With the launch of Screwgun Records in 1996, saxophonist-composer Tim Berne asserted ownership of his music and signaled a shift in his aesthetic perspective. Unwound
, a live 3-disc set from his double-saxophone quartet Bloodcount, was taken from audience recordings - what would become a recurrent strategy - and mastered without production tweaks, evoking the sound of a classic bootleg. Similarly, the austere cardboard package with modern-primitive black ink drawings gave the set a personal touch. After a series of ambitious multi-tracked studio projects for Columbia and JMT, it was a departure.
"I wanted to exorcise those things, Berne explains, "and make a statement to myself, like I don't need to be in a recording studio or spend a lot of money to make a good record. I needed to prove that again. The first of 16 releases, and one of Screwgun's most popular titles, Unwound
verified that. The trademark serpentine sax lines and episodic compositions are dramatic in these performances.
Initially, he was wary that the venture might be perceived as a step back from having the validation of label representation. But when JMT folded, Berne needed to act. An encounter with saxophonist John Zorn, who had recently started his Tzadik label, and the encouragement of his family and friends, inspired him to take on the role of label founder a second time.
A relatively unknown Berne started his first label, Empire, in 1978. As a young musician he worked alongside his mentor saxophonist Julius Hemphill, learning the music business, how to produce records and work outside the establishment. Empire was successful, selling enough for Berne to make money and establish himself. Though recording and producing CDs is cheaper and more accessible than cutting vinyl LPs, Berne thinks it was easier the first time around. More music distributors and hip, independent record stores were willing to take a chance. And perhaps more significantly, there was less competition. In the last few years more jazz artists have started labels, including bassist Dave Holland and the Marsalis family. Berne is glad he started Screwgun when he did, reaching his audience and establishing the imprint before artist labels were as common.
"If I didn't put out stuff that people wanted, it wouldn't work, says Berne. "You just gotta have a vibe, a certain consistent belief in what you're doing. Boasting an estimated 80% rate of return business and financial self-sufficiency through sales of CDs (through distributors, at concerts and online) and scores of his compositions, Berne's personal approach works.
Berne runs a streamlined business to keep costs low, aided only by webmaster Jason Tors and graphic designer Stephen Byram. Personal involvement has allowed him to interact with his audience, getting firsthand reactions to the music while taking orders through the website.
Berne views the business as part of the creative process and the price of retaining ownership and is not discouraged by dealing with manufacturers, filling mail orders and assembling CD inserts himself. He takes pride in making it work and has fun devising guerrilla strategies, seeing how weird he can get with the label. This has included recipes and jokes embedded in the liner notes, in addition to his typical plays-on-words with song titles.
"We still do anything that occurs to us, says Byram, who has designed all the Screwgun releases and encouraged Berne to start the label. Byram's distinctive visual style of skittering lines and oblique images and his willingness to work with the early cardboard packages helped establish the label's identity, making it instantly recognizable. "We work in different mediums, but I think we certainly share a sensibility, Byram notes of Berne.
As those sensibilities and Berne's music evolved, so has Screwgun. After the early slate of live recordings from Bloodcount and his improvising Paraphrase trio, Berne went back to the studio. Not content to repeat himself, he formed a new electro-acoustic quartet for Science Friction
, using the studio to enhance the details and sounds of keyboardist Craig Taborn. Another change for Screwgun has been narrowing the focus to Berne's projects. Initially, he released CDs by associates, including a reissue of Hemphill's Blue Boye
; solo efforts from guitarist Marc Ducret and bassist Michael Formanek; and Quiet Nights
, the ambitious studio effort from multi- instrumentalist Django Bates. The latter was one of the label's best sellers, as Berne made efforts to promote the CD and bring attention to Bates and Screwgun. But the time demands and responsibility became too much for Berne to feel comfortable putting out others' music. Knowing his audience, he feels he can put out his music without worrying about sales.
This confidence may explain the recent releases of two Berne projects within just a few months. The first was Feign
, a studio recording by his Hard Cell trio. Made just after a tour, it was recorded and mixed live to two tracks by engineer Hector Castillo and producer David Torn, a longtime Screwgun collaborator. The performances are vibrant like a concert, but with more clarity of sound. The second, Pre-Emptive Denial
, was a live recording by Paraphrase reminiscent of earlier releases, coming from an audience tape. The group knew at the time it was a great gig - decisive improvisations and clear ideas. When someone gave Berne the tape, he wanted to put it out immediately.
"When you can get a gig that is balanced, even if the sounds aren't incredible, it still has a certain amount of impact that you can't get in a studio, Berne says. Though he wouldn't put out anything that he couldn't enjoy listening to sonically, he has always been more concerned about the energy than the sound purity: the bootleg aesthetic of the label. Though conventional record business wisdom would have held one CD for later release, Berne has never been about business models and catchphrases, relying instead on his enthusiasm and belief in his music.
"My biggest disappointment with recording for other people is what happens after the record comes out, he says. "It's rare that the label will be as passionate as the musicians are about their work. And that's what sells records, the passion.
Screwgun Records reviews at All About Jazz.