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Inner Circle Music: Creativity and Community Spirit

Jakob Baekgaard By

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We are the classic grassroots operation. My role is to review new submissions and to aid and help my artists to design and establish a career trajectory and performance situations for themselves. We do not operate with the typical business structure or label model as has been done in the past. —Greg Osby
The music industry today is defined by a strange paradox: there are too few labels and too many. On the one hand, the major labels have merged and sign less jazz artists, meaning the dream of a company with plenty of promotional muscles becomes harder to achieve. On the other hand, more and more musicians have started releasing their own music, but their labels are often one-man operations with none of the benefits that come with a true label: a brand, an aesthetic profile and most of all: visibility.

The idea of a label based on a collective of artists is an attempt to solve this conundrum and they exist all around the world: ILK in Denmark, Kuai Music in Argentina and Whirl Wind Records in England, just to name a few. The concept has also taken root in the country where jazz was born. Inner Circle Music is run by the acclaimed saxophonist Greg Osby and is a prominent example of a label based on the ideas of creativity and community spirit.

All About Jazz: When did you form Inner Circle Music and how did it happen?

Greg Osby: Inner Circle Music was formed in 2007, one year after my final release for Blue Note Records. I had been signed with them since 1989 and my experience as an artist there was overwhelmingly positive. I was able to express myself entirely in the manner that suited my tastes and creative aspirations. However, near the end of my run it became increasingly obvious that the music business, as well as the priorities of the label itself had shifted. The primary focus was directed to artists who were more of a "sure thing" and who represented guaranteed sales, as opposed to artists like myself who didn't produce records that adhered to a contemporary model or industry expectations. The company president, Bruce Lundvall, asked me what direction I would be pursuing for my next project and I told him that it'd be better if I didn't offer yet another recording that only my die-hard followers would appreciate and support. He understood and begrudgingly agreed. So basically, I quit and was let go all at once, with absolutely no regrets. I enjoyed an amazing run with one of the most iconic companies in recording history. Not to mention, by that time I already had the blueprint for Inner Circle Music charted out anyway.

AAJ: Is there a story behind the name of the label? Why is it called Inner Circle Music?

GO: An inner circle usually is represented by a private group or a select society of like-minded associates. Inner Circle Music represents a group of able bodied and capable minded musicians and artists that I personally selected because I felt that what they were doing was both noble and full of potential. Many of them are primarily new artists that I endeavor to use my connections to help enable them to develop a more receptive and enthusiastic audience. I also sought to have a label that brought emphasis to more global-based forms of contemporary music expression. This idea is illustrated by the multi-national makeup of our roster.

AAJ: How many people are involved with the label and what is your own role?

GO: We are the classic grassroots operation. My role is to review new submissions and to aid and help my artists to design and establish a career trajectory and performance situations for themselves. We do not operate with the typical business structure or label model as has been done in the past. That method has often led to regret and big debt. We are completely independent and self-reliant and thus, we use our combined resources and tenacity to make things happen for ourselves. Our artists are obligated take on operational tasks or work for the label on an as-needed basis, which helps to keep our overhead low.

Sara Serpa and Greg Osby at the Inner Circle Music Festival at the Cornelia Street Cafe.

AAJ: You are a musician yourself. How does that influence the way you run your label?

GO: Being a musician myself allows me the ability to objectively hear projects that are not completely developed or to recognize the potential of an artist who may not be very experienced and has some growing and conditioning yet to do. I use my acquired knowledge, my perspectives and my practical vision to try to help my label mates realize who they are as contributing, progressive artists. However, most of the time I say nothing and don't interfere with their process because the entire reason that I signed someone in the first place is that I felt they were artistically complete and self sufficient. I truly feel that too many so-called "producers" assert themselves to much on the works of artists who would fare better without such unnecessary commentary and suggestions. I only step in when my opinion is requested or if I see that things are getting off track and are at risk of not representing our label in the manner of which it was conceived.

AAJ: How would you define your aesthetic profile and the audience you are targeting? Your manifesto on your website speaks about the need for focus, cultural designation and direction. Could you elaborate on the musical direction you want to pursue with your label?

