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Dave Douglas: Music, Commerce and Culture Wars


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Trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas is one of the best-known players and bandleaders in jazz music. With countless performances, groups and recordings to his credit, his success hardly seems surprising, or anything less than hard-earned. One struggles to list his accomplishments. If you randomly name a New-York-based improvisational heavyweight, Douglas has probably played with him. His longstanding role in John Zorn's Masada is sufficient to establish his bona fides as a supporting player, and his bands like the Tiny Bell Trio, Parallel Worlds, Charms of the Night Sky and his eponymous quartet, quintet and sextet demonstrate a vast stylistic range. The overall quality of Douglas' recorded output is very high.

When Douglas' RCA contract expired in 2004 he teamed with his old friend Michael Friedman to form a new, independent record label, Greenleaf Music. Since 2005, the label has released five albums. The newest Greenleaf release is Meaning and Mystery, a terrific set from the Dave Douglas Quintet. As Greenleaf continues to explore the possibilities of what a modern record label really is nowadays, the CD is only available online. I sat down with Douglas in Chicago a day before his quintet played two nights at the Green Mill—and spoke with him again via telephone ("I keep thinking of more I wanted to say, he told me after the final set of the second night of the Green Mill stand) a couple weeks later.

All About Jazz: Let's start by talking business. Then we'll have that out of the way and we can discuss music.

Dave Douglas: It's so appropriate that we're hearing this muzak here in the hotel as we're talking business.

AAJ: I'm just anticipating the joy of hearing this music play as I transcribe the interview.

DD: [Laughing] Well, maybe you can transcribe this flute solo.

AAJ: Yes, it's such good stuff. I used to be so scornful of this music—and it's still horrendo, but now I just feel sorry for the musicians who have to play it. The music business is so difficult.

DD: Well, look at it this way: they have a job. And God bless 'em. If you're playing music, that's what it's all about. It gets used for nefarious purposes after the fact sometimes, but I think that when people talk about the music business, I think sometimes they're not aware how diverse it is, how broad it is, how many different kinds of jobs there are—workaday jobs, creative jobs, all kinds of stuff. In a way, I think that's really wonderful. Not that people aren't aware of how many people are making a living in music, but that there are millions and millions of jobs. I think that's not appreciated sometimes among cognoscenti who want to talk about the finer points of whatever genre they're into.

AAJ: After recording for a variety of labels, most recently RCA/Bluebird, you've chosen to do it yourself—or actually, with your friend Michael Friedman—with your Greenleaf Music label. You've already released three Dave Douglas studio records and a live set through Greenleaf as well as stuff from Kneebody. This is, I think, an attempt to be an ethical record company, and I know you've got a quick turnover between creation and release—your new CD Meaning and Mystery was recorded just two months before its release in April. Tell me the story of the label and what it's allowing you to do.

DD: Well, it's really interesting that you mentioned the "ethical label thing because it's something that I struggled with a lot for a lot of years. I don't think there's any clear-cut meaning as to what that really means—there are so many sides to the equation of who's investing in who and who's getting what and who gets it back.

I just knew that in starting a label, I wanted to, first of all, be as creatively free as possible to work fast—and like you said, to get something from the studio to the street in two months is wonderful. I could never have done that on any other label. The ethical part of that is something that I think you'll find at almost every one of these new artist-led internet-based companies that are sprouting up all over the place—like ArtistShare and all the people with various different relationships to ArtistShare, but also Dave Holland and Branford Marsalis and of course, John Zorn, who started it fifteen years ago.

I think that for artists who decide to take the reins of their own recorded production, the first step is often, "okay, how do we define what a fair deal is? It seems to me that a fair deal is that for the recording, there's an agreement that any profit that's made from these recordings is split between the artist and the company. The artist obviously puts in innumerable hours and years perfecting what they do, and the label puts a ton of work and investment behind this specific recording. So I think that's subtly and egregiously different from the label model, from majors down to independents. Very different.

And I just believe that it can work. I believe that it's good for everybody. We know the classic model of the record companies, and the fact that, starting in the twenties at the dawn of the recorded music age, everybody was getting intensely ripped off, and over the last century, progressively less and less ripped off. And I think this new burst of artists doing it themselves and relying on the internet as the basic motivating force behind the distribution is just another step at freeing all of that up.

