December 1998

Label Watch: Passage Records

Artists start their own labels for a multitude of reasons. Usually, it begins with sheer, blind idealism and frustration with the industry powers that be. For Phil Sheeran, a smooth jazz guitarist out of Los Angeles, the seeds were sown over a specific issue: ownership of master tapes.

To hear him tell it, Sheeran started his label, Passage Records, three years ago because he wanted to continue making albums while retaining control of rights to his master recordings. As he said, from his office in Tarzana, California, “I watched a lot of my friends make deals, where they would put out several records for a label and they don’t own any of their masters. In some cases, the album will go out of print or they’d pull it from distribution, and they couldn’t even get copies of their own record.”

In forming Passage, Sheeran “wanted to work in conjunction with the artists, and they actually make their own masters and produce it. They’ve done their half of the business. We market it for them, but they still own it. It’s really a partnership, in a way, with all the artists on the label and ourselves.”

Including the two reissues of early albums—whose masters he bought back from the original label—Sheeran himself now has five titles on Passage, including the recent Orchid, featuring noted guest artists Eric Marienthal, Harvey Mason, Will Kennedy, and Andy Narell. The sound is reliably, categorically smooth and tasteful.

But some jazz aficionados know Passage better for one of its alter egos, as the home of dynamic straightahead pianist Phil Markowitz, whose bold two albums for Passage, In the Woods and Taxi Ride, feature uncompromising blowing and writing, the kind of jazz you’ll never hear in a dentist office. More straightahead material can be heard on the Seattle-based Milo Peterson and the Jazz Disciples.

Add to this the Passage titles that find their place in the New Age market—by guitarist Andre Feriante, David Friedman, and Canadian Art Turner—and you have a decidedly split marketing personality.

Ironically, the three-faced label identity came later in the development of the company, originally intended to specialize in contemporary jazz fare. But he determined that it would be smarter to tap into other musical markets.

“A lot of it has come down to what my musical tastes are,” Sheeran comments. “I like straightahead jazz and also a lot of what might, for lack of a better term, fit into the New Age bins but which I prefer to call contemporary instrumental music coming out now.”

The clear split between contemporary jazz and mainstream jazz isn’t so hard and fast, in Sheeran’s opinion. “Personally,” he said, “I think that most people who pick up something from any one of our artists could turn around and buy a straightahead project, and will like it. Most people like a certain contemporary jazz, and straightahead jazz, too. They like jazz. To them, it’s all jazz.

“Musicians and writers get into the fine points, whether it’s post-bop, or bebop, or cool jazz. We break it down. But to the average listener, a lot of times, they just hear it as jazz.”

That’s a point of possible contention, but the diversity hasn’t hurt the evolution of Passage. “We’ve been pretty consistent in our releases,” he points out. “We’ve had three straightahead projects, four `New Age,’ contemporary instrumental albums, and five contemporary jazz albums. We’ve been consistent in that we’re continuing to release product in all those areas, so we have a name in all of them.”

As he has built up Passage, Sheeran has learned to deal with the inherent juggling act of musician and mini-mogul. “I have to wear a lot of hats. It’s been a phenomenal experience, as far as really learning the end of what happens to a record once you complete the master. For awhile, when I first started the label, it was consuming every minute I had. It would continue to do that if I let it, so I have to cut things off and say `OK, at 5 o’clock, the business side shuts down, and I become a musician.’

“And I’ve always got my guitar right next to the desk and will practice and work on things. But it’s really a right brain/left brain thing. You do have to shut down one side to open up the other side. I’ve gotten better at doing it.”

The label recently struck a distribution deal with Focus Distribution, whose marketing efforts should help the process of getting Passage products increasing exposure.

“As far as what we’re planning in the future, it’s definitely to continue releasing the best jazz that we can, on a high level of musicality and continuing to build our concept, which is an artist-friendly label, on which artists can own their own recordings.

“Someday,” he adds, “I hope possibly that we’ll help change a small part of the way the industry works, and that artists will have a choice to own their masters or not.”

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