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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 18, No. 1 September 2012

So you wanna make a record? Pointers From a Pro

by Marc Chénard / September 1, 2012

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On June 29, Jim West, founder of Justin Time Records (now Canada’s dean of Canadian jazz indie labels) was invited by the Victoria Jazz Festival in British Columbia to talk about the production and dissemination of recorded music. With all of the turmoil in the industry, the outlook remains gloomy, but with his 30-year experience as label chief, West has managed to pull through. Like others, he too has had to slim down his operations, a fact he does not really bemoan. “True, my staff is much smaller now,” he notes during a recent conservation, “but a lot more can be done with it, too. A few years ago, we were all in our separate cubbyholes. Now we’re in an open office space, so it’s much easier now to have staff meetings. The last couple of years have been tough, but some good things have happened and the label is now doing fine.”

During our meeting, Jim West went over some of the points raised in his recent talk, entitled Now that I have a recording, what do I do with it? For starters, there are three ways of releasing music in the marketplace. The first is through a granting licence, in which case the artist grants a record label the rights to market his or her recordings for a given time period, sometimes for a specific territory (country, continent, world). Then there’s the record deal, where a recording is sold outright to a label for an amount that factors in all costs incurred by the leader or band, or a label covers all costs for the production of a recording. Finally, the DIY approach. Here, the artist or band produces the recording and takes care of all the ensuing tasks, including mastering, pressing, marketing, promotion and so on.

West’s talk focused on this third approach, which is now commonplace in all “specialized” music fields, jazz included. Given the relative ease with which records are now made, and the pretty good sound quality of them, costly studio rentals are no longer indispensable. All it takes is a decent set of microphones, a portable mixer, and a laptop with a good hard disk. But once all that is secured and tracks are laid down, other operations like mixing, track sequencing, maybe even mastering with a competent sound engineer must follow. And these steps are only the beginning of the process.

During the mastering stage, for instance, it is important to secure an IRSC (International Recording Standard Code) for each of the pieces to be issued. These are assigned numbers engraved in the digital codes of the CD, a task performed by the mastering engineer. A master recording is then made which then goes to a pressing plant for duplication, though this stage is no longer obligatory, as music can also be made available via downloads.

While the production of the recorded object was once a labour- and cost-intensive process, especially so in the vinyl days, everyone can now easily make a record. The most involved task may well be the graphics, which involves the production of a jacket cover and tray card, inscriptions on the disc itself, an accompanying leaflet, if not a booklet with liner notes. For commercial purposes, a ten-digit bar code number is needed for the North-American market. It is obtainable through the Grocery Products Manufacturing Organization. (12 and 13-digit ones also exist for other parts of the world.) A specific code can be attributed or an existing one can be borrowed, for instance through a licensing deal with an established label. Of those digits, the first five are specific to the user, who can also decide the remaining numbers, for instance a label catalogue number.

“But once you get the product in your lap, the real work begins,” West is quick to point out. “I compare this to a bicycle wheel. If you take out a spoke, it doesn’t turn as well; if you keep taking more out, it will wobble more and more and not hold up anymore. Each spoke then is like a member of your team.” These ‘spokes’ are a distributor, PR representative, and agent. In jazz, you have to look for an independent distributor and convince them it’s worth it for them to carry your product; the best, of course, is to have sales reps on the road, in Canada, you generally have one for Quebec and another for the rest of the country. It’s also good to find a good PR person, one who has both interest in your style of music and a good network of contacts. Getting an agent is useful as well, he or she can help you get gigs and promote your recordings. “The most important [factor],” says West, “is that everyone is willing to work for you. And if there’s a bad apple in the lot, you get rid of it immediately; that’s good business practice. Of course, there’s a trade-off here: each added person means a little less money for you. But what do you prefer: 100% of $100, or 10% of $10,000?”

As for Jim West’s current state of affairs, those lavish six-figure recording projects of a decade ago are now behind him and he’s more than halved his yearly rate of releases (around 10 per annum as of this writing). Yet he does not feel any worse off. What particularly interests him now are the local up and comers. “Oliver Jones keeps telling me, record the kids!”  And that is what he is exactly eyeing for in months to come, with a couple of vocal talents offering their own original material. Please stay tuned for further developments… 

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