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Fantasy Records: An Archive of Many Lifetimes

By Published: February 8, 2005

To be in the midst of the Fantasy archive is to fully comprehend the enormity of what Fantasy has assembled over the last three decades. Realizing the serious nature of the task, reissuing this music properly, and how the label has accomplished this, generates tremendous respect for their work.

During a recent trip to the Bay area, at the invitation of publicist extraordinaire Terri Hinte, I made my first visit to Fantasy Records, in Berkeley. For the last quarter century, I have been listening, intently, to Fantasy releases. As their website explains, the Fantasy story is "actually the story of a number of outstanding record labels which, over the last quarter century, have happened to find themselves under one roof."?

My first Fantasy releases, back in the 60s, were Lenny Bruce's recordings, which had a tremendous impact on my teenage years. I can still recite one of his classic routines, "The Palladium,"? which I memorized after playing it so many times I had to replace the LP.

The San Francisco based label also recorded "Beat"? poets, Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, and other Bay Area 50s "icons."? Saul Zaentz, who later built another career as a movie producer of Academy Award winning films, first worked as a salesman for Fantasy and in 1967, put together a group of investors to buy the label. The next year, Fantasy signed Creedence Clearwater Revival, who just happened to sell a hundred million records over the next few decades.

The success of CCR served as the catalyst for Fantasy's expansion. Under the direction of label president Ralph Kaffel, Fantasy started buying the catalogs of leading independents: Prestige (also including its subsidiaries New Jazz, Bluesville, Folklore, Swingville, Tru-Sound, and Moodsville); Riverside, ( along with Jazzland); and Milestone. Eventually Debut, Pablo, Contemporary, Stax and several others became part of the Fantasy family.

With this incredibly rich content, Fantasy began an unprecedented reissue campaign that brought the early music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and many others, back into the forefront. The program continues to this day, preserving these works of art in a way that both honors the creators and their music, and the listener, as well.

In the 70s, Fantasy established a two for one "twofers"? program with luscious 2-LP sets. In the 80s, they debuted the Original Jazz Classics series, where reissues included the original artwork and format. In 1980, they also released the first boxed set by a jazz artist, Miles Davis' Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings (1951-56).

The label's careful attention to royalties, remastering, art work, photos, liners notes and the inclusion of alternative takes and unreleased tracks became the standard by which all reissues have been judged ever since.

In addition to reissues, Fantasy recorded new music as well, including memorable Milestone albums by Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner. My tour of the building included a visit to several studios where both Fantasy artists and others still record. In fact, Carlos Santana had recently used one of the studios for some new music.

Interestingly, I came to San Francisco to hear McCoy Tyner at Yoshi's in a trio that featured Billy Cobham so I found it was quite a coincidence that during my tour, Terri Hinte, who has been at Fantasy since the Nixon administration, told me, "this is the studio where McCoy recorded 'Fly With The Wind' in 1976."? Billy Cobham was the drummer on that recording. And yet another studio was the birthplace of many favorite Sonny Rollins sessions.

Finally, we were in the archives, the vaults, a structurally sound, temperature-controlled room housing thousands of recordings, in varying formats. Stuart Kremsky, is the keeper of the keys to this kingdom, which includes many of the major musical achievements of the 20th century.

As Mr. Kremsky, a dedicated, knowledgeable writer/archivist gave me the 411 on the ins and outs of the archive, I was somewhat awe-stricken. It felt like I was in the Jazz Library of Congress. On one shelf, the masters for all of the Bill Evans Vanguard recordings. On the next, Miles' marathon Prestige sessions with Trane that originally produced six different Lps. In the next aisle, the complete 1957 Newport Jazz Festival and next to that, acetates from Jazz at the Philharmonic, live gigs from both the US and Europe. And it goes on and on and on. Mind boggling.

To be in the midst of that archive is to fully comprehend the enormity of what Fantasy has assembled over the last three decades. Realizing the serious nature of the task, reissuing this music properly, and how the label has accomplished this, generates tremendous respect for the folks at Fantasy. Thanks to Fantasy, other labels began to seriously explore their vaults and bring back some incredible music we would have never experienced. Boxed sets, a Fantasy innovation, have become essential, the cornerstone of any serious collection.

But now, all is in jeopardy. Fantasy has been purchased by Concord, and no one really knows what is going to happen to the Fantasy catalogue. Logic and common sense dictates that the Fantasy team should continue to do what they have proven to do best, make great CDs. The Fantasy team knows the music, and gives it the loving attention it so richly deserves.

