To see how much power media Goliaths wield in the entertainment arena., you need to look no further than the recording industry. The $12 billion dollar record industry is dominated by a mere six players -- Time-Warner, Sony, BMG/RCA, EMI/Capitol, Polygram and Universal/MCA -- who control just under 85 percent of the market. The number of major players will dwindle to five when Polygram and Universal complete their merger by year-end. That the majors control major moneymakers like rock and country is obvious, but they also penetrate the smallest of niches, including classical, new age and various ethnic styles, to virtually dominate the industry.
A small piece of the record industry pie, jazz accounted for less than 3 percent of total industry sales in 1997. Just how small are jazz sales? Consider this: Only five jazz albums went gold in 1997, and all but one of them were released over 20 years ago. Yet, despite the small size of the jazz market, all six major players have a significant presence in this niche through various subsidiary labels such as Polygram's Verve, Universal's GRP and Impulse labels, and EMI's Blue Note. While Soundscan, an auditor of record industry sales, has no breakout of the major vs. independent share of the jazz market, a look at recent Billboard charts showed the majors clocking in 20 of the Top 25 mainstream jazz albums and 17 of the Top 25 contemporary jazz albums. Even though the majors own the category, dozens of independent jazz labels are battling economic reality and vying for a spot in the modest jazz marketplace.
Enter 32 Records. Formed in 1995 by world renowned producer Joel Dorn and prominent bankruptcy lawyer Robert Miller, the independently owned and operated record label specializes in acquiring and reissuing records -- most of them jazz. Though 32 Records does have sub imprints that market other music genres -- 32 Blues, 32 R&B, 32 POP & HIP -- jazz accounts for the vast majority of the label's catalog. Given that the odds in favor of a jazz label's success are practically nonexistent, why would anyone start one?
"I have no idea," Dorn laughs hysterically. "I don't know how to do anything else. It's like if I don't do this, what am I going to do? Sit in the park? I really love doing shit with music, with records. I really enjoy it. I know that might not be the great spiritual answer, but I really love making records."
An eight-time Grammy winner, the affable Dorn knows something about making records. He produced his first recording for Atlantic Records in 1965 when he got a then unsigned flutist and Houston native named Hubert Laws to record Laws of Jazz. Laws of Jazz was a success, and Dorn was soon working full-time for Atlantic Records where he stayed for seven years before moving on to other labels. During his 20-plus year career as a producer, Dorn worked with several important and successful names in music, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, David "Fathead" Newman, Hank Crawford and Yusef Lateef on the jazz side and Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Leon Redbone, Lou Rawls and the Neville Brothers on the pop side.
After a lengthy career as a producer, Dorn changed directions in the mid-eighties. He spent several years researching and compiling unreleased and unknown live jazz recordings and eventually started the short-lived label Night Records, which issued previously unreleased live recordings. A subsidiary of Virgin, Night was a casualty of EMI's purchase of Virgin. After Night Records quietly disappeared, Dorn consulted for Rhino, GRP and Columbia on several reissue projects and produced some box sets, including a Grammy nominated John Coltrane box. Still, the bug to run his own record company hadn't faded, and in 1995, the same year the Smithsonian added his works and papers to their collection, Dorn started up 32 Records with partner Robert Miller.
32 Records's primary niche is jazz reissues, with more than 1,000 titles in its possession, including 600 masters purchased from Muse/Landmark. A sound business move, the Muse/Landmark catalog has recordings by several artists who are popular, if not best-selling jazz artists such as Woody Shaw, Sonny Stitt, Jack McDuff, Kenny Barron, Houston Person, Wallace Roney, Cedar Walton and Pat Martino. The fact that many of these records have not appeared on CD doesn't hurt, either. Another source 32 Jazz is tapping for material is one Dorn is quite familiar with: Atlantic Records. Though Atlantic's reissue program is overseen by Rhino Records, the Los Angeles-based reissue specialists can only feasibly release a certain number of albums each year. Dorn's strategy has been to license Atlantic albums that Rhino doesn't have room on its schedule to release. "I have an emotional attachment to the Atlantic catalog," says Dorn. "It's not a business decision on my part. I'm a big Atlantic fan. A lot of those records I made. I fell in love with Atlantic when I was 14 years old and I heard my first Ray Charles record. The whole reason I do what I do is pretty much Atlantic. I worked there in its golden age and I don't want to see these things languish. These guys are friends of mine. They're people I recorded, and I want to make sure their work is out there for the public to have access to it."
The Atlantic reissues have the advantage of a built-in audience as many of the great jazz records Dorn and others produced for Atlantic have been out of print for decades. Jazz collectors and neophytes alike have been forced to raid used record stores to find historically important works by Kirk, Harris, Lateef and Les McCann, and for that matter, great artists on several other jazz labels. Additionally, many of them have never been issued on CD, as they were omitted during the CD conversion of the late eighties/early nineties.
"A lot of the people whose records I put out," Dorn adds, "it really has nothing to do with selling. You don't put a Clyde McPhatter record out because you want to build a new deck on your house. You put a Clyde McPhatter record out because you dig the shit out of him. All these guys, Rahsaan, Yusef, Fathead, Eddie Harris; they're going to be talking about [them] in colleges a hundred years from now, but you can't give them away right now. It's going to be a long time before this music is put in its proper perspective. This is American Classical music."
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Not only is Dorn infatuated with the importance of the music, but also with the sound. The remastering process 32 Jazz uses avoids the sterile '90s digital sound. "We have a way that we remaster so that it's got that round, warm, big vinyl sound with the dust blown off. I do all my remastering because I hate it when someone gets a record you made and masters it however he wants. These records were made to sound a certain way. When they remaster it wrong, it's like when you colorize black-and-white film. Sometimes when you clean stuff up too much, you clean the music out. I heard a Max Roach/Clifford Brown CD that they cleaned up so much they took the life out of it. We ain't going to do it like that."
Though artistic concerns are paramount, the 32 Jazz operation also has some marketing savvy behind it. Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon, for instance, is a compilation of ballads produced and marketed in conjunction with ELLE magazine. To date it is the label's most successful effort, currently sitting in the Top Five on Billboard's Jazz Chart. Based on its success, future projects with ELLE are imminent, and there are plans to make compilations for retailers such as Victoria's Secret. The label is also very package and price sensitive. All reissues include the original art, liner notes, session information, photos and additional notes written by Dorn. The CD cases for single units are usually of higher grade than normal bend-it-you-break-it plastic, and the pricing is below average: Single CDs start at $8.98, and two-CD sets start at $16.98.
Dorn plans to maintain 32's aggressive release schedule -- in less than three years, 32 has released more than 100 albums. The label has several interesting projects outside jazz coming up, including Judy Garland and Tom Jones sets that will include music from their television shows, and Dorn is raving about the newly released Clyde McPhatter set, co-produced by Aaron Neville. Non-jazz projects will continue to be a part of 32's plate in the future, but jazz reissues will remain the label's focus and thus, its bread and butter. With that game plan in mind, what is the prognosis for 32's long-term success?
Dorn, at least, is optimistic: "If I did one thing right, I think I hooked up with stuff that's forever.