Beyond Labels

It may be difficult to recall the incredible excitement that greeted the release, in 1973, of Martin Williams’ The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a mail-order phenomenon that, to the slight embarrassment of the institution that financed it with tax dollars, went double-platinum. One of the things that made it newsworthy was the cooperation of many record labels, allowing Williams to freely choose selections. In those days, record companies acted like feudal lords, and in most instances were no more interested in combining forces than Sunni and Shia.

Hardly anyone paid much attention when Columbia and Verve allowed their catalogs to be plucked for a series of 2001 reissues under the brand name of Ken Burns. By then, cooperation was no longer novel. In any case, the issue had been largely mooted as labels swallowed each other and were, in turn, swallowed by larger corporations that had tangential ties to music, if any. Still, a lack of imagination in rethinking the potential for jazz reissues as, for example, Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary and Fantasy huddled under one umbrella, and Verve, Impulse!, Decca and Mercury huddled under another, was dispiriting.

Something about the territorial rights of record labels remained intransigent, as if a sentimental attachment to lifeless catalogs overwhelmed the desire to explore immortal works. Mosaic Records has become something of a shrine to the idea of favoring corporate completion over critical anthologies, in part because it started when corporate divisions were still meaningful and because its limited editions are designed for serious collectors. Yet conventional labels had already moved in that direction, replacing The Best of Joe Blow with The Complete Joe Blow, Vol. 9, May – September, 1957. Consumers were asked to treasure incomplete takes and the restoration of excised choruses—a juxtaposition of good, bad and ugly that supplanted unadorned joy with grist for numberless unwritten theses.

The question of reissues may seem quaint, given the shakiness of the entire recording industry. Besides, the matter has been decided by the public and the dominant technology. Up-market consumers pursue elaborate box sets; the masses download single tracks. As for critical anthologies, we now make our own: Every iPod is a canon unto itself. Consumers of contemporary pop complain that most albums are rip-offs, since the average listener only wants three or four tracks. When you recall that a double-sided 45-rpm single sold for 79 cents more than four decades ago, the present cost of 99 cents per track represents one of the lowest markups (2.5) in the economy—especially if you also recall that you never listened to the flip side. On the other hand, an LP in that era sold for $3, while a CD now goes for almost five times as much.

The iPod-ization of music has, inevitably, hit the market for jazz reissues. A few months ago, I found myself writing about a King Oliver solo on a Sippie Wallace track that I did not have on CD. A year or so ago, I would have walked to Tower to look for an import anthology, and, striking out there, would have taken the PATH to the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. Instead, I followed the advice of my daughter and was astonished to discover that I could download it in seconds. A friend of mine, who recently discovered his love of jazz, spends hours surfing through iTunes—apparently deriving the same kind of pleasure I used to get picking through bins in retail stores, back when we had retail stores.

These thoughts are generated by recent events at Sony BMG Music, a name that for many of us is merely corporate-speak for the once-unimaginable merger of the two most ferociously rivalrous record labels in history, RCA Victor and Columbia Records. In the 1960s, when Horowitz was lured from the former to the latter or Ormandy went the reverse route, it was front-page news—as it had been in 1940, when RCA enticed Ellington and Columbia nailed Goodman, or earlier still, when RCA outsmarted Columbia by giving Toscanini his own orchestra, and Columbia responded by signing Stokowski and everyone else with an open contract.

Now that they are bedded together, owning more than 60 active or recently active subsidiary labels (not including prehistoric banners like OKeh, Brunswick or Victor), the potential for re-conceptualizing the presentation of American recorded music—Sony BMG has a near-monopoly on prewar jazz—is mind-boggling. The reality is that, in addition to thousands of jobs lost when the merger went into effect in 2004, the company has now fired most of the Jazz Legacy staff, declaring a moratorium on jazz old and new. The new monolith has not a single jazz artist under contract and no plans to reissue classic material.

In a recent meeting with two Sony executives, both subsequently laid-off, I was told that they could not justify re-releasing unavailable Louis Armstrong, let alone King Oliver (in the 25 years since the advent of the CD, Columbia has never issued an Oliver collection) because it is all public domain. Even the all-time bestselling My Fair Lady would be up for grabs in 2007, one of them argued. When I pointed out Columbia’s prior insistence that it owned everything in perpetuity, a fact made law by recent copyright revisions, he pointed out that that applied only in the United States; in the age of the web, consumers can buy editions from England, where the copyright is only 50 years.

This made no sense (domestic product can be cheaper, better designed, more comprehensive, more easily distributed), until the subtext of the conversation rose to the surface: The new company is interested in making movies and has basically lost interest in music, particularly niche music that turns a small (if steady) profit. Moreover, it is admittedly stymied by iTunes and the dearth of retail outlets. The record business has been declared moribund in the past. In the 1920s and 1930s, pundits insisted that it could never withstand the rise of radio, which, in fact, exponentially broadened it. A cure is harder to see when the business itself wants out.

New music, including jazz, will continue to flourish with small companies and in self-production. If Sony BMG feels no obligation toward its archival history, the least it could do is open its vaults for fire-sale leasing. It’s undoubtedly too much to ask the Supreme Court to examine its foul copyright extensions. The fact that this Japanese-German holding company can insist that it continues to own classic 1923 American records, which it has no interest in marketing, is obscene.

Originally published in April 2007

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