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Origin Records: Creating Opportunities and Community

Jakob Baekgaard By

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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.

AAJ: What are your ambitions for the future? Are you optimistic when it comes to the future of jazz?

JB: I never have any doubts about the music and its health, there's always a steady flow of creative people creating. I'm not very hopeful though about the business of music, but then again, this has never been an easy racket! So we'll just forge on and see where it takes us. I think as long as the focus is providing outlets and building community for people who love the music, SOMETHING worthwhile will come of it, and that'll have to be good enough for us.

MJ: With all the changes in the music industry in the past decade there are still incredible jazz artists who are creating music that needs to be heard. We always find a way to make it work so I'm confident we will continue to do that in the future. Jazz has always been a small niche market. But as life becomes more and more hectic and digital-based, I try to remind people of the importance of art both recorded and live. If you are a jazz fan it is important to support those who are creating the music. This isn't just about Origin, this is about the entire community. Go out and hear live music and support your local jazz venue. Support the artists you like by buying a CD at the gig. It is up to all of us to make sure the scene survives.

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