Label Spotlight

Aerophonic Records
By Ken Waxman

Saxophonist Dave Rempis doesn’t disagree when it’s suggested his Chicago-based Aerophonic imprint can be characterized as a “vanity project”. But there’s an important difference. “Sure, it definitely is,” agree the alto, tenor and baritone saxophonist, who is the label’s sole owner. “I’ve put out 17 releases since mid-2013, all of which I feel proud. But we’re at a point where no one else is going to do that, particularly with that type of quantity. So if I want to get my work out, it’s on me to do it. If that makes it a vanity label, then so be it.” The main difference is that Aerophonic “is self-sustaining. If it was really a vanity label I’d probably be pouring more and more money into it.”

Part of many advanced jazz groups Rempis was no novice when he decided to take the D-I-Y plunge. His first recording was The Vandermark Five’s Simpatico in 1998 and since then he’s recorded for about a dozen labels. “But it was time to have my own imprint because I saw more and more labels in the improvised music world becoming less active. It was difficult to get my projects released in a timely way, if at all. I was already doing everything for my releases aside from the manufacturing and PR anyways, so it wasn’t much of a jump to the next level. Now I also have better reach in driving sales – my fans are on my mailing list, I see them at concerts, I have many other such connections to potential customers that labels don’t, and I’ve been able to leverage them to make the label more sustainable.”

Money for the label initially came from Rempis’ own pocket, but since then “the label’s been 100% self-sustaining through sales. Every one of my releases except for one has turned a modest profit, and that one is four sales away.” Of course being what he calls Aerophonic’s “supreme overlord” takes a lot of effort. “I probably spend about 10 hours per week on the label– selecting material, mixing and mastering, dealing with artwork, manufacturing, PR, stuffing envelopes, filling orders, contacting shops and distributors, etc.,” he elucidates. “I have a couple of friends who package orders for me when I’m on tour in Europe. If I’m on tour in the States I fill orders from the road.” While they’re not employees, about 75 percent of Aerophonic’s releases have either been recorded, mixed or mastered by Dave Zuchowski, while Jonathan Crawford has done the design for every disc.

What about the other musicians featured on the sessions? “Profits from each release have gone back into supporting tours or subsidizing low-paying concerts for bands that work regularly, and have been paid out to the musicians for bands that don’t work regularly. Musicians also get 50 artist copies that they can sell,” Rempis elaborates. “I don’t really consider myself a leader. I think it’s an archaic notion based on a historical jazz model of business, he reflects. “I don’t know that it’s ever really been applicable to improvised music. The bands I work with are all artistic collaborations, whether or not I deal with the logistics of finding them work, etc.”

Gary, Ind.-based cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm is on two Aerophonic CDs with the Ballister trio and over the years has recorded for outlets ranging from major labels to CDR/cassette imprints. Neither of the Ballister discs was specifically recorded for Aerophonic, he reveals. “We just had tapes and Dave wanted to add them to his catalogue and no one else was clambering for material of ours so he released them and did a fine job. When we play together though, I don't think ‘that's the label guy’ or anything like that. Don't forget in the free improvised underground there’s a long and honorable tradition of musicians releasing their own material. It’s a lot of work and not everyone is suited for it. I’m not for sure.”

Echoes Chicago drummer Tim Daisy, who is featured on three physical Aerophonic CDs, one digital release and runs his own imprint: “I think the Chicago improvised music community as a whole inspired me to start my own label. However, watching Dave's label expand over time and checking out the great physical and digital releases he has made has certainly kept me inspired to work hard on my own endeavor”. He adds: “His design aesthetic is super strong. Each release has a similar template regarding the font type and the style of packaging that he uses. But at the same time, the artwork varies on each release, keeping things interesting. Also, his website is incredibly easy to navigate.”

The Aerophonic Web site is a key part of Rempis’ marketing plan since all releases are available in physical or digital form from the Web site, selected small independent brick-and-mortar and online retailers. Where they’re not found is what he calls “major corporate music aggregators”. He goes on: “they don’t deserve the massive cut they take of a small label’s sales. They’re just feeding off of smaller entities because of the leverage they have, and no one stops to ask what the longer term ramifications of that are for an artist or a label. But I want to know who’s buying my records, how they heard about it, etc. I want to capture an e-mail address and contact info for everyone buying my releases, so that I can contact them, and keep in touch directly. I want to drive business to the Aerophonic website, not to Apple Music or Spotify. And I want to build a brand that has resonance within the community that follows jazz and improvised music. If that means I miss two random sales on Apple Music, so be it. My potential for building longer term relationships that have broad benefit for me and my career are much stronger by making one sale directly to a customer. And it’s not like it’s difficult to find this stuff – everyone has Google.”

That’s another reason Aerophonic has released four digital-only sessions. Not only is the cost 30% of physical CDs, but all are by bands that don’t work regularly so can’t benefit from concert sales. “The digital stuff I’ve done has only sold a fraction of what hard copies do, but these are all projects that I felt should see the light of day,” notes Rempis. Meanwhile digital sales “drive more people to the Aerophonic website on a regular basis.” As for vinyl, Naancore, an electronic duo with Lasse Marhaug is the only Aerophonc LP. “For fans they’re great, but there are issues with LPs,” notes Rempis. “Production costs are about 300% more than on a CD, but I can only sell them for 30% more. They also weigh a lot more. For the same space that one LP takes up when I’m on tour, I can take four CDs and this also affects shipping costs.”

Slag by Ballister with Lonberg-Holm and Paal Nilssen-Love is the most recent Aerophonic CD, while Hit the Ground Running with Daisy and pianist Matt Piet will be released digitally in March. The fall will likely see a Rempis solo disc plus a new one by the Rempis Percussion Quartet.

Although he’s considered the idea, Rempis can’t see releasing sessions by other leaders on Aerophonic, but he encourages other musicians to follow his example and D-I-Y. “Quite honestly the amount of work that goes into these releases is more than I can put forth for someone else’s release right now,” he admits. “If somehow the micro-finances change, and I could compensate myself for that work it would be one thing, but I don’t see many labels putting out the type of music I’m interested in doing it for anything more than the love of the art. That being said, we’re living in an age where any musician can take a few easy steps to put out their own work without going broke.”

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2017