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Astral Spirits: Lifting the Spirit of Jazz

Jakob Baekgaard By

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AAJ: What's the story behind the name of the label? Do you consider yourself a spiritual jazz label?

AS: I named the label after one of my favorite songs by Joe McPhee! "Astral Spirits" first appeared on his Trinity album, but there are also plenty of later versions on Oleo and more. I liked the "astral" or otherworldly connotations without really being overtly a spiritual jazz label.

AAJ: How would you describe the sound and aesthetic of the label then?

AS: In the past I've used the tagline "The New Wave of Heavy Free Jazz" and I still think that works as a general aesthetic description. I also just like to simply think that the label is for folks who are curious for new and exciting sounds. I think there are plenty of releases on Astral that would be considered "heavy" or even "free jazz" and I like that. I think it's good to try new things, keep shifting things up and not get too comfortable. I'm even working on some releases in 2020 for folks that would probably hate to be considered "jazz," ha!

AAJ: How do you find your artists? What kind of artists are you looking for?

AS: This is kind of hard to answer. I get a lot of submissions from artists I know and that is really exciting to get to work with folks that I admire and love. I also love getting submissions from artists I don't know because it's always fun to find new artists. Again, in the same aesthetic description sense, I'd like to think that I'm looking for "curious" artists, or artists that are trying to do new or interesting out of the ordinary things. I want to release albums that are both challenging musically and to sell. Albums that make people do a double-take or wonder what they are listening to rather than something that just follows along a particular genre specific path.

I read a great interview recently between Bill Nace and Bill MacKay and they talk about the differences in buying records. Back in the day when you'd just see a record in a store (or even in a magazine pre-internet), you'd wonder what it sounded like based on the art, or band name or people involved. You'd have to ask the record store clerk or your friends for more info, or be curious to find out more. Compared to current times when each new release comes with a five paragraph description about why it's "essential" or a "modern classic" and you can immediately listen to samples etc. We're just overwhelmed with information up front now that it sorta takes away our ability to be curious or make our own judgements about records.

I don't mean this in a "back in my day, things were better" way, rather I think there are things we can do to try and slow down and remember why we want to buy that record or listen to the music in the first place. When writing press releases, I try my best to keep it succinct and with as little hyperbole as possible, but I still catch myself falling into that trap.

AAJ: Could you talk about some of the key artists and albums that have been important in terms of shaping the development of the label?

AS: Meeting and working with Quin Kirchner has been a pretty important step in terms of shaping some of the label. We've worked with him on each and every Spacetone Recordings album (his label) and I think we've created a nice space to highlight a lot of Chicago jazz: his first solo album The Other Side of Time, Nick Mazzarella Trio Counterbalance, the upcoming KVL Volume 1 release next month and even the Dustin Laurenzi Snaketime: Music of Moondog album that he played on.

I think the other obvious one would be Rob Mazurek. I've released 5 albums with Rob over the past few years and even been able to help him with his Desert Encrypts Festival in Marfa, TX as well. Rob has had an incredible influence on the label not only through his music but through his recommendations (he's the one that got me in touch with Matthew Lux about releasing his Contra/Fact album!) and his amazing and brilliant spirit.

Some important artists that I think are worth following in the future on Astral Spirits AND many other labels include: Claire Rousay, Charles Rumback, Luke Stewart, Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl, Brandon Seabrook and much more.

AAJ: You are based in Austin, Texas. Could you tell about the environment for jazz and experimental music in the city. Are there any scenes you feel part of or a special vibe?

AS: As far as scenes go in Austin, the jazz/experimental scene is on the smaller side of "scenes" so most folks know each other and tend to be incredibly supportive. There is also a bigger focus on crossover, or less focus on a particular "genre." Similarly, although the audience might not be gigantic, they are very open to new sounds and music. The "Keep Austin Weird" slogan is a terrible cliche now, but I think there is some truth to it...Austin has always felt very open and supportive to more creative music. Sure things are changing as the city grows, but with that growth has also brought more folks interested in challenging and creative music.

AAJ: Which jazz venues would you recommend in Austin? Are there any places where artists from your label often play?

AS: I wouldn't necessarily recommend a particular venue in Austin, there are a few jazz clubs, but they tend to be a bit too safe/straight ahead for my personal tastes. Luckily there are a lot of really great organizers and performance series' that take place in Austin throughout the year including (but certainly not limited to):

Epistrophy Arts (run by Pedro Moreno for 20+ years, the godfather of jazz in Austin), No Idea Festival (run by Chris Cogburn, again been going on for 16+ years), Me-Mer-Mo Mondays at the Volstead (run by Melissa Seely. This might be one of the most important of them all because it is every single Monday and gives space to performers outside of the more traditional venues. I love bringing Astral Spirits artists to town to play Me-Mer-Mo, always great), Antumbrae Intermedia (run by Tara Bhattacharya Reed), Liminal Sound Series (run by Bob Hoffnar), Sonic Transmissions (run by Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten, now in it's 4th year. Full disclosure I have helped co-curate and run Sonic Transmissions with Ingebrigt for the last 2 years), Monks Jazz Club (run by a great local pianist Collin Shook, not actually a club but a series that takes place at various venues. Again, this is a great series that showcases some touring acts as well as a lot of local talent. Not fully "way out" but definitely more forward thinking)

AAJ: What is your take on the use of digital technology? You both release physical and digital editions. What are your thoughts about the difference between releasing music digitally and physically? What are the pros and cons of both approaches?

