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Digital Rhythms: Embracing Online Music Distribution

The inside of Robert Caldwell’s rec room could double as a boutique gallery featuring images of jazz legends. There’s Dizzy Gillespie caught in performance at New York’s Royal Roost in 1948. The picture is joined by Art Kane’s “Jazz Portrait Harlem 1958.” There’s also Ray Charles, Miles Davis and others. For Caldwell, a high school English teacher who resides in a Baltimore suburb, the aesthetics of jazz are just as important as its rhythms and melodies, which he collects on vinyl and compact disc. At last count, about half of his few thousand titles are jazz.

Caldwell doesn’t download music, ever. He’d rather drive as far as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to rummage through the bins at music stores, even though the artists he seeks are just a few clicks away on his home computer. “I like the feeling of going into a store and seeing the products there and searching and sometimes gambling on artists I never heard of before,” says Caldwell, 43, who’s been buying music since the third grade. “I always read all the liner notes, and I eventually see these artists playing with other musicians or coming out with their own projects.”

Caldwell’s buying habits mimic those of the majority of jazz fans, according to a recent study by the NPD Group, a market research firm. Most jazz sales, about 79 percent, were made from stores versus some 18 percent from the Internet. But those figures are almost reversed for general music buys, where 75 percent of purchases were made online.

The rising popularity of buying music through digital downloads is discouraging to collectors like Caldwell, who is representative of a generation to which music is more than sound: It’s a tactile display of words and images, packaged with a CD or vinyl, that provides a complete experience. Those tastes, however, are at odds with those of fans who care more about the portability of music on cell phones and digital players. And that sentiment should only gain momentum if Apple gets close to predictions that it will sell some 10 million iPhones (a cell phone with an iPod built in) over the coming year. The ubiquity of portable music devices coupled with the rise in downloads has moved some labels like Ropeadope to release titles in a digital-only format.

“This is the biggest change since going from live music to physical recordings,” says Jon Kertzer, senior music programmer for the Zune music store-Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s iTunes. “It is a displacement of time and space and the ability to share music and pass it around. Eventually, you will be able to wirelessly beam music down to wherever you are, whatever song you want.”

Music on demand, whenever and wherever, may whet the appetites of those who live by downloads, but the thought of songs stored as a file on a hard drive leaves Caldwell cold. “On one hand, I know it helps to preserve the music, but in another sense it takes away from the recording,” says Caldwell, who if given a choice always buys vinyl. “Some people say they don’t like the hiss and pop and they take that away so they can get the clearest possible recording, and sometimes it just takes away from the rawness of it.”

There are musicians, record execs and other industry players who are caught between their own sensibilities about the lure of physical recordings and the increasing popularity of downloads. The availability of digital releases, especially older material not issued in physical forms, promises to give access to more music to more people than at any point in history. But in the short term, this will create a fragmented listenership between the wired and unwired. And up to this point, downloading has thrived on a one-song model, in which consumers cherry-pick the tunes they want. Even those who believe downloading will become the dominant form of music distribution concede that jazz is and should remain an album-focused genre.

Bassist and composer Christian McBride sees the shift to downloads as a kind of throwback to the popularity of 45s, when songs were acquired cheaply but fans didn’t get the artwork or liner notes that completed the music’s story. “You had a visual to go along with the music, but it wasn’t too much, not like a video where you lose your imagination,” McBride says, recalling the artwork on Marvin Gaye’s Live at the London Palladium. “You could kinda look at the photos and think, ‘I wonder what song he was singing when they took that picture?’ or you’d look at his mouth and see how it curved and try to figure out what word he was singing at that time.”

But the emotional ties to physical music and the one-dimensional packaging that accompanies it are fading as younger audiences, nurtured on multimedia displays, are embracing new connections to the music, says Jeff Price, founder of online music distributor TuneCore. “It is not what I grew up on, but for somebody else it’s a whole new experience in the way that they view it,” Price says. “The idea that you get one piece of 12-inch vinyl and a cardboard sleeve? I can’t talk to the artist and communicate with other people who are fans? There is no interactivity. … I can’t turn it into a ringtone to express my identity. … That is a limited experience.”

McBride’s 2006 three-CD set, Live at Tonic, was one of the few physical releases on Ropeadope that year. He says he likes the option of being able to make downloadable recordings because it keeps him in the public’s ear. “It takes the pressure off having to wait 15 or 16 months until you have more product out there and everyone forgets about you.” But he’s not sure whether the immediacy of downloads will spur artists to create better tracks. “I think it is a pretty good option to have for guys who create a lot as opposed to musicians who take a workmanlike approach. I think only time will tell whether this is a good thing or not.”

