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Origin Records: Creating Opportunities and Community

Origin Records: Creating Opportunities and Community

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Being musicians first and foremost, the urge to find opportunities outside of the comfort zone and to always say 'yes' is, for better or worse, in our DNA. The label is the most obvious result of that.
—John Bishop
Being a jazz musician sometimes seems like a life ruled by jungle law. Everyone fights for gigs and puts out music on "labels" with only one artist. However, it doesn't have to be this way. Origin Records is an example of a modern artist driven label that has grown through collaboration and community. As Matt Jorgensen, one half of the team behind the label says: "If you want to be a part of it, you have to 'be a part of it.' You need to hang out, help out, lend a hand, support other artists. We are looking for artists who are out there trying to make something happen in their own community and want to be a part of what we do with Origin/OA2."

The people behind Seattle's finest jazz label, John Bishop and Jorgensen, think like artists because they are artists. They are drummers and musicians with many talents, one of them is to embrace new opportunities. Through the years, this has led to a podcast, a website, a magazine, a festival and, not least, a label that continues to expand in spite of the dire situation of independent jazz labels.

Some people might have given up along the way, but instead Bishop and Jorgensen have the ability and energy to find an extra gear. Part of their success is the emphasis on collective thinking. The ethos of Origin is that success is something that is built together and not only individually. Many steps have been taken to build the successful label it is today.

All About Jazz: Growing up, what kind of labels did you admire, and which labels do you consider kindred spirits now?

John Bishop: Back in the '70s when I started consuming a LOT of music, the main thing I was interested in were the artists, and they could come from anywhere. Certainly though, a few labels jumped out where I didn't need to care who I was listening to, it was going to be great and it would define a certain school that I'd obviously need to study. Impulse, Blue Note, ECM, each had a look, sound and feel that would pull you in and commit you to the aesthetic while exposing you to new stuff. Others were CTI, Horizon, Riverside, Atlantic, Owl, Artists House, and so many others. The beauty then was that a label could afford to take chances on artists or projects that weren't an easy sell and more fully reflect the different shades of the music without worrying about their audience wandering off. Now that most labels need to see results from every investment, I'm probably most sucked in by the labels who present a complete experience, through packaging, information, liner notes, etc.

Matt Jorgensen: I moved from Seattle to New York City in 1992 to attend the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Walking home from school I would pass by a small record store, as in LPs, and they would stock a bunch of the reissued Blue Note, Riverside, Prestige and Fantasy records. This was when LPs were still cheap, so I bought a bunch my first year in New York. That was a bulk of my early jazz history education, listening to the records, looking at the covers—proper LP covers, reading the liner notes, checking out who played on what records.

For labels now, I would consider all of them kindred spirits. It is tough with the current market, but there is no shortage of good music that needs to get out.

AAJ: When did you form the label and was there any particular reason why it happened?

MJ: I'll let John describe the "origin" story of the label ... but for me, John Bishop was my drum teacher when I was 15 up until I left for New York when I was 19. We always kept in touch and he told me he was starting a record label with the four records he had played on and also did the graphic design. This would have been late 1997 or early-1998. I told him I was fooling around making websites and the label should have a website. I also had a project that was recorded, and we were in the process of releasing, so I traded creating a website for releasing the CD which was the recording "Hi-Fi" by RadioAction, my group at the time. I have been hanging around since!

JB: In the early '90s, I got a computer and started experimenting with graphics for music projects I was a part of. Posters, cassette covers, and ads quickly morphed into regularly doing CD covers and organizing production and logistics for my own things or for acquaintances. In 1997, there were several recordings ready at the same time that I played on, produced and designed, and it just made sense to come up with a "label" for them to be associated with. I knew there'd be more projects coming along, but in no way thought it would go much beyond that homegrown type thing. Within a month, there was a review of those CDs in Earshot Jazz magazine that announced a "new label" with a look and a sound. Realizing it wasn't a huge step to start organizing better for a more involved thing, I slowly started researching what I was missing out on as far as setting up a business, distribution possibilities, and all that goes along with being a real entity.

