Are Downloadable CDs a new way to build Jazz Audiences?

One Swedish label tries to find out
CODA Issue 331

As a way to educate a new generation of younger, techno-savvy jazz fans about what its slogan describes as “Live Music with Spirit”, Stockholm-based Ayler Records (www.ayler.com) has started offering a series of “download only” or DL CDs at a lower price then its regular CDs. As an added bonus the purchaser can also download printable tray-cards, covers and inserts fitted for jewel box packaging, to create CDs that are almost physically indistinguishable from regular releases.

With releasing Free Improvisation CDs a poverty row situation, anything that cuts costs and provides more return for the company and artists is welcome. Already, reports Jan Ström, Ayler’s executive producer, after only seven DL releases, there’s a queue of other musicians who want to try the concept – with a few surprises planned for future release.

Since its founding in 2000, the Swedish label has put out 36 well-received CDs by a wide roster of American and European Free Jazzers that include saxophonist Charles Gayle, Peter Brötzmann and the late Jimmy Lyons, plus young bands such as the Electrics and Exploding Customer.

Notes Ström: “The DL concept is a method to try to reduce costs and still support and contribute to the Free Jazz scene. With the sales situation of today, one can easily understand that it’s almost impossible to break even for a ‘regular’ free jazz recording.”

The DL releases can be burned onto a CD or stored on a computer’s hard drive, with the best fidelity and simplest interface resulting from downloads that use the most up-to-date hardware. “On our MP3 site we compromise between speed and quality of sound,” he explains. “But downloading a 60-minute CD using an older modem or type of computer with little free space could be a nightmare. There are some customers who tell us about technical problems but we ask our Web distributors to contact the customer and so far, the problems have been solved quickly.

“In general though, I get more questions about ‘how to pay’ rather than the download techniques,” he admits

One potential downside of this DL innovation is that consumers may pay to download a CD, then burn copies of the disc for friends, or put the music on so-called “free” sites for others. Although downloading of Free Music isn’t that common, compared to the downloading of pop music, Ström admits that very little can be done to stop such blatant practices. “But, isn’t this situation the same, or even more common, with regular CDs?” he asks.

“I’m mostly concerned about what will happen with the jazz artists and their inability to get properly paid for this ‘stolen’ music. In the long run, it makes it hard for them to continue to play and to get well-paid gigs.

“We are at the moment trying to educate a new generation who wants music on an iPod that’s interesting, to read more about the artists and to see photos or a video of the performer. In that way we hope to create a demand for more of the same type of music.”

Still, it will probably be impossible to measure whether this new DL initiative is successful as an audience builder before 2008 or 2009, he acknowledges.

But, as Ström points out: “What’s the alternative? Isn’t downloading better than no CD releases at all?”

— Ken Waxman

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Downloadable only Ayler CDs (as of January 2007)

Steve Swell's Nation Of We - Live at the Bowery Poetry Club (aylDL-005)

Joel Futterman - Possibilities (aylDL-011)

Tom Heurich Trio - Hotzen Session (aylDL-016)

Frode Gjerstad Trio - The Other Side (aylDL-019)

Sonny Simmons Trio - Live at Knitting Factory (aylDL-023)

Luther Thomas Quartet - Finally! Total Unity in 3 Phases (aylDL-041)

Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut - Allemansratten (aylDL-045)

Michael Osowski Collective – Live at White Elephant (aylDL-043)

Luther Thomas/Rune Larsen, Busking in Christiana (aylDL-029)

Tommy Koverhult Trio, Trane to Taube (aylDL-042)

Martin Küchen Trio, Live at Glenn Miller Café (aylDL-054)