile pop artists speaking publicly about these issues, and campaigns by industry organisations such as Help Musicians, Featured Artists Coalition, and Music Venues Trust, but I'm not sure what immediate effect this will have on more grassroots artists."
Martin Hummel said, "The devastating impact of Covid on live performances had a crippling effect. In the UK alone, most musicians wondered whether there was a future in this space. Post-Covid, there seems to be a more optimistic perspective. Generally speaking, we find the younger artists to be relatively more optimistic than the more senior ones. Much of this may be due to youth's fascination with digital technology, social media, and video art forms, all of which are becoming essential ingredients to marketing their brands. When it specifically comes to jazz, given the blending of various musical influences, it's fair to say that the future looks bright. This is equally true with the traditional, straight-ahead jazz music world, as more and more musicians increasingly show their respect for the timeless masters of the art form."
Jon Madof added, "We don't focus too much on distinctions between genres. Music is music. And I'm pretty sure jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis would agree with that assessment. People will respond whenever music is made by people who put everything into what they do and make their music an expression of their spirit and mind. That might be attending a concert, watching a video, or supporting a crowdfunding campaign. And the music may fit neatly into a genre or not." Cory Weeds commented, " I think the future of jazz music is bright, and that is reflected in the many communications I have with established and up-and-coming artists. To make it in this game, you must have the long game in mind and be willing to learn about the business." Mike Hanson added to the overall positive view when he said, "We feel jazz is experiencing a renaissance, with a lot of young musicians working in the scene, which bodes well for the future of jazz. People like Collette Cooper are spearheading it. It's great to see many young musicians, particularly women, at the forefront. People like Hannah Horton, Purdy, Aruba Red, and Rikette Genesis."
Louis Marks adds, " The future has yet to be written, but the continued push for UGC (User Generated Content) and the system of global access to all music threatens to marginalize further artists who create albums. Web3 - VR, social tokens, and NFTs - present an opportunity to preserve this art form and bring direct connection with fans more into artists' control. Vigilance is necessary to create and maintain the role of curation within the web 3 space."
Ryan Meagher is unsure but also optimistic. He told me, "I can't pretend to know where jazz is going. Not as an artist myself or as a producer. I know the tradition from which I have emerged, and I participate in that tradition now. I certainly hope to continue participating in it in the future, but I am not terribly certain that where this tradition is going is going to want even to be called jazz or have the same value systems that it did when I decided to dedicate my life to it. The world's a changin'." Marco Valente added, " Actually, I don't know (what my artists think about the future). They are still investing energy in the music. Musicians can't live without producing new music, but I can't imagine how long they can keep doing it if the market doesn't put them in better conditions."
So, what are the benefits of singing to a label, or having a hybrid arrangement, as some artists do, compared to self-release?
Marco Valente answered this question. "Auand has a reputation due to 21 years of releases. We organized the promotion in terms of traditional press and new social media. We contributed to the launch of a new young scene of Italian musicians, and young artists want to be part of this scene. But I can understand when they switch to self-releasing. It's good they can appreciate how much work there is on the other side."
Martin Hummel had an interesting take, " We actively encourage artists to consider the option of self-releasing, so they get an understanding of what it takes to bring a recording to market. Having said that, it can be a lonely, frustrating, and occasionally terrifying experience. Things can and sometimes do go wrong, and without experience handling the challenges of releasing an album, it can be a recipe for disaster. We have a simple belief: for an artist to reach their potential as a professional musician, they should devote their time to composing, practicing, and performing as much as humanly possible. If they invest their energies in the idiosyncrasies of releasing their own music, it might be a misappropriation of their time. The right label should be a partner in the journey, providing guidance, advice, and support in areas that may be foreign to the artist but vital to the release's success. And, at the end of the day, it must be recognised that this is the artist's music, and the artist should have the final say on all relevant issues related to the release."
