As big record companies struggle with the ways digital technology is changing the music business, they've also been abandoning entire genres of music to focus on squeezing the biggest possible profits out of rock, pop, hip-hop and country acts. Thankfully, independent niche labels are springing up to fill the artistic void. Many of these are small, one-person operations run by fans and musicians whose aim is to make important (but overlooked) music available to the public, using the same technology that's vexing the majors.
One local example of this is Freedonia Music (www.freedoniamusic.org), a Web-only label selling both CDs and (under the auspices of online distributor CD Baby) digital downloads. Started earlier this year by multi-instrumentalist Jay Zelenka, Freedonia specializes in free improvisation and avant-garde jazz. These genres once had at least a minimal presence on major labels such as RCA and Columbia but have now been relegated completely to the indies. They also happen to be Zelenka's preferred groove: Freedonia's first batch of releases includes CDs from his acoustic Free Jazz Posse and its electrified alter-ego Squid Choir Orkestra.
"Somewhere along the way, I made a decision that I was not interested in doing anything but improvised music," he says. "That's worked for me as far as feeding my soul and helping me grow creatively. I've never really looked back. I made this choice, and I'm pretty happy with it."
Zelenka, a St. Louis native, was inspired to investigate free jazz when a college friend turned him on to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. But as a teenager he dabbled with guitar and trumpet — and actually began his performing career in the late-'60s and early-'70s as a poet with the Human Arts Ensemble, a loose affiliate of the Black Artists Group. Already a talented percussionist, he also later added saxophone and flute to his arsenal. "I seemed to have a facility for wind instruments that was lacking with strings," he says.
Freedonia isn't Zelenka's first foray into the business of recording: He and pianist Greg Mills, working together under the name Exiles, put out a number of self-produced cassettes in the '80s and '90s. ("All of these were, by and large, money-losing ventures," he recalls. "We got some nice reviews but never made a real profit on it.") Their last recording as Exiles was a CD issued by the respected jazz indie label Leo Records, an experience that convinced Zelenka that controlling his own recorded destiny was the way to go. Fortified by some informal engineering lessons from Greg Rathert of Premier Studios, a now-defunct midtown facility where he and Mills had recorded, Zelenka bought some recording gear and began accumulating material with the idea of eventually putting it out himself.
Accordingly, a couple of Exiles' reissues and a solo release from Mills are also among some of Freedonia's first scheduled releases. Future efforts will include a solo record from local saxophonist Dave Stone, never-before-issued recordings of the Human Arts Ensemble and a CD pairing poet Michael Castro with reed player J.D. Parran. Full-length sample tracks from all the label's releases are available from Freedonia's Web site, and while Zelenka says he's had "some second thoughts about issuing actual physical CDs," he admits, "I'm old-school enough to want to palpate things. I still like the feel of an old print book."
That sentiment is shared by Jeff Konkel, another St. Louisan who in 2006 started Broke & Hungry Records (www .brokeandhungryrecords.com) to record unknown juke-joint blues artists from Mississippi.
"We labor over the design and liner notes, because we want to give you a feel for the experience," he says, but notes that the label also sells its wares in digital form through iTunes, Napster and other downloading services. "Frankly, whatever format people want the music in, I'm happy for them to have it if they're a paying customer."
Like Zelenka, Konkel does his own engineering and emphasizes spontaneity by recording live as much as possible. Broke & Hungry's first release, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes' Back to Bentonia, was recorded at the singer/guitarist's own down-home nightspot, the Blue Front Café. "I love recording at these live venues, because that's where the artists are most comfortable," Konkel says. "There's a certain ambiance to the sound of those rooms. I wanted to get a real sound, and the best way to do that was at a juke joint."
Released in spring 2006, Holmes' album won three awards from Living Blues magazine and helped launch him as a live performer on the blues festival circuit. Broke & Hungry's next effort, Searching for Odell Harris, was captured in what Konkel termed a "brutal" after-hours session that ran from 11:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. in another juke joint in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Konkel had never even met Harris in person before the recording, and the night was filled with heckling from customers who had refused to leave the club, as well as a series of incomplete songs and "profanity-laced tirades" from Harris himself. Despite these challenges, the resulting CD was well-received by blues fans and critics, as was Holmes' follow-up release and another album featuring Clarksdale natives Terry "Big T" Williams and Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson.
Critical acclaim, however, hasn't done much to pay Broke & Hungry's bills. "The name is tongue-in-cheek, but it's proving to be our business model," Konkel says with a laugh. "You'd be a fool to get into country blues recording hoping to flip a big profit." Still, he admits to being surprised at the actual sales numbers.
"When I started, I assumed you'd measure sales in terms of several thousand," he says. The reality is that "guys who have been doing it for years say, 'You sell 1,500 copies and you've got a hit on your hands.' Even within the blues world, there's this sort of pop-culture mentality. They'll play a record for three weeks and then it disappears."
Nevertheless, Konkel is planning to up the ante next year with a documentary film and accompanying soundtrack called M For Mississippi: A Road Trip to the Birthplace of the Blues that will spotlight a number of artists and the environment that he calls "a unique collision of geopolitics, race, agriculture, food and whiskey."
"The reason I got into this was to shine a light on these guys," he says. "I think it's probably the most significant project I may ever undertake in this field."