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Off the record

With sales flat, the jazz industry has lost its groove

By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 8/4/2002

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.

Americans spend $13 billion a year on compact discs, but jazz CDs account for less than 3 percent 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 that, 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 $1 million per album. Even taking inflation into account, nobody paid Coltrane that kind of money, one executive said.)

Looking for stars

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 per 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 1 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."

The small-label squeeze

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 360 days 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 favor of news and talk.

"Guys who make jazz records are asking themselves, `Who are we making records for?"' says Gary Giddins, longtime 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 work. "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 International.

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."'

This story ran on page L1 of the Boston Globe on 8/4/2002.
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