Why Big Record Companies Let Jazz Down

By Peter Keepnews

[originally published in Jazz Magazine, Winter 1979]


For two years, I was one of a handful of people in the record business with a job title that had the word "jazz" in it. I was employed by the one major record company generally acknowledged to have an enlightened attitude toward the music, the major record company with by far the largest and broadest roster of jazz artists in the business. I was in the vanguard of a corporate-level movement to bring the music we love to the broadest possible audience—or so I thought when I took the job.

When I gave up being a newspaper reporter and freelance music critic in September 1977 to become the jazz publicist for CBS Records, I was not so naive as to think that anything CBS did, with or without me, was going to result in significant numbers of jazz musicians bulleting to the top of the pop charts. I knew that there was a limit to how much success any record company could achieve with serious, undiluted jazz; I had the benefit of both my own observations and what I had learned from my father (a veteran of more than two decades in the business and, as vice-president of jazz A&R for Fantasy Records, one of the few other people with that word in his job title) to tell me that. But I did believe that if a company with the power and resources of CBS chose to give good jazz records a good, hard push, doors in the marketplace could be opened for the music that had never been opened before. And I genuinely believed that CBS had made that choice.

There are some people who will still argue that CBS did make that choice and continues to be sincerely committed to jazz, but after having spent two years there I am not one of them. It's clearly true that for several years CBS has been putting out more jazz records, both the overtly commercial kind that most people call "fusion" and the simpler, more serious kind that many people call "straight-ahead," than any other major record company. But there is, as I learned rather quickly, a substantial difference between putting records out and selling them. And to simply record and release jazz records does not necessarily represent a sincere commitment to anything but, in this particular case, the personal tastes of the president of the record company—which is commendable but not enough.

The record industry, especially on the level of the six or seven multinational conglomerates that control the bulk of the business, is more complicated than most people seem to understand. A lot of jazz fans and musicians seem particularly naive about the business—on the one hand seeing it as an evil monolith bent on the destruction of jazz as we know it, and on the other hand clinging to the childlike hope that all it takes is one open-minded individual like Bruce Lundvall, the president of CBS Records, who is widely known as a committed jazz fan, to turn things around.

If I learned one thing during my tenure as a kind of in-house jazz authority at CBS, it is this: There is very little that one person, even if he's the president, can accomplish in an organization that size without the support of his subordinates and the rank and file. In the case of a major record company, the absolute key to the success of any record is the field force—the sales, merchandising and promotion people (in the record business, the word "promotion" specifically refers to getting records played on the radio) who work out of local and regional branch offices in key areas of the country. The field staff is the lifeblood of any large record company (the smaller labels rely on independent distributors and promotion people to do the same things). And their job is not to help spread the word about jazz, or to aid in the preservation of good art. Their job is to get hit records.

It hasn't always been that way in the business, but this attitude, a direct outgrowth of the record boom of the past decade, would appear to be here to stay. The precipitous drop in record sales in 1979 may in the long run change this attitude, but it seems more likely to solidify it. The record business may well be getting more and more like the movie business, turning out increasingly less product and relying almost exclusively on the big-sales blockbusters to get by. Right now, there is a lot of product, but the prevailing attitude is that anything that doesn't look like at least a potential million-seller gets extremely short shrift.

Why, then, do the majors put out any jazz records at all? Well, as you may have noticed, a lot of the majors don't. Many of those that do are releasing records that can only be called "jazz" if one stretches the definition of that word virtually to the breaking point (as the industry at large has done). They are very slickly produced, very tightly arranged, with little or no improvisation and only the slightest suggestion of what most jazz listeners would consider a jazz spirit or feeling. They cost a lot of money to make, and some of them—although by no means most of them—make a lot of money.

Among the major labels that do put out jazz, CBS (and specifically Columbia, as distinct from Epic and the host of small associated labels that are also part of CBS) is the only one that has been recording it in any consistent quantity over the last several years. There are a variety of reasons: a desire to maintain Columbia's long-standing reputation as a truly "full-line" label (Columbia also continues to release classical albums, Broadway cast albums, and other culturally important but marginally profitable product); Lundvall's genuine love of the music, and the idea, which gained currency in the early and middle '70s, that there is, in fact, a way to get at least certain kinds of jazz albums to sell in quantity. It was a Columbia album. Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew," that probably first planted the idea in some industry minds that a jazz artist could be "serious" and "commercial" at the same time. Released in 1970, it eventually sold over half a million copies. The success of Freddie Hubbard, George Benson and others at the small CTI Records about the same time gave further impetus to the idea, and other record companies began to cautiously catch on.

Because there was some suspicion that the word "jazz" might have an inhibiting or negative effect on the average consumer—and because there were elements on these records that couldn't be categorized as jazz—there was, and remains, a certain indecisiveness about what to call this music. "Fusion" has become one accepted alternative, although the equally vague "progressive" is also currently in fashion. (Are we to assume that other forms of music are "regressive?")

