There’s no such thing as an “official label of Record Store Day,” of course; all of the majors and a significant portion of indie imprints participate in the semi-annual April and November gold rushes for limited-edition vinyl. But if Record Store Day had a mascot label, it would be Resonance Records, a small, L.A.-based jazz independent that’s become known even outside the genre for producing high-end archival releases tailored especially with the RSD market in mind.
For the 2018 Black Friday edition of Record Store Day, Resonance released a limited, 3000-copy edition of a project they’d been working on for four years, featuring newly unearthed music from the jazz great Eric Dolphy. Serious jazz fans have been anticipating “Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions” for a while; there’s a good reason why Dolphy is on the cover of the next Downbeat magazine, for the first time since his death in 1964. But some of the people snatching up this three-LP set Friday weren’t doing it because of Dolphy’s name, but because of Resonance’s. As one user on the very rock-oriented Steve Hoffman Forums website wrote of the Dolphy release Friday: “That one wasn’t really on my radar, and I’m pretty unfamiliar with him, but I have a bunch of the other Resonance releases from past RSDs — all fantastic — so I grabbed it.” For an item that retails in the $65-70 range, that’s a pretty much unparalleled faith in one label’s curatorial taste.
“I love that,” says Resonance co-president Zev Feldman, told about this and other similar online comments from Record Store Day hounds about the label, which is currently celebrating its 10thanniversary. “It takes a long time for people to notice who you are. Resonance has been really lucky in terms of that kind of branding.” On the Dolphy album — which, like all of their RSD releases, is a strictly limited, hand-numbered edition — “we shipped a sold-out 3,000 units worldwide, which is an unbelievable feat,” Feldman says, for a long-deceased, non-household-name jazz artist in a world of diminishing physical media.
How do they do it? Volume! Or the lack of it, actually, since collectors know a Black Friday rollout of 3,000 copies (or anywhere from 2-6K for other releases) may be gone by Small Business Saturday. “Our products are a little different than a lot of other record companies’, perhaps, in the respect that our vinyl pressings are not meant to live on in the bin,” Feldman says. “We really make them collectible pieces. And I know this really is frustrating for some people,” namely, those who don’t get to the store in time, or those who resist the call to get a turntable. It’s not as if they’ll miss out on the music altogether. Like a lot of labels that participate in RSD’s vinyl rush, Resonance does schedule a CD and download release, as well. Unlike just about any of the others, they do it on a schedule: the digital versions come out six weeks after Record Store Day, which in this case means you can get those unlimited, less pricey editions of the Dolphy set on Jan. 25.
This staggered release pattern has worked wonders for a label that might otherwise have trouble getting attention for its product in a crowded marketplace. The LP versions are effectively teasers for the later product — although, to serious buffs, the vinyl is the main attraction, not just out of LP nostalgia or even the warmth of the grooves, but because of the 12-inch packaging. The Dolphy package is typical for Resonance in that the “booklet” that comes with it really contains a book’s worth of material, with Feldman acting not just as record producer but reporter as he interviews practically everyone still living who worked with, knew, or deeply appreciated the artist, like Sonny Rollins. These releases are acts of journalism as well as audio excavation… and woe to the average aging jazz fan that waits for the digital release and has to read all that tiny type in 100-plus pages of a CD booklet.
The eventual CDs always outsell the limited vinyl. Feldman notes that their most popular archival release, Bill Evans’ “Some Other Time,” “has sold over 60,000 copies worldwide. Holy moly. In this climate, you know, that’s a success story. When we started in the first year, we were shipping out maybe like 300 CDs worldwide on a new release, and it’s been really exciting watching things grow.” And he credits Record Store Day for helping create that brand awareness, even if most of the eventual buyers never set foot in a brick-and-mortar shop.
“It helps both our organizations out,” Feldman says. “We’re big supporters of Record Store Day and Record Store Day has been a big supporter of our label. When we put together a project, whether it’s Dolphy or Evans or Wes Montgomery or a new artist recording, we have to do an analysis ahead of time in looking at all the expenses and how much the project will make to determine if we’re going to do it. And Record Store Day is basically giving us a way of justifying making these projects happen. We’re a non-profit foundation, so our mission is different. We’re all about first and foremost curating art, and as George Klabin, our founder, says, we are curators of this virtual museum that we’re building. So just knowing that we’re going to be able to come up with that right number for Record Store Day and sell it out enables us to say, ‘Hey, this project’s going to get green-lighted because it’s going to at least recoup.’ That’s not always the case with our projects.”
