Engine Records: Just Say No to Dumbass Music


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We try to sound different; by different I would say more 'organic'--not as slick as Blue Note, Verve, but strong, detailed and powerful recordings. I think the New Orleans Suite is a great example of what I aspire to have my releases sound like.
Engine Records is a very small New York based, basement-run record label that boasts thirty-one releases by original artists, amongst which are saxophonist Andrew Lamb, the unsung percussionist Warren Smith, and newcomers saxophonist Niko Higgins and bassist Paul Steinbeck. Engine Records' founder Steven Walcott records this literally underground music (recorded in his basement), and makes it available to the public at an intriguing price of $6.49 a CD. I tried to find out how he does it.

All About Jazz : So, how did you get into this thing called jazz?

Steven Walcott: Me, I got into jazz when I was in college, but I never played jazz, I came up playing punk and weirdass rock. I had a small label in the '90s putting that kind of stuff out including a band that I started with someone else, but the band broke up and the label went under after the band broke up. After the label went down I worked on Wall Street and bought the house where we live, and this is important only because I have a studio in the basement of our house, so it makes the cost of producing music very low so I can afford to make less commercial oriented/more creative music. This is a great aspect to my label.

AAJ: Let's talk about the musicians on your label.

SW: There are a lot of great musicians, jazz and otherwise who are in New York and working really hard but not getting attention if they're not on a large nationally-known label. So even though New York City is very expensive and very competitive for musicians and labels, if you have the right setup, which I think I do, you can access to a lot of great musicians here in New York. I can only imagine having this kind of access maybe in Chicago.

It's not a good sign when there are so few labels working to get new jazz artists going. For example, that Niko Higgins record [From Eye to Ear (Engine, 2006)] is not going to do that great because no one has heard of him—so most labels never would have made it. I wanted to make it because he's only thirty years old, and if these guys don't get to make records they're not going to learn, and they're not going to develop, and that's not good for jazz.

AAJ: Looks like you have a special liking for saxophonist Andrew Lamb's work. He's featured on most of your releases.

SW: Yeah, I'm very excited to record Andrew Lamb, I think we have a strong collaboration going on. I met Warren Smith through him and Warren is a great musician who has done so much in his career. Andrew Lamb plays in the Henry Grimes trio, but I really want to get him to the point where he can get to Europe not as a sideman but as a trio leader. If people saw him live they would freak out—he blows hard, and his tone has to be witnessed to be believed. Paul Steinbeck is another young musician that has to make a few records to get a better feel for being a recording artist.

AAJ: Yeah, I liked Paul Steinbeck's album, Three Fifths [Engine, 2005]

SW: So, that's the basics, what else can I tell you? I'm working way too hard for way too little money, I'm really into what I'm doing, but it would be great to get some more support from listeners. I appreciate the Europeans as more intelligent music listeners so I'm thankful to you for giving me any space to express myself to that audience.

AAJ: Could you expound on the right set-up that you mentioned, for a record label?

SW: The right set-up is having your own studio in a place where you don't have to pay a lot, and to be able to make high quality recordings without paying a ton of money because this jazz is not going to produce a lot of money. So if you are beneficent then you can choose to make the music that smaller amounts of people like because you're not going broke doing it. A lot of much larger labels are bloated with costs and spend money on stupid things in my opinion.

I don't think it makes a lot of sense to go through the trouble of setting up a label and the years of work to get any attention at all just to sound like other labels. I use a lot of custom music gear that my brother has designed, he's a self-taught electrical engineer and I'm a self-taught music engineer. We try to sound different; by different I would say more "organic —not as slick as Blue Note or Verve, but strong, detailed and powerful recordings. I think the New Orleans Suite [Engine, 2006] is a great example of what I aspire to have my releases sound like. I'm obsessed with music and engineering. I listen to or mix music all day pretty much every day—all styles, etc.

This year I'm trying to find some musicians that take the learning and sophistication of jazz training and apply it to other genres. I'm starting to work with a guitarist that played with Sun Ra, and we're trying to take his tone and improvising style and mix that with loops, etc. to get something different going. I hope that works out, and that's an example of music that I want to add to just the straight avant stuff which I love, but which is a pretty small niche of music.

AAJ: A mention of your packaging style wouldn't be amiss here. The CD sleeves on Engine Records are so earthy, just a folded piece of recycled cardboard with a letter-pressed visual.

SW: Yeah, I hate jewel boxes, they suck. I don't like the way they feel, they break very easily and again I want to be different and I like to think of the record covers as little works of art, so I bought an old printing press. People may not see it that way, but I have a friend in Seattle Washington who is a great painter who designs most of my discs for free so she brings a great visual aspect to the design that I can't get from straight graphic designers.

AAJ: Could you comment on the low price of your CDs. Only $6.49 a CD. Seems like neither you nor the musicians make any money out of it!

SW: This is another business question. I don't know how much you know about the financial side of music, especially here in the USA. If you avoid the middlemen of the record business, stores, distributors, which in the US is a dying side of the business and you can somehow reach people and sell to them directly, you can make about the same amount of money that you would receive if you were using a distributor. If you sell on iTunes in the US for a dollar a tune, you give 30 cents to Apple, and a cut to the guy who connected your small label with iTunes. The rate these guys charge varies; I have a good deal with a reputable jazz distributor who doesn't take too much.

