In the music industry, there are few labels that aren’t under the control of one of the three remaining majors record companies (Universal, Sony, and Warner), let alone truly independent ones. We all thought the experience of actually going to a brick-and-mortar record store died when megastore retailer Tower Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006. Initially the reason quoted by most industry experts was that Tower succumbed to complacent management action in the face of diminishing profits due to digital sales.
One area that is booming is the new crop of your basic old-school neighborhood record store, and I mean real records. Usually run by old veterans, either collectors or musicians themselves. Man, these cats have great knowledge of all the genres they carry in their stores and, if they were around long enough, hidden treasures in the Jazz bins, full of the dust and smoke as we remember from the basement digs in NYC jazz venues. Ah, waxing nostalgic about pressings on wax. OK, wake me up!
Most music industry followers suggest nostalgia is driving a resurgence in vinyl sales. Vintage is king with hipsters (they’re bringing typewriters to Starbucks in Brooklyn) and all of us of the age where we want to recover some of those cherished items that Mom sold at her garage sale before moving to Florida. The question for some serious producers is, “Can nostalgia turn a profit?”. Some of the major, innovative jazz labels seem to think so as will be presented later in this article. But first let’s look beyond the “fad” side of the growing interest in vinyl.
From an audio perspective, vinyl’s analog quality and warmth seems to resonate with people on a deeper level than digital does. There is a tendency to embrace vinyl for serious lovers of music because many of the current forms available, such as CDs and downloads are largely unsatisfying delivery mechanisms for music. What is also sorely lacking is the social element, that tactile and perceptual element that is delivered by spinning vinyl to experience a deep experience which allow aspects of the large format LP design and cover to communicate to the listener. After all, any serious lover of classic Jazz recording from the heyday of vinyl release would immediately recognize a CTI or ECM cover or the unique, distinctive voice of a Rudy Van Gelder engineered-recording which created that original Blue Note sound.
What is missing in the digital world is the experience of learning about jazz and jazz artists through the journalistic art of liner notes. We established a personal connection to the artist, either what was written by themselves or what was written by a small collection of true jazz journalists. Spinning that record, deep listening and following the story written in the liner notes helped to understand the true nature of the artist.
One of the all-time favorites of the jazz journalists was Leonard Feather. Waxing poetic, he provided a mind’s eye view of the visual imagery and history about the artist we were immersed in. You had to love it when it would take a whole album side to read the liner notes – “Damn! What did he just play? I have to re-spin that.”
So while the cover’s whimsical design, the emulation of a Klee painting on Verve and the other-worldly photographs that have adorned so many ECM LPs are wonderful for the “look and feel” and compelling liner notes in which we search for meaning; what we are really looking for here for is that great expectation of what we will be listening to, not just hearing, but interpreting – a soulful revelation of the juxtaposition of structure and improvisation. The sound engineer sets the stage and the musicians let it blow.
Many of the old great jazz labels are investing in the sensitive conversion, from analog master tapes, to delivery to both the new high definition digital realm and the classic allure of a masterpiece re-issued on vinyl. These recording are just too valuable and were perfected by engineers to capture that moment of creation by some of our greatest musicians.
“My goal is to make the musicians sound the way they want to be heard.” – R. Van Gelder
Not to take anything away from all the phenomenal jazz musicians who recorded for Blue Note, we cannot separate a key element of the key to the quality their recordings – their high dynamic range and lifelike presence – as invented by sound engineer, Rudy Van Gelder. It was his tape equipment, choice and placement of microphones, working magic at his mixing desk, the selection and rejection of takes, and the active supervision of the whole recording process through to cutting of the master lacquer that created the “Blue Note sound”.
We understand the engineer is key to what we want to listen to, but why the desire to embrace vinyl with such fervor at this time?
Labels have a catalog of great recordings and there needs to be an outlet to still keep the music present in all its consumable forms. You cannot just release what was re-mastered for CD or iTunes as that is surely an abbreviated version of the original. Those re-masters may have most likely lost some of the musical information that we perceive as depth and space.
“Ultimately, we decided that our goal would be to protect the original intentions of the artists, producers and engineers who made these records and that, in the case of pre-digital-era albums, these intentions were best represented by the sound and feel of their first-edition vinyl releases.”, states Don Was, President, Blue Note Records on a recent update to their website.
I don’t know about you but I can’t wait to get my hands on some of the old classics I had to buy on CD re-issues because when the original LPs came out, I was still in grade school and just progressed from progressive rock to fusion. Though I loved the Blue Note and Impulse classic recording, I just didn’t have enough cash as a teenager to build my collection. Finding these classic recordings in today’s market, even for a dealer, is a pretty intense labor of love. Now we have audiophile re-issues…Get me the catalog, now here is my order!