Last issue I bitched about the fallacy of empowerment. You may wonder how one could be so disenchanted, considering how much money my various bands earned while touring an average four to six months a year with a recording output of almost an album per year for the last ten years. You might even consider me ungrateful. Another “whiner” you might say. My problem is not, however, only mine. Hordes of us run into the brick wall that the corpobop interests built around us. It’s a myth that there isn’t enough work out there for us all. There’s work out there. A lot of it. You couldn’t get to all the gigs that are available in a lifetime. But what gigs and at what level? You can survive, and play your music. Hey, You get points for surviving, but unless you’re a member of the corpo-bop clique you can only go so far before you run into that wall.
The problem is one of access. The big record companies have control of artists access to their audience base as well as audience access to their artists. For any performing artist in any genre the name of the game is audience building. The key to any musician’s ability to make a decent living from their art is the constant expansion and cultivation of a of a solid fan base from which each fan will buy at least one of your recordings and pay for at least one public performance per year.
When I was with Cannonball in the early seventies, we toured fifty weeks a year for almost three years straight. Did the circuit in the U.S. three times. I noticed that the same fans kept coming back to our performances. Got to the point where we were almost on a first name basis with them. As an exercise, I did a ballpark count of the number of seats in all the clubs and festivals we played and doubled it to come up with a estimate that Cannonball had a worldwide audience of about 100,000 fans, with and attrition of old fans and new fan rate of about 5%. This fan base could support his band for the rest of his career. Even if you figure that only 50% of Cannon’s fan base bought one CD a year (@ $15), that would come to a gross income figure of $750,000. If only 50% of his audience paid $25 once a year to hear his band, that would gross $1,000,000. Although wasn’t privy the finances of Cannon’s band and had no hard and fast figures, extrapolating backwards from the amount of gigs he got and the number of records he made, I came up with a basic figure of what they’d have to earn to keep that band on the road, a recording contract, pay his agent and salaries and touring expenses.
Everyone can’t be as busy as Cannon’s band was. After all, he reputedly had one of the longest running bands in jazz, second only to the MJQ. But we of lessor marquee value don’t need to have the same numbers for our careers to work for us. An audience base of 25% of Cannon’s figures would be sufficient to make a living wage from our art. But the corpobob interests have successfully blocked us from access to most of the larger venues from which we could increase our audience base.
These big record companies are often subsidiaries of larger corporations, many of which are again subsidiaries of even bigger corporations.They can afford to pour mucho bucks into promotion that we can’t, even if thier artists aren’t earning their keep. I know one major label who’s flagship artist is not selling enough records to keep him on the label. They are keeping him on the label however, because they don’t want anyone else to get him and he makes the label look good.
How is this possible? Because they can afford to function at a loss! We can’t.
It’s no secret among us that visibility is the key to audience building. Look at any business’s cost-of-business breakdown. Expenses for marketing and promotion will account for an average of 60% of a budget. It’s the biggest figure in any cash flow statement. Making the product is often the least expensive part of doing business. Using their extraordinarily large expense budgets as leverage, they exert extraordinary influence upon the larger venues, the print media, the radio stations and record distribution and sales network.
Need proof? For example: take a look at the print adds for festivals, especially the free-to-the public ones. When ever you see a record company’s logo on it, they’ve bought the time and space for their own artists. A perfect example of how this works is the this year’s IAJE festival line up for their big halls that seat 3000 people. You’ll see Verve, Blue Note and Warner Brothers logos. Look at the names of those playing. Will wonders never cease? They’re all these labels artists. Don’t see any of us in the big rooms do you? Protestations about helping to keep jazz alive aside, do you think they’d maybe share the big rooms with us, maybe as opening acts, to help us keep our jazz alive? Don’t hold your breath.
How many times have you talked to a club owner and been asked if you have “record company tour support?” Without it you can’t get a gig in these clubs to increase your audience base. I know of one club in Paris that only hires bands from these big labels as they pay for one or another aspect a bands expenses. Could be transportation, hotels, even salaries. There is no way any of us can compete with that. How about these companies purchasing large blocks of a club’s tickets as giveaways to support an artist and guarantee a good draw? Or offering free CD’s to local record stores to support media advertising. Or the jazz magazines. One full page add in ones of these can be asmuch as $10,000. Less if you buy a years worth. Notice who gets reviewed first and who gets put in the back pages.
How about the record stores? Now you’ve got to pay to get your record in a bin. Want your record played in the store? Come up with the bucks man. Independent record companies, our guys, just can’t compete with the excessive corpobop promotion budgets.
They’re also buying up the record distributors. Heard a story about a giant record company in France that is buying out all the smaller distributors and taking any album off the shelf that hasn’t sold out within the first three weeks.
Radio is in bad shape as well. Corpo-bop budgets can buy ads and afford a staff just to call the radio station program managers to pressure them to play their product. Heard one story from a program manager that he was getting so inundated by calls that, in frustration, he played what he wanted to play and faked the playlists he sent to the companies. Although it hasn’t hit the public radio stations, yet, their is growing trend at for-profit radio stations to charge a fee to announce your name when they play your record. The fee according to whether you want your name mentioned before or after a play. According to the law it’s not strictly Payola as the fees go to the radio station as advertising fees and not to individual DJ’s as bribes.
Hey, even if you do have a recording contract and a good record out, that don’t mean anything if the company don’t get behind you and let the public. The record company I mentioned that recently dropped three of my CD’s from their catalog because they sold less than 20 pieces a yearhad just released my new live quartet CD with my trio and special guest Jerry Bergonzi. A burning album if I do say so myself. Even though the album had been out for four months there had not been one print ad in the magazines. After putting as much pressure as little ol’ me could on them, they mentioned that the ad would come out concurrent with that fall’s Jazz Times Convention. I was hanging at the convention bar when Attila Zollar showed up with the new convention issue of the Jazz Times. Somewhat excited at finally getting to see an ad about the new CD, I grabbed it out of his hands and found the record companies full page ad. Couldn’t see my ad there. Two other artists of commensurate name value had their pictures and CD covers and testimonials in it but I couldn’t see any mention of my record.
Putting on my glasses, I gave it a more thorough examination. Lo and behold, way down in the lower right hand corner of the page, in nine point print was the phrase “And don’t forget Hal Galper’s new album…..” At first I was pissed but the ludicrousness of it all finally had me laughing. As a joke I borrowed the magazine and showed it to a number of other musicians at the bar saying “Hey man, see the ad for my new album?” They looked and looked but couldn’t find it, thinking I was putting them on. I’d then ask them to go over the ad line by line using their finger. They’d eventually find it and crack up laughing. And one wonders why it’s been deleted from their catalog!
One also wonders if there is any solution to this situation? There may be and, if The Pariah hasn’t lost patience with my rantings, I might be able to offer them up to you’all at a future date.