Abstract Logix's Souvik Dutta: From Living Room to Center of the Universe
Ok, so it's really a marketing ploy after all. However, to the pilgrims descending on North Carolina for those two days in November for Abstract Logix's New Universe Music Festivalwhere they will see John McLaughlin & the Fourth Dimension, and bands led by Lenny White, Jimmy Herring, Wayne Krantz, Ranjit Barot, Scott Kinsey and Alex Machacekthe center of the musical universe couldn't possibly be anywhere else. In just a few short years, this small, independent record company run by Souvik Dutta has built up an impressive roster of musicians which would be the envy of much larger, greedier companies. The story of Abstract Logix is an inspiring one, and an example to others in the music business that the rewards are there for those who put the music and the musician before anything else. When music drives the business, as opposed to the other way around, everyone's a winner.
It all started one daywhen the planets alignedwith a jam session in a living room.
Souvik Dutta was born in India but came to the United States at the age of 18, in 1991, to round off his education, which he duly did by graduating with a degree in computer science. Dutta had played in a high school band, listened to all genres of music and went to gigs with his friends whenever he could; he was a bona fide music nut. Dutta takes up the story: "What happened was, in '02 I had a little house concert with Shawn Lane, Jonas Hellborg and Jeff Sipe. It was just a little house concert and we somehow made the concert available on the internet so people could see it live. We had to come up with a website to post the link, and that's really how Abstract Logix started. Back then, I had no interest in any kind of business or label or anything like that whatsoever. It was just fun."
Just fun, perhaps, but the seeds had been planted and would take deep root. Of course, Dutta had no idea where it was all leading, but nevertheless, whenever bands came through the area he would write a little news blog and place an article or maybe a video to spread the word. Things continued this way for a while until 2003, when Dutta went knocking on a door. The door was that of master tabla player Zakir Hussain, who was about to tour the States with John McLaughlin and Remember Shakti. Dutta asked if they had anyone to sell their merchandise on the road, and if not, well, he knew someone who'd be more than happy to do so.
Hussain's office put Dutta in touch with McLaughlin's people, and they said that the gig was his. With a month's vacation from work, Dutta and a friend traveled around the country, selling merchandising for Remember Shakti and having a whale of a time in the bargain: "It was fun," recalls Dutta. "We got to see music we loved and we got to meet John and everybody else. John was really happy. With the little bit of money I made from the tour, I just put it back into the website and I built a little bit bigger version."
By now Abstract Logix was starting to sell a few items on the internet; from five CDs it grew to 50, and from 50 to 100. The big breakthrough, the point of no return, came the following year, when Dutta got a call out of the blue. It was John McLaughlin, asking Dutta if Abstract Logix would be interested in selling his promotional DVD This is the Way I Do It (Mediastarz, 2004). "I didn't really believe it was him," says Dutta. "I thought somebody was playing a joke on me. I even hung up the phone the first time because I thought someone was pulling my leg." McLaughlin was serious though. Tired of large company hoops and shenanigans, he was looking for a way to release his music independently. Dutta didn't need to think for too long: "I said sure. It was one of my idols asking me to do it, and it was not a lot of work. It was a very popular item, and the profit that I made from selling the stuff for John, I reinvested again in the website and made it a little big bigger and a little bit nicer."
Although the beginnings of Abstract Logix evolved in a quite natural, organic way, Dutta admits that he still had no goal in his mind as to where he wanted to take the company: "I was just one little shop on the internet, selling some stuff by other people." Nevertheless, the company was slowly growing, and by now Abstract Logix had gone from selling a handful of CDs to selling them in their hundreds. Then along came another unexpected turn in the story: "What happened was that Jeff Sipewho's a very close friend of mineand Jimmy Herring, told me they had done this sort of avant- garde project, called Project Z: Lincoln Memorial (Abstract Logix, 2005), which they wanted to sell on my site. By that timeand it was something which I wasn't really aware ofpeople had got to know of us, this little shop on the internet that sells stuff for John McLaughlin and some other people. I had built a relationship with City Hall distributor in the United States, and the next time I saw Jeff I said maybe I could distribute it around the country. So I bought the record for a very small amount of money, and that was the first record that I distributed as a label in the country. "
That first record on Abstract Logix's label was the foot in the door, though as Dutta recalls with some amusement, he had no idea of what lay on the other side of the door: "I had no experience of record distribution. I didn't know what I was doing."