I had been in touch with Matt, who had moved to New York. He was messing with web page development and offered to put something together for the label. At this point, it seemed the main benefits that would come out of this work were that we'd have a good outlet for our music and we'd further develop my design/production business and Matt's web services -at a time when both were much more involved processes -knowing they were of value to other artists. The idea that we were a fully functioning label with possibilities in the bigger world was a ways off, but it began to pick up steam quickly and turned into regular work.

AAJ: Could you tell the story behind the name of the label?

JB: The first recording in the catalog was spearheaded by my sister, who had an interior design/furniture store with an art gallery down in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon. She presented jazz by either my brother Todd (another drummer and visual artist) or me for a monthly artwalk over several years. It was a popular scene and she thought it'd be cool to have a recording to document what was going on. While producing that, the idea for putting a label on it came up so I took "Origin," the basic translation of her store name, "Provenance," and then used her birth date as the starting catalog number. The cover art was from one of Todd's paintings, as have been many covers over the years. My family has always inspired me as they pursue art and ideas, so the thought that the label came out of that experience together is very cool to me.

AAJ: How would you describe the Origin sound and aesthetic? In your mission statement on your website it says: "Each release has a relation to the one before it and the one after, and although there are multiple musical styles and expressions represented, the catalog has a sense of flow and continuity." Could you elaborate on this?

JB: Being life-long musicians, it never felt quite right to describe what we were creating -just take a listen! But that's not very helpful coming from a record label, so I'd say we're generally a modern mainstream jazz label. Within that tag though we're open to ANYTHING, as long as it feels vital, heartfelt and timeless. The types of musicians we focus on typically have wide-ranging interests and, importantly, they have an audience, whether large or small, who they devote themselves to connecting with and inspiring. I like to think that comes through in the recordings and helps tie them to one another, even if they're coming from different stylistic places.

It's kind of built into all working musicians that you deliver a "show," with continual variance of texture, tempos, attitudes, and balancing of tension & release. I'm thinking of the same thing with any of our new releases -presenting a set of recordings that compliment yet contrast with each other, delivering variety and surprises to anyone willing to take the time to wade through them. Especially with the majority of independent record labels whose output reflects the normally specific interests of the label owner, we're a little more artist focused where, if they're on a path that interests them, and the listening experience reflects their enthusiasm, that's good enough for me! At that point it's up to us to organize the release schedule to create that flow and continuity as discussed.

MJ: When people ask me about Origin or OA2 my default answer is, "we are a modern-jazz label." That is a broad term, but I think what Origin really is about is the community of artists that we have become. We try to be open and transparent about what the label is, what it can do, how it can help artists, but also be realistic about the realities of what the market it like now. So the "sound and aesthetic" of the label is really the sound of the artists who are putting out records.

A while ago I build an online radio player for the label (it is on our website, we encourage everyone to take a listen!). As a new release comes along I'll pick out two or three songs and put them in the database of available songs for the player. When the player loads it randomly picks 15 songs at a time and builds a playlist and somehow it always works. Doesn't matter the genre or tempo, it makes for a cohesive listening experience and that is how I define the sound of Origin and OA2 (note: the origin audio player can be found at http://originarts.com/audio-player/)

AAJ: Could you tell about your sub-labels? When did you start them and how do they complement each other?

JB: The labels all come from basically the same place. We got to a point around 2002 where we were just putting out too much music to have one label make sense, so we went the route of most labels in creating sibling outlets. With dozens of artists on each label now, many having done multiple albums, there is a subtle difference in the vibe of Origin and OA2, but I'd never be able to articulate what that difference is. It's constantly adjusting too as I'm balancing the flow of each label to themselves and to each other as projects come along.

MJ: Continuing with what John Bishop said ... OA2 really had an immediate impact and took on a life of its own. There are times when OA2 outperforms Origin with radio airplay or sales. So it is really nice to have two distinct yet similar labels. And I would also like to state here in print that I was the one who came up with the OA2 name!

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

MJ: I think mostly artists find us. John and I are both drummers, so a majority of the artists are people we already know and people we have relationships with, or else, friends of friends. It is a community.

Sometimes when I'm out on tour I get asked to talk at schools about the music business, about Origin and The Ballard Jazz Festival, the jazz festival John and I started in 2003. And what I always come back to when speaking with young musicians is instilling in them that this "business" of jazz is a community. If you want to be a part of it, you have to "be a part of it." You need to hang out, help out, lend a hand, support other artists. We are looking for artists who are out there trying to make something happen in their own community and want to be a part of what we do with Origin/OA2.