Jon Madof added, "If you're on a larger label, the support should be there in the form of revenue, promotion, publicity, and tour support. What we do at Chant Records is aggregate a lot of wonderful music so a fan of one artist can be exposed to all of our other artists. That's what we offer to musicians. Of course, many musicians self-release, which can also be great. When you self-release, you don't have to answer to anyone. But you may miss out on the benefits of being a part of a label. It's great that musicians have the freedom to make that choice and are not forced to sign a contract with a label if they don't want to." Martin Archer said, "Self-releasing is OK if you do lots of gigs because CDs will sell at gigs. But a self-released CD will not get anything like decent distribution, promotion, radio play, etc., without setting up the kind of infrastructure a multi-artist label will have. Artists benefit from the kudos of being on a respected label. On the other hand, setting up your Bandcamp page is a simple job for anyone committed to self-releasing."
Paul Jolly's thoughts on this were, " Label support is not as beneficial as before – small independent labels like 33 don't have the reserves to finance complete commissioning to production budgets – due to the impact of reduced income, etc. However, benefits still include such things as critical acceptance – the label being a kind of quality assurance for both critics and venues. We've always considered the role of the label in supporting young musicians at the beginning of their careers as particularly important. Although they may move on to bigger labels later, the initial work with us is helpful and for the label really satisfying. "
Ernesto Cervini added, "The benefit of working with a label is that one can lean on the experience and process that the label already has in place for releasing music. There are a lot of different steps involved with releasing new music to the world, and as an artist, you only get one shot with a new album. You work so hard on creating and recording this music, so it's vital to ensure the release and publicizing of the music is equally well supported."
Louis Marks believes there are benefits for artists being with a label. "Artists gain the recognition of label curation simply by appearing next to their peers within the curated space. In our model, they gain from communication with their community as well. They also gain by delegating back office work, promotion, and publicity to the label. Finally, a good label will interpret the market and share their knowledge with the artist openly,"
This community sense was echoed by Ben Cottrell when he spoke about the collaborative/ hybrid approach to releases."I think you'd have to ask the artists, and I don't want to speak for them, but the things I try to offer from Efpi are a sense of community; some guidance and experience, and an outside/objective sounding board; infrastructure and networks in terms of distribution and connections with designers, manufacturers, PR, etc.; some brand recognition of the Efpi name within the industry that might open some doors for a new/relatively unknown artist; and just the support of them knowing that somebody else is alongside them and investing their time and energy in their project. I/we don't have much/any money to invest, so it's only really that in-kind support that I can offer. But I hope that artists see that as valuable. Artists don't need labels anymore as they used to, even 10 or 15 years ago – it's a choice now whether they want to. At least with Efpi, the artists are still putting most/all of the money in upfront and still heavily involved in a lot of the actual work, but our artists still see some benefit in releasing with us, and that what we're able to offer is worth splitting some of their profits – otherwise they wouldn't be working with me/us."
Mike Hanson pointed out some practicalities and potential limitations of a small label. "As a small label, I'm not sure we can offer much more than a musician self-releasing. In today's world, you really don't need a label, and when I was at the BBC, I often told young musicians asking my advice that they probably didn't need a label and could do it themselves. That's true, but then youhave to do everything yourself. What a label is good for – especially ones like ours who work with people we believe in rather than as a commodity we can exploit – is creative support. But more than that touchy-feely stuff, practical support, from an advance to record in the first place, then the contacts in distribution, promotion, radio, etc., to get your music heard in a bigger way than putting it out there yourself and hoping someone stumbles upon it and starts to build a fan base. "
Cory Weeds emphasised the kudos of being signed to a label touched on before when he said, "A label can help in many areas, but mainly it can be the buffer between the press and the musician. When dealing with a new artist, I think it helps them when the press and people see The Cellar Music label as the representative because we have a long and respected track record in the business. That record then maybe goes to the top half of the pile instead of the bottom half. "
Ryan Meagher voiced the sense of family many musicians feel when signed to a smaller label. "My biggest sell to any artist interested in putting out music with PJCE Records is that you get to be part of a family of like-minded artists, many of whom are recognizable. We have a strong ethos at PJCE Records and stick to it. We want artistic excellence, original compositions, and Portland-based (and the surrounding Metro area), and we want our artists to be in support of other artists. Because we have stuck to our story, we have a brand identity. And with each new release, we are exposing all of our artists to a growing number of people. Artists can do a lot of this on their own, but by being on the label, much of that work is done for them. That way, they can focus more on their art."