McBride envisions putting out Web-only releases, but only as a prelude to a bigger event. Still captured by the lure of a physical package, he stops short of supporting an all-digital project. “An Internet-only album? I’m not quite sure if I am ready for that yet.”

Saxophonist Greg Osby has a different view. He thinks jazz needs more good singles to stimulate fan interest and that the deluge of subpar album releases has helped push consumers to embrace single-song downloads. “It’s all about stimulating the audience and providing a lure,” he says. “Right now, I’m sure there is a backlash with the substandard releases that have been issued. People pay full price for a CD, and when they get home there are one or two tracks that are memorable.”

Osby is also unsure whether the new download environment will lead to better tunes. “It’s a crap shoot. Now that the floodgates are open, everyone has access to digital recording at home. It also raises the opportunity for massive mediocrity.”

While music is available on his Web site, it isn’t for sale; Osby uses it as a promotional tool to keep and attract fans. He started posting recordings of his concerts after the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh told him the band always allowed fans to tape their performances and share them with others, providing they don’t sell copies. Osby’s been touring with the bassist’s offshoot group Phil Lesh and Friends on and off for the past six years. He says Lesh told him the bootlegs kept the Dead-who disbanded upon Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995-hot even when they weren’t touring. Since he started the postings, Osby says it’s stimulated his retail sales. “I get a lot of Deadheads that come to my shows because of the association.”

Not too long ago, Zune’s Kertzer, an ethnomusicologist and founder of the Smithsonian Global Sound Project, came upon a rare find. He struck a deal with a South African label, Gallo Records, and was able to post a week-long feature on the country’s jazz offerings that featured a group called the Jazz Epistles.

Albums from the group contained the first recordings of Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela in 1959. The releases were available in digital format only, and Kertzer isn’t sure if the sessions will make it onto a physical product. Thus that music might be unavailable to fans who aren’t wired.

While it may seem that access to Web-enabled computers is as common as indoor plumbing, it isn’t. A 2006 study by the Leichtman Research Group found that 69 percent of U.S. households subscribed to an online service and, of that, 60 percent had high-speed Internet access. As the primary means of acquiring music shifts to downloads, the result will likely create a fractured fan base, as opposed to shared experiences in which all consumers have access to all music at the same time.

“That will definitely be the case,” McBride says. “I think we are creating millions and millions of little tiny pockets for every artist. And the landscape as a whole will not know what is going on with everyone else.”

Andy Hurwitz, founder of Ropeadope, said his label has put out 14 digital releases this year and no CDs. The move is in part driven by the need for independent labels to stay lean and keep operating costs low. For most labels, a successful jazz record produces about 10,000 in sales. For Ropeadope, sales usually peak at 7,000. After paying the artist, making the discs and marketing and promoting the project, there is little profit left.

“It becomes impossible to make money off the CD,” Hurwitz says. “It may be two or three years down the line from a CD’s release that we make money, if we are lucky.” Consumer appetite for downloads and the almost nonexistent profit margins on CDs are pushing more labels to test the waters of digital-only releases. Hurwitz says when his label releases download-only music it ends up in the black on the first sale. “It completely changes the whole equation for us.”

Further complicating broad access to music is the increasing decline of brick-and-mortar music stores, epitomized by the demise of the Tower Records chain last year. “I feel like that gets lost in this whole debate,” says Hurwitz. “It was one of the catalysts that led Ropeadope to change our plans. CD sales are going to go down if there is nowhere to find CDs, and no one talks about that.”

Musicians and fans bemoaned the end of Tower because of its large inventory of jazz that spanned the genre’s history and subcategories; shoppers weren’t confined to the popular releases of the moment. “It was devastating,” says Perry Greenfield, product manager for Blue Note. “It was like a light switch went off. There was a definite change in the market. At Tower they had deep shelf space for catalog, which is a large part of our income.”

The virtual marketplace, on the other hand, presents a cornucopia of nonphysical “shelf space” and new opportunities for labels, artists and fans. The expanse of the digital environment is what led Price to start TuneCore, a Brooklyn-based online music distributor launched in January 2006. Any artist with a finished product can come to TuneCore to get their music placed on iTunes or any other music store for the cost of a pizza.

“So for the first time in the history of the music industry, any artist or musician, or anyone who controlled a master, has the opportunity to have their music in any store and get 100 percent of the revenue from their music,” Price says. In the past, artists, especially independent talent, had to turn over the rights to master recordings, and in many cases hand over a percentage of their sales to gain access to brick-and-mortar stores. Not anymore. TuneCore’s latest success story is Ziggy Marley’s Love Is My Religion, which won a Grammy this year for best reggae album. “He used TuneCore to deliver the album to iTunes,” says Price. “It sold 50 or 60,000 copies at iTunes and he got 100 percent of the revenue.” TuneCore gets paid based on the number of albums and songs sold, as well as the number of stores the music gets placed in.