A few years ago, Columbia had unprecedented sales success all at once with albums by Weather Report, Eric Gale, Ramsey Lewis, Al DiMeola and Maynard Ferguson. It was the success of these artists as much as anything else that enabled Lundvall to embark on an ambitious program of signing jazz artists—both the regular kind and the "progressive" kind—without looking like an overly self-indulgent jazz fan. Some other companies, looking to CBS as a model, decided to make some signings of their own. Thus, with considerable fanfare, Warner Bros. announced the creation of a "jazz and progressive music" department, the efforts of which included not just signing artists who might deliver hit records but releasing a limited-edition boxed set of Charlie Parker's classic Dial recordings. Elektra unveiled a "jazz/ fusion" label. (Significantly, both companies recently dropped the "jazz" from the departments' names.) Similar noises were heard from other corners of the jazz world.

At CBS, a "jazz/progressive marketing" unit, under the directorship of an aggressive young record-business veteran named Vernon Slaughter, was instituted. Dr. George Butler, who had brought mass-market success to the Blue Note label, was hired as Columbia's vice president of jazz/progressive A&R. Dexter Gordon was signed, to the accompaniment of much hoopla. Similar signings followed, to the accompaniment of less hoopla but much hope within the bosoms of the nation's jazz fans—Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, the Heath Brothers, Cedar Walton, Arthur Blythe.

Other signings at the same time—Lonnie Liston Smith, Billy Cobham, Tom Scott, Bob James (who got a whole label of his own, Tappan Zee)—were obviously motivated more by commercial than artistic considerations. Some of the more narrow-minded members of the jazz community were bothered, but I wasn't; I saw the potential commercial success of these artists as a kind of wedge to help open that marketplace door to the artists who were making less immediately accessible records.

This was the situation when I joined CBS as the so-called manager of jazz/progressive publicity, charged with the task of securing as much press coverage as possible for the company's burgeoning jazz roster. It didn't take me long to discover that Lundvall's signing of Dexter Gordon had been barely tolerated by many key people in the company, and that his subsequent jazz signings were provoking a definite backlash. The reason was simple: There was a deep-seated belief that, with very rare exception, jazz records, no matter how ostensibly "commercial," could not sell.

To an extent, that belief amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy—if you don't work a jazz album, it definitely won't sell. And while no amount of high-pressure salesmanship is ever likely to get Dexter Gordon a gold album—at least not until there is a much more fundamental change in the fiber of our culture than the record industry alone could ever bring about—a well-planned marketing campaign that precisely targeted Gordon's audience and found the most effective ways of reaching them could conceivably jack up his album sales from their current level (roughly 35,000 per album, not bad for bebop) to as high as 80-or 90,000. The trouble is that in the record business, even in these recessionary times, an album that sells 90,000 copies is not considered a success in corporate terms even if it turns a comfortable profit. And the amount of money, not to mention time and thought, that would be required to get results like that would make the small amount of profit from a 90,000-seller look even less desirable—and even conceivably wipe out the profit margin entirely. Therefore, the reasoning goes, why knock yourself out pushing Dexter Gordon?

But, some readers might be asking, didn't Columbia in fact give Dexter Gordon a major push? The answer is yes and no. It certainly looked like a major push, especially in New York, where there were not only big advertisements but lengthy articles throughout the daily and alternative press at the time of his first Columbia LP, "Homecoming." Personally, I interviewed Gordon for the New York Post, and I remember being impressed by the elaborate press kit I received from CBS when "Homecoming" was released. As a matter of fact, that was one of the factors that persuaded me to leave the Post when CBS offered me the publicity job: I took it to be a sign that the company really was putting its money where its mouth was as far as Dexter Gordon (and, presumably, the rest of its jazz roster) was concerned.

But what did this push really amount to? The advertising campaign and the press kit cost a lot of money, but required no follow-through. The press blitz was partly the result of diligent work by one CBS publicist and by Gordon's manager, but I think it was primarily the spontaneous result of a lot of jazz writers wanting to write about Dexter Gordon, who after all was not only a great musician and a colorful personality but, as an expatriate returning home in triumph, very good copy. I know that I went out of my way to persuade my editor at the Post to let me interview Gordon because I wanted to, not because Columbia Records was hyping him—in fact, at the time I interviewed him he hadn't yet signed with CBS.

There was a push on Dexter Gordon's behalf in that Lundvall let it be known to his staff that he took a personal interest in the success of "Homecoming." As a result the sales people leaned a little more heavily than they otherwise might have on their accounts to buy it in decent quantities, and the radio people gave it an extra effort in spite of the fact that music on "Homecoming" was not compatible with most formats of commercial radio. The album attained a much higher sales level than anything Gordon had ever recorded previously; for that matter, it was probably the best-selling bebop album of all time.

But its success was not due to a commitment on the part of CBS Records to jazz, and it was not due to a sales strategy based on the nature and quality of the music and its potential market. It was due to executive arm-twisting, and it must surely have left a bad taste in the mouth of the people in the field (and some of their superiors in the home office) to know that time that might have been spent working "big" records was diverted to Dexter Gordon because of what could easily be construed as Bruce Lundvall's whim.

