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Origin Records: Creating Opportunities and Community

Jakob Baekgaard By

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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.

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