What John Coltrane on the Billboard Charts Tells Us About Music Sales in 2014

Nick Messitte Forbes.com 10/21/14

For all of you who didn’t know, the legendary John Coltrane has a new album out, released forty seven years after his death. Offering: Live At Temple University showcases Coltrane in his ultimate, brilliant, and arguably, most alienating epoch: jettisoning the earthly tethers of his classic quartet, and yearning for the galaxies of Interstellar Space.

The concert was recorded just seven months prior to Coltrane’s death, and it provides fresh glimpses into a sound which consumed him in his final months—or at least, so I’ve been told.

To be candid, I haven’t put in anywhere near the time I’d like to sit and reckon properly with this record.

Why? I assure you I’m not on some contrarian, anti-Coltrane bent; I have always been a fan of this saxophone colossus: following the record’s release, each day has brought at least one shudder of regret to my shoulders; by all rights, I should’ve had this album in my hands at least two weeks ago.

The reason I haven’t acquired the LP until recently is far more banal (and lazy) than I’d like to admit: you see, there is no download or streaming distribution for this record as of yet.

You won’t find Offerings on the iTunes music store, nor will you spot it within Amazon’s download section. You won’t find this record streaming on any outlet: there are samples of select tunes for perusal on Allmusic.com, but you won’t find an entire song.

Similarly, there exists no YouTube posting of this album in its entirety (at least, not at press time), and even the Spotify link provided on the billboard Jazz charts won’t take you to the correct place.

A phone call to Resonance Records—the non profit label shepherding Offering’s release—confirmed the digital matter: for the moment, this album exists only in the physical world; if I wanted to own the record, there would be no instantaneous solution provided.

Unfortunately for me, most of the large record chains have collapsed here in the United States, and since I live near no independent record shops, malls, or book-stores-in-name-only, my only option was to go through an online retailer like Amazon—an act that would put the fate of physical possession squarely into the hands of UPS (a risky prospect, as anyone living in an unmanned New York City apartment building can attest to).

But you know what? This is all petty griping—at least, it is now, for presently I have the joyful noise of Coltrane’s newest record blasting on the monitors; indeed, everything is right with the universe.

English: A portrait of John Coltrane by Paolo …
English: A portrait of John Coltrane by Paolo Steffan (amateur painter, Wikipedia user), 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It only took me three weeks (thanks a lot, UPS) but I’ve finally obtained the record; as I write this, “Naima” churns on my sound-system. John Coltrane has made his way back to earth after blasting through a cosmos of ideas, and now Alice Coltrane (John’s pianist/wife) is taking her solo, and what a solo it is:

It’s more than a solo, it’s a vindication—as a teenage wannabe Jazz guitarist raised by intellectuals on the Upper West Side, I came into constant contact with academic Jazzheads claiming Alice was a hack, remarking, often and loudly, that she only got the Coltrane gig through nepotism.

If ever there was a solo to prove them wrong, it’s on this record (never mind that Alice McCloud—her name before marriage—boasted a solid reputation before she married Coltrane, when she supported Jazz notables like Barry Harris HRS +0.84% and Yusef Lateef).

But let’s forget all that too.

Yes, let’s forget even attempting to provide a spot-on review for this highly complex music, which to be honest, would require at least a year of listening and reflection before I could develop anything resembling a cogent argument to offer you.

For now, we can leave it at this: Offering is complicated, demanding stuff. You’ll get out of it exactly what you put into the listening of it, but like I said, let’s forget all that for the time being.

Because presently, in this moment, something else is pressing on my mind, something that I think bears putting in print: as we’ve established, this album sports no digital or streaming distribution. The record exists entirely within the physical realm.

But for the last three weeks, Offerings has been a staple of the Billboard Jazz charts, first at number two (not even Coltrane can compete with flashy Mother Monster), then at number nine, then at number eleven.

The album had enjoyed a two week stint in the top 100 of sales across all genres on Amazon.com AMZN -8.43%; now it sits comfortably within the top 250.*

Without a single ephemeral sale, this record has held its own America’s premier chart of music sales (albeit in the segregated division of Jazz). It’s also consistently moved units through America’s leading internet retailer, enough to keep the album on Amazon’s charts as well.

This tells us that a decent number of people are laying their actual, physical dollars—or actual physical pieces of plastic—on the line for this record.

Which leads me to a question:

When an album released solely within a physical framework holds its own against major label competitors with digital backing (one thinks of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett again), what does it say about the state of music sales in 2014?

The question bounced around in my mind for weeks—long before I heard the record—so I consulted with people in the industry whom I trust.

I also held conversations with two people partly responsible for Offering’s release: George Klabin and Zev Feldman, President and Executive Vice President (respectively) of Resonance Records, the nonprofit record label which stands at the helm of this offering.

After weighing all the opinions, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

1) An artist can reach the charts with fewer sales than ever.

This is hardly news, but if ever there was an illustration of this principle, it’s the strong showing of this album, whose sales (numbering in the thousands) were tallied entirely based on physical units.

Previous records of a similar nature—a posthumous release of John Coltrane with Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall, let’s say—have garnered much higher sales. But nine years ago, so did everything.

While it’s hardly news, this conclusion dovetails nicely with point number two:

2) Regional sales in the US matter more than they have in a long time.

Sales are down, as the old refrain goes. This means fewer sales get you onto the charts, as we’ve just established.

