Kitty Margolis and Life on the Road Less Traveled
Still, it is one thing for a singer with an established audience to set up shop and quite something else for two unknown singers to start their own label. 'At the time [in the 1980s], no one was doing this in our peer group at all,' recalls Margolis. 'Now everybody is doing it. It's fantastic.' Technological advancements have both reduced the cost and increased the availability of the tools necessary to manufacture CDs. The Internet now provides musicians with an alternative outlet to distribute their product. '[Madeline Eastman and I] both do a bit of consulting on the subject of independent labels. We learned everything sort of by trial and error. Now you can take classes on how to do it. It is much easier to get a CD out now. The hard part is still how do you get it into distribution and how do you sell it.'
Mad-Kat Records has managed to do both and in the process has helped establish Margolis as a jazz artist of national stature. 'Our albums keep selling and every time someone orders one, they order two of the others. And our albums don't go out of print, because we don't let them. That's another cool thing about having your own label.' No one is more surprised at the long-term viability of the Mad-Kat project than Kitty Margolis. 'I'm not a person with a five-year plan,' laughs the singer. 'That's not me. I'm a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of person. But it has ended up working out for me.'
Although she didn't plan her career this way, Margolis has difficulty imagining any other path. 'I am an independent artist. I would think that a lot of people would not enjoy the kind of work I have to do, but I'm happy to be working for myself. I could be doing this work for someone else and it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.' Although she has received offers to record for other labels, Margolis says, 'I wouldn't want to give up the control of my creative process for what I'd consider a lateral move.' That's not to suggest that she's making any serious effort to trade up either. 'I've had managers and A&R people call me up and say, 'I really want you to send me some stuff.' My husband just wants to kill me because I'll forget or I just won't do it, but he knows that if the right opportunity came along at the right time, I'd look at it. It would be silly not to remain open-minded about life's possibilities.'
Margolis genuinely doesn't view a major label contract as the brass ring of a career in music. 'There are people who get into the music business,' she notes, 'and they hook up with the right people and look at it as a business from the beginning. I'd be willing to bet that most of the artists I like didn't do that. They didn't go into the music business. They went into the music. I didn't go into the music business. I was really pissed when I realized I was in the music business. I didn't do this to be an artist either. I just wanted to sing and to play.'
Other than distribution and publicity, which admittedly are much more than inconsequential side benefits, it is difficult to see how a major label contract would enhance the product that comes out of Mad-Kat Records. As Margolis likes to say, 'There are cheaper ways to make albums than the way I make them.' In fact, only her debut record, 1989's Live at the Jazz Workshop, feels like an independent label production. Immaculately recorded and stylishly packaged, Margolis's studio albums always feature a formidable array of musicians. She is willing to pay to attract players like legendary saxophonist Joe Henderson and blues guitar virtuoso Joe Louis Walker (both of whom appeared on 1994's Evolution) or young lion trumpeter Roy Hargrove and blues great Charles Brown (who were featured on 1997's Straight Up With a Twist).
For Margolis, studio recording presents a creative challenge quite apart from the experience of singing for an audience. 'It's just like apples and oranges to me, performing and recording. It is much easier to perform than it is to record,' says the singer. Whereas live performance is an extroverted act, the recording process offers a self-aware artist the opportunity to look inward. 'When you hear yourself through earphones, through the cans, it's an intimacy with your own voice that you don't have when you're hearing yourself through monitors [on a stage].' Margolis welcomes that opportunity to explore her own sound. 'It is a way to learn about yourself on every level,' she says. It is also a way to achieve textures and nuances that could not necessarily be replicated on a stage.