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The Growing Influence of the Indie Jazz Label

By Published: February 29, 2004
Independent labels have dotted the jazz landscape for decades. Inevitably, they act as auxiliary veins to relieve creative blockages in the mainstream. Often they're run at a loss or breakeven by fanatical collectors, and more recently, by musicians themselves. Bob Weinstock's Prestige label offered Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane the chance to document their strange, new approaches to music and their instruments. Norman Granz' Verve, Orrin Keepnews' Riverside, Alfred Lion's Blue Note, Herman Lubinsky's Savoy, Gustav Wildi's Bethlehem, Richard Bock's Pacific Jazz, and Dial are a few of the indies that helped a generation of musicians get their message out despite discouraging words from more established businesses.

By the early '60s many of the bop labels had become a new mainstream that necessitated the founding of a fresh crop of indies. In the '50s, Sun Ra anticipated the trend and began pressing his own Saturn Records and selling them at shows. As the ranks of free jazz players began to swell, labels began to appear that supported the "new thing" as well as they could with meager budgets and unstable distribution. ESP, Contemporary, BYG, Freedom, Delmark, among others, began the thankless task of recording innovators. In Europe, a group of innovators - Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald, Alex von Schlippenbach - seized control of the means of production and formed FMP in 1966. Most of Gunter Hampel's recorded work remains on his own Birth Records. Aficionados of the music made finding the records a grail quest in tiny emporiums of esoterica. Revered by some as historical documents, now those recordings enjoy easier access than ever before as CDs via the internet.

Of jazz' oft reported 2% share of the record market, indies represent but a fraction. Yet small labels proliferate. AUM Fidelity, Thirsty Ear, Atavistic, CIMP, and Eremite number among the more influential newer labels. While recent technological advances have created the means to mass-produce recorded music less expensively, some observers foresee an inevitable flood of immature talent. Anyone with a Mac can record a CD and chatrooms buzz with concern over impending mediocrity by saturation. In Los Angeles, three indies of varying tenure have joined with several of the most crucial labels in improvised music to form, a site they hope will increase the exposure denied them in other marketing arenas.

For over a quarter century Vinny Golia's 9Winds has documented improvised music on the West Coast. "In 1977, there was little hope for an unknown white guy living on the West Coast to get a record out playing freer forms of music," he recalls. "So I decided to take the bull by the horns and do it myself. It wasn't that easy for the black players either - people like John Carter and James Newton had started their own labels too, so I was in good company and really felt this was the right thing to do." When Jeff Kaiser decided to take the plunge, he consulted with Golia who tried to discourage him. "Vinny's warning was right on," he said. "It is a ton of work and takes away from time spent on my own art. But it was something that I always wanted to do."

With Jeff Gauthier, the decision to found a label partially arose out of tragedy: "There were two converging forces that led to the formation of Cryptogramophone. The first was the death of a close friend and colleague, bassist and composer Eric Von Essen, a huge talent who lived and worked in L.A. He died at a tragically young age and his life's work was seriously undocumented, which led me to realize that life is extremely precious and fragile and that our lives' work could be gone in an instant. It also made me want to document some of Eric's work and also document the music community that was springing up here in L.A. I wanted to be able to do this without the restrictions or compromises that come with working with a major label or smaller labels that are run by someone else. At the same time, coming from the other direction was the fact that there were several projects I was working on as a musician that needed to be documented and needed a record label."

After the euphoric decision to act, unexpected problems arose. For Kaiser some of the frustration comes with mundane packaging details. He lists, "Folding our cardboard packages and tying those little hemp strings around them and dealing with printers and manufacturers, how hard is it to print exactly what I send them?" Despite the satisfaction of creating the document, the daunting question of how to get it into people's hands shatters some of the illusion of independence. "Not being able to get into stores and the public eye on a sustained basis," has challenged Golia, while Gauthier experienced the commodification of his creations. "My biggest frustration has been realizing that the traditional means of distribution in the record business is so unfriendly and corrupt," Gauthier reviewed. "Once the CDs go out of our door, they are perceived as commodities rather than as pieces of art, and this, I believe, accounts for people's behavior in the marketplace. I'm sure it's not any different if you are making and selling widgets. It just stings more when you realize that the suits making the decisions in the marketplace think about our pieces of art the same way that they do a widget."

Still, getting the project completed and exposed heals many of the bruises earned along the way. "It is extremely satisfying to put out other people's music and see it start getting radio play and reviews," says Kaiser. "I love putting out my own music, but there is a different and very high level of fulfillment that comes from helping others put out their art." Gauthier agrees, "I receive immense satisfaction when an artist tells me that I helped them realize their dream without compromise, or on occasion, that the finished project was beyond their expectations. It's also extremely satisfying to receive feedback from listeners who really understand and appreciate the music."