JB: When we started, it was a circle of about 30 artists from the Northwest who I had known for years and were the core of the sound and personality of the music I had been playing. Matt's circle of relationships was growing at the same time back in New York and through the younger players he knew from Seattle who were getting their careers together in different places. Word-of-mouth and recommendations from artists already in the "club" creates an effect that I really enjoy as we see a web spread in communities around the country with, say, one artist from Chicago gradually turning into 50 from there. Having over 300 artists from different scenes now, creates a great, wide-spread camaraderie, making road trips a very good time!

As a young musician, seeing the very clear distinctions between the music coming out of San Francisco, Chicago, L.A., Dallas, was exciting to experience when I traveled between them or heard recordings that clearly reflected their environments. That's something I'm thinking of as another one of those complementary angles when programing releases -the sounds of those scenes and their relationships with audience and media -and what we focus on when we look at the catalog and what a selection of recordings might represent. We also receive plenty of submissions from others who I meet at Jazz conferences or who just send something to us. Mostly it's a feeling of how they'll fit with what we already have project and musician-wise, and if they'd be a great compliment or foil. Either's good!

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?

MJ: This question has caused me to go back and scroll through lots and lots of album covers on the website. In the early years we were just trying to figure out the process of manufacturing and releasing records.

JB: With close to 600 releases now, there are a LOT of projects and moments that stand out as being pivotal to me. Off the top of my head though, getting a sort of affirmation that we're on the right track from older, established players always felt like a marker that things were progressing properly. Don Lanphere did his first record with Fats Navarro in 1948 and then came onboard with us almost 50 years later, recording the final five recordings of his life. His belief in me and what we were doing was huge in those early years and it gave us a lot of confidence that we were offering something beneficial to the scene.

MJ: Don Lanphere was an important part of the Northwest scene, but also someone with an established name throughout the industry so I remember that felt like Origin was a "real" label now. That happened again with Hadley Caliman who was in Seattle for the last part of his career but was important to a lot of people.

JB: Doing multiple records with Jessica Williams, Hal Galper, Hadley Caliman, Benny Powell and others, has been very inspiring and gratifying and is one of those things that can keep you going when many other aspects of the business don't make much sense. Doing multiple projects with really active, pivotal players like Bobby Broom, Joe Locke, George Colligan, Sam Yahel, and some others, opens up many doors, many that we can't assess in the moment, but realization of their impact usually unfolds over several years.

MJ: I remember Sam Yahel's Truth and Beauty was a big deal as it included Joshua Redman and Brian Blade. And that record is a good example of the Origin concept where that record came about from my relationship with Sam which goes back to my college days.

Chicago saxophonist Brad Wheeler put out a recording called The Future Was Yesterday and that established us almost immediately in the Chicago scene. Bobby Broom did a record shortly thereafter and it followed with a bunch of artists after that.

JB: Being around for 20 years too, there are players who came onboard straight out of college and now have a track record and are busy creating opportunities for other musicians. Matt Jorgensen, Chad McCullough, Christopher Icasiano, Jeff Baker, are all artists who've put together some great records while creating labels, concert series, tours, festivals, and generally supporting all artists they come in contact with. To me, having some role in inspiring those kinds of activities is what ultimately defines success as a label. Anybody can make a record, but creating a scene? That's an accomplishment!

AAJ: You are located in Seattle. Is it important to you to have an identity as a Seattle label and how would you characterize Seattle's jazz scene and sound?

MJ: The Seattle music scene has always been eclectic, and I think that is well represented in the early years of Origin and OA2. Looking back on the early recordings by John and I, Thomas Marriott, Rick Mandyck, Mark Taylor, New Stories, Jeff Johnson and Hans Teuber, that was the music you would hear at the clubs nightly in Seattle. As the label grew it expanded to include artists from around the world and naturally the sound has changed, but the source of all of this were the artists that John and I were friends with and performed with.