AAJ: Give me all the ingredients of setting up a label like yours selling music at $6.49. I'll call it the Walcott formula. Give me some facts, how much it costs you to make a CD.

SW: Okay, a disclaimer. My label is not profitable and it might not be profitable for years. There are over 30,000 musical releases a year in the U.S. So I've concluded that this is a 7-10 year project in which I am at 3.5 years. It costs me around 50-60 cents per disc including the sleeves. I'm into the sleeves for environmental reasons as well. Jewel cases are pollution and the chipboard I use is 100% recycled.

It doesn't cost me anything to record. My brother and I have a lot of money invested in musical gear, but a lot of the cost of that musical gear is an investment—when you get to a certain quality level in pre-amps and microphones and you're a smart buyer, you can get most of your gear money back. I master my records myself for two reasons: one, I spend a lot more time mastering my recordings than other labels. I don't like what most mastering engineers do, and I've invested to be able to master my own recordings. Cost is the secondary reason. It's about $700-1000/disc in New York to have some guy run music through his rig for about 20 minutes per track and compress the hell out of it. I probably spend 10-15 hours on detailed mixes and this guy undoes a lot of it in 20 minutes.

AAJ: So you don't make money with the label. What makes musicians want to record with you? Is it friendship or creative freedom or what?

SW: I think the musicians who work with me get to have a personal relationship with their label. They want to get their music out there, they get a lot of input into the final recording, and they hope that my label will grow larger and they'll have made a smart choice by choosing a small but slowly growing label. If I do better then I'll remember those musicians who believed in me as I started out; those who have made more than one recording see the incremental progress that I've made up to this point. I feel like I'm a couple of small breaks away from selling a decent amount of music, but this isn't much in my control. All I can do is to try to spread the music as widely as possible with my limited resources and hope that people will recognize the quality of what I'm doing.

AAJ: What's your policy with the musicians? Do you pay them?

SW: I don't pay the musicians. I don't think there's a set policy on labels paying the session fees for the musicians. I feel that making a recording is a joint venture between the label and the musician—on a major label, the label fronts all the money and recoups its investment forever. So the musician pays everything. With me, they pay the musicians, but I spend my own money to service radio stations, magazines, etc. People have no idea how exploitative the standard contract is, and how it affects the quality of music that comes from musicians. They have to watch the business side so much they can't focus on the music, and they spend money on lawyers and managers. It's ridiculous this is a big advantage for small labels that are honest. I think a lot of musicians want to deal directly without the middlemen or lawyers, managers, etc.

AAJ: How do the musicians get recompensed for making records?

SW: We split anything that comes in from the sales, whether it be through my website, iTunes, or gig sales. As I said above, I don't fake and say that my formula's a miracle and everyone should follow it. I'm saying that the music business sucks right now, and I'm trying to structure my label financially to survive a number of years, and to get the highest quality performances out of the musicians as is possible.

The main problem with my formula is on the listener side. Right now, most people are more comfortable buying at iTunes and are not active enough to search out and buy music straight from the web. iTunes takes 30% off the top for every track they sell. That's a lot of loot. My hope is that as I release more and more music, and become a more established label people will purchase directly from me. In the music business as soon as you involve a middleman in the sale of your music, you are paying a disproportionate amount of money. I put music on iTunes so some people might find it, dig it, and then end up buying from me directly in the future.

AAJ: You gotta get in touch with distributors in France, like Jussieu Jazz in Paris, and Improjazz maybe.

SW: Man, I'm ready to get down with anybody who is a reasonable businessman and a music lover at the same time. I'm dying to license a couple of discs in Europe. I think I can make more money in Europe than I can in the United States. European stores, I'm not too concerned about, but I would love to hook up with a jazz label in Europe, or someone who would be in a position to license some of the music I've created.

I would be eternally grateful to anyone you could turn me on to. I followed up with the guy who had a chain of stores, but he could have cared less because I'm small and no one has heard of me. That's just the truth, a record store is going to sell the music that is easiest to sell—I understand that. I know there are dudes in Europe who could make money with me and my artists; I just have to find them.

AAJ: What are the forthcoming projects on Engine Records?

SW: As for other projects, I'm hopeful that I will be able to record Warren Smith's big band in April—it's seven horns, drums, bass, and percussion. And in May I will be doing a third Paul Steinbeck record with Malachi Thompson doing some trumpet work, Warren Smith on drums/vibes, and Chris Washburn on trombone.

AAJ: That sounds great. All the best to you, Steven.

SW: Thanks, Taran.

Selected Discography

Andrew Lamb/Warren Smith, New Orleans Suite (Engine, 2006)
Niko Higgins Ensemble, From Eye to Ear (Engine, 2006)
Paul Steinbeck, Three Fifths (Engine, 2005)
Andrew Lamb/Warren Smith, The Dogon Duo (Engine, 2005)
The Moving Form, The Year of the Endless Movement (Engine, 2004)

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