I guess I should return to your question a little bit about the story behind starting the label. When I was offered the deal with RCA in 1999, I struggled with that a lot—whether I wanted to sign the 80-page deal with the devil. And I just decided that it was the kind of opportunity that comes along very rarely for creative music, for music that's outside of the normal cookie-cutter, packaged music productions. So I went for it. Actually, the deal was for six different albums and the agreement was that I could make each one be a different sound, a different direction, a different concept. And at the end of those six records, I'd be free to go. As it turned out, RCA added one record in the middle, so I actually made seven records for them.

Then I was at the end of the defined contract period, which is very unusual because usually a major label would have you on some kind of a leash at all times, so you wouldn't be free to just do what you wanted to do. I'm not saying that as a putdown; they do that because they want their marketing and distribution departments to have a free hand to sell your stuff. I think a lot of artists are very quick to say, "oh, the man, and sure, there's a certain truth to that. But at the same time, there are reasons that things happen.

So anyway, at the same time that I finished that contract, Sony was buying or merging with BMG, and in the six years that I was at the label, the name of the label changed five times and the head of the label changed four or five times. There was hardly anyone still there that had been there when I signed. So I just knew a big change was coming and I also knew that to continue, I needed certain conditions met. So I had a very friendly meeting in which I said, "this is what I want, and they said, "well, everybody's getting fired, and it's crazy here and I know we can't give you that. So thank you very much, and friendly handshake, and I left.

And it was kind of a relief. It was this huge burden off my shoulders. And I'm not complaining about all that that did for me in terms of where my music got to—a lot of places it wouldn't have gotten to otherwise. But I just knew, leaving that meeting, that I was going to start my own label, It was time. The internet was facilitating lots of things. And I also have been friends with Michael Friedman for 20 years and he was ending a relationship with EMI, who had been distributing his label Premonition. He was ready to start a new venture.

The artist that he had had a lot of success with, Patricia Barber, had decided to leave Premonition and move on over to Blue Note and EMI. So he kind of had this moment of "okay, what's next? So we started talking again, and at first the talks were just hypothetical—two guys talking about the industry. "What do you think the future is, and "what's going on, and "are masters worth anything anymore? Then that quickly progressed to "what are you going to do?

You know, I feel like I wouldn't be where I am without all the support I had from independent labels early on in my career. Yet I knew I didn't want to go back to that; I wanted to take the next step and own my masters and take a step into the new way that this business seems to be going. So that was when we decided to start. We released the first couple records as the traditional brick-and-mortar CDs with Koch as our distributor and it was fine, but we just found that the traditional mode of distribution is very constricting.

I don't know, it's a really tough, tough area of the business right now, trying to distribute to big chain stores with this kind of music. Anybody reading this interview will know that—it's tough. It's not the same when you go down to your Tower Records or Virgin Megastore as it used to be ten years ago. There are buy-ins at every level: you buy your spot in the store. The biggest issue for us is just on a very simple level of cash flow: it was impossible. Neither of us is this incredibly independently-wealthy European playboy from St. Moritz, unfortunately. So we're trying to be realistic. We both made an initial investment, and we're trying not to have it be the kind of thing where we just pour in money, money, money.

We want to find a sustaining model to make that work. With traditional distribution, the money comes so much later and there's a lot of deductions and it's just very, very complex—I can't even pretend to really understand it myself. But that was when we decided to take a look at this new internet way of doing things, and I think that we're honing in on a model that's self-sustaining at this point with these new releases.

And that's wonderful. I think that, as everyone knows, Maria Schneider getting the Grammy with the first record that was not available in stores [Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)]—that was a huge step, and very inspiring. And then [Douglas'] Keystone (Greenleaf, 2005) being nominated for a Grammy in that same position was really interesting and exciting for us. So I'll say that I'm thrilled. I love being involved in it every day, because whatever I want to do is what we do, and that's tempered by Mike's wisdom and even-handed rationality [laughing].

If you asked me, "what's your frustration right now, I would say the frustration is that I can't record more people. I went into it wanting to record more widely, and I get all kinds of stuff—great, mad, crazy music. And I have to say no to so many things. That's the hardest part, and so I'm hoping that once we're on our feet with this model, it'll be a model that we can offer to more artists.


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