Oct 4 2014
So, I’m receiving a bunch of emails asking about the recent changes at eMusic. Rather than answer all of these emails individually, I’ll post something for today’s column. I figure there’s more than that out there with questions.
I’ve embedded audio from some of my favorite 2014 releases throughout the column to entertain you as you read.
This first one is by Roberto Negro, from the album Loving Suite Pour Bird So…
To begin, here’s the message that went out to all eMusic subscribers:
Since its inception, eMusic has been committed to serving serious music collectors who are unbound by genre or the latest trend. We built the business in 1998 on DRM-free mp3s and a heartfelt mission to provide independent music enthusiasts with the best music, editorial content and album reviews around. Over the years, the eMusic brand became synonymous with independent music.
When we introduced a vastly expanded library of music in 2009, the experience on the site changed. Our catalog became more a reflection of mainstream trends than a true discovery experience rooted in music from emerging artists and labels. We moved away from our core values as a business and diluted what made the eMusic experience special.
So, in an effort to dedicate the brand once again to its original mission, eMusic is renewing its commitment to independent music and to promoting its musicians, bands and labels. As a result, beginning today, we will be exiting the mainstream music business and offering exclusively independent music. Further, in the coming weeks and months, it is our aim to build upon our existing library and provide you with the most extensive catalog of independent music in the world.
There will be no change to your plan, and we will not be making any changes to our album or track prices.
Our goal has always been to provide music enthusiasts and tastemakers with the best music and discovery experience possible, thanks to our industry-leading editorial content and reviews. With these changes, we are crystal clear on what we can and want to offer: a world-class discovery service built around the most comprehensive catalog of independent music.
We truly value your membership, and are committed to providing you with the best experience possible. Thank you for supporting us, and for supporting independent music.
The eMusic Team
Unfortunately, I don’t have any good answers to the most common question of “Why did they do it?” Keep in mind, I’m just a freelance writer for eMusic/Wondering Sound. I don’t actually live in New York. Hell, I’ve never been anywhere close to the eMusic offices. And other than two phone conversations with the Editor-in-Chief, J. Edward Keyes (the first one when he hired me to write the Jazz Picks column and then a second time when eMusic was spinning off editorial content to Wondering Sound), I’m not privy to what’s what around there. Which, really, is as it should be.
Thus, I learned about the changes at the same time as everyone else.
Now, about the reason for those changes… I have a few ideas why it happened, and I’ve seen a couple people on various forums mirror those ideas with posts of their own. My best guess is that the people who run things at the financial, executive and content/editorial levels, all sat down and re-evaluated their current vision of the company, how that compared and contrasted to their actual position/identity and what it would mean to bridge that gap. To continue the exposition of my guess, the question posed to that group was “Who are we?”
It’s a question worth asking every now and then, no matter what your business is. And considering how many changes have occurred at eMusic and the music retail industry since they first opened shop back in the 1998 (1998!), it’s especially wise for them to do it more frequently. Did this conversation happen on its own or was it triggered by a financial and/or contractual situation, again, I don’t know. Remember, I might be striking out on all my assumptions here. And, ultimately, the reason for it doesn’t matter in the end. eMusic decided its new vision is, in fact, an older vision, and in my humble opinion, it’s the correct one.
eMusic isn’t ever going to be Amazon or iTunes, but it can definitely make its mark at the CDBaby/Bandcamp level… retailers who have found ways to carve out niches and become profitable and established. There’s no reason that eMusic can’t thrive if it finds its own niche, its own identity and sticks to that vision.
And the Indie thing is what it does best. What does Indie mean? Well, much like the descriptor “Alternative,” which began simply as something other than mainstream but then became its own genre over time, Indie has followed a similar path… What began mostly as a descriptor of DIY recording, production and retailing, it’s taken on its own identity as a genre. Unfortunately, I can’t really encapsulate what Indie as a genre means, really, because I’ve become so immersed in modern jazz that I’ve really fallen out of touch with all other musics. I mean, seriously, when I try to reference a non-jazz genre, I either throw out a 90’s-era grunge band or an early 2000s pop rock act. It’s sad, really, but that’s where we’re at.
(Music by Hans Feigenwinter ZINC, from Whim of Fate)
But, if cornered, I’d say eMusic focusing on Indie means emerging bands who aren’t on a major label, don’t have a big distribution channel, tour like a motherfucker to try to sell some CDs and build up a grassroots audience, and probably the only place to hear them on the air is the local college radio station.