Something that Dutta has always had, however, is an ear for good music and an unerring judgment. The first time Dutta met Shawn Lane at the party in his house, which was the site of conception and accidental birthplace of Abstract Logix, Lane turned him on to a young guitarist who had particularly impressed him when Lane was performing in Vienna. Lane's enthusiasm for guitarist Alex Machacek was such that Dutta did indeed check him out, though with no idea at the time of turning a profit: "It was in no sort of a business sense," Souvik says, "because Abstract Logix didn't exist." However, as soon as he was able to listen to Machacek's music, he understood Lane's excitement: "The first time I heard Alex, I knew this guy was specialthere was no doubt."
Machacek would send copies of his CD Featuring Ourselves (Next Generation Enterprises, 1999) from Austria, and Dutta would sell it. The relationship grew and has continued to grow and bear fruit to this day: "He was writing a new record called [sic] (Abstract Logix, 2006) and he had just moved to the United States," relates Dutta. "Nobody knew who he was and no record company had any interest in releasing his music." Abstract Logix put out [sic] to great reviews in the music press, announcing the arrival of a major new voice on electric guitar. Machacek has since released a number of critically acclaimed CDs on Abstract Logix, including the extraordinary 24 Tales (Abstract Logix, 2010), an ambitious, recomposed work based around a 51-minute drum solo by Marco Minneman. The range and depth of the musicrecomposed and improvisedattests to Machacek's status as one of the most innovative and daring composers/musicians on the jazz/fusion scene. Not for nothing did John McLaughlin say of the guitarist: "Alex Machacek's music starts where other music ends."
People were gradually getting to know Abstract Logix, largely through the label's distribution of John McLaughlin's DVD, though another tour selling merchandise for Remember Shaktithis time through Asia enabled Dutta to spread the name of the label still further. "I worked very hard to make Abstract Logix known to people who like this kind of music," explains Souvik. "I would take out little ads and make postcards and give them to people at the McLaughlin concerts, and that's how I spread the word about the company." In addition, Abstract Logix built up a relationship with distribution companies in Japan as well as Europe, and the music began to gain a wider audience. Today, around 60 percent of Abstract Logix's business is outside the United States.
Musicians too, began to see Abstract Logix as a good company to represent their best interests, as Dutta explains: "Things started to happen, man; I got a phone call from Scott Kinsey, and people started to approach me who maybe didn't have a large record company to release their stuff, and I just started to do it one by one."
Former Tribal Tech and Joe Zawinul Syndicate keyboardist Kinsey found exactly the type of support and appreciation of his music at Abstract Logix that is rare to find in larger record companies. Having waited years to make a solo album, Kinsey was somewhat surprised with the speed of Dutta's response once he had heard the music, as he explains in this excerpt from a 2006 interview with All About Jazz: "Within a day he [Dutta] had a release date for me. He had the distributor saying that he had some art work started. He had all this stuff happening. Everything moved extremely fast and that was the main thing I was looking for. I wanted things to happen ASAP because I had waited way too long. For years, people have been asking me about it on tours and I kept saying, 'I don't know.' I was sick of that. Souvik just made it happen."
"The situation was very good from the start," continues Kinsey, "because he didn't want to buy the record like every other label on the planet who will give you a certain amount of money to own the master. He never wanted to go there. He realizes that this is your music, you've worked hard on it and you should own it. I just like the guy, the organization. Even though they're small, they care. They're interested and they put the time and effort in. I'm very happy with that."
Kinsey put the word out to his old Tribal Tech buddy, bassist Gary Willis, who contacted Dutta with the result that his own CD Actual Fiction (Abstract Logix, 2008) was released on the label, preceded not long before by Slaughterhouse 3 (Abstract Logix, 2007), an exhilarating collaboration between Willis, drummer Kirk Covington and Spanish saxophonist Llibert Fortuny Electric
Kinsey is hardly alone in his praise for the way Abstract Logix is run, and indeed, all the artists on the label's roster speak glowingly of the way they are treated. For Dutta, the philosophy of the label is a simple one: "The love of the music and the fairness of the business collaboration are the two fundamentals," he states firmly. "I was aware that the relationship between an artist and a record label was not usually great due to the unfairness of the business. I didn't have much of a financial motivation in creating Abstract Logix. I wanted to make sure that a major portion of all the profits went to the artist that made the music, because there wouldn't be any point in me even existing if I was doing it the way the rest of the world was."
