June 2003 By Christopher Porter
Osby’s Art Deserves a Forum
Choosing our cover artist is always tricky. We have to find someone who will translate into newsstand sales and fit our instrument-themed issues;someone who is opinionated and artistically strong enough to merit large-scale coverage.
We chose Greg Osby this time around for several reasons: he’s an amazing artist, he’s a good interview and he’s very photogenic. That’s not to say Roy Hargrove isn’t also talented and handsome; he just doesn’t play saxophone. But Ken Vandermark does play sax, and he does so very well. He’s also outspoken and has a good look for the newsstand.
So if Osby and Vandermark are both talented, talky and photogenic, why did we go with the former rather than the latter? It must be because Osby sells way more CDs than Vandermark, which means he has more fans, which means we’d have better magazine sales, right? Not necessarily.
While it’s undeniable that Osby’s Q rating is considerably higher than Vandermark’s, his record sales are not. If you remove Osby’s best-selling disc, 1993’s 3-D Lifestyles (just over 15,000 to date), and take the average sales of his eight CDs since then (not counting the new one), the number is just over 3,600. (Two Osby CDs have sold almost twice that; the others average about 1,000 less.) Meanwhile, according to Atavistic’s Kurt Kellison, average sales for the Vandermark 5 is more than 5,000.
When you think about the power behind Osby’s albums, the mighty Blue Note, and how that translates into average sales that are less than what the Vandermark 5 sells for Atavistic, an indie label run by one person, it’s an eyeopener—strictly from the business side. Artistically,both of these artists are at extremely high levels, and they both deserve larger audiences.
What the stats for these artists reveal is the disconnect between serious music and sales. It also reveals that Blue Note believes in Osby as an artist 100 percent and is willing to support the alto saxophonist even though, as Bruce Lundvall says in Ashley Kahn’s cover feature,he’s “not necessarily paying the bills.” (I think Norah Jones cuts the checks around there.)
Companies need to be run as companies; I believe in free enterprise and the right to make money. But I think Blue Note deserves props for sticking with Greg Osby these past 13 years because the label so firmly believes in his music. He’s a major voice in jazz, one who will, in the long run, make the label money and bring it prestige—just like the many genius Blue Note artists that came before Osby. They didn’t necessarily have the initial sales to match their irreplaceable contributions to the art either.
Originally published in June 2003