It makes sense, really. I mean, a lot of these bands (or their forbears) were some of eMusic’s early catalog, and when it comes to content on Wondering Sound (and, before that, 17 Dots), these are the kinds of acts they cover. J.Edward Keyes goes to a ridiculous amount of live shows. Follow him on Twitter, and you’ll see what I mean. The amount of time he spends at live shows is the equivalent of how much time I spend going through the new jazz listings (aka a fuckload of time). So, yeah, a focus on Indie makes sense to me.
But what does that mean to the Jazz section? That’s where things get more complicated.
It’s arguable that about 90% (or more) of Jazz could be considered Indie, either in spirit or the reality of its operations. What it means, though, in terms of eMusic, is that if a label or artist is under contract to a major label who has a contract with a major distribution company, then they’re dropping off eMusic.
So, who’s gone and who’s staying around?
I went through my various lists as well as the drop-down menu on my own site and then searched through eMusic to see which labels are still around and which are gone as a result of the recent catalog changes. I broke them down into three categories: Off the Board, Dude You’ve Got a Hole in Your Catalog, and Alive & Kicking.
Here’s what I found.
(Note: In some instances, I added a little note describing some characteristic about the label. I decided to do it at the last minute, and only if I could think of something immediate to say. Nothing there should be taken as a definitive statement or gospel; only talking in generalizations, and sometimes my memory sucks)
Off the board:
- Blue Note Records
- Impulse Records
- Savoy Jazz
- For-Tune Records
Some thoughts on the above:
It sucks losing Blue Note for two reasons big reasons. One, obviously, their catalog of classic jazz recordings is immense and essential (same to be said for most of the others on that list), but just as importantly, their recent re-boot under Don Was has made them a seriously relevant label once again, releasing new music from cutting edge modern jazz artists. That’s a loss.
Impulse and Okeh have also recently re-booted operations with an attempt at the modern jazz market. Impulse has only released two albums so far: a nifty re-working of New Orleans traditional from Bernstein & Butler and an old live session from Jim Hall & Charlie Haden. Still too early to determine whether losing modern Impulse is truly a loss or not. As far as I’m concerned, losing modern Okeh is no big deal. They’ve drawn some very big names to their label, both established and a few emerging artists, but the recordings, typically, have been uninspired and even sloppy in some cases. And their whole approach to the entire process, from artist choice to album production to retailing/marketing is so, I dunno, OLD. It’s like they said, hey, we’re gonna take a new shot at this by doing all the same stuff that got us in the tank in the first place. But that’s just what I think. However, losing Okeh means eMusic won’t be getting the new Bill Frisell album, Guitar in the Space Age! I’ve already given it a few spins, and I’m pretty underwhelmed. That reflects much of how I feel about Okeh since they re-started operations.
But on the subject of Bill Frisell, losing the Nonesuch and Savoy Jazz and ECM means pretty much he’s off the site. He’s got a couple albums still on the board, but one of the most inventive musicians of any generation and genre is gone.
For-Tune is a great avant-garde/free improv label out of Poland. Their absence might not have anything to do with the recent eMusic changes. I know some of their stuff has dropped off Amazon, too. They might return, assuming they’re still up and running as a label. Steeplechase may or may not be gone. Hard to tell with them.
Along with Blue Note Records and the Bill Frisell catalog, the other big loss is ECM Records. Another label with a unique back catalog and modern release discography, their mix of Nordic Jazz serenity and American jazz introspection is a compelling segment of the modern jazz landscape. And while 2014 has been an off-year for them, they’ve been showing some signs of life lately. The new Marcin Wasilewski recording is pretty wonderful, and, unfortunately, eMusic won’t be getting it. It’s a shame that it’s no longer on eMusic. At the same time, I’ve long felt that it’s better to pick up most ECM Records releases on CD or lossless digital formats. But it was probably nice for a bunch of you to be able to really dig into ECMs extensive catalog at a cheaper price.
So, in summary, lots of back catalog of classic jazz albums are gone, which is unfortunate, but as far as a focus on the jazz of the present day, only the loss of Blue Note, ECM and (perhaps) For-Tune are of any significance.
