Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Irony, and the Small World of Jazz

Almost a year ago, Life Is Loud was placed in the "New Releases" section on the iTunes jazz page. This section displays eight albums at a time on the home page, and then you can click over to the next eight, etc., for four pages of albums. As new albums are added, the older titles slide down the ladder until they fall off the last page.

Life Is Loud sold fairly well for a self-released album, reaching #31 on the iTunes jazz chart. Around that time it was added to a new feature they stuck in the middle of the jazz page, called "Major Releases." It's been there ever since, but as you can see in the picture above, it's about to get bumped.

The word "Major" can mean several things, but in the music business it typically means having to do with one of the major labels. I worked at a major label, but my album was released on my own. In fact, if you browse this small corner of the iTunes Store, most of the albums in the jazz Major Release section are not on a major label.

There are only two types of jazz I really see being released on major labels now:

1) Crossover Jazz/Vocal. These are releases that are perhaps made by artists that can play jazz, but the music on their albums is a watered down version of what they can really do. Diana Krall, who's new album was just released by my former collegues at Verve, is a great example of this. The woman can play some great jazz piano, but how long has it been since we heard anything that really turned our heads (as far as jazz musicians are concerned). There are plenty of male crooners that fall into this category as well.

Typically, if people use the word "jazzy" to describe your music, it's just another way of saying the music is "jazz-like" which is another way of saying "not quite jazz."

2) Jazz Legends. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins... these guys can release albums on major labels because they are iconic figures among the jazz populace. People still take note when they release albums, even if their albums don't make much money for the label (though they can also make plenty of money for the label because of the relatively low marketing budgets associated with these albums).

Of course, for every jazz icon that releases an album on a major label there are many more that go the independent route. Similar to what we saw with Radiohead and Trent Reznor, these are artists that have well established reputations and large followings, so they're going to sell records even if it means fans have to go to their garage sale to buy them.

There are exceptions to both these rules, of course, but the majority of cutting edge jazz is being released on small labels or entirely independently. Jazz has been a niche genre ever since the '50s when big bands (of the swing/dance variety) started to decline in popularity and the rock'n'roll generation started listening to, well, rock'n'roll.

I'm not trying to blog a music history lesson, I'm just trying to make the point that in terms of market share, jazz has long had a small but dedicated fan base. And it gets divided even amongst the fans to even smaller sub-genres. I'm sure there are plenty jazz police who would never consider my music to be jazz. That's ok though, because there are plenty of people who like it, at least enough to sustain a dozen or so album sales every week.

Jazz used to be a bad word, but I think the current shift in music consumerism is going to change that. It turns out people are willing to listen to almost anything online, try new kinds of music and form their own opinion. Genres have always been labels given to music to help record stores organize their bins, but stores like CD Baby have been expanding their genre and sub-genre listing to help people explore very specific types of music. To most people, music is just music. Everyone is influenced by everything else, and artists shove all their influences into their heads for a while in hopes of making some kind of music that's completely unique and recognizable.

So perhaps the word "Major" will start to take on new meanings in places like the iTunes jazz page. Instead of having something to do with an album's means of release, it'll be more about the impact of the music.

1 comment:

AfricanABC said...

Nice article.
Perhaps one day the term "jazz" will be replaced? Still drives me nuts seeing Kenny G in the same section as John Coltrane in a CD store :-)