Still, if Dexter Gordon had been an isolated incident, the marketing people might have accepted him somewhat graciously. But when they suddenly found themselves bombarded, with little advance warning or preparation, by a plethora of jazz albums—some of them less esoteric than others, but all of them recognizably jazz (in broad terms) as opposed to any other kind of music—it's not hard to understand the confusion and even resentment they must have felt. What were they supposed to do with all these albums?

Whether out of confusion and exasperation, or under direct orders from Lundvall's subordinates in New York, what the CBS Records field office ended up doing was, in effect, ignoring the jazz product—devoting as little attention to it as possible. In many cases, new jazz albums never even made their way into the important record stores in major cities.

One might think that the fact that CBS had a jazz/progressive marketing division would mean that such a situation was impossible, but the fact is that the division at its height consisted of only five people: a director, a head of promotion, two product managers (a product manager is a kind of in-house liaison between given artists and all the marketing wings of the company), and me. There was nobody out in the field, where the real dirty work of selling records is done, who was specifically responsible for the success (or even the availability) of the jazz product. Both Vernon Slaughter and George Butler made a number of attempts to persuade the company to hire a token jazz field force, but their suggestion was rejected by the CBS marketing brass as being too costly.

The jazz/progressive area was officially part of the company's black music marketing department, which meant in effect—although nobody ever said it in so many words—that the white people in the company tended to look on jazz as a "black" concern and not something they had to deal with. But the thrust of the black music marketing department was in the area of R&B and disco—the music that gets played on black radio. That, of course, includes little if any "pure" jazz. The average black music marketing promotion person might have had considerable success getting certain records by Herbie Hancock or Bob James (or by such artists as keyboardist Dexter Wansel and percussionist Mtume whose records are for some reason considered part of the jazz/progressive roster despite their virtual total lack of jazz content) played on the radio. But it isn't fair to ask him to do something with, say, Bobby Hutcherson or Arthur Blythe—it really isn't his job.

One result of this confusing state of affairs was that a lot of the jazz artists on CBS decided that the only way to get the company to take an interest in them was to do their damnedest to make what they considered "commercial," "black" albums. Contrary to the way it may have looked to the outside world, nobody at CBS was forcing artists like Freddie Hubbard or Hubert Laws to make slick, schlocky albums; it was a case of the artists trying to second-guess the needs of the label and, in many cases, coming up with albums that were neither artistically nor commercially very worthwhile. Other artists, like Cedar Walton and Bobby Hutcherson (and Hubbard on his excellent "Super Blue" album) tried to walk a tightrope between their artistic needs and what they saw as the need to get played on the radio. But in almost all cases, the results were the same: The company paid very little attention.

But what is ultimately most frustrating is that even if the company had put all its muscle behind every jazz or jazz-oriented album during my tenure there, there still would have been a limit to what could be accomplished as long as people insisted on trying to sell them the same way rock and R&B albums are sold. The most elaborate in-store display materials are meaningless if store owners elect not to put them up. The most extensive promotion and publicity efforts are pointless if station managers decide an artist doesn't belong on their station. All the press kits, T-shirts, ash trays, and fancy parties—like the two lavish and expensive press parties thrown for Columbia's Contemporary Masters Series—may be good ego boosters, but they don't have a damn thing to do with educating the public about jazz and finding ways to get people to listen to it.

There are certain obvious advantages for a jazz musician to being on Columbia or Warner Bros. as opposed to, say. Muse or Xanadu. His advance is likely to be higher; there is likely to be at least the appearance of a major media push when he first signs, and, in theory at least, his records will be more readily available in more stores. But a lot of jazz musicians have allowed themselves to believe that, if they sign with a major label, they will be treated with the respect they deserve and, if not necessarily made superstars, brought to a level of sales and public recognition that has long been denied them.

The essence of my job was to help these artists get greater recognition through coverage in the press. But in the long run my job was a joke, as is CBS Records' commitment to jazz. All the good press in the world won't change the fact that most of these great musicians' records are not being given the special care and attention they need to reach their proper audience, because it is not in the best interests of the people who market CBS Records to devote that kind of attention to them. This is probably truer than ever now that a financial crunch has hit the record business and panic has set in. At CBS and all major labels, it must now look like a riskier endeavor than ever to try to sell jazz records.

A lot is said about the cultural obligation of record companies to record jazz. In principle, I don't disagree that such an obligation exists. But the fact is that the record business is not just a business but a big business, and to the extent that it has a sense of cultural obligation it is an extremely small one. This is the way it is, and I have come to believe that no amount of name-calling, gnashing of teeth or appeals to the collective guilty conscience of the major companies is going to change things. To the extent that jazz albums (or any albums) of lasting cultural value get recorded on any major label, it's pretty much gravy. The hope for the future jazz lies with the small labels that are willing to put their meager resources entirely at the service of the music, and in the long run with the educational system and the long-range changes in people's attitudes that it may be able to bring about. It does not lie with the supposedly "progressive" giants of the record business.