JB: I'm afraid I don't have much choice for the Seattle branding. Diving head first into the scene when I was 22, the players and sounds of Seattle are my life-blood so it's impossible to escape. Still vivid is the 1981 concert I heard my first night in town with Art Lande, Gary Peacock, Jerry Granelli, Jim Knapp, Denney Goodhew, and Dave Peterson. They all taught at Cornish College of the Arts and were pivotal in inspiring the next generations of Seattle musicians and others who moved on to define many movements in jazz over the last 30 years. At the same time, Floyd Standifer, Ernestine Anderson, Bill Ramsey, Hadley Caliman, Buddy Catlett, Julian Priester and others who played with Quincy Jones, Basie, Herbie, Louis, were playing around every night, adding a "blue-collar" component—both in musicians being ready to do yeoman's work on any gig that came up, and a solid, hard-swinging foundation underlying our sound. The high level of musicianship, mentorship, variety, and general hanging that was the norm around here is the keystone to what the jazz life is to me.

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

JB: Tula's has been a mainstay for local players for 25 years. It's gone through ups and downs, but it was always the hang for most players I've worked with. The Triple Door is a converted Vaudeville theater that presents a wide array of artists on a semi-regular basis. The Royal Room is pianist/composer Wayne Horvitz' space that presents many an interesting band. Egan's Ballard Jam House acts as a small community club for students and singers often, but also has regular high-caliber people coming through. The big room, Jazz Alley, was presenting Dexter, Getz, Blakey, in an intimate space when I was coming up, but has morphed into a showroom for more high-end, mainstream acts over the last 15 years. Still the place to hear Tower of Power, McCoy, Scofield, Frisell, etc... Many creative players have moved out of the main rooms and are doing series, concerts, and festivals in all sorts of environments around town. Definitely, if anyone were to come through Seattle and wanted to get a sense of the scene, they'd have to research and keep their ears to the street if they want to get a true sampling. Well worth the efforts though!

AAJ: What is your take on the use of digital technology? Do you see it as an opportunity or a hindrance? Could you imagine Origin being a label that only released downloads or is it important to you that there is a physical product?

MJ: Digital is here and there is no way to avoid it. It has been an opportunity for us to be able to expand to parts of the world that we wouldn't have been able to otherwise. For example, shipping a CD to parts of Europe can take three to four weeks and digital delivery offers the customer the ability to listen to it almost immediately.

But I do think that our "digital" culture takes for granted all that goes into making a recording and, especially in jazz, part of the experience of a recording is lost by not having album artwork, liner notes, credits, etc. So I don't think you'll ever see Origin going to digital only, John would never allow it! Part of the thing with Origin and OA2 is "the look" of the label and that requires a cover and packaging.

JB: Digital technology has been a great boon for getting music out in an affordable way. Of course, there's the other side of it too! Considering what a moment in time the advent of the CD was -an affordable medium that's fairly indestructible, sounds great, is a commodity that can pay for itself and it contains the vital info we want to pass on with a recording -it's pretty shocking how many people are so inspired to quickly destroy it and move on to an inferior product. I'm afraid there is nothing for a working musician or label in the streaming/digital music racket as it's being sold to us now.

Besides the obvious money/business issues, the cultural aspect is a major problem for me. From the beginning of time, one had to be present to hear music, and for the last 100 years, you could have the next best thing with a radio DJ or an LP or a CD to let you know the who/what/why of a recording and present a (hopefully) compelling visceral experience along with it. If the realities changed so that digital releases were the only option, not to be overly dramatic, but it'd be a landscape we wouldn't recognize as all indie labels would have no choice but to fold. The greater issue would be the quick eroding of our collective cultural knowledge base.

AAJ: These days, the opinions about streaming services seem to differ a lot. What is your take on this issue?

JB: Streaming music is certainly pleasant to have around as we all enjoy the concepts of "easy-access" and "FREE." That anyone thinks it can be the center of a sustainable business model for music makers though, baffles me. We've had libraries with free books for centuries and still could wrap our heads around book ownership, personal collections, thriving book stores, etc... so I'm not sure why we talk all-or-nothing when it comes to music consumption. When I think of streaming services, I see ridiculously bloated, unnecessarily powerful, sociopathic corporate structures with interests that have nothing to do with musicians, so my opinion of them is 'tainted,' to be polite. Just like MySpace, Zune, et al, we will play their game and get the most out of them while they last, but only a fool could assume it's a relationship that will work out for anyone but them.