"Firstly, I have to like the music, because I am the only one who makes the decisions. If I don't like the music, I just don't put the record out. Secondly, the way I approach the business is as a partnership between us and the artist. It is always a collaboration, because there is no point putting records out if the artist doesn't feel good about it. I don't want any artist to work with me if they feel they are not getting a fair deal. It has to be a very fair collaboration. Then we work as hard as possible to get the word out on the music. "
Dutta has a dedicated team of people around him, all of whom share the same philosophy, and first and foremost comes Dutta's wife Shweta: "She's my right arm in this whole operation ," says Dutta. "She handles a lot of the logistics and the financial side." The day-to-day operations are run by John Angelo, the current Director of Operations who Dutta describes as "a big part of our success." Then there is Troy Cole, who's going to be launching Abstract Logix's new digital initiative in partnership with DIY Media. This means that the website will offer its own version of digital downloads, though like pretty much everything else at Abstract Logix, this too will be something out of the norm, as Dutta explains: "Musicians will be able to price their songs or albums themselves, control it based on the various geographies, and be able to see sales and activity instantly. We are going to be able to provide total transparency."
For those who would prematurely mourn the passing of the CD, Dutta has some comforting words: "As long as people still want to buy hard copy, we want to have hard copy."
Abstract Logix prepares tours for its artists as well, and the heavy logistics of this side of operations are handled in the main by Richard Groves. The touring is one part of what Dutta refers to as "a 360": making the record, promoting the record, distributing the record, arranging the tours, managing the tours and the artistin other words, the whole caboodle. This year, Abstract Logix took Wayne Krantz on a big tour of Japan, Korea and India. "This is one of the benefits of becoming an Abstract Logix artist," explains Souvik, "because we have the collaboration and the infrastructure to work in all those parts of the world. And they are releasing their records in these territories, which is an incentive to have our artists play there. This is something we're going to continue to grow because playing live is a very important part of the game now."
Attention to detail is another hallmark of the Abstract Logix way of doing business, and this can be seen in the professional, attractive artwork on the CD packaging. The Creative Head of Abstract Logix is Amol Tikam, though Dutta is very quick to highlight the important contributions of CD cover designer Arjun Mitraresponsible for the covers of John McLaughlin's Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2006), the Alex Machacek/Jeff Sipe/Matthew Garrison CD Improvision (Abstract Logix, 2007), and Machacek's 24 Tales (Abstract Logix, 2010). Then there is Robert Cairns, who oversees the physical infrastructure of the office as well as customer relations; Dutta describes him as "one of the most important people in the growth of Abstract Logix."
It's evidently a team effort, and as in the best teams, each person's role is seen as vital to the overall success of operations, something which Dutta is at pains to express: "Everybody that works or contributes to us is 100 percent about the music. We don't have anybody on board who we just hired off the street as a paid employee; this is not about that. All these people are an intrinsic part of our success. The logo, the covers, the advertising every bit of it is so important. "
If Abstract Logix's artist roster is expanding, so too is its role as a distributor, though once again in its own inimitable style, and one at odds with traditional distribution methods: "We make it clear and transparent," affirms Dutta. "We have a roster of our own label artistswho play whatever you want to call this style of music, instrumental, progressive, improvised musicwho need a platform to get their music known. They may have their own websites and they sell through other websites, but with the platform we havea very niche platformthey have become a very important part of our success.
"Anybody who sells music with us gets to keep 75 percent of the retail price. We have created a business-to-business interfaceand we have to thank our programmers at King Webmaster herewhere people from anywhere in the world can upload their CD, they can price it themselves, insert their own description, everything themselves, and with one click of a button we turn it out for sale. Twenty-four hours a day, the artist can log into a certain part of the website and see who bought the music and how much they've paid for it. And on the first day of the month, everybody gets paid."
Transparency? Artist control? Everybody paid on time? 75 percent of retail for the artist? This is a record company we're talking about, right?
Like any business, it is necessary to strengthen and expand horizons in order to grow and compete in an ever more competitive market, and Dutta's talent-spotting antenna is permanently switched on: "I'm always listening to new stuff," he says. "I've just been introduced by Scott Kinsey to a guitarist called Chris Taylorhe's somebody I've never heard of, but he is a fantastic guitarist. He has a unique, minimalist way of playing guitar. I haven't heard another guitarist like Chris Taylor; he's another fresh, new sound in my ears. "
Artists working with Abstract Logix get a platform to connect not only with the fans but with other musicians as well, as Dutta points out: "I'll give you an example; we have a new record coming out November 16, an amazing record by the drummer Ranjit Barot. It's a spectacular album featuring lots of Indian musicians like Zakir Hussain and U. Srinivas, and western musicians like John McLaughlin, Tim Garland, Tim Garland's Underground Orchestra, Wayne Krantz and Matthew Garrison Ranjit was cruising on our website one day and he was listening to different CDs, and he heard this French guitarist called Marc Guillermont, and Ranjit loved the music, connected with him and now the guy is playing on his record."