GO: With reference to a "target" audience, I would not conclude that we have a specific demographic for acceptance and support, since we are not called Inner Circle "Jazz" but instead, Inner Circle "Music." All of our releases have their own unique personalities and stories, which is prerequisite for inclusion in the catalog. I would say that we are in preference of appealing to listeners who have hugely expansive tastes in their listening choices. The creation of contemporary music is aided by vast numbers of resources and global influences. Given that, we wish for our works to be in recognition of what is yet possible, with a respectful nod to what has been made possible.

AAJ: The motto of the label, "Return to Now," is an interesting paradox. How would you define the musical now that you are seeking?

GO: Much music that is produced these days is either derivative or hopelessly emulative. Sometimes artists choose to try to force innovation or be experimental to the degree that none of their music makes any references to the past and thus it has no sonic or historical pathways that link it to any artistic precedent. Our objective at INCM is to utilize practically everything that is been made possible and given to us. Then, we strive to process that information, create original and inspired works, then present those works in an organized framework and medium that is reflective of the sound of today. Basically, to be contemporary in the most honest and purest manner possible.

AAJ: In many ways, the music on your label seems to go beyond fixed notions of genre, but do your see your label as a continuation of a specific jazz narrative or is such a notion aesthetically limiting?

GO: "Jazz," by it's own acquired constructs, represents a mechanism that is (supposed to be) defiant of fixed labeling or characterization. It is solely borne of a combination of unassociated elements -literal "fusion," if you will. We at INCM do not burden ourselves with the idea of ignoring nor embracing any compartmentalizing efforts or elements. We are only committed to producing works that directly reflect who we are and what we aspire towards.

AAJ: Could you speak about some of the defining moments or key releases on your label?

GO: I would offer that the first true defining moment was when I got my hands on the first batch of CDs which was a confirmation that we were a true label, and not a pet project of my own contrivance. These days, practically every artist has a "label" of some sort, which they are usually the sole artist. Our status as a legitimate label was defined by the first seven releases taking place all at once.

Honestly speaking, whenever one of our releases is spotlighted, lauded or even imitated, that would constitute yet another defining moment for us.

The Snow Owl, Juan Garcia-Herreros.

AAJ: What is your take on the music business today? Do you think it has become easier or harder to run an independent label and do you welcome the digital revolution?

GO: I readily embrace the various means of digital music and technology both as a consumer as well as a producer, because it offers quick and immediate access to music for study and enjoyment. But it's awful for the business. Let's be clear about that. "Easily accessible" also means easy to acquire for free and to share with no monitoring -which amounts to stolen full projects sand lost revenue from the actual producers of the works. This issue is of a lesser concern and consequence for pop artists, who enjoy hefty advances and more extensive ticket sales. However, for creative artists like ourselves it means that our CDs are little more than musical business cards which illustrate to consumers, agents and managers what our bands and music actually sounds like. Also, since physical CD sales do not constitute a major fraction of our income stream anymore, one of their primary functions is to influence proprietors to book our respective groups. Often, purchasers of CDs rarely refer to them again once the music has been ripped to their listening devices or phones, so their importance has been further devalued. A digital file is practically impossible to keep track of once it has been released.

AAJ: Do you feel part of a musical movement and are there other labels you identify with?

GO: Currently, we are not affiliated with any other labels or companies, although collaborations are not out of the question. Basically speaking, the only "movement" that I recognize is one where more artists are taking their recording fates in their own hands and are not waiting to be signed or discovered anymore. The fabled big label deals are not in step with reasonable thinking anymore, and many artists are avoiding such debt-driven alliances. They realize that there are alternative means that exist which would allow them to record and promote their art, while maintaining ownership and their artistic integrity. Self production isn't always the best route, and often results in misdirection and projects that lack focus. But for many, it's their only option.

AAJ: Do you have a particular studio and engineer that you use?

GO: We have no one studio or recording situation, and everyone is free to determine the sound that best suits their overall vision. In other words, there is no defined or prescribed "label" sound. That formula was successful in the 1950's and '60's but, in my opinion, would be too limiting a concept for recordings today. A universal label sound is not personal enough for my tastes and gives the recording engineer too much influence on the total color of the work. Such affectations are distracting to me. A studio's sound and vibe should be transparent.

AAJ: Could you tell something about the packaging and design of your albums. Do you have a specific approach to the design of your albums and do you include liner notes or photography? Is it important to you with a physical product?
About Greg Osby
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