As a greater number of releases are sold online and in digital-only formats, figuring out what’s worthy and what isn’t is becoming more difficult for consumers to decipher. To navigate the flood of music, a number of Web-based stores offer fans suggestions on what to listen to. Zune, for instance, offers playlists composed of 12 to 15 tracks in various genres to encourage discovery of new sounds.

Lately, Kertzer’s been able to get artists such as Pat Metheny to share their favorite tracks. “I talked to Pat recently, and he was listening to Brazilian music, so I said, ‘Give me 10 tracks.’ The ultimate challenge for us is that you have millions of songs: What are you going to listen to? You need trusted guides. If you’re a Pat Metheny fan why not have him tell you?”

Virtual music store eMusic features an online magazine that helps users wade through the site’s 2.5 million tracks. The site is unique because it sells files in the MP3 format, which make them compatible with any portable music device and allows them to be burned onto CD. Rob Wetstone, vice president of label relations, said the magazine has always been a key feature. “It is hugely important for users because this is independent music, not music that people have heard of,” he says. “That is why the magazine is so complementary to the music.” Recent postings included a Q&A with Ornette Coleman.

Last year, jazz sales accounted for about eight percent of eMusic’s sales, well above the two percent recorded for jazz sales industry-wide. Wetstone believes the high numbers are tied to the site’s access to the Concord and Riverside labels’ offerings. “Concord is by far easily in our top five labels every quarter,” he says. “It’s a kick-ass catalog and our audience base is very jazz-focused.”

At, founder and publisher Michael Ricci has created a site that embraces all the textures of jazz, connects fans and helps visitors find good music. “We are able to reach some of these people and not necessarily convert them into jazz fans, but we provide a gateway into jazz where they can explore things and purchase the music.” Launched in May of this year, the site offers downloads from 25 labels, and Ricci intends to build a comprehensive store that rivals iTunes and eMusic in jazz offerings. He says while Ropeadope has been aggressive in adopting digital-only releases, a number of labels still haven’t made a commitment to a virtual sales strategy.

“We are in a state of flux,” Ricci says, “and where we are in the process I don’t know.” But he does feel that labels are going to have to gear up for a future without CDs as a generational shift of download fans makes up the majority of music sales. “The old listeners are going to die off, and the younger people are the ones who are going to purchase the music, and that will drive the demand,” he says. “Kids are going to want it in digital form.”

Blue Note’s Greenfield says the label may do a digital-only release in the future, but isn’t ready to turn its back on brick-and-mortar stores. He points to the success of Robert Glasper’s recent release, In My Element, which achieved 70 percent of its sales from CD purchases. “There is still a significant base out there that appreciates a physical product,” he says.

Violinist Jeff Gauthier is betting that music fans who appreciate a well-packaged CD will win out as he presses forward with his Cryptogramophone label, dedicated to recording exploratory jazz. The Los Angeles-based label has gained a reputation for artful packaging that makes use of unique photos and graphics to complement the music. Gauthier started the label with a core group of musicians who wanted to break away from the dependence on reinterpreting standards. He remains unmoved by the emerging shift to downloads. “If we relied on trends and popular tastes we wouldn’t be producing jazz records; we’d be doing something else,” he says.

Gauthier’s also the force behind The site was created to market artists who wanted to stretch the boundaries of jazz and to distribute music that isn’t marketed through other venues. Indiejazz sells CDs and may offer downloads in the future.

Gauthier is passionate about presenting music in a physical form and worries that jazz will lose its luster as digital music gains prominence. “I am concerned about the future of improvised music,” he says. “I think jazz can become in danger of being marginalized, so it is more inspiration for us to work harder to present music in new and different ways.”

But the feeling among many in the music industry is that CDs will eventually become as rare as vinyl; collectors’ items, perhaps. Some estimates say Apple sold half a million iPhones in the first week of the product’s release. Artists are creating fan loyalty through personal Web sites that replace the marketing and promotional tools used by major record labels. And greater access to broadband and more portable music players all point to a future in which the principal mode of connecting to music will be through a computer.

“I see people still struggling and still in denial,” says Ropeadope’s Hurwitz. “Every day there is a new chapter, and every day the story becomes clear. I don’t think at the end of the day there are any real answers, but the only truth is that everything is definitely changing in a big way.”

Originally Published