But, cry the naysayers, Concord has paid tens of millions for the library and now that they own it, shouldn't they try and "utilize"? the music in varying configurations to properly "exploit"? their assets?

A few years ago, Joel Dorn bought the MUSE catalog. Joe Fields built quite collection of music himself, perhaps not of the same stature as the Fantasy catalog, but MUSE had many fine recordings from the 70s and 80s. Mr. Dorn, a man who started as a DJ in Philly, repurposed the catalogs, for the most part, as a series of "Best of"? recordings, and created mood oriented compilations like Jazz For a Rainy Day. These titles sold quite well. In fact, at one point, Dorn was the host of a cable television infomercial hawking Jazz For Lovers. A few years later the operation ran amok.

I can only hope, and pray, that Concord won't cannibalize the Fantasy archives. People who don't really know the music might do something like that. Not that I'm pointing fingers, but stranger things have happened. I mean, we're talking respect here: R...E...S...P...E...C...T. That's what our Jazz forefathers have earned. Very few of them got rich off their music. And most of them are no longer living, so we can't change that. But we can treat the music right, like Fantasy has done.

However, I must admit a certain skepticism. Not because I doubt the motives of the good folks at Concord. After all, Concord is a Jazz label. We're all on the same team here.

It's the money people who scare me. The bigger the company, the more likely the possibility the "investors"? and "stockholders"? will want dividends, ASAP. And those are the people who don't know the difference between Wayne Newton and Wayne Shorter. They only know profit margins.

I like profits too, but not when they involve exploitation. Record companies and artists can co-exist, and even help each other, this business doesn't have to be about exploitation. But in the past, there have been certain inequities, between record company and artist. You know the deal.

Part of the evolving music industry, the Jazz record business is also transforming. There used to be a whole slew of what were called major record labels, who had Jazz departments with "budgets."? With their marketing and distribution strength, the major labels yielded lots of power. That's over now. Blue Note is the only one left, Bruce Lundvall is the last record company president still standing. Warner Bros is gone, Columbia is gone, RCA is gone. The only thing that remains is their catalogues. Verve is, well, I'll get into that another time.

In the midst of this revolution in the way people explore and (hopefully) purchase music, there are certain "futurists"? who believe that the major players in tomorrow's music industry will be Apple, Sony and Starbucks. There will be millions of lemonade stand websites globally, but only three big companies.

One doesn't need a crystal ball to see that Apple and Starbucks are already coming into play. The success of the I-Pod and I-Tunes carves out a very big role for Apple's right now. They've got a platform and delivery system that's reaching a whole lot of people. Within a few months, I-Tunes will pass one hundred million sold and that's downloads, not burgers.

The I-Pod is about cool. When you own an I-Pod, it's a style statement. It may be cool and stylish now, but these things tend to change up, sometimes in a matter of months. The I-Pod will be around for a while, but not forever. New technology keeps changing. Remember the Beta-max and the mini-CD?

As for Starbucks, they have already made some serious inroads. When one goes into a Starbucks location, it's quite possible Jazz is being played, and sold. In fact, in a subtle way, Starbucks is the only major commercial entity "marketing"? Jazz. For Starbucks, Jazz is cool, part of the atmosphere of their outlets. They play the music, people hear it, like it, and then they buy the CDs right there, in Starbucks. With thousands of Starbucks worldwide, tens of thousands in a few years, that's significant. In a few months, Starbucks will be introducing kiosks where people download music directly to the device of their choice.

What if those kiosks were stocked with tracks from the Concord Music Group? What if comprehensive booklets telling the story of the artists were also available at those kiosks? That would honor the music, but also introduce it to a new audience. Very soon, in matter of a few years, we're going to reach a time when more people will get their music via some sort of digital delivery, than actual physical "product."

If I were charting the course for a major catalogue of music, that would be my main concern. With Concord, they've already got the mechanism in place to release the Fantasy catalogue on CDs, they've got Fantasy Records. They don't have to change anything. It works.

But what they should really consider is, how can Concord become the Fantasy of digital delivery? How can a major catalogue utilize digital distribution to market and distribute their music? Verve and Blue Note are already doing it on I-Tunes and Rhapsody. The Verve Vaults on I-Tunes releases music from the Verve catalogue digitally. They just take the music and put it on a server, avoiding manufacturing costs. That allows them to release music that may never appear on CD.

I have some other "predictions" but I'll save them for future entries. In the meantime, a well deserved toast to Fantasy Records, and their archives. May people be listening to this music for an eternity.

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