THE FOLLOWING DIATRIBE IS DELIBERATELY CONTROVERSIAL
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HAVE YOU EVER heard horrible jazz on the radio and wondered how on earth it got there? One big reason is vanity record labels.
Around 1980 I noticed the vast majority of selections the Los Angeles area’s two jazz stations played ranged from mediocre to objectionable. From time to time, of course, something good or even excellent snuck in. On the other hand, the selections I disliked featured instrumentalists whose work was barely competent, pretentious, obnoxiously inelegant, lacking good taste, or any combination of the above. Why would a responsible business invest time and money to record such refuse?
Well, the record business had changed. Even in the 1980s big labels were having trouble earning a profit on jazz recordings and substantially had cut down their releases. By no means were the big companies immune from producing mediocrity or worse. But generally their releases were a little better than those by some smaller companies.
And those smaller record companies released the majority of albums. They were, and still are, part time businesses by amateur empressarios who like jazz. They have enough discretionary income to record and release a CD regardless of whether it earns a profit. Such people may be good at their “day jobs”, even well intentioned and kind hearted, but often they have no ear for music.
Today nearly every jazz release comes from a small, part time company; the big guys and their accountants have decided virtually any jazz is bad business. Hundreds of small labels exist and it is so easy and relatively inexpensive to record an album they produce more releases than the dozen or so remaining jazz shows in North America can play. As a very successful record producer explained, “Everyone with a computer and a recording program is now my competition.”
The result has been an avalanche of mediocre to hideous albums. Radio station program directors sift through a hundred or more each month. Sometimes the best recordings are from tiny companies the directors have never heard of so they discard them without a listen. Companies with enough money to churn out albums regularly thus become familiar. Good or bad, their CDs receive the exposure. And often they are bad.