With due respect, I’m unconvinced that there is enough consumer demand for most deep jazz catalog to justify continued CD manufacturing and retailing in conventional stores. When I was running Verve/Polygram in the mid-to-late 90s, there was a good deal more stability in the jazz reissue and catalog market than there is now, and we still had to work hard to convince retailers to hold more titles of slow sellers. You’d be surprised at who some of those slow sellers were: Dizzy, Sarah, Mulligan, Konitz—just to name a quick handful of giants who were a tough sell to all but the Towers and the Virgins of those days. Still, there was enough aggregate activity so that we didn’t see a lot of returns.
That began to change in 1996-7, as stores became saturated with product of all kinds, and we started to see a radical escalation in returns. Things kept getting worse from there. The record industry would have you believe it’s all about downloading, but many other factors have brought the CD business to where it is now, beginning with outrageous pricing in an attempt to rescue a bad-margin business. The simple fact is that most catalog titles don’t turn over fast enough to justify the retailers’ cost of doing business, starting with real estate and shipping costs. You may want that Chubby Jackson CD, but you’ll have to give me the math that says it’s “absurd” for the label not to release the CD “at standard prices” (whatever they may be.) The economics of brick and mortar retail and consumer demand aren’t quite as simple as they used to be, and if it was tough to sell Dizzy a decade ago, how does it make sense to try to get Chubby into whatever stores are left today?
Which makes the “long tail” of digital distribution the only hope for the continued existence of the highways and the back roads of the riches of our recorded musical archives. All of the costs associated with hard goods manufacturing and distribution of CDs disappear in the digital world. Both the casual consumer and hard core fan have not only a deeper selection and immediate availability to attract them, but the recommendation and filtering systems potentially available to everyone are much more interactive and rich. The old “read about it, hear it on the radio, buy it” paradigm is being embellished in all sorts of creative ways, blogs such as Rifftides among them.
Big problems and hurdles exist. It’s proving to be a nightmare for the huge recording conglomerates to shift from a hard goods business model to a digital one. The financial projection of download sales is an unsettled and slippery task for CFOs of labels large and small. And speaking of bad margins, it’s impossible at present to predict if or how a standard economic system will develop. It’s easier to predict that the bigger companies will continue to attempt to deprive the creators of music of their fair share of these tiny pies called downloads. But the upside for the new creators of jazz is that digital economics are in their favor. The big conglomerates simply aren’t necessary any more to get their music out and spread the word.
Certainly for jazz fans, the issues of booklet annotation, personnel listings, recording information, etc. must be addressed better than iTunes or the other services are doing it now. Like everyone else, I’d like to see some better digital “packages” created. And I have no doubt there will be in time.
While I treasure my thousands of vinyl LPs and CDs just as much as any collector, I’m much more concerned about the ongoing health of the global library of recorded music, and its continued availability to our culture. If Paul Desmond’s, Chubby Jackson’s, or Miles Davis’s music is to survive—and it must—it will do so online. Get used to it.
Thanks again for Rifftides.
I am encouraged by Mr. Mitchell’s optimism that useable packaging and notes will become available in digital downloads. Why not now? The technology exists.
The standard price I had in mind for the nonexistent Verve Chubby Jackson CD was $15.00 or $16.00, not the $30.49, plus shipping, that Amazon is asking for the Japanese import edition.