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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

AAJ Staff By

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Finally, the changing record business sales landscape has been felt by most musicians. It is all about the move from macro to micro: because of mp3 downloads and (illegal) peer-to-peer mp3 file sharing, the large record companies have ceased releasing and signing all but the biggest-volume sellers. This was already in train in the early '80s (because of the lack of adventure-ism among the younger record executives, so much lamented by Frank Zappa in interviews), but the emergence of mp3s took the record companies to the wall. Niche or smaller-selling artists have now been forced to become their own business managers.

This is a second way that Nix has, in his words, been "forced into becoming a band leader." It is not only because of the absence of venues and the opportunity to be hired by a band; it's also because dramatically fewer record sales mean all performers in all genres have to rely almost exclusively on gigs, touring and merchandise sales (also film synchronization revenue) for money, and (the niche artists, at least) have to record and release their records themselves. Witness, for example, Madonna's move to maximize revenues from touring. So, in the case of New York jazz, it becomes a double squeeze: less (or no) record sales and fewer venues in which to play.

As is taught in music business courses, such as that offered by UCLA Extension's Entertainment Department in Los Angeles, a performer is now literally his own business. He needs to work on marketing his own, self-made recordings. Fortunately, the thing that has brought this about, the internet, also provides a ready answer: web-based marketing. The musician has to master the computer as well as his instrument! Nix has a few words to say on this as well (see below). Musicians in New York, and surely elsewhere also, are trekking to the Apple Store to find out how to make and upload an mp3 of their music.

UCLA music business instructor, author and, like Bern, Berklee graduate Bobby Borg, has put it in this straightforward way: there is "no excuse not to have a web presence." Indeed, it's essential. But first, you need to know how to achieve it. Your own website, iTunes or Myspace for downloads, and CD Baby for hard copy CD sales are just some of the better known options.

This change was foreshadowed in 2004, in a BBC classical radio interview with pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy simply said that the record industry was finished, at least for classical music. Solo artists will simply record themselves and make their music available online. As an example, the famous classical piano duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque has just released their first album on their own label, KML. So even in classical music, this trend is well on the way. There is not necessarily any longer an EMI or a Sony for the artists, and a small name classical ensemble or soloist does not need a record company, just a good condenser microphone, a computer, and a website.

Nix has investigated record labels for a new album with his trio. However, the new environment has been having its predicable effect. He says, "I've talked to different labels, but the record business is falling apart." Despite this, he says recent discussions indicate a new album is a strong possibility.

"When I've got to deal with business it takes a couple of hours to come down after that! I just wanted to be an artist when I was a kid, like when I was 11... [Now] you have got to have a press kit, and all that stuff," says Nix.

As a sign of the new times, his album Low Barometer was released as a download, not as a CD: "(The label) Tomkins Square did records for Charles Gayle and Ran Blake that were beautifully [packaged]. I had sleeve notes ready, but they said it's going to be a download." There were a number of CD-R copies made, but they sold out quickly in a Greenwich Village record store.

Nix sums it up: "The record companies are done. The thing now is to go to the internet and try to establish a brand for yourself. You have to look at it as a brand and how you want to present it—having an image on YouTube, and people see you. There are so many little niche markets now. It's a whole new world. You have to learn the computer, [just as you had to] learn the guitar! But I get a headache and I can't look at it again for another week. A lot of people know it so well that they can't really explain it to you because it's all second nature to them. And the books are all too complicated! It's too much information."

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