AS: I would say that I primarily release physical editions (I've released over 100 different physical products in the past 5 years), they just tend to be in limited quantities. I do also release everything digitally as well, including our digital only offshoot label Astral Editions. People always say "digital is the future," which I think is probably mostly true. I don't think that physical media will die out entirely, but we're seeing a time where artists that used to sell 5,000-10,000 copies of an album are now selling 500-1,000.

I think embracing digital technology in terms of distributing music and getting it out into the world is pretty important. There are definitely some distinctions I make because digital technology covers a lot of ground these days. I make everything available to purchase digitally via iTunes, Bandcamp, Boomkat, Amazon, etc because at least this way people are still purchasing an album. I can't ignore an entire potential revenue stream just because some people don't like digital, especially when sales of physical products are just down so much from 10-20 years ago.

AAJ: Could you tell about some of your most special physical products? I know you released a VHS-tape by Matthew Lux one time.

AS: Joe McPhee's Zurich (1979) LP is definitely the most "special" release I've done. Just having the honor of releasing something by Mr. McPhee, especially since the label is named after one of his songs AND especially because it was a beautiful archival release that hadn't seen the light of day.

We did a limited run of 250 LP's, but I had my friends at Bearded Lady Screenprinting hand screen print all of the LP covers (which was a beautiful collage by Mason McFee, no relation), then I had stamps made and hand stamped the back of every single jacket and every single LP and finally hand numbered each one. We also had the amazing local artist/musician Tim Kerr paint a portrait of Joe McPhee (from a photo that Joe sent me from around the same time as the recordings) that we turned into a poster that was included in the release. It was a really time consuming process, but also really special and fun. I'm not sure I could do that for every release BUT I am hoping to do some more of these one-off "art edition" LP's in the future.

AAJ: These days, the opinions about streaming services seem to differ a lot. As I understand it, you're not on any streaming services currently. What is your take on this issue?

AS: I do not (for the most part) do streaming via Spotify and other streaming services (unless the artist specifically requests it) because I don't find them to be very friendly to artists or small labels. The revenue stream is more of a revenue drip. Streaming is set up to favor the bigger companies and bigger artists, and the main argument for smaller labels to join streaming is the same tired "you'll get exposure" argument. The whole system seems to be evaluated and categorized by how many plays, likes, etc you get rather than celebrate new music.

And as a small aside, the reason I love Bandcamp so much is that they do a really amazing job with their writing on music etc to really focus on new and interesting music that doesn't get as much exposure in other outlets.

It's true that more people use streaming these days than ever (another symptom of falling physical sales) and likely one day I'll jump on board, I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face. BUT I just don't think it benefits Astral Spirits in any meaningful way at this point in time, so I don't participate. I'd like to find a way that it might actually make sense or feel right, I just haven't found what I'm looking for yet.

AAJ: If you think about the development of the music business in general, how would you characterize the changes that you have been through? What kind of adjustments have you made and what do you do to survive as an independent label?

AS: I think right now is a particularly challenging time for labels and the music business in general. In the same breath challenging times always end up bringing new solutions and ideas.

One example I think about often is that we're seeing this intense decline in physical purchases of music in conjunction with an oversaturation of the market with physical products. The perfect example of this is reissue labels. I love a good reissue label, Numero Group, Light in the Attic, Awesome Tapes from Africa, etc release amazing and tasteful records, but like any trend people start piling on. And now we have reissue labels that are putting out a repressed 180 gram double LP of the Home Alone soundtrack and selling it for $40...does anyone actually need that?!

And in flooding the market with these "one of a kind reissues" or also all these limited edition record store day exclusives at exorbitant prices kinda cheapens other music out there. Because now my LP's that I price at $16-$20 look like they're cheap and "maybe something's wrong with them because why wouldn't they be priced like everyone else?" Sometimes it feels like labels are pitted unnecessarily against each other to capture this pretty niche market.

As far as adjustments, I have had to raise my prices a bit just to keep up with the curve, but I'm still trying to keep things reasonable. And honestly the biggest thing I try to do is be supportive of other labels that are in the same sorta world as Astral Spirits. I think it's worth working on creating a community and working together, in the end the music is really the only thing that matters. Hopefully we can all use our positions as successful labels to support and spread the music itself!

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