By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO NYTimes.com 12/26/16
PEEKSKILL, N.Y. — The jazz pianist Elan Mehler hovered over a vinyl-cutting lathe at Masterdisk studios as a mastering engineer laid a blank disc onto the plate and paused for a moment, listening for hints of interference as the blade sliced across the surface.
The men were here, an hour north of New York City, to cut master recordings for Newvelle Records, the small label that Mr. Mehler, 37, founded two years ago with his business partner, Jean-Christophe Morisseau. The discs will be sent to France to be replicated en masse and mailed to Newvelle’s subscribers.
Well, sort of en masse. Like everything at Newvelle, these records will be released only on vinyl, in small releases of 500. No CDs, no digital downloads, no streaming.
It’s all part of Mr. Mehler’s plan to produce first-rate jazz recordings in the digital age. That the music will reach only a small handful of listeners, at least initially, is a necessary downside, Mr. Mehler said
“It’s a model that sustains the music,” he said. “I came to this idea of how to record because of how difficult it is to make a record as a jazz musician.”
Jazz accounted for just 1 percent of all record sales in the United States in 2015, according to Nielsen’s year-end report. But jazz buyers do purchase actual albums: Almost half of those jazz records were bought in physical form. And across all genres, vinyl sales continue to rise; according to Nielsen’s midyear report, in the first half of 2016, vinyl accounted for 12 percent of physical album sales, up 3 percent over the same period a year ago.
Mr. Mehler first had the idea to start a label that would marshal the appeal of vinyl a few years ago, while living in Paris. He mentioned it to Mr. Morisseau, 48, a French businessman who was taking piano lessons from him. They started meeting regularly and sketched out a plan.
Musicians would receive a flat fee to record their albums, with Newvelle fronting the cost of production at a world-class studio in Lower Manhattan. The label would retain exclusive rights to the music for two years, offering it only on elegantly packaged vinyl and only to subscribers, who would pay $400 for a year’s worth of recordings: six in all, sent at two-month intervals.
After two years, the artists would have the right to release the music independently, as long as Newvelle retained exclusive vinyl-distribution privileges.
Mr. Mehler and Mr. Morisseau released their first season over the past year, reaching about 200 subscribers, and in November they completed a Kickstarter campaign to finance the second. That drive signed up about 50 subscribers and raised over $25,000.
Newvelle’s records adhere to the kind of gossamer, “chamber jazz” aesthetic that characterizes most of Mr. Mehler’s work as a pianist, but they feature a range of musicians, from jazz’s nobility to its rising stars.
For the first season, the pre-eminent drummer and sometime keyboardist Jack DeJohnette recorded his first solo piano album, “Return,” a collection of gentle but austere compositions, often in a plaintive minor key. Noah Preminger, a young tenor saxophonist with a dusted and blossoming tone, made a ballads record with an all-star quartet.
Each album in the first season featured images by the French photographer Bernard Plossu, and poems from the Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith were printed in the liner notes. This season, which is priced at $360, the albums will feature photos by the French collective Tendance Floue. The novelist Douglas Kennedy is writing a short story that will be serialized across the six records, with a different portion on each album cover.
Rufus Reid, an esteemed bassist, has recorded an album for the coming season, featuring his jazz trio alongside the Sirius String Quartet. He said he was grateful for the opportunity to produce a graceful product and to see his ambitions encouraged rather than resisted. “I think there’s been a longing for people to listen more intently, and the vinyl kind of makes you do that,” he said, adding, “Other labels aren’t really putting out any cash for the whole kit and caboodle of recording an album.”
In its focus on vinyl and its distinctive, brand-coherent album art, Newvelle is a kind of throwback to jazz’s midcentury glories. But it’s also timely. Vinyl is becoming the quintessential luxury item for a music business in transition. And across industries, small companies like Newvelle are using subscription services to market niche products.
“The vinyl form, for Elan, really represented this idea of a pure sound, something that’s very high-quality and that every artist is very keen on,” Mr. Morisseau said. “So my idea was to say, ‘O.K., let’s treat the vinyl and the music like a luxury good.’”
For Newvelle’s musicians, the studio does not serve as a conduit to a broad audience so much as a site for the celebration of their craft. It does little to emulate the bandstand, jazz’s onetime breeding ground, but it does suggest a survival technique for jazz in lean times. And it signals that when jazz becomes a luxury item, product may matter more than populism