2019 Highlight: track of the day Free My Skin by Steam Down

Hear Steam Down on Later with Jools Holland tonight on BBC2 from 11pm. A cracking slice of Afrobeat awaits.

Published: 8 Nov 2019. Updated: 7 months.

Hear Steam Down on Later with Jools Holland tonight on BBC2 from 11pm. A cracking slice of Afrobeat awaits.


''Signing'' stories: more details needed

Among indie jazz labels there currently is a rash of ''signing'' stories. Usually these are ''good news'' and ''profile raising''. A couple of recent examples: ''American vocalist, lyricist and songwriter Kurt Elling has signed to Edition for his …

Published: 8 Nov 2019. Updated: 8 months.

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Among indie jazz labels there currently is a rash of ''signing'' stories. Usually these are ''good news'' and ''profile raising''. A couple of recent examples:

''American vocalist, lyricist and songwriter Kurt Elling has signed to Edition for his new album featuring acclaimed Panamanian pianist and composer Danilo Pérez. Renowned for his singular combination of robust swing and poetic insight, GRAMMY winner Kurt Elling has secured his place among the world’s foremost jazz vocalists.” From the Edition records site, 1 November

''Ubuntu Music is delighted to announce the signing of bassist/composer/bandleader Calum Gourlay for the release of his quartet album, New Ears. London-based double bassist and composer Calum is known for his deep warm tone, controlled execution as both a supporter and improviser, and rock-solid time and pulse.'' From the Ubuntu site, 2019

All the stories provide very limited amounts of information however more biographical information is added as an informal appendix in further marketing copy to pad it all out.

Usually all we come away with is the fact that someone has signed. What they have signed up to is largely unknown beyond the fact that they have signed and a single record will at least come out. Often the name if sufficiently a big one is the key talking point and yes is interesting particularly if the signing marks a departure after a long tenure on another label.

This is all well to the good for the label and occasionally for the jazz fan particularly if the fan ''subscribes'' to label curation, in other words the fan buys records or goes to gigs and then buys records to do with artists on a certain label. Ideally the fan buys from our label, in the view of the record boss. Every jazz label aspires to the status of Blue Note and ECM in this regard because both labels mean something and fans know exactly what they are getting in terms of quality certainly and usually a rough signposting to style although both the American (French owned) and German labels in question are adept at extending their reach by building on the essence of their tastes and taking risks with new artists who are not necessarily literal about their adherence to the histories of the label.

What ''signing'' stories lack however is detail. What is the nature of the deal exactly? Is it for one album or two? Is it exclusive, meaning the artist cannot within its terms record for another label? Is it a production deal (the artist pays for everything apart from marketing and physical production of the product)? From an artist point of view it is worth asking: is it a good idea to go with a label when most of the investment is coming from me?

Let's be real. Artists do have to invest proper money in getting their records out in addition to investing in their craft whether directly from their own resources or via crowd funding. However, there needs to be reasonable expectation that this investment is worthwhile. So for instance while a label may have plenty of profile, will their cachet be enough to shift units through physical and digital distribution that is not reliant at all on sales at gigs? Artists often can take care of selling at gigs themselves and buy chunks of the pressing from the label to do just that and this is a healthy source of income if the artist tours a lot and has the ability to provide product for point of sale, which is not always easy at certain venues.

Where a good label comes into its own is through the strength of its distribution chain. Labels also have to market themselves to physical outlets and digital distributors, to get their products profile whether paid for or not. This is where their strength of branding is important. The ''word of mouth'' through reviews in magazines and online is another prong to their attack and again raises their profile among retailers through press recognition.

What would be informative in terms of transparency is if labels who do ''signing'' stories provide information about the longevity of the deal, ideally how much they are signing the artist for it at all upfront (after all in sports and other areas of life this kind of information is made available), what the label actually offers the artist and above all greater explanation of their aims for the label.

If the extra in the preceding paragraph was available these ''signing'' stories would move one step on and actually mean more. Such provision would also show a greater communicative vision on the part of the labels and actually work more towards a greater understanding of the wheels within wheels that young artists in particular need to know to work as a professional artist going forward managing their own careers by doing deals with labels one step at a time. The music business is not interested day by day in providing a free information source despite (or because of, taking much of their labours?) the existence of a surfeit of promotional copy. Being transfixed, note well, by ''signing'' to a label can be a mistake especially if the deal is not right for artists at a moment in time.

Labels need to offer as much to artists as artists do to labels. They may be already offering lots, however, who's to know if they are only interested in headlines and smoke and mirrors are the only optics. If things remain as they are in terms of simply ''Famous artist has signed to us'' ''so what'' may of course be the title of a Miles Davis classic composition but also become a general reaction to the trend. The signing stories will, looking at it from the label perspective, unless we have more details, in the long term no more have the Kryptonite the labels deem them to possess to lower the inhibitions of the jazz press and actually write extensively provided with hard facts rather than mere flannel about their activities. The more we know surely the better for all concerned as a jazz community otherwise darkness prevails and we might as well to be absurd for a moment go back to crayonning on the walls of the closest available cave.