In 2019, if you were to tell the average music fan that there’s a label that’s only now allowing their releases to go to streaming services for the first time, that news would likely be greeted with head-scratching and a “duh?” But it’s not a no-brainer in the world of jazz, or at least in the space of niche historical jazz, where the Resonance Records label has come to be beloved for its elaborate multi-disc LP and CD sets of previously unreleased material by the genre’s giants.
Up till now, at least, withholding the catalog from the DSPs has actually seemed like a smart business model, if anything, with no danger of cannibalizing the thirst that jazz buffs still have for the physical product… and in many cases, the vinyl most of all. In April, for instance, a newly unearthed collection of material by the legendary pianist Bill Evans, “Live in London,” debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s jazz chart. That position was attained without streaming — and also without digital downloads, or even CDs, because it represented a limited-edition run of $60 double-albums basically selling out in 24 hours on Record Store Day.
Most of the fans who go to a store and snap up releases like that on their on-sale date would sooner die than subject a genius like Evans to the indignity of an Echo Dot. So who needs Spotify?
Well, Resonance does, actually, if it’s to expand beyond the firm but finite audience of proud aesthetes who already know and love the greats in Resonance’s catalog like Wes Montgomery (pictured above), Eric Dolphy, Sarah Vaughan, Grant Green and Jaco Pastorius. Plus, psst, there’s a secret: Coltrane fans like to jog, too.
“Even hardcore record collectors such as myself use streaming in our everyday lives,” says Zev Feldman, the label’s co-president and general manager. “I stream music on my walks, in the gym, in the car, in meetings, you name it. It could create an all-new audience for us, and that’s why we’re taking the gamble. I want our back catalog to be streaming on all these platforms people use throughout their everyday lives. But Resonance always has and will for the foreseeable future continue to primarily devote our energies towards producing the signature deluxe packages that we’ve become known for.”
So they’re changing the model that the label’s fans (and this is a label with its own fan base) have become accustomed to. Until now, with the label’s most treasured historical releases — some of which have taken as long as eight years to pull together — it went like this: Release a couple of biggies on the semiannual Record Store Day as instant-sellout limited LP editions. Put out the CD editions and downloads about three months later. And then go to streaming… never. Now they’re putting out the digital versions just a week or two after the LPs, taking it on faith that the vinyl will sell through instantly even if people know a different format is imminent — partly because it was proving unwieldy to do publicity campaigns for different media three months apart. And then these releases will still be windowed, as far as streaming goes; Feldman is still withholding the April Evans release, for instance, from the DSPs for an unspecified time.
But nearly the entire back catalog is suddenly on Apple Music, Pandora and the rest — as are the contemporary releases that Resonance also puts out that sometimes get overshadowed by the dead guys. For jazz fans who don’t care about the supposed warmth of turntables and who have one of those newfangled cars with no disc drive, a treasure trove that’s accrued over Resonance’s 10-year existence has suddenly opened up.
In a Variety story last fall that named Resonance “the unofficial mascot label of Record Store Day,” Feldman said they were thinking of gingerly wading into the streaming pool with some DSP-exclusive compilation albums that would act as teasers for the individual titles. Over the last six months, the tentativeness of that idea got overruled.
“You’re right, something did change,” says Feldman. “Originally, I thought about just doing the compilations, because curation is such an important part of what we do. But we have so many titles that have been more or less out of sight for years, just sitting in our warehouse, and we see streaming as a way to hopefully generate interest anew. The more we thought about it and felt the weight of all these back catalog titles just sitting there, it became clear that we needed to go all the way with streaming, not just to try to raise awareness and build new audiences,” but so even existing aficionados of the label “may find albums in the back catalog they’ve never heard before. If we just continue to dip our toes in and not jump in fully, we’re not really giving ourselves a real chance. This whole process is new for us and still evolving, but it’s clear to us that we need to be in the streaming world right now.”
That said, the idea of doing compilations with streaming newbies in mind did stick, even as they decided to put the whole enchilada online. There’s a quartet of fresh collections — “Sing A Song of Jazz: The Best of Vocal Jazz on Resonance,” “Jazz Piano Panorama: The Best of Piano Jazz on Resonance,” “Smile With Your Heart: The Best of Bill Evans on Resonance” and “Wes’s Best: The Best of Wes Montgomery on Resonance” — all with mod cover art by the artist Takao Fujioka that looks apropos for the ’50s and ’60s-based sets.
At about this point, outsiders may be thinking the label will have a nearly all-streaming model three or four years from now, just like virtually the entire pop world right now. Feldman doesn’t buy that at all: This is very much a genre where analog warmth and exhaustively annotated 60-page booklets have a sharp edge on Alexa. “I do believe that serious jazz fans are to a large extent still married to physical product,” he says. “I don’t see our entering the streaming world as a way to get ahead of any kind of mass transition.”
Resonance can afford to — or at least is charged with — doing things a bit differently than even most of the other classics-inclined jazz label, as a nonprofit. “Our co-president and label founder George Klabin always says, ‘We are curators building a virtual museum of jazz.’ One of ways people can enter the museum is now through streaming. I must say, I’m a little nervous about whether this will work out for us or not, but I’m grateful to have the support of George, who has my back as we enter this new age.
“If you want to be at the Resonance party,” he continues, “you need to participate in physical consumption. The rare, archival photographs, essays; artist interviews, design — it’s all part of the story we try to tell. With streaming, you just have the music and the cover art, but I do hope that will be enough to capture the interest of the listener enough to make them go out and purchase the full album.
“With our living artists, it’s a totally different story. I think we’ll be releasing their albums for streaming at the same time as the physical release. With those artists, such as Polly Gibbons and Aubrey Logan, we’ve been very pro-streaming and we have their support in that. And George Klabin was just in the Resonance studio last week recording a new Eddie Daniels project featuring Bob James and Dave Grusin that I think we’ll make available for streaming either at the same time as the CD or just after.” (The Daniels release will be a followup to his Grammy-nominated “Heart of Brazil: The Music of Egberto Gismonti.“)
But even with this major rethink, “I’d like to think that not a lot is going to change, really,” adds Feldman (who also recently took on a separate role as a consulting producer for Universal Music and Blue Note, as reported in Variety). “People may not realize that there are serious investments made to create those carefully curated, exhaustive packages; so at this label we need to do all we can to recoup on those investments as soon as possible so that we can continue to do what we do best. Maximizing that artery of physical sales is the key, and it’s worked really well for us until now as evidenced by the chart placements. The bottom line is, if someone really wants to hear our new historical discoveries, they’ll have to go out and buy the physical product or digital download — or wait a while.”
Waiting for a windowing period to expire to get these releases for free may not sound that difficult until you hear what Resonance has in the hopper for potentially later this year: a 10-LP, 7-CD Nat King Cole boxed set, “focused on the early years.”