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Posi-Tone Records: Creating a New Iconic Catalogue

John Patten By

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When Posi-Tone Records founder Marc Free was growing up, he looked forward to each new record purchase, cherishing the cover artwork, devouring the liner notes and most of all, feasting on the music. He came to love the music and albums issued by iconic labels such as Blue Note and Impulse!, knowing that even if he hadn't heard of the artist, it was likely to be a quality recording by a great musician.

And when Free launched Posi-Tone in 1994, he made those remembrances his business plan.

"I hadn't intended it; it wasn't my dream," says Free of the company's founding. "It was kind of an outgrowth of other things."

Technically, he started his record-producing career when he built a studio in his mother's house, ala Rudy Van Gelder, the Blue Note engineering master whose work set the standard for sound and quality in the 1950s. Free had even hoped to make a documentary on Van Gelder at one point, conducting interviews and gathering research, but the project ultimately fell apart.

"He didn't think a documentary was the right way to tell the story and he never gave me the permission to do it," says Free.

A jazz guitarist, Free used his studio space to record friends and other musicians whose music he enjoyed. A chance to record multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers performing at Los Angeles' Jazz Bakery in 2002 led to a decision to turn the underground label into a "real business."

"We try to make records we want to listen to," he says.

At a time many labels struggle to find a niche, Posi-Tone has emerged with a solid lineup of well-crafted recordings, packaged in distinctive cardboard sleeves. Rather than focus on a particular genre of music, Posi-Tone's stable of artists are picked by Free and partner/engineer Nick O'Toole.

"What we decided to do was go out to New York three or four times per year to scout for talent," Free says. "That's where the musicians who are more serious about making a career in jazz are."

When a potential Posi-Tone artist is found, Free says the label will record them in a New York studio, such as Acoustic Recording Brooklyn or System 2 studios, also in Brooklyn. The masters are then taken to Los Angeles for post-production work.

This method has connected the label to a diverse collection of musicians, including saxophonist Sarah Manning, trombonist Alan Ferber and trumpeter Jim Rotondi. Free notes he doesn't sign artists to long-term deals, and allows them to retain all of the publishing rights to their music.

"I can't tell you how many people in the recording business told me I was crazy," he says. "[One record company executive] said, 'your roster of artists and publishing rights is what you build your business on.' And I said, 'No, my label's reputation is what I'm building my business on.'"

Which, Free says, strikes at the biggest hurdle facing new artists and new labels in today's marketplace: reissues. A quick look at the upcoming releases page on AAJ shows a deluge of reissued jazz recordings every month, with new CDs which repackage and reissue works by everyone from bandleader Artie Shaw to saxophonist Zoot Sims. This means a young artist doesn't only have to compete with other musicians of today, but those from the last 80 years as well.

"I have a hard time competing with John Coltrane when he's got 60 years of marketing behind him," Free says.

The problem, as Free sees it, is the copyright act of 1978, which extended the time before the rights to musical compositions pass into public domain from 28 to 75 years. This meant the recording companies who owned the rights to music and recordings made in the 1950s and 1960s can continue to produce and sell the music for years. Hence the belief that building the back catalogue is the key to a label's survival.

"All of us are struggling with these issues all the time," says Free.

Another issue confronting labels concerns digital distribution: Free is sticking to emphasizing direct sales of physical CDs because he says the economics just don't work with downloads. He says the average online customer won't download a full CD, reducing the revenue to the label (and artist) to a fraction of what CDs net. Consequently, he says he would need to sell to 14 online customers to realize what he can earn for one CD sale.

"The music isn't in any danger, but the record labels making recordings may well be," Free says. He's marketing the company's releases through Amazon, the label's website and with distributors outside the United States. "We're seeing tremendous response to our efforts."

Summing his philosophy up, Free says: "The answer is to make more and better records.

"We're good for jazz, we're good for business and we make good records."

Selected Posi-Tone releases

Doug Webb Midnight 2010


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