Because of its longevity, 9Winds' technological history mirrors the changing face of recording. "I never had a recording studio," admits Golia, "but Wayne Peet got into recording somewhere around the '80s and he has become a valuable person recording and mastering many of our current projects. They are done to the Mac hard disc. Before that it was tape and LPs. Alex Cline helped with some of the early LP covers and we had a good network of photographers and artists. When the computer programs like Photoshop came in, that really helped. And Jeff Atherton was monumental in helping us get our look together. Right now, David Rothbaum and Jeremy Drake have taken over this aspect as I got too busy to keep it up. They are whizs on the computer. So we've all followed the trend to modernize and I think it's helped our sound and visuals quite a bit. The new technology has lowered our pricing way down and we can compete, at least in the areas of sound and visuals with the big boys. We don't have their advertising dollars though, so many things like advertising stay very grassroots here at 9Winds."

Kaiser performs everything on one machine: "My Power Mac, it is used for recording and mastering audio, creating the art, managing the database, making the website, creating posters and ads: all in a very stylish way. It really is a nice looking machine." "Well, now we get to the question as to whether or not technology actually saves money," comments Gauthier. "We use a lot of technology around here, and some of it does save money, but I think you always have to pay for it somewhere along the line in time or quality. We live in a world now where it's quite easy to record, design, manufacture, and sell music CDs using one computer and a printer. It's also true that they won't sound, look or feel as good as if a professional using the best equipment had. So, even though we have the technology to do everything in-house, we choose not to, mostly for quality sake. We work with a Grammy nominated engineer named Rich Breen who has his hands on every project. Even though we could make our own jewel cases and CDs, we put them in very beautiful and expensive packaging so that when people buy one of our CDs, they know that they are getting quality at every turn. In a day when people can get music for free, we feel a need to give people something extra. That being said, we design most of our packages in-house and that saves some money."

All three have thoughts on technology opening a floodgate of inferior recordings. "I am afraid I have to agree," said Golia. "Everyone is in a rush to unleash their musical projections on the world. I was too. But the difference with the previous generation of players is this, when we were coming up you could only get enough cash to make one project and it had to be very, very good. Now, you can make 5 projects with the same cash and release them all at once. I really think that's the difference. Players are going for quantity and not the attention to detail that comes from the striving to perfect their art. I remember Alex and I would agonize over some of the early 9Winds covers about an 1/8th of an inch or type faces."

Both Kaiser and Gauthier disagree. "There has always been and will always be mediocrity," figures Kaiser. "Mass distribution brings us Britney Spears and all those crappy boy bands. So why worry about those that are bringing more? Big labels bring us millions of copies of one crappy artist, and some independents bring us one copy of a million crappy artists. Mediocrity is omnipresent. The beauty is that there are small independents that bring transcendent and glorious music to the public that would never be heard, if all we had were the big labels. I love that." "Well, this question begs us to consider the alternative, which is a world where there are only three major record labels," argues Gauthier. "Is this really a better world? We better think about this because it's the world we're currently living in. Certainly, there are a lot of small labels out there, some with more enthusiasm than good music. But, the opportunities that are opening up for small labels through technology and the internet make it possible for some real quality music to see the light of day, and one hopes that the audience that is looking for it can find it. We live in a world where there is so much background noise in every area of our lives. Why should the world of music be any different? It just means that small labels with quality music have to work just a little bit harder to get their stuff heard above the fray."

As Golia looked to the future with 9Winds, he said, "I would like to see it become more self-sustaining, of course. But right now, we've hit the 25-year mark and 9Winds is in a process of being reexamined by me because it's really a lot of work. So I have to think about the future of the label at this point. It's been an excellent tool for many of us to get music from the West Coast out to the public. But it doesn't function as a real record label would. It has other priorities (e.g., mainly getting the music out to the critics, promotion of gigs). Mostly, things to get your profile higher in the public eye. It does absolutely nothing in terms or record sales so that would be an area to change. Advertising would help, but having a higher profile in the public eye and being reviewed does that anyway, so we will see."

"I have to say that when it comes to trying to figure out what the future will be like, I find it more and more important to just live in the present," considers Gauthier. "We have our hands in every possible format from iTunes and Emusic to DVD, DVD-A 5.1 and the like. But the truth is nobody really knows what the future will bring and as long as there are a few people who want high quality music in beautiful packages, we'll try to find a way to give it to them."

With the creation of the website, Gauthier takes a step closer to that goal. Wild originality is the promise of independent music productions. They might house the innovators of unknown language and teach the next generation to sing.

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