Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blue Note in NY Times

At 70, a Legendary Jazz Label Asks, 'Now What?'
Now part of a larger corporate entity, Blue Note has entered a pivotal moment in its history.
Published: February 6, 2009

At a recent 70th-anniversary reception for Blue Note Records at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson played his trademark hit, “Alligator Boogaloo,” from 1967. Norah Jones, who made her multiplatinum debut in 2002, mingled at the bar. And presiding over the evening was Bruce Lundvall, who has run the label for the last 25 years.

Mr. Donaldson, Ms. Jones and Mr. Lundvall represent points along a continuum in the history of the most storied label in jazz. Founded in 1939 by a German émigré, Alfred Lion, Blue Note has built a catalog that includes almost every major figure in the music, from pioneers like Sidney Bechet to modern masters like Wayne Shorter.

Now part of a larger corporate entity, facing both a parlous music industry and the looming prospect of Mr. Lundvall’s retirement, Blue Note has entered a pivotal moment in its history. Branching beyond jazz, it has moved into what Mr. Lundvall calls “the adult sophisticated pop area.” Its best-selling release last year was by Al Green (“Lay It Down,” which has sold more than 175,000 copies). Next in line was a live album from Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson, who will reunite for two sold-out shows on Monday and Tuesday at the Rose Theater, with Ms. Jones as a featured guest. (Their album has sold more than 100,000 copies.)

The quandary for Blue Note is how it can remain the pre-eminent jazz label while surviving as a profitable business. “One of the first things that Alfred Lion said to me was, ‘What are you going to do to be commercial?’ ” Mr. Lundvall, 73, recalled recently in his office. It’s a question that resonates even more today.

Blue Note was for many years a shoestring operation run with conviction by Mr. Lion and a childhood friend, Francis Wolff. During its postwar heyday, the label released a flood of albums that defined the hard-bop era and helped document an emerging avant-garde.

“Nowhere else in the pantheon of jazz labels is there one with that much majesty or regality in the lineage,” said the alto saxophonist Greg Osby, whose Blue Note tenure lasted 16 years.

Mr. Lundvall took the helm in 1984, after more than two decades at CBS Records and a stint as president of Elektra. At that point Blue Note had been dormant for several years, following the purchase of its parent company by EMI. Under Mr. Lundvall, the label has signed the jazz singers Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, along with leading instrumentalists like the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and the guitarist Lionel Loueke, who released his debut album last year.

“I think that Bruce Lundvall is like Alfred Lion,” said the pianist Bill Charlap, “in the sense that he believes in the musicians and also happens to have a great gift for recognizing when someone is ripe.” Mr. Charlap, on tour with the Blue Note 7, an anniversary tribute band, added, “This is not Blue Note, the small independent record label, anymore; this is Blue Note, the subsidiary of EMI.”

Blue Note’s identity shifted with Ms. Jones’s folk-inflected debut, which sold five million copies within a year of release. (That figure has since doubled.) Suddenly the label was receiving proposals from nonjazz artists like Anita Baker, whom Mr. Lundvall deemed too good to pass up. Later the label signed folk-rockers like Amos Lee and the Wood Brothers, and the retro-pop duo the Bird and the Bee.

“So we’ve extended our reach beyond jazz, but we’ve stayed very true to jazz,” Mr. Lundvall said, citing Mr. Loueke and a couple of new signings planned for this year. “And it’s going to be that way as long as I’m here, that’s for sure.”

But Mr. Loueke’s album, though widely acclaimed, has sold just 6,000 copies — and that figure is on the high side for a jazz release. “With the serious jazz artists,” Mr. Lundvall said, “you look to break even or make a small profit. You keep the budgets in line, do the best marketing job that you can, and stay with the artists as they develop.”

The ideal result of that investment is catalog, a cornerstone of the Blue Note legacy and business. (Last year the 1957 John Coltrane album “Blue Train” sold 15,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan; Herbie Hancock’s 1965 “Maiden Voyage” sold 10,000.) But where catalog once accounted for about half of Blue Note’s revenue, that share is now closer to a third, Mr. Lundvall said, because the albums have been available for so long.

Late last year the label made a round of catalog deletions; any title that sold fewer than 350 copies over a 12-month period was vulnerable. Jazz fans noted with alarm that a handful of significant titles were on the list. Mr. Lundvall said he understood the outcry: “I’m monitoring this like a hawk now. Because some things escaped me the last time.”

The deleted albums are still being offered in digital form, he added. There are catalog promotions through services like iTunes and Rhapsody. In addition, as a 70th-anniversary tie-in, Amazon recently introduced an exclusive on-demand CD series, Back From the Vault, with more than 200 out-of-print titles.

The digital focus reflects the impact of a recent reorganization. Over the last year Blue Note’s operations have been more fully absorbed into the structure of EMI, which was bought in 2007 by Terra Firma, a private equity firm. Though jarring in some ways — “At first I thought I was going to fight it,” Mr. Lundvall said — the change has opened up new resources for the label.

“We’re focused on providing jazz artists with a full suite of services, and that’s one of the advantages of the way that we’re organized right now,” said Howard Handler, the executive vice president for marketing at EMI. “There are more resources to do tour marketing. We have new technology that gives us insight to get catalog to newer generations of fans.”

Mr. Handler pointed to the label’s 70th anniversary as a chance to flex some of that promotional muscle. Among the related events is a bonanza of concerts and club engagements in New York this month and an album and 50-city tour by the Blue Note 7. The Portland (Ore.) Jazz Festival, which begins on Friday, will feature past and present Blue Note artists. And as part of the Grammy Salute to Jazz in Los Angeles last week, the Record Academy gave the label its President’s Merit Award.

“It’s an opportunity to mark the occasion and also do a little bit of reinvention,” said Nick Gatfield, EMI’s president for A&R. “Blue Note as a label and a heritage is very important to EMI. There is no question that it’s not going to be just a catalog. It needs to flourish and grow.”

To that end, Mr. Lundvall said he still had full autonomy over the Blue Note roster. “As long as we’re not seriously in the red — and we have never been, as long as I’ve been here, thank God — they’re not going to say, ‘Get rid of this one or that one.’ They seem to think we know what we’re doing after all these years.”

How much that depends on Mr. Lundvall himself is unclear, but increasingly relevant. Onstage at Dizzy’s he noted that this would be his 49th year in the record business and said that he hoped to make it to an even 50. Whether he serves another year or a few more, there are sure to be more changes ahead for the label.

Mr. Osby, the saxophonist, who now runs his own label, was asked to picture a post-Lundvall Blue Note. “My answer is I don’t,” he said. “He’s the last man standing. He’s Clint Eastwood. And when he saunters into the sunset, I don’t see it.”

Of course no one at EMI puts it quite that way. Mr. Lundvall said he would start a consultancy after his retirement. “I don’t want to sit around the house and mow the lawn,” he said. “I don’t want to be a crossing guard for the Wyckoff, N.J., school system. I want to keep doing this.”

A version of this article appeared in print on February 7, 2009, on page C1 of the New York edition.

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