But take a look at the music offered on Offering: it’s one of the most complex contributions from one of Jazz’s most complex practitioners.

The press around this album has not suggested anything to the contrary, largely because there is nothing contrary to suggest: consider the snippets offered from this NPR review.

I think it’s safe to say that anyone interested in such music is either a lover of Coltrane or a lover of avant-garde Jazz, or both.

While I’m sure there are such people in the middle of rural Montana, they would, by the nature of avant-garde scenes in general, constitute statistical outliers:

It is simply impossible for Avant-garde Jazz communities to thrive in the vacuum of a single fan; such scenes requires a stable of practitioners and audience members, often interchangeable (in my personal experience, avant-garde Jazz concerts are usually attended primarily by avant-garde Jazz musicians), but always interconnected: because of the esoteric nature of this genre, it requires a community of active listeners in order not to disappear entirely.

That this record has sold as much as it has proves that such communities still exist, and more than that, such communities have undeniable spending power—enough to land freewheeling avant-garde Jazz records onto the charts.

Because this music requires a community—and because it requires a rather recondite one—such scenes tend to reside in specific places—in the cities historically fostering avant-garde Jazz movements (New York, Chicago, Baltimore, et cetera) and in college towns of the sort academic scholars/aficionados of Coltrane tend to populate.

Thus, the fact that this album has stayed on the charts for three continuous weeks is a testament to the buying power of specific regions.

This is a situation recognized by the label: when I asked Zev Feldman where people have been picking up Offering, he replied that “people have been going to the places that they buy music. I think it’s as simple as that.”

Of course, these communities wouldn’t have flocked to the record if there hadn’t been extensive marketing targeting such scenes in the first place, which brings us to our next point.

3) Niche marketing – those dreaded buzz words – really does hold sway.

“We wanted to give the project everything that it deserved,” Feldman told me. “That included being strategic with the promotion and the marketing, going months before the release date to talk about this to the people that needed to know, from the retail accounts to the writers and the magazines.”

Indeed, they hired publicist Matt Merewitz and gave him the record “five and a half months before the release,” because, as Zev explained, a “long lead time is really important—we’ve seen records get dropped and then right before they come out they go to press. It doesn’t sync up!”

By marketing effectively to the right niche markets, they were able to achieve synchronicity, generating buzz on the internet as early as last April, when sites like Pitchfork.com ran articles on the record’s release. The ensuing promotion in both Jazz circuits (allaboutjazz.com) and larger markets (NPR) created a groundswell: not only did the record display a strong showing, but Resonance Record’s Facebook page skyrocketed to 19,000 fans; Feldman remarked that Coltrane “definitely brought more people to our door…it’s gotten more people to our page.”
4) Boutique audiences—such as those who like avant-garde Jazz—still buy music.

This claim isn’t only borne out both by Offering’s sales. There’s also the widely-reported fact that independent sales have been regularly beating the numbers of any one major label since 2012.

I can relate a more personal observation that supports the point, if only on an anecdotal level: the majority of the avant-garde jazz I’ve seen in New York City in recent years has been pass-the-hat—suggested donation, in other words; the majority of audience members I’ve seen at these concerts pay the suggested donation every time.

As made clear by the increasingly predominant sales of independent music versus major label counterparts, this communal ethos of mutual scene-specific support seems to hold sway in other boutique markets too.

Indeed, when it comes to selling music, we’re living in a time that, in many ways, resembles the post-punk era of the early eighties: alternative venues, independent means of promotion, and grass-roots touring schedules can do more than garner you a sizable fan base—they can actually get you on the charts (because of our first two conclusions: 1) you don’t need much in the way of sales to make it onto the charts, and 2) regional sales matter more now than they have before).

5) The audience that buys Jazz still buys physical.

Not only are the sales of this record exclusively physical—a good deal of them are vinyl, with the full complement of liner notes and artwork accompanying. It should be noted that the both the CD and the LP are quite a bit more expensive than your average discs, and yet, they are selling well enough to make the charts.

Why?

One independent record store clerk I talked to held the liner notes responsible, asserting that the packaging made the product desirable.

When I fielded the question to Zev Feldman, he said, “First of all, I’m an LP collector…I know what makes me excited…so when I build something for people to buy in whatever format it’s in, you know, I want it to be the best it can be, and that includes having a lot of content.” Indeed, he echoed the old sentiment: “it’s like Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.”

The sales of this record show two things: 1) Feldman was right–he helped build it, and they came. 2) In the absence of digital, physical is still a viable medium.

Put in other words, don’t sleep on physical: since you need fewer sales to be recognized, since regional sales matter more now than before, since niche marketing has been shown to work, and lastly, since boutique audiences still buy music, strongly pushing your physical product along the aforementioned lines can bring success.

Having said that, one last statement remains incontestable:

6) The greats are still the greats: they still have selling power.

Ultimately, what’s selling this record is the name, history, and legacy: John Coltrane is a man whose influence reaches far and wide; his mark is just as palpable on sub-genres of Rock (jam-band, for instance) as it is on Jazz. The people at Resonance Records know this—indeed, have been counting on it:

“It’s John Coltrane! John Coltrane is timeless,” and here Zev Feldman was brimming with pride. “It just puts it all back in focus in terms of why John Coltrane is so important…I hope the record continues to turn people on, and we continue to talk about Coltrane.”

*Statistics provided to me by Resonance Records via email on October 20th 2014.

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