(Music by Cordame & Francois Bourassa, from the album Rêve éveillé)
Dude, You’ve Got a Hole in Your Catalog:
- Igloo Records
It’s possible that this category is larger than four labels. It’s difficult to tell. What we know is that some albums by the above labels are on eMusic, but it appears that others are not. For instance, recent Jazz Pick, Barbara Morrison’s “I Love You, Yes I Do” is no longer on eMusic, but other recent Savant releases are. Part of this is probably because all of the three labels above seem to have had multiple label/distributor designations across their catalogs. I’m not sure exactly how this happens, but it’s not unique to just those four labels. I remember not long ago that Motema was also spread messily across eMusic, as, I believe, was Sunnyside Records for a time. There were several European labels that had a similar problem, but a recent distributor shake-up led to a lot of cleaning up of those issues by the European labels, which created a lot of conformity for each of their catalogs.
At this point, I’m not sure if the recent changes at eMusic caused the holes in the catalogs of the above labels or what. I also don’t know if the albums no longer on eMusic will be returning. I also don’t know if new albums by these labels will be retailing on eMusic. I’ll definitely be checking in, though, to see if anything happens. I would posit that if a new release by the above labels appears on eMusic anytime soon, that it bodes well for back catalog holes getting filled.
Also, I only spot-checked the various labels that appear in this column. It’s possible that there are other labels that are missing albums in their eMusic catalog and I just didn’t notice them gone.
Alive & Kicking:
It appears to be business as usual for the following labels, post-eMusic changes.
- ACT Music
- Alfa Music
- Armored Records
- Asthmatic Kitty
- Aum Fidelity
- Basho (UK scene)
- Bee Jazz
- Babel (UK scene)
- Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records
- Challenge Records
- Clean Feed
- Criss Cross
- Dazzle Jazz (covers the Denver/Colorado scene)
- Delmark (covers the Chicago scene)
- Dodicilune (folk-jazz from Italy and nearby)
- Double Moon
- Edition Records (UK scene)
- El Gallo Rojo
- ESP-Disk (old school free jazz)
- Eyes & Ears
- F-IRE Recordings
- Firehouse 12
- Fresh Sound New Talent
- Gondwana Records
- Headspin Recordings
- Helsinki Jazz Undergound
- Hipnotic (Baltimore scene, IIRC)
- Hoob (Swedish jazz)
- Hubro (Nordic jazz on the fringes, beyond jazz)
- ILK Music (experimental, Danish scene)
- Inner Cicle
- Intakt Records
- Jazz ‘n Arts
- Jazz Village
- Jazzhead (Australian scene)
- Jazzman Records
- Jazzwerkstatt (good modern live sets, non-mainstream modern)
- Listen Closely (Austrian label, improv on fringes & jazz center)
- Loop Collective (nothing normal here, cool stuff)
- Loyal Label
- Mack Avenue (straight-ahead, but with some nifty divergences)
- Marsalis Music
- MaxJazz (straight-ahead)
- Mons Records
- Naim (indie-jazz)
- NorCD (peaceful Nordic jazz)
- Northern Spy
- NotTwo (Vandermark and related)
- Origin Records (including OA2 and Origin Arts)
- PJCE (Portland scene)
- Plus Loin
- Posi-Tone (as straight-ahead modern as it gets)
- Primary Records
- Rare Noise Records
- Royal Potato
- Rune Grammofone
- Smoke Sessions
- Stunt Records
- Table & Chairs (Pacific Northwest scene)
- Thirsty Ear (Matthew Shipp and the like)
- Unit Records
- Winter & Winter
- 1908 Records
- 482 Music
And, obviously, all the Self-Produced albums that don’t have an actual label associated with them. There’s also plenty of other labels out there that are on eMusic and that I didn’t include in the list above. All I did was go through my own lists and pick out those that received multiple references in my notes and columns and on my site. If I missed anyone significant, please leave a comment below and I’ll look into it. I probably did leave someone off. In fact, I’m certain of it.
(Music by Angles 9, from the album Injuries)
Anyone coming back?
That’s a good question. I’d love to see both Tzadik label and PI Recordings get back into the mix. Both were on eMusic at one point. Tzadik left before I ever became an eMusic member (and much earlier than I began writing for them). Pi was on more recently, and perhaps left around the time that the majors hopped onto eMusic. It’d be great to get both of those labels back on board. Neither Tzadik nor Pi put out anything that isn’t exciting in its way. I’d be curious to hear what other labels readers would like to see come back into the eMusic fold. It’s be nice to see HatHut, too.
Okay, I think that’s all I got on this subject. If I think of something else, I’ll just add it later.