Origin Records: Creating Opportunities and Community

Origin Records: Creating Opportunities and Community
Jakob Baekgaard By

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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!


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