The Life and Saga of
An Independent Label
by Bradley Parker-Sparrow
When I was five or six my father gave me a small portable reel-to-reel tape recorder that had a circular clip-on microphone. Sundays were always lazy days and I would often tape the Ed Sullivan show, playing back my early bootleg recordings underneath my sheets, late at night.
...glancing into the future little did I know that there would be digital CDs, and that I would be a composer-engineer-label owner.
My actual recording career started with one real mic. It was a Teledyne that I found for $12 at Olsons Electric on Lake and Western in the toss out bin. With a used Tandberg-reel to-reel, I would tape jazz and rock bands in my first "studio," the back of a frame building called the Pit #1. The bathtub was in the kitchen next to the space heater.
I later found another mic at a pawnshop in the Loop, and now we had stereo. A person has 2 ears, so 2 mics = stereo—left and right. The world has been stereo since humankind first gained self-conciousness and recorded sound has been stero since the early days of film, with music coming along in the late '50s.
Southport Records started because I came up as a piano player. When I taped my first LP back in 1977, "Latin Black", I tried to "shop it around", with, at that time, some local labels like Delmark and Nessa. I also sent a production cassette to Blue Note. Nobody called me back and I got tired of waiting. For a minute I thought that Bob Koester of Delmark would pick it up but I didn't have much of a known name, just another angry Chicago piano player that never went to college.
I was a pre-"young lion." I was not a Cuban exile. Jazz and free music were dying out after the passing of Coltrane and Albert Ayler.
So rejection was the motivation for starting Southport. Howard Mandel composed the liner notes that were re-typed on my old IBM typewriter, he was paid $50 bucks. Mike Rasfeld did the re-mix of the 4 track to stereo, and the discs were stamped at QCA in Ohio.
"...guys my age who run these record companies, they want to be hip...What the f--- are you trying to be hip for? You're 50 years old, you c--- sucker. You're not hip. You don't know about the street. You haven't been in a f--- ing bar in 20 years. I don't get that. People who work at record companies should love music. People who make records should love music."
—John Mellencamp, Entertainment Weekly, October 9, 1998
"Latin Black" was the beginning of Southport.
Today Southport and Northport, the new sister label, have over 65 CD and album projects in print. All of these projects are by and from artists and musicians that live, work and create in one of the world's richest musical sectors—Chicago.
The thing that makes us an independent label is that we do not have the corporate muscle and arm of a giant like Sony, or Atlantic. People across the world have to hunt our records down. On the other hand, a typical national jazz release, say, by a vocal giant like Cassandra Wilson will have perhaps a $100,000 marketing budget. Blue Note will break the nation and world into regions and hire "radio promoters" to push the CD. Newspapers are for-profit business institutions, even though they reflect a so-called free society, so when a giant label pays for those FULL PAGE ADS,guess which CDs are reviewed by the underpaid freelance and staff writers...you got it—Kenny G, and all of the Spice Girls.
Money creates money. That is the essence and foundation of capitalism in a so-called free market place. Back in the old days a local band or record label could "break" an artist. That is how we got hits from people like Ramsey Lewis and Muddy Waters. That is how a local band like The Box Tops could be playing high school gyms one week and be on the Ed Sullivan show the next. The radio waves were open and hungry for new ideas. To compete against each other, and get the local advertising dollars, they would take chances on local artists, groups that were already popular in the clubs or dance halls.
The late Gene Autry was one of the first individuals that bought up a "bunch" of radio stations, paving the way for our current condition. With Reaganomics and de-regulation of trust laws, 2 or 3 giant corporations own over 90% of the radio airwaves. They dictate the advertising income and they tell us all what we like. With WXRT selling for over 70 million dollars a couple of years ago, it doesn't take much imagination to see why they never play local music from independent labels anymore. They are no longer local or independent themselves, but mere slaves to their corporate masters, THE BOTTOM LINE.
Over 90% of the income for jazz records goes to the likes of Kenny G. and John Tesh. Look at the Billboard and Gavin charts. Jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie were lucky in the 80's to sell 5,000 units to a world market. The key to survival for an independent label is to be lean and mean. Watch studio costs. At Southport we have our own studio, like Delmark. We also record for other labels at our studio.
If you try to depend on selling CDs in these new chain stores you will be broke. The larger the so-called chain, the longer you will wait to get paid. It is better for artists to sell their product right on the band stand, like the late Betty Carter and the late Sun Ra did. People don't want jazz records because there is no place in the popular culture for jazz. Jazz emits to the timid an odor of the obscure and marks a territory of ancient taste patterns. The music is not presented to our children, and the stages and nightclubs are full of the ghosts of other times.
Why did we treat them like strangers, their music was so perfect fine,
It fell from the window like soft sounds of October and the little
smiles of children—
Why did we not pay them for their music,
It was so free and perfect—
And yet the audience wanted the same songs and drank the same wine.
So in essence, an independent record label is like an independent film. The obstacles are great, but the rewards are the music and the knowledge that comes from doing things yourself. A CD is an amazing invention—to store sound in small cages of ones and zeros. After spending so many years and late nights working in jazz clubs for $12 spilt five ways and free Old Style, it is a fine thing to work within a recording studio and document the music that lives in our neighborhood.
To hang out with Von Freeman, George Freeman and Willie Pickens. To laugh.
"No, no. I have a small record label. And to really get in the mix you go to clubs, but I don't go... I have a rap group.."
—Mike Tyson, Playboy Magazine, The Interview, November 1998
Sparrow has been a member of the Jazz Institute for many years. He played at the Chicago Jazz Festival (piano) in 1978 and 1979. He has produced over 300 albums for many labels including AECO, Concord, Flying Fish, Universal, Steeplechase and Delmark. As a composer he has done several feature-length film scores and documentaries. He is a partner with his wife, Joanie Pallatto in Southport/Northport Records and Sparrow Sound Design Recording Studio, Chicago. Their new "studio" dog's name is Magic.