Be realistic: these days you won’t get rich by starting a music label. On the contrary, in light of the cut-throat situation in the music industry, labels must constantly change course to ensure their existence. But how do you do that without making yourself a slave to the market? Here we look at a small label that has managed to survive for over 30 years. Intakt Records specializes in jazz music. Contrary to the general fast pace and scramble for profits of the music industry, Intakt base their approach on continuity and quality. We talked with one of the founders, Patrik Landolt and asked him what it takes to stay in the game.
The label Intakt Records is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. What are the ups and downs of running a label that stick in your mind?
It’s nearly always an up when we hold a new CD in our hands that has been produced by us. We are producing in a team - working at Intakt are Anja Illmaier, Georg Bauer, Jonas Schoder, Gabrielle Favre, Patrik Landolt - and each CD is a result of this collective work. Each CD is a new creation, something that hasn’t been there before. It is the result of a long process for the musicians and is often a part of their biography or an important part of their lives. But also the work of the producers, the recording engineers, the designers and the whole label in general flows into something that finally exists and can be listened to time and again. This is how art comes into being and becomes a part of a new, exciting and creative world.
The downs are mostly about money. The lack of money has restrained our work and our existence from the very beginning. The market doesn’t support new, experimental art. It tends to become totalitarian. The one who doesn’t bow to the price dictated by Amazon or iTunes is left out without a chance. The public promotion of culture, unfortunately, has not reacted proportionally to the change in the market situation, or if so only very slowly. The established forms of culture, as well as the maintenance of tradition, are still being promoted with millions of euros, but there is way too little support for the evolution of the new, the contemporary. The whole world of publishing, including both CDs and books, is faltering and endangered.
Patrik, you worked as a cultural editor before founding Intakt in 1984. It was a passion project that didn’t pay off at first. How does it look today, financially speaking?
The term "pay off" doesn’t really apply. Art motivated by sales is (mostly) worthless. The work of a publisher like Intakt Records, which promotes, develops, produces and distributes new, marginal forms of expression is a work of cultural promotion, of innovation and of research - it’s naturally motivated by passion. I’m seeing our work as a counterbalance to the pervading logic of the market. The fact that we want to keep living in such an expensive city as Zürich makes it more complicated. We need to come up with some ideas to pay the accruing costs, the rent and our salaries. In this regard, we are not alone. Many people, like many of our musicians, are struggling every day to survive.
What survival strategies have you developed in the past decades?
Most important is quality. We focus on our musicians. They are creating good music. The key element is their development. I am convinced that our passion for this kind of music characterizes our entire catalogue. On the business end of things, we are currently working on an expansion of our distribution network, in terms of physical products as well as digital. Nowadays this is a Sisyphean challenge. We are selling more and more CDs, and thousands of listeners come into contact with our music via digital downloads, but the revenues are not keeping pace. (The reason lies in the falling price of CDs - as well as the extremely low cost of digital products - and the exchange rate of the Swiss franc.) Our subscribers are another very important pillar for our existence. Several hundreds of music enthusiasts have subscribed to an Intakt series - they are getting six CDs per year for a very good price. Beside that, with an increasing effort, we are trying to enter a conversation with some institutions of cultural promotion in order to find financial support for our products.
You rely on long term collaborations with musicians. Which advantages does this continuity bring for both sides? Are there any disadvantages?
The value of a single CD always depends on its place in the overall oeuvre of the artist, sometimes even in the context of a certain session, a certain point in time. Our interest lies in the creative biography of the musician and the work that grows with it.
How has jazz music changed in the last 30 years? What is your prognosis for the future?
We are living in a time of great differentiation and the confusion that goes with that.
If one could speak of "tendencies" within the contemporary world jazz music, one would have to say that after many years of lurching from one dominant style to the next, we’re now living in an era which thrives on a simultaneity and variety of many contemporary styles and movements.
It’s a pleasing development: there are more groups and more skilled musicians than ever before, a jumble of jazz-oriented styles and trends to draw from, and an unimaginable number of CD recordings. But the big multinational CD labels – with international branches and international distribution structures–have stopped producing contemporary jazz to a large extent. It’s the well-organized independents and the vast range of small and very small labels that publish innovative contemporary jazz nowadays – all with limited financial resources. And every musician nowadays is able to make his or her new recordings available digitally. Music production und publishing has become a huge universe: diverse, comprehensive – unfathomable.
In this situation, working with patience and foresight is more important than ever. The value of the work and the significance of a single production often shows only after many years of effort, enhanced by the context in which it’s developed. That’s why musicians, labels and agencies should team up in order to collectively develop a long-term perspectives to survive the chaos.
You are serving a certain niche as a label specialized in jazz music. This specialisation made it possible for you to achieve and maintain a high standard of quality, which has brought you international recognition. How important is the jazz genre in this case? Would such a strategy work with other music genres as well?
Yes, it works for new contemporary music, as well as for experimental rock music, and world or folk music labels. But labels and musicians seeking wider commercial success have to obey the laws of the market.
What do you think: will the digital download put physical CDs out of business?
No. In the best case scenario, different sound formats will keep existing in parallel, including vinyl, tapes, CDs and the different forms of digital download. It’s hard to predict how and when these relations will shift.
What should a musician have to do to get signed by you?
High musical quality, an alert mind, and an obsession with music.
Any piece of advice you would like to give new label founders?
There are a few good witticisms that have seen me through all the years of having a label. Hanns Eisler, the composer and friend of Berthold Brecht, once said: "Someone who understands only music, knows nothing about it". That is very wise and helpful! Or there is another one from Arnold Schönberg: "Art doesn’t come from being able to do something, but from having to do it". Now we are back to the beginning of the interview: it’s matter of passion.
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