Sunday, 7 December 2014

A new, local, ultra-specialised record label, Sam? Quite sure about that?

Record labels are risky ventures... but this one has an impressive ace up its sleeve

So here we are, well into the internet age, with all the upheavals that the web has meant for recorded music. This has been picked over and dissected on this blog several times. 

The general consensus? The web has returned music makers to a state of penury and servitude not known for over a century. Music flows everywhere, regardless of who has the rights to it. This is nothing new: when Mozart staged his own concerts – he was a star pianist, the best in Vienna at the time – people in the audience transcribed every note. His work was available on the street the next day. And Mozart, in turn, was not above lifting other people's ideas without credit. 

So my general reaction, when I hear of a new record label, especially a label that deals with specialist, adventurous and demanding music, at a time when returns from recordings have hit an all time low, is to wish the people behind it well... and then ask if they are quite in their right minds. 

Sam Slater, on tour with TG Collective

Sam Slater, of TG collective and Stoney Lane, was remarkably cheerful when I threw this question at him.
"I think it's a natural progression for the scene here, almost what the area needs, in the genres that we're working in: Jazz, Classical and various 'World'-related music.  If you look at several major cities around the country: Manchester have one or two artist-led jazz-based labels that have done really well, and really pushed some of their artists internationally; Edition Records grew out of Cardiff and has a great vibe and quality of output; in London there's two or three...... "
...which doesn't surprise me. I'm not disputing the range of talent that you can draw on. We know that there's brilliant talent in the Midlands. The question I really need to ask you is – can this enterprise wash its face? It has to be daunting.
"Absolutely! But not so much daunting as exciting - we've been successful in releasing TG Collective recordings in the past, so I think when the music and personalities are interesting enough, the live side of things is original, dynamic and varied, and the promotion intelligent, people will still listen and buy an awful lot of music. Just that now it is consumed and sold over many more types of media and formats, and you have to be on top of them all, consistently.  Everything has to be of a very high quality, so the music, production, artwork and physical product of everything we release will be just that!  Silly as it sounds, 'success' will not necessarily be solely about financial gain, as a label or as an artist - if it helps to push careers, new artistic directions, opportunities and projects, great happenings, more national and international prominence for the musicians and scene here, and not losing much money in the process, then we're on the right track."
So Sam's not daunted. The label has sprung from the fact that there are maybe half a dozen people thinking of releasing, or ready to release, albums in the region. Kindred souls, ready to go. So why not create a focal point for all this?. 
"There's us – TG CollectivePercy Pursglove who has a fantastic project, there's Lluis Mather with an album done and ready; there's the Mike Fletcher Trio who are putting an album out in January. Chris Mapp's Gambol has recorded too."

"What happens in the Jazz world is – you release an album, you don't really tell anybody, you're a little bit embarrassed. You've made some wonderful music, and you occasionally sell a copy or two for whatever somebody will give you at a gig, in a pub, twice a year.... "
Sam's got a point. Musicians are not necessarily the best at self-promotion. The more involved, the more demanding the music, the more business issues can retreat to the background – often with disastrous long-term financial consequences. 

Jazz record labels have never existed as serious money-making enterprises – but they can be very effective career platforms and reputation-builders. Blue Note, which is celebrating 75 years of often precarious, hand to mouth existence, helped dozens of great musos get stated: Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Miles Davis... the list goes on for pages. But it's worth noting, too, that in their early days, before they were absorbed into a conglomerate, that their sessions were recorded live, improvised, and straight to stereo: one take stuff, with no corrections. And that's about as cheap as you can make it when recording Jazz. 

That sort of approach isn't how Stoney Lane will do things in the 21st century. 
"It's more of a collective support thing for everyone on the label. We're all doing this, so let's use this to point to the collective talent here."
You guys can take months, years to get the result you want. Are we talking about Stoney Lane picking up on finished works, acting as a distributor rather than a commissioning label?
"Initially, mostly yes, although the time it takes to record will really vary depending on the band, orchestration, complexity and their ideas for the vibe of the recording. We've got no serious money, as is always the way.  Most of the projects are recorded. Mike's had already been recorded. Lluis – I think he did a couple of days live studio recording, and a live performance recording with that band, and Chris did something similar.  So in some shape or form, all of the albums have been funded – self-funded in many cases; a bit of sponsorship and artist grant support here and there.." 
So far so good. But that doesn't allow for really big, ambitious projects. Listen to this early sketch of an extraordinary work from Percy Pursglove. I think it is amazing, fresh and ambitious. You can find it on the Stoney Lane Soundcloud page:

"When I first heard this, I found it really, really exciting. But that's a big, big project of you want to do it right. The album we will hopefully do, if ECM doesn't pick it up first, which would be wonderful, by the way... will be one from Percy Pursglove. He came to the end of a fellowship project which produced a piece, about a month ago, called 'Far Reaching Dreams Of Mortal Souls'... which was pretty heavy." 
I think it's breathtaking; absolutely wonderful. I wouldn't call it Jazz, though.
"No! This the exciting thing that I like about the label. I'm not shy to have it as a Jazz-based label, because that's what's here. But in time it would be great to branch out. Percy's is a mix of jazz and classical contemporary composition. It's composed for a choir and a seven or eight piece jazz band with space for improvisation within the work. It's all written around famous speeches and quotations from historical figures. We've got a nice live recording, but that's the first outing of the work. They had one day to rehearse it. The reviews are wonderful."
If that's a first recording, then the piece is very likely going to evolve and shake down.
"Probably, But now we've got the small tasks of raising funds to record it properly. With that many people and that level of musician involved, we're talking a fair amount to record it." 
Ouch, You'll have to bring in a lot of kit – a decent digital desk, a lot of mics, and a seriously good engineer. And you'll need a place with great acoustics, to house maybe forty or fifty musicians and singers. I can see why money is an issue. 
"We may have the venue, and we have the engineer. The guy who recorded the last TG Collective CD – Alejandro Merola – he's done a lot of work with us already. He recorded Percy live, and his attention to detail is way above and beyond." 
So it's really down to finance
"Yes. We're looking at a mixture of crowdfunding, and maybe grant bodies. Three or four different pots of funds."
The label has grown from the existing Stoney Lane operation. TG Collective's last album, 'Release The Penguins' came out on a Stoney Lane 'label' because it made sense. But now it's rather more ambitious. Distribution is sorted; promotion, where funds allow, is in place. But the big ambitious project is Percy Pursglove's. That's at least a year away, but what a goal to shoot for! I wish them all the success in the world. 

And if it does pay off, they there's a new Birmingham focal point for some very adventurous music-making.

Stoney Lane Records website

The roster
TG Collective
Lluis Mather  
Chris Mapp  Mike Fletcher

Percy Pursglove

See more posts on music business and infrastructure on Radio To Go


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