All the labels on this piece enjoy a good reputation among the music community. Many support local artists, providing important marketing and promotion so people know who they are, where they can be seen, and that they are creating quality music. Most of them will also only record with artists who are willing to work, have a wealth of talent in the first place, and will take advice ( not always the easiest thing when you have a dream, according to many artists), but the reputation of the labels ensures they at least listen. Many artists begin with a smaller label and move labels later, but I have yet to come across a situation where there has been a significant rift in the long term due to an artist moving of their own volition. Labels can also establish their own strong identity. 33 Jazz in the UK, for example, supports female artists in particular. They have done this for over 30 years since they realised the lack of opportunities for female artists, and their influence has been significant in the UK market.
I asked the labels whether (in their opinion) people still bought CDs and vinyl or preferred downloadable USBs like some are now sending out. Many audience members and readers tell me they like the feel of a physical record or CD, while some like the novelty of purchasing a (recyclable) paper sleeve containing a USB from which you can download the music.
Ben Cottrell said, "People still buy music, and I know that because I still buy music myself. In jazz, maybe that's down to the demographics of the typical jazz audience (I know this is very, very general and anecdotal but often characterised as a little older/traditional and with more disposable income, or increasingly a bit younger and trendy, so prefers physical objects rather than streaming). There's a noticeable difference between sales when an artist is and isn't able to tour, though, selling stuff at merch stands. And I'm generally advising artists to manufacture fewer CDs than we used to pre-Covid, with some ordering less than half of what they have done for previous albums. We've never really done vinyl. We've been a little nervous of the financial risks involved as we can't afford to take a punt. Also, never done USB sticks, etc., I don't think that's something our audience would want – those who want digital files can (and do) download from Bandcamp."
Martin Hummel is pro CDs. "We are firm believers in the CD format. When music is recorded, mixed, and mastered professionally, the quality of a high-resolution CD file is the best quality sound you can experience. The demise of the CD format has been greatly exaggerated. Clearly, the resurgence of vinyl as a format and the meteoric rise in digital streams and downloads has significantly impacted CD sales. However, in 2021, CD sales increased for the first time in 17 years! So, it's fair to say that the CD format remains a viable format option. Vinyl has been reborn. Its growth rate is off the charts. However, you need to remember that the format is contingent upon people owning turntables to play vinyl albums. It's what we refer to as the blades and razors syndrome. The blades (vinyl) are useless unless you have the shaving handle (turntable) to enjoy the experience. While growing at an impressive rate, vinyl sales depend upon a relatively modest installed base. Some believe the feeding frenzy of vinyl worshippers may be peaking, leading to a rebalancing of format preferences in the market. Downloadable USBs are yet another technology-driven format option. Interesting, but perhaps impractical at this stage, given the relative cost. And don't forget the return of the audio cassette! Innovation keeps the recorded music sector vibrant and relevant, often increasing demand for music. We welcome this."
Marco Valente said, "We are selling less than usual, but there are still people looking for physical support," while Martin Archer added," it is around 60/40 CD to Downloads, and this figure has remained static for a few years."
Paul Jolly commented, "There's still a market for CDS – especially at gigs and via the label and artists' websites. However, there is an impact on sales because of rising postal charges, especially in Europe. Venues and radio stations are now also accepting USBs and codes from digital distributors to be used as marketing tools."
Ernesto Cervini added, " CD and vinyl sales are still possible via live performances and websites like Bandcamp. I haven't seen any real traction with USB keys, etc."
