Dave Liebman: A New York Story
With Liebman involved in so much recordingacross a broad section of labels ranging from the majors to the independents, in countries from Germany and France to England and the United Stateshe has somehow managed to be a survivor in a time when many artists are facing clear difficulty getting their music out, let alone heard. At a time when the CD is often little more than a business card, how to survive a landscape where DIY studios make it possible for hundreds of new jazz releases every month, and where the near-complete desertion of major labels means zero recording and promotional budgets? "I always say, in our businessand maybe arts in generalIf you are cool, if you have any kind of foothold, you'll grow in stature. We get better, number one; and number two, we get more status as survivors, and we're not getting downsized like everybody else," Liebman says, laughing.
"Because I'm so eclectic and I'm aggressive, I can find some way to put out a record, and that's to my advantage," Liebman explains. "I once had this discussion with Chick Corea, years ago, that if I was beholden to a label, yes, there'd be the great advantagesif, of course, it was a viable labela Blue Note, something like that. You get promotion that you won't get any other way. But if I was tied to a label, I wouldn't artistically be able to do the variety of things I'm doing; there's no way a contract would stand for me to be putting out three records at the same time, although we have very little control because some of these records are five years old when they're released, some are ten years old, and some come out within three months. You have no control over the business anymore. You used to attempt to have some control, and in some cases you could say, 'Please don't put out a competitive record within three months; it doesn't do anybody any good.' You would say that to another label and they might abide by that, but these days, it's such a hit-and-miss thing, so it looks like I have a lot coming out. But it's an advantage and disadvantage: an advantage because I can artistically do what I want, but a disadvantage because, of course, with most of these labels, I'm lucky if they sell a couple hundred copies."
Industry doom-and-gloom reports of the demise of the CDor any hard mediaseem premature, if for no reasons other than the burgeoning revival of interest in vinyl, and that most people who want to take music home after attending a show are not enthusiastic about slapping 20 dollars down at a merchandise table, only to walk away with a card that's a download key; they want something tangible in their hands. Many artists are selling more music from the stage than any other place, but it's still not always enough. "There's a definite advantage," Liebman says, "but, of course, that means you have to have a show, and that's another aspect of the business. I always say there's a lot of smoke and no fireit appears that people are busy, and in certain ways they are busy. But it's highly competitive, because every young kid on the block is willing to play for half of what you make.
"So, let's say the opportunity exists," Liebman continues. "It's not like you go out on the street and sell your CD. You have to have a gig, and to make it viable, to sell a couple hundred, you have to have a thousand people there to sell ten percent ... or five percent. It's a little bit of a catch-22 in that there's the image that we're getting a lot done, that we're selling a lot of records off the stage, but most guys are only selling a couple dozen or, at most, maybe one or two hundred. We're not talking about three, four, five thousand, like it used to be. That's the problem, and that's why. I don't know who can stay in business, as far as record companies go, because there's no way for them to make money. We self-produce, that's what we do; the young guys self-produce on Facebook, and maybe they hit a vein and sell a couple hundred, but it is not good at this point.
"You have to combine all things now," Liebman explains. "At the Manhattan School of Music [where Liebman currently teaches], we make a big deal about a three-part attack for the masters students: they have to know how to teach, and we teach them how to teach; they have to write everything from orchestra to solo piano; and they have to perform, of course. We figure the 21st Century musician has to be equipped in all three ways. Longevity is the only way to win, and I tell my students, 'If you're consistent, and every day is a new day, and you play your ass off, you will get something in 20 or 30 years, but you really do have to stay in line that long."
And, of course, without the promotional support of record labels, most musicians also have to become businessmen and self-promoters with web- and social-networking savvy. Musicians who want to do nothing but focus on the music will, without the support of others, find it very hard to make a living. "There's a certain amount of that," is Liebman's response, "but again it's hit-or-miss, and only one out of a hundred will get the recognition. For every Vijay Iyer, there's 30 cats who may play better than him, probably, but they're never gonna get past first base. They're not gonna have a promotion machine to help them, so as much as they can do, great, and let's see what happens, but it really is a jungle out there. The biggest thingbesides the way the business has changed, and aside from the cultural and economic changesis that we have so many guys coming out of school who play good, or good enough. Supply and demand is way out of kilterit's never been so bad. It's always been bad in arts, but it's even worse in classical music, dance ... everywhere."
The dearth/death of the club scene has also contributed to the challenge of more and more graduating musicians who are technically proficient but have few places to actually evolve a voice. "My daughter's going to Emerson College in Boston," says Liebman, "so she's connected up with all the Berklee folks; they have a little club where they do jam sessions on Saturday night, and couple guys have a gig and they play from six until eight, then they bring in a singer after that, because it's a bar. New York has Smalls and Fat Cat and 55 Bar. Every city with a couple schools has some outlet for the kids to playthose that can play and those that are aggressive enoughbut it's a drop in the bucket for them to be able to develop their sound."
And the days where a touring group could set up in a club and spend five or six nights often two or three sets per nightgetting both tight and loose are long gone; most musicians spend far more time getting to each gig than they actually spend at it. "FedEx just came with my itinerary for next week [in Europe], and that's exactly what we're doing," Liebman says. "We're on twoif not threetrains each and every day, for twelve days; we are leaving at six in the morning, most of the time, and we're getting there at four in the afternoon. We're going from Vienna to Köln, and we are playing our one or two sets, maybe, in a club. I have the train tickets right in front of me, and no planeall trains for 12 days, and, of course, nobody's gonna complain, because we're just so glad to play."