"Another mouth-watering project soon to hit Abstract Logix's shelves is Gary Husband's Dirty and Beautiful, featuring Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin, Jerry Goodman, Jimmy Johnson, Steve Topping, Steve Hackett and Robin Trower. As Dutta recognizes: "We have a lot of things in our bag now. I have opened a can of worms, and I'm very addicted to these worms because I'm addicted to music. I'm addicted to good music. Now I have established Abstract Logix and have the infrastructure in place to produce and distribute music. This is what I want to do in my life, although I feel it's the right moment to take a step ahead and try to do new things."
One of these new endeavors to promote good music will see a bunch of the label's artists taking part in the New Universe Music Festival in November, something which has long been an ambition of Dutta: "It's always been in our minds to do a festival of this kind of music, though we really didn't start to plan it until spring '10. We were on the road with John McLaughlin starting November; he was coming to the States and I said, 'Why don't we have our party with John?' We wanted to have one night of John McLaughlin here, where we live. Then we said, 'Hey, Jimmy Herring's also going to be on the road, why don't we have an evening of John and Jimmy together?' Then it was one of those things where I was having a drink one evening and I thought to myself, 'Hey, why not have another night and invite some more of our guys?' So, I called up Jimmy, I called up Alex, I called up Wayne and I called up Lenny White, and every one of them said, 'Let's freakin' do it.'
It's everybody we love, everybody we know and all the musicians know each other, somehow. It's going to be like one big party, and, listen to this, the musicians are more excited about it than I am. It's two nights of total music, a total celebration. It's friends of ours, it's customers of ours. We have customers coming from Australia, from South Africa, from Japan and from Europefrom everywhere in the world. This is a great way for them to connect with the musicians, and everybody is staying in the same hotel, so it's like an extended family. We took this opportunity to recognize John McLaughlin's contribution to music in general. He was also important to our successhe was one of our first guys."
The New Universe Music Festival is something of a community effort; Robert Godin's Godin Guitars the festival's chief sponsorMichael Tiemann, Vice President of Open Source Affairs and Red Hat, and David Robb's DIY Music are all providing significant corporate support. As with everything in Abstract Logix, it's a family affair, as Dutta describes: "These are all friends of ours in very high positions who all happen to be music fanatics. Michael Tiemann is a big fan of John McLaughlin, and he said: 'Hey, we will come behind you guys and try to do our part to help make this festival happen and we want it to be an annual affair.'"
That is very good news for the good folks of North Carolina. It's also good news for Abstract Logix's customers around the globe who account for over half of Abstract Logix's business, as the resulting DVD of the festival is sure to find its way to Korea, South Africa, Japan, Australia, Europe and elsewhere.
"You know, it's all about synergy," explains Dutta, "something that started off in a living room, to now, where it's being partly backed by socially conscious, responsible corporations. It's all in the family."
Gary Husband, Dirty and Beautiful, Volume One (Abstract Logix, 2010)
Ranjit Barot, Bada Boom (Abstract Logix, 2010)
Lenny White, Anomaly (Abstract Logix, 2010)
John McLaughlin/The 4th Dimension, To The One (Abstract Logix, 2010)
Anthony Jackson/Yiorgos Fakanas, Interspirit (Abstract Logix, 2010)
Alex Machacek/Marco Minneman, 24 Tales (Abstract Logix, 2010)
John McLaughlin/The 4th Dimension, Live in Belgrade DVD (Abstract Logix, 2009)
Jimmy Herring, Lifeboat (Abstract Logix, 2009)
Gary Husband's Drive, Hotwired (Abstract Logix, 2009))
Wayne Krantz, Keith Carlock, Tim Lefebvre, Krantz, Carlock, Lefebvre (Abstract Logix, 2009)
Sebastiaan Cornelissen, U-Turn (Abstract Logix, 2009)
John McLaughlin, Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008)
Tony Grey, Chasing Shadows (Abstract Logix, 2008)
Gary Willis, Actual Fiction (Abstract Logix, 2008)
Paul Hanson, Frolic in the Land of Plenty (Abstract Logix, 2008)
Gary Willis/Llibert Fortuny/Kirk Covington, Slaughterhouse 3 (Abstract Logix, 2007)
Alex Machacek/Jeff Sipe/Matthew Garrison, Improvision (Abstract Logix, 2007)
Scott Kinsey, Kinesthetics (Abstract Logix, 2006)
Jeff Babko/Jeff Coffin/Vinnie Colaiuta, Mondo Trio (Abstract Logix, 2007)
Scott Kinsey, Kinesthetics (Abstract Logix, 2006)
Alex Machacek, [sic] (Abstract Logix, 2006)
Project Z, Lincoln Memorial (Abstract Logix, 2005)
Courtesy of Souvik Dutta, Abstract Logix Records