RIDIN' THE WAVE: MY MAJOR LABEL JOURNEY
by D.D. Jackson
[A version of this article was first published in Down Beat magazine, Sept./01.]
With great relief my first major label experience has officially come to an end. A major label recording contract is the ultimate goal for most aspiring jazz musicians-a sign that you have the wealth, power and support of a multinational conglomerate ready to put some serious promotional muscle behind your name. I, too, had this notion back in the fall of 1997, when the drummer in my trio set up a showcase for me with a major label for which he was serving as talent scout.
My group had just come off a successful performance at the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival, one of those affairs where everything clicked. I remember being surprised that for the first time in my life people lined up to have me sign their CDs after the show, and "Jazzset with Branford Marsalis" picked up the concert for broadcast. Shortly after this success, I performed a private showcase with my trio on the top floor of Context Recording Studios in the East Village for an audience of major label execs (set up by my drummer, who had also at the time been serving as an informal "talent scout"), nervous but confident in my material. Afterwards, I excitedly went up to shake the hand of the legendary record company president, the chief A&R man and even their head of business affairs ...and was greeted with a polite "we'll call you" response.
My drummer was initially too embarrassed to call and let me know they weren't interested; he seemed almost more depressed about it than I was. After he finally gave me the official word, I moped about for an hour or so, but finally concluded that the situation was beyond one's control and that perhaps destiny had me remaining an independent recording artist forever (certainly not a bad thing).
With renewed focus, I began renegotiating my contract with Justin Time Records (an excellent and always supportive label from Canada with whom I had at that point recorded four albums as leader), and was on the verge of re-signing, when out of the blue I received an email from a representative of the newly reopened Midtown Manhattan nightclub Birdland. Apparently, a re-energized RCA Victor label was organizing a series of "Live At Birdland" concerts. The label planned to record six different bands on six different nights, and then choose two cuts from each band for a final CD. The concerts would also function essentially as a formal audition for the label to potentially sign several artists outright. My second major label chance had unexpectedly arrived.
With an expanded sextet and a more melodic musical focus than had been the case in my previous writing, I began the concert before a packed house that included various BMG execs all seated at an oversized table before me. On literally the very first note of the very first tune, I executed a quick handsweep of the keys, severely gashing my thumb. Fearful of stopping for a Band-Aid and destroying momentum, I precariously continued to play the rest of set, all the while bleeding profusely. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice and the concert was ultimately a success (the compilation CD was released as Live At Birdland-Cookin' In Midtown), though when the execs later found out what happened, they couldn't resist dubbing the incident "Blood On The Keys," a word play on Wynton Marsalis' recent Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Blood On The Fields.
After the show, the next step emerged: to see if they wanted to sign me outright. So I waited ... and waited ... and basically entered into one of the most limbo-ridden periods of my life.
During that period, it felt like the modus operandi of major labels was to keep artists just hungry enough to linger outside the door, throwing out just enough of a bone to keep them wanting more. I ended up being in this state for almost another year. At the time I had no formal representation such as agents or managers, and I remember anxiously riddling the label with regular inquiries as to my status ("These things take time," I was told repeatedly in response, "but if you have another offer, I suggest you take it."). Finally, six months after the Birdland recording, they sent me a letter of agreement, and three months after that, I received the first draft of an actual contract.
Unfortunately, this was far from the end of the process. A major label contract is a monstrous thing to behold-a 50-plus page behemoth, full of a history of arbitrary rules and regulations and clever number manipulation, it seems all designed to wring out as much control as can be maneuvered from the artist whose only recourse is to obtain excellent legal representation to throw things back at them. So I hired someone many regard as the best jazz lawyer in town, and the process of negotiation proceeded for an additional four months, with lots of crossing out and back-and-forths. Finally, over a year after the Live At Birdland recording and literally one week before I had optimistically booked studio time to begin my first recording for the new label, the contract was at last signed. I was an RCA Victor recording artist.
I planned to record two albums-essentially back to back-to show off two different sides to my playing and composing. I wanted to be known not merely as a pianist, but as a true "conceptualist," someone who had his fingers in many different areas of musical expression and who approached his work with an open, creative mind.
I first flew to Montreal and recorded a solo piano album, bringing in a beautiful Bosendorfer Imperial Concert Grand for the occasion. Three months later, I recorded my group project. An advantage of the larger budgets afforded by the major labels was that I could attempt to do everything on a high level. I hired an all-star band; the best available for the more melodic, groove-oriented and adventurous conception I envisioned.
I hired the legendary Jack DeJohnette on drums and Mino Cinelu on percussion; a marvelous young electric violinist named Christian Howes; newcomer Richard Bona on bass; plus special guest saxophonist James Carter on four tracks, with whom I had worked and recorded before. I hired the best engineer in town, and I recorded at one of the most dependable studios in the city. Everything proceeded without a hitch, and I soon had in the can what I considered my most ambitious work to date; a conception that I felt was really taking me into an exciting, new direction.
Another phenomenon of the major label universe is the necessity of finding some sort of management. Large corporations are notoriously finicky about dealing directly with "creative types"; hence the requirement of a middle-person who can act as a buffer between label and artist. At first, I was only too happy to oblige. With the increased feeling of "importance" I began to attach to myself came the need for all of the reinforcing trappings. I hired a known "player" on the jazz scene who had experience dealing with the majors and she, in turn, hired agents and attempted to get the whole new infrastructure moving.
