“There’s a tremendous amount of inequity now for artists in the digital music world, and that’s a major concern,” says Blue Note Records honcho and bass guitarist Don Was. (Courtesy photo)
“There’s good and bad,” said Don Was, who is more qualified than most to discuss the pros and cons of technology in music.
Was (real name Donald Fagenson) is the president of Blue Note, one of the most prestigious jazz-and-beyond record labels in the world.
He has played bass with Bob Dylan, Elton John, Ringo Starr, Emmylou Harris, Bob Seger and with his own band, the genre-blurring Was (Not Was). More recently, he served as the music director for the just-concluded national concert tour, “The Last Waltz 40 Tour: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz.”
And he is a Grammy Award-winning album producer, whose credits range from Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt to John Mayer, Stone Temple Pilots and jazz saxophone great Charles Lloyd.
At 64, Was is old enough to have grown up when vinyl records and analog sound ruled the day. He is also young enough to embrace some — but not all — things digital.
“You cannot take away from the beauty of being able to access 20 million songs, anywhere on earth, whenever you want. That’s an incredible thing and I utilize it all the time,” Was said recently.
“The negative is that digital doesn’t sound as good. I like the sound of vinyl. If you’re looking to get the essence how the artist intended their music to sound when they recorded it in the studio, streaming doesn’t come close.”
Was also prefers vinyl albums for several non-musical reasons.
“Another thing I miss from the pre-digital days,” he noted, “is the tactile experience of going through the process of buying an album and owning it, holding it and reading the liner notes.”
Even so, Was is quick to acknowledge the digital music world can offer some unique advantages for artists in almost any genre of music.
He cites as an example the esteemed Blue Note pianist Bill Charlap, who performs a May 9 Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI Auditorium concert in La Jolla with fellow piano luminary Renee Rosnes.
“The person who programs Spotify’s ‘Coffee Table Jazz’ playlist added a Charlap song, and Bill now has 13 million plays!” Was marveled.
“That’s pretty amazing. And that’s real income and real exposure. I’m certain most of those 13 million people had never heard Bill Charlap up until this point. That just goes to show what happens when a music streaming subscriber base becomes large enough.”
And the downside?
“There’s a tremendous amount of inequity now for artists in the digital music world, and that’s a major concern,” Was lamented. “There’s a basic feeling among record companies that when the subscriber base hits a certain point, it will become more lucrative for everybody — and that, ultimately, the distribution of the money will become fairer.
“There are great possibilities, but collecting royalties that should come immediately to songwriters, well, I hope that will eventually work out. No royalty situation has ever come easily. The fight for writers to get paid has taken decades and has been nasty.
“But you can’t base the future on the way it’s set up right now, and it will require activism on the part of artists and record labels. I believe there’s really good reason to be hopeful that as technology improves, and as the subscriber base grows, fair (compensation) agreements will be worked out.”
In the meanwhile, Was and Blue Note Records are taking advantage — however counter-intuitively — of the digital music world by offering some special tactile music products.
“We’re doing things that are going in the opposite direction from digital,” he said. “So, this summer, we will debut subscription box sets, based around double albums of mostly new and some unreleased album music that won’t stream.
“The first box will have songs from Charles Lloyd, Wayne Shorter, Lonnie Smith, Terence Blanchard. … And there are amazing things that come in the box with the albums, including a Blue Note scarf that John Varvatos designed. It’s very tactile and it’s going to be really cool. That’s just one example of something we’re doing.
“A result of the whole streaming world is that there’s a gap we can fill. So, as people go to streaming, we’re going to something more physical.”
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