Cory Weeds commented on the importance of knowing your buyers. "We do vinyl, CDs, downloads, and streaming. All are very viable formats, and I think they work together. The key, however, is knowing your audience. If your music or particular record on a label is going to attract a younger audience, you're not likely to sell CDs, but vinyl and streaming will do well. "
Mike Hanson said, " I don't think anyone buys CDs anymore. Vinyl had a bit of a revival, but there's been a real supply chain issue since the pandemic, so there's a backlog of vinyl pressing, and what is pressed is expensive. There's talk of a cassette revival – I even heard about a podcast in Canada that has released an episode on cassette, but I fear this is a fad. As I said earlier, people are not buying music how they used to, and appetites for vinyl, cassettes, or even CDs are just that – a fad, sadly. More to the point, I don't think people have the means to play these different formats anymore. As an illustration, I have my own blues band, Bourbon Street Revival, and in 2010 we released a CD of original songs. We just recruited a new bass player and gave him a copy of the CD to learn the songs. He said,' Thanks, so how do I play this?' He's not some 20-something kid who's never seen a CD before. He's a seasoned musician in his 50s but no longer has a CD player. I think USB sticks and QR codes are the future. We're going to hand out album artwork with a QR code at the listening party for Collette Cooper's new album. I suspect that's the way of the whole industry (or at least those who can't/don't want to make physical copies). Branded USB sticks with all the tracks, artwork, liner notes, etc., is probably where a lot of the industry will head to."
Ryan Meagher's added his thoughts. " It seems most people are interested in listening to music on their phones. We still have some CDs, but I know that all of our artists grumble about boxes of unsold CDs in their basements and garages. Without getting too nostalgic and yelling at too many clouds, I do think we are missing something by not having physical items on which we listen to music these days. It used to be a whole shared experience with a disc. There was a thing you could touch, and you could read the back of it, and there was a cover that had cool stuff on it. You would loan it to a friend and say, 'Check out how great track 8 is on this.' Anyway, those days are over, and now we just pull up everything recorded ever with a few clicks and listen through some lame earbuds or the garbled speaker on our phones."
Louis Marks had a slightly different viewpoint, "CDs and Vinyl are still the top physical formats, and sales are growing in both. Downloads are also growing again as collection of music becomes more of a priority in an overcrowded streaming ecosystem." And Jon Madof commented. "We release music in many forms – streaming, download, and CDs. We haven't done vinyl because the cost is higher, but we may do that in the future. In our experience, streaming and downloading are how most fans listen to our music. As an artist, I sell CDs mainly at concerts outside the US, but I think other artists and labels have different experiences with this. It's a matter of what you want to put your effort and investment into and what you want to promote. "
The conversations revealed to me the varied formats in which labels release music, their understanding of their markets, and how the broader markets are changing. Some labels benefit from gaining a reputation for one kind of format in particular. For example, the independent label Gearbox in the UK still has a vinyl-led ethos. It puts out previously unreleased historic recordings by artists including Nico, Don Cherry, and Tubby Hayes and recent material by artists including Binker and Moses, Dwight Trible, and Abdullah Ibrahim. They use analogue cutting which produces quality vinyl recordings harking back to the golden era of music recordings, and their quality and ethos maintain a customer base.
So given the positives, the negatives, and the mixed thoughts about the future, I wondered how labels viewed their role in supporting jazz music and musicians.
Ernesto Cervini told me, "As a label, our job is to support the artists and lend our expertise with every step involved in releasing new music. We are "the team" that the artist can lean on to help make sure that the music is released in the most visibly and beneficial way for the artist!"
Martin Archer added," Discuss Music began life as a self-controlled outlet for my music only. Then it extended to include close colleagues and finally has spread the range of artists a little wider. I'm happy to use my structure and experience to help friends get their music out into the world. My aim with the label is to present a diversity of music so that people don't know what to expect next but may also be pleasantly surprised at what they find."
Paul Jolly said of the role of 33 Jazz, "Primarily now as a source of advice – supporting them ( artists) with issues regarding marketing, digital distribution, design, etc., and sharing experience of the international market – especially how to tackle the dominance of outlets such as Amazon, etc."
Cory Weeds talked about working with artists, "We try to help artists get their music out to a bigger audience. Labels have some advantages that single/independent artists don't have, so we try to work with artists to create some success for a release."
Mike Hanson added, " I see our role as a small but important part of the wider community - supporting artists, venues, radio stations, journalists and writers like yourself, and anyone who plays or simply loves jazz. I can't say we have any concrete structure or presence in the scene like bigger labels or venues or even organisations like Tomorrow's Warriors, but we're proud to do our bit, however small."
