Should Jazz Bands Release Music on Vinyl?
By Associate Editor Joe Bebco
When I came to be associated with this paper I brought with me an assumption that my obsession with vinyl records and 78s would be the norm among our readership. I even encouraged finding advertisers selling pricey turntables and supplies. That wasn’t a good idea.
I had another idea for a story about how trad bands could profit from releasing their albums on vinyl. It seemed obvious to me that Hot Jazz, New Ragtime, and Swing were uniquely positioned to benefit from the much-heralded vinyl resurgence. After long delay, I have finally produced that story. The results of my investigation are more cautionary then I anticipated, but there is hope around the margins.
It turns out that there is a demographic for new vinyl and it is not us. On one end you have baby boomers buying up reissues of records they owned when they were younger: Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen. On the other end you have millennials with no real memory of records demonstrating their loyalty to chart toppers like Adele and Taylor Swift by buying the LP editions of their releases. The largest shift in the last three years has actually been from those boomers to the younger generation. New releases of pop music have surpassed re-issues at the top of the LP charts. In a few cases, the LPs are even outselling CDs.
Where do lovers of traditional jazz fall into this mix? As has been much noted for thirty years, the revival movement is graying. People who spent most of their lives fumbling with records and figuring out where to store them aren’t rushing out to buy new ones. They have embraced CDs and see no reason to turn back. The older generation also makes most of the purchases from the small labels releasing the music covered by this paper.
A generation ago many young people made a habit of purchasing albums with every paycheck. The availability of streaming services and YouTube have made this a rarity even among the young fans of specialty music like swing and hot jazz. So a band considering an album release, even if they would love to see their music on an LP, must consider who the potential buyer is.
Another problem for a band considering releasing an LP has been created by the boom itself. Only a small number of manufacturers survived the lean years for LP sales. A band today can cut a record in the morning and have it posted on Bandcamp to sell as a download that night. A CD, whether released by the band itself or on a small label has a short turn-around time. But the process of manufacturing LPs has always been more laborious, and backlogs at factories have stretched production times into many months. Even the date your record will become available can remain unclear as factories bump larger orders from the major labels ahead of yours.
This amounts to a lot of money tied up, without any certainty it will be recouped. It also can mean delaying the release of a CD until the LP is ready. The good news is the evidence of a continuing trend has convinced SONY to jump back into the record manufacturing business and several other new manufacturing facilities are also soon to be churning out records to meet the demand. As production times decrease, producing LPs may become more cost-effective.
But again only if there is demand for the music you are making. I decided to survey what LPs are actually being made available to the general public. I checked out BestBuy.com, on the assumption it would have a selection better curated for profit than Barnes and Noble which has an interest in appearing to have a wide variety and stocks items they don’t expect to sell.
Best Buy had 5,412 LPs listed in the “Jazz” category, many of which would be better described as mid-century popular music. The majority were collections or re-releases from the widely remembered names; Dinah Shore, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, etc.
Refining my search eventually revealed two 1950s Revival Jazz releases, just two out of over five thousand; one from Bob Scobey, the other from Teddy Buckner. Searching “traditional jazz” and “early jazz” produced a couple of swing era compilations but not a single bandleader-specific record. Not even Glenn Miller! The results for “Swing” would leave most of our dancers on the sidelines and aside from the radio stars of the ’90s swing boom, featured none of the many bands making great new music in this category.
You may say that Best Buy isn’t where to find our music, and it may not be, but a search for Dixieland in the CD category produced 560 items, hundreds of which were original ’20s music or music from the revival era. Their system had concluded that there was a demand for this music, but not on LP.
So my answer to bands wondering if they should cash in on the LP trend is “probably not.” Groups with a track record of decent CD sales, a strong online following, plenty of gigs, and fans harassing you to “put it out on vinyl” should listen. But if you’ve been carrying dusty CD’s between your shows imagine how much heavier a crate of records would be. For now, anyway, it’s a risky bet.
But what if you and your bandmates really love records and they were a big part of why you’re all playing this music in the first place? No worries, there are some other options. If you simply must have a record there is always the option of a limited edition EP. A few hundred copies of some non-album material just to get it out of your system, impress your fans, and not break the bank. EP’s remained a mainstay of the Punk Rock and Metal scenes throughout the downturn in record sales and Hot Jazz as played by younger people falls into a similarly edgy niche. I personally would be more likely to pick these up than a full album—which, despite my room full of records, I want to be able to play in the car.
There are ways to express your love of older mediums without actually releasing a vinyl album. We’ve recently covered several groups who record their albums into one microphone and position each instrumentalist according to the practices of the ’twenties or ’thirties. The hope is to capture a sound true to the classic recordings of the era but with the added fidelity that modern equipment allows for.
On the other end of the auditory spectrum, I found Twerk Thomson who on his Twerk-O-Phonic record label has been releasing newly cut 78 rpm records as digital downloads. Performances are recorded live with one microphone into a Presto K8 lathe, cut directly to acetate discs at 78 rpm, and edited only for volume.
The result is a vintage sound reminiscent of a first youthful discovery of music on 78s. He records a variety of skilled musicians currently active around New Orleans who feel drawn to experiment with the unique recording process.
We talked about reviewers sometimes missing the point of what he is doing. If you want to hear full dynamic range and crystal clarity you can easily find it on other records, even featuring the same artists. His records pay tribute to old recording methods and hit the spot for those so enamored with their old records that something always sounds missing from the recordings of the new hot bands. The truly authentic sound of these records is proof that there isn’t.
The best use a band can make of public interest in records may be promotional. When you use authentic one-mic recording techniques, record on vintage equipment, or make a YouTube video of your band crowded around the horn of an Edison cylinder carver you create a backstory for your music.
Twerk-O-Phonic releases have drawn attention across North America, bringing fresh ears to the artists who appear on them. When you are making music in as niche a market as hot jazz and new ragtime any press is good press. You never know who you’ll expose to a great style of music they may have never heard before. An interest in records is a common entry point for an increasingly broad interest in older music. Ever an optimist, my hope is that many of the teenagers buying pop records now will find their way slowly back to jazz.