Resonance doesn’t just see dead people. “If George was here with me in this room, he would say, ‘Zev, please don’t forget to tell them we have living artists on this label.’” Yet much of the company’s rep rests on Feldman’s growing reputation as a vault detective who seems to be able to find an unceasing level of output from artists who’ve spent decades pushing up daisies, as it were, not pushing product. Getting all the rights-holders to sign off, not to mention cleaning up tapes and doing the exhaustive booklets, means most of these records take 2-6 years to get to the finish line, “where, when you work at a major company, they are looking at what’s coming out next quarter. It’s very hard business-wise to justify something like this.” But the thrill of the initial discovery of tapes doesn’t wear off for Feldman, who sometimes gets tips about previously unknown live or studio recordings, and at other times is proactively doing the legwork himself.
Tapes come in “from musicians, radio archives, you name it. There are trenchcoat tape collectors. I like those dudes. I work with the French government” — a lot of golden-age jazz greats had their concerts or radio sessions recorded overseas — “and I’m just about to leave for Paris; I’m starting to work with a few other foreign archives as well. And I’m still making phone calls all the time, tracking stuff down, trying to find out what happened to those tapes of John Coltrane and Larry Young, or the Wes Montgomery/ Coltrane ‘61 Monterey tapes.” In the case of the new Dolphy set, the sax/flute/bass clarinet great handed over a suitcase to a friend for safekeeping not long before he suddenly passed away from diabetic complications. Feldman got a tip in 2014 that the suitcase had ended up in the hands of UCLA professor James Newton; it turned out to include not just mono masters for two of his three albums, but hours’ worth of outtakes from those sessions, 85 minutes of which have now been unveiled as part of “Musical Prophet.”
The elaborate Dolphy set was Resonance’s only release for this Black Friday edition of Record Store Day, but Feldman actually produced three other RSD albums that came out for the occasion, thanks to his being permitted to freelance for other labels. He also produced two never-before-heard albums of vintage live jazz from Cannonball Adderley and Etta Jones for the Reel to Real label, and a straight reissue of Bobbie Gentry’s not-so-jazzy country classic “Ode to Billie Joe” for Elemental.
Given how many years these take to produce, Feldman can already tell you what’s in store for the RSD coming next April: previously unissued late ‘’60s recordings from Bill Evans and mid-to-late ‘50s sessions from Wes Montgomery. Those names are familiar from past Resonance releases, but there are a couple of household names that haven’t previously been associated with the label that he’s close to procuring rights to put out for the RSDs coming up after that. He can’t yet reveal who they are, but some of the most recognizable sax players and pianists in the world will be represented… dead and living.
Feldman is actually rethinking some of Resonance’s routine… a little. “There has been a formula that has worked so far, and people love getting that vinyl first as an exclusive, But I’m wondering if perhaps, with the blessing of Record Store Day, if there could be some releases that come out on CD that are released for Record Store Day too.” (In rare instances, other labels do that; there’s no ban on CDs at RSD,) “It’s easier for publicists to get just one date down, and it’s very hard doing a little dance asking people to hold stories. But maybe if we did the CD at the same time as the vinyl, maybe we wouldn’t sell as many vinyl? Maybe there’s a reason why it works the way it works.” Decisions are being made about making tracks available to stream, too, albeit only as best-of collections. “I have kept our entire back catalog off of streaming, but we’ve got to put our toe in the water, and do it in a way that’s not going to cannibalize our sales” — the kind of balance that a niche jazz imprint still has the luxury of striking.
As for the possibility of finally giving into the CD crowd and giving that audience first crack along with vinyl enthusiasts, “I don’t know, but for right now,” Feldman says, “listen, we don’t want to mess with what’s really been working great for us. And I would never do anything like that without talking with Record Store Day first, because they are a huge part of what we are doing. and they make it possible, man. God bless those guys.”