MJ: As an artist and as someone who works on the record label side, I don't have a problem with the idea of streaming services as a concept, I just have a problem with what they pay and how the music business part of streaming has been set up. The balance of power seems to be with the distributors of the music rather than the creators of the music. Everything is paid in percentages so there is no incentive for Spotify, Amazon or Apple Music, etc, other than to keep their internal expenses low.

And unlike streaming movies or television, I disagree with the concept that when there is a new album released it is immediately available on all of the streaming services. I have a Netflix account so if I apply the music business model to film I should be able to watch the new Star Wars movie at home the day it is released. I would like to see the music industry adopt the idea that if you are going to pay ten dollars a month for access to all of recorded history you have to wait a few months to hear the latest releases. But I also realize that this probably won't happen, and the current industry model is here to stay.

AAJ: If you think about the development of the music business in general, how would you characterize the changes that you have been through and what do you think is the reason Origin is still standing after all these years?

JB: With all the advances from 1992-on in recording technology, printing, CDs, internet development, and the remnants of a powerful industry infrastructure, we definitely came along at the only time it was possible for novices with limited means to engage with the industry and be able to survive. Just between 1992 and '97, the costs involved to record, produce and marginally promote a CD dropped like a rock, while there were still distributors, retailers and audiences ready to respond. Us starting a label was a result of the situation at hand. It was possible, first, and then it just required skills developed from being a working musician who pays attention, which is why there was such a large spike in musician-run indie labels from '95-'07

As for being able to survive the decimation of the industry over the last decade, I think most of that has to do with us never really thinking of ourselves solely as a 'record label,' where the sale of a CD is the bread and butter. To me, it's about making sure you have some solid structure that can keep paying the bills no matter what happens, and then just work on building community and relationships with as many different artists, presenters, and business entities as possible. Our structure is built around musician services, some music sales, lots of community building, and then various other opportunities that come up along the way. It shockingly has worked out OK for us and seems to be a path we can stay on.

MJ: John and I started Origin to put out our own music and the music of our friends and peers and it has slowly expanded over the past two decades. We were just a couple of jazz drummers putting out music, so we had to create a business model based on the artist cooperative model because that was the only way we could afford to do it and we wanted to make sure we could last in this business. Now the business has changed so that almost all the record labels are doing some sort of version of the cost-sharing model. My joke is that John and I were broke before all the other labels were broke so we are best at being broke and running a record label.

AAJ: What is the label's approach to packaging and design? Is there a particular visual style you aim for?

JB: Since I'm designing all of the covers, one of the more important aspects of building a "brand," continuity, is taken care of. Even if I'm not trying to make any 2 releases resemble each other, there will be some aspect that ties them together that can hopefully be apparent at a glance. I'm always looking for elements (photos, art, text) that can live up to the music so the art builds on itself, but also imagery that reminds me of other records, movies, art, etc... that will hopefully conjure visceral memories for other people too. There are so many classic visuals that imply "jazz," and I'm intentionally designing to stay close to that umbrella, attempting to be a thoughtful continuation of the legacy.

MJ: For me I always say I came from the John Bishop School of Drumming and Design. John handles all of the covers and I handle all of the website design and the covers have influenced my website designs both for the Origin site and other artist websites. Being a designer, like being a musician, your style changes over the years and evolves. The design part is another outlet for me as an artist.

AAJ: Do you include liner notes and photography in your releases?

JB: If the music is sublime and beautifully crafted, it's not enough for the cover art and contents to just exist, they need to enhance the recording, so if we have great photos of the artists, engaging liner notes, I'll try my best to use them. Mostly it's a question of budget, but I always like to have action in a recording package. With the steady move to self-produced everything, it's imperative that the "creative class" keep an objective eye open to our personal skill sets and limitations, discerning when it's right to do DIY content or when it's best to pay money to someone who can add real beauty/integrity/perspective to one's project. I try not to get too precious about all that stuff, but I do think about it when going through elements for a project.

MJ: We see the entire package of a recording as an artistic statement and so the photography and cover artwork is an essential part of conveying the message of the recording. In the early days of Origin I would always bring my camera on tour with me and a number of my photos are represented on the early recordings.