The few months following the release of my debut RCA solo piano disc, ...so far, in September 1999 was an exciting time of roundtable meetings and general strategizing and planning, permeated throughout by perhaps an overall sense of exaggerated self-importance by all of the players involved. Oddly, a vague sense of unease always lingered under the surface, as if people knew they could lose their jobs at any moment. Creative idea-making was kept to a minimum, with lots of fingers-to-the-wind, but I was nevertheless happy that people generally seemed behind my notion of releasing two contrasting albums to show off different sides of my musical personality. I began trying to assemble a "working version" of the musicians from my soon-to-be-released follow-up CD, Anthem, which I could take on the road.
An early lesson: Contrary to perception, the fact of being on a major does not necessarily translate into financial success. I discovered, for example, that tour support is designed to make up for a shortfall, with the label providing just enough money to make a tour possible. But the definition of "possible" essentially means that the sidemen (and often managers and agents, who together typically take 30 percent off the top) are insured a salary, with the artist often merely breaking even. The major jazz festivals feed the system by getting the label to foot the majority of the bill, looking upon it as largely a promotional opportunity for the artist. Of course, this money doesn't really come from the label at all; it's all recoupable against future artist royalties. So without some careful number manipulation, I soon realized that the bulk of such tour-supported gigs, no matter how prestigious, were essentially "promotional"-a code for "no pay."
At any rate, I assembled my touring band, my second RCA Victor CD Anthem came out in March of 2000, and we began doing our run of festivals-the Bell Atlantic in New York, JVC at Newport and Saratoga; Toronto and Ottawa. We did BET On Jazz, Sculler's in Boston and a week at New York's Iridium. Things seemed to be rolling along ... but the axe had already begun to fall. By July, the A&R person, the tour support coordinator, the publicist-almost everyone with whom I had worked at RCA-were gone.
My immediate question was, "Am I still on the label?" Amazingly, it took several months to get a straight answer. First, I had the mandatory "first meeting" with the new A&R chief who, in his defense, had a challenging role to fill-stepping into a newly merged division combining the jazz and rock worlds, with most of classical and the Windham Hill artists essentially "purged." I remember entering the impressive BMG building on West 45th Street for what I thought was going to be the last time. The 28th floor buzzed with hectic activity, an air bordering on chaos as people walked to and fro trying to define their new roles. When I met the new chief for the first time, he surprised me by his youthfulness and air of calm, despite the almost constant interruptions of optimistic hopefuls dropping off press kits and CDs while we talked.
Prior to my first face-to-face, he had told me to make a list of all of the artists with whom I could potentially see myself playing. My first reaction had been, "Well, here's at least a guy with an open mind," and I had proceeded to make a fanciful list, full of creative jazz musicians, as well as people from the rock, pop and classical worlds. But by the time of the meeting his tone had already changed, and he almost immediately set my carefully prepared list aside with talks of budget cuts and the importance of SoundScan numbers (a country-wide computerized tabulation of retail store's CD sales).
In subsequent weeks following this meeting came more shifts and more delays, until by the time of my second meeting with him in November he had an entirely new plan. According to the new consensus, I "confused the market" by doing contrasting projects from album to album. I needed something consistent, like a string of "art of the trio" like albums similar to Brad Mehldau. He later revealed to my manager that they were cutting the budget for my third album by over two-thirds, with me essentially on trial: If the SoundScan numbers were good, then my contract would be renewed, but otherwise ... and, by the way, the album needed to be "commercial."
By now, I had started to reflect on the whole previous year, and seriously questioned what in the world I was doing. My manager was largely well-meaning and energetic, but it had become increasingly clear to me that many of the duties she wanted to assume I felt much more comfortable taking over myself. And I began to see that what I really needed was not more middle-people, but to take back control of my music-and my life. Realizing that I'd had enough, I started making maneuvers to liberate myself from the situation, severing ties with my manager, agents and the lawyer my manager had recommended to me.
This, paradoxically, is when I started feeling good about everything, and after I left the label, positively euphoric. When I look back on the past couple of years, I see an adventure, and feel a sense of satisfaction that I rode the wave and survived my first major-label exposure-I know that if I hadn't tried it, I would have forever wondered what it would be like. At the same time, I feel extremely relieved that I got out from my agreement when I did. I always told people that although I had signed a three-year contract with options for two more, my goal was to get those first two CDs out. And I did that, gaining an appreciable press bump in the process, as well as winning the Canadian Juno Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album and being named the No. 1 Pianist Talent Deserving Wider Recognition in the 2000 Down Beat Critics Poll, all of this despite the revolving executive door that occurred shortly after my second album's release. Exposure is always good, and I can take this with me wherever I go.
So where do I go from here? Not surprisingly, the day I left RCA, I went home and wrote 12 tunes, perhaps acting subconsciously on my newfound feelings of creative liberation. I've since re-signed with Justin Time Records, and have a new CD out on the label with Hamiet Bluiett and Kahil El'Zabar (The Calling), as well as a new CD of mostly piano trio music due out in the fall (Sigame). Most importantly, I've gotten away from the hype and hyperbole and back to what it was supposed to be about in the first place-making music, and hopefully touching some people in the process.
- D.D. Jackson