Jon Madof commented on the importance of offering wider choices too. "We support musicians making great music. Some of our releases definitely fall into a jazz category, and most involve improvisation as a dominant component of the music. But if someone comes to our Bandcamp page or Spotify playlist, they're going to hear a wide range of sounds from a wide range of musicians based all over the world. Our motto is 'adventurous music across the spectrum.' That spectrum certainly includes jazz, but in no way is it limited to that. "
Martin Hummel summed up his thoughts. "Essentially, we see ourselves as enablers. I started Ubuntu Music seven years ago because I was disillusioned with the limited range of quality options for artists to release their recorded music and to connect with audiences on a world stage. The label is essentially managed on a not-for-profit basis, with the primary objective of assisting artists to reach their potential as professional musicians. The jazz music genre is experiencing a renaissance within the creative music industry, and there has never been a better time to be a part of that community. We see it this way: we provide the business infrastructure and support, which gives our jazz eagles the ability to reach for the skies."
Louis Marks put it: "Our model is probably different than most – our role is to find an audience for whatever an artist chooses to create. We have a built-in fanbase from our 21 years of releasing music and help cross-promote between artists. Our role going forward will shift from simple independent artist support to community building using new web3 tools.
Summing up, the two options presented to artists – traditional label or self-release – have their benefits and drawbacks. The places where artists can have creative control but also be part of a curated presentation is the most positive way forward for us. In many ways, it is similar to the impressionist movement in art: they struggled to present their own events repeatedly and found a way to work together. While the immediate result was not tremendously rewarding financially, the art form survived."
Ryan Meagher said, " Our main job at PJCE Records is to broaden the audience for our artists. We are not making much money putting albums out, and our artists aren't making a lot, either. Luckily we are run through a non-profit organization, and the whole community supports its ideals, thereby supporting ours."
Marco Valente added, "I will release records, probably less than usual, investing in promotion when I see possibilities to recoup. Less income will probably translate into less risk."
Jazz is Dead's co-owner, Andrew Lojero, says of jazz, "jazz is in a special place right now. There hasn't been this much energy behind it – young energy– in decades. I'm referring to a cultural shift, not an industry one. I don't really know the state of jazz in industry terms. But culturally, it's in a wonderful place. The key to jazz is likely to be in the moment. Most jazz musicians, or musicians in general, tend to be present in the moment and hand. A lot of artists don't have a support system or team around them to manage their affairs. It is important to help these artists reach their modern audience and create a system to facilitate all the activity that needs to take place to harness and grow that audience. People still buy CDs, though our focus will always be vinyl. We make one very limited cassette mixtape of each series. We don't even release it digitally. We see our role as celebrating the legends and masters while they are still living and with us, introducing a young audience to heroes that may be forgotten or unsung."
Perhaps it depends what format does best depends on your primary market or where most people access your releases, and maybe the viewpoint differs in different areas in the world, but overall, the positivity was present throughout the creation of this piece with the label executives, and the future of jazz music is certain. It is just how we shall hear it that may or may not change. One thing is apparent: more and more record labels are incorporated into communities where they oversee a platform on which artists and music buyers interact under the overarching name of the record label, so even the form of the traditional record label is changing. As Frank Perdue said, A Business that doesn't change is going to die, and the recording industry is no exception. Still, it is changing and adapting, like the music, and, to borrow Martin Hummel's analogy, jazz eagles, with the support of the many small labels, will continue to fly.
A small list of small (er labels) - there are many more
Chant records https://chantrecords.com/
Cunieform CUNEIFORM RECORDS
Gearbox Gearbox Records
JAZZ IS DEAD Jazz is Dead
Lyte records ** Lyte Records | Independent Record Label **
Moonrise recordsMoonrise Records Co. Label | Releases | Discogs
Music With No Expiration Music With No Expiration®
RareNoiseRecords Home | RareNoiseRecords
Raw Tonk Raw Tonk Records (bandcamp.com)
Spherical Records Spherical Records Label | Releases | Discogs
Thelonious PunkThelonious Punk Productions
Three Pines TPR Records
Waveform Alphabet Music | Waveform Alphabet (bandcamp.com)
Some artists on small labels
Archie The Goldfish
Asimov Soul Orchestra
And nearly every jazz artist, as drummer Mark Holub said, "aren't pretty much all jazzers on small labels?"