AAJ: Could you tell about some of the studios you use? What is the perfect sound to you?

MJ: I think the "perfect" sound happens when everyone is comfortable in the studio and can focus on playing music and isn't worried about the technical aspects of working in the studio. There have been lots of technological advances over the years, but in the end, it is about capturing the sound of what is happening in the room and that is the special part. The great studios are the ones where the engineer can capture the sound that is happening in the room. That might sound simple, but it isn't.

JB: There are probably 10 or 15 studios and engineers around the country that will regularly show up on new submissions who just make the process so easy. You hear the music and the room and the vibe and it all makes sense. That's all I'm really listening for. An ideal set-up for one project can be the exact wrong scenario for another, so to me, the perfect sound comes from the engineer who makes themselves a member of the band, understanding that the music needs to guide their work. Real joy comes from hearing an artist who's not quite at the sweet spot of their development, recording with an engineer in the same place, but they somehow end up with a recording that's far greater than the individual parts. It lets you know that there's still magic out there!

AAJ: What is your role when it comes to the music you release? You are musicians yourselves. How does that influence the label? I'm also thinking about how you look at the role as a producer?

JB: For the most part, I'm thinking about the flow from project to project, month to month. Trying to keep track of the types of artists and music and how they'll effect the different parties who have interest in what we do. When we add a new artist, we're bringing their audience and sphere of influence into "the club," so I want to see how that intersects with the other artists surrounding that project and how we can leverage promotion and interest between them all. Being musicians in this case gives us a direct route to getting a sense of who an artist is, where they fit into the greater landscape, and how their career and musical path might affect our overall dynamic.

I'm less interested in the idea of producing an artist's particular album than I am in watching the recording careers of many over time, and how they intersect and develop. Them relating to us on this other level too makes getting things moving so much easier than a standard label / artist relationship. Hopefully, over time, we can see some sort of arc with interesting additions of audience, media notice, or whatever. Just like with all of our music careers, it's the idea of movement and the possibility of new opportunities that keeps us engaged.

AAJ: You are also involved with a jazz festival: Ballard Jazz Festival. Could you tell about this and the other activities that you do that are connected to the label? What do you do to spread the word about the music?

MJ: For us it mainly comes down to doing things that enable us to make music. We were given an opportunity to start a jazz festival in 2003 and we have managed to build it into an annual four-day festival which featured a number of Northwest area jazz musicians as well as some well-known headliners.

We have also produced concerts for other festivals as well, organized concerts and tours for Origin artists as well as other jazz artists passing through the Northwest region.

JB: Again, being musicians first and foremost, the urge to find opportunities outside of the comfort zone and to always say 'yes' is, for better or worse, in our DNA. The label is the most obvious result of that, and the festival developed in the same sort of way. We're in our 16th year of doing the 4-day fest and it serves multiple purposes for us. It keeps us involved with our own scene, which can be easy to ignore as we're focusing on an international audience for the label. It's great to engage an audience face-to-face, and to focus on artists who don't necessarily get the headlining spots they deserve. Besides about 80 Northwest artists every year, we've had Gary Bartz, Sonny Fortune, Lee Konitz, Mike Stern, Brian Blade, Clarence Penn, Joe Locke, Lew Soloff, and many others. Our secret sauce is great after-parties!

Beyond that, we've always had a presence at JazzWeek, JazzAhead, MIDEM, JazzCongess, IAJE, JEN, and other gatherings over the last 18 years, and individually, each of us have been on the boards of the Recording Academy (Grammys), local jazz societies, etc... We also took over a monthly print jazz magazine in Seattle for several years. Discovering that was a LOT of work, it slowly morphed into a website, Seattle Jazz Scene, that continues today. Mostly, we try to stay involved -as a label and individually -with other presenting organizations, musicians, clubs, radio, press, and the rest, to keep things moving

MJ: A number of years ago I started the Origin Records Podcast which featured our new releases in a radio show format. That led to the opportunity to do an annual Origin Records Holiday Special on KNKX 88.5fm, our local jazz station here in Seattle.

The thing that unifies all of these activities is doing whatever it takes to make gigs happen. Looking around the country you find these pockets of communities where jazz musicians are making the scene happen within their own community and that is inspiring.



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