Sunday, April 24, 2011
Clayton McDonnell of MaxJazz: The Plastic Sax Interview
The St. Louis-based record label Maxjazz, long admired for its mainstream jazz releases, continues to issue fine new recordings. One reason for the label's ongoing success is the candor and commitment of owners Richard and Clayton McDonnell. Plastic Sax recently conducted the following email interview with Richard.
Plastic Sax: MaxJazz features handsome and consistent artwork. Has the care you put into packaging contributed to the success of the label? Does it play a role in the ratio of physical-to-digital sales?
Clayton McDonnell: Our packaging is an important element in the development of MAXJAZZ because we want to establish a brand image in the marketplace. We use black and white photography and feel that the digipak provides a nice canvas for the photos. We’re developing the label by series (vocal, piano, horn, etc.), and each series has a different design graphically, but still similar enough that it has a familial feel to it. If you’ve had a good experience with one of our releases, you may be more inclined to try another even if you aren’t familiar with the artist, but recognize our packaging. The series approach also appeals to certain customers who want the entire collection. Our digital sales have certainly increased over the last few years and I believe our packaging does plays a role. We’re pretty well established with 70 recordings in the marketplace, and even though you’re limited to just the cover art in a digital format, I think ours is distinctive enough to make a difference.
PS: What percentage of your sales are back catalog as opposed to new releases? Physical versus digital? Domestic versus international?
CM: About 70% of our sales are new releases. Digital and physical sales are now almost 50-50 in the U.S. About 70% of our sales are domestic, but our international distributors are more inclined to purchase back catalog. Artist sales are also an important outlet and we’re fortunate that a number of artists tour regularly and sell CDs at their gigs.
PS: Do you have plans to issue any of your titles on vinyl?
CM: We’ve discussed it, but we don’t have any immediate plans to do so.
PS: Between Euclid Records, Vintage Vinyl and Webster Records, St. Louis seems to have a strong base of jazz-friendly retailers. Is my perception accurate? Can you recommend an outlet for MaxJazz releases in Kansas City?
CM: Yes, your perception is correct. We’re fortunate that St. Louis has three very strong independent retailers. Joe Schwab (Euclid), Tom “Papa” Ray (Vintage) and Jennifer Bellm and her staff at Webster Records are all very knowledgeable when it comes to jazz and its history in St. Louis. I’m almost certain there aren’t any independents in Kansas City that carry our product, and the recent closing of Streetside Records has had an impact on our sales in the area. Our distributor (ADA) ships to a couple independents in Lawrence including Love Garden. A majority of the major retailers, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, still offer our recordings in Kansas City. We’ve had discussions with the American Jazz Museum about selling our releases, but nothing has materialized yet.
PS: In terms of sales, what qualifies as a commercially successful mainstream jazz release in 2011? 1,000 sold? 10,000 sold? 25.000 sold?
CM: We typically shoot for 4,000 units for an instrumental and 8,000 for a vocal release – CDs and album downloads. If we can hit those numbers, we’ll break even, which is our main objective.
PS: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being based in St. Louis rather than Los Angeles, New York, Paris or Tokyo?
CM: My father, Richard, and I were born and raised in St. Louis and it seems like a natural home base. St. Louis has a deep musical history, especially when it comes to jazz, and we like the idea of contributing to its rich legacy. We travel to New York frequently because most of our artists are based there and we do most of our recordings there. I think there’s some advantage of having an outside perspective from the New York scene. As much as we like jazz, our lives would likely be consumed by it if we lived in New York (which isn’t a bad thing!).
PS: You just released a new album by Terell Stafford. A number of the premiere names in jazz record for MaxJazz. What makes MaxJazz an attractive home to musicians?
CM: I believe we’re an artist friendly label because we view it as a long term partnership. Our biggest decision is choosing the artist. After that, we give them complete artistic freedom when it comes to their recording. We also support them as much as possible through our marketing efforts.
PS: One of the regular themes at Plastic Sax is the attrition of the jazz audience and the desperate need to develop a new base of younger fans. As owners of a mainstream jazz label, you probably have unique insights into this matter. Is there a typical MaxJazz customer? Are you concerned about the aging demographic?
CM: I can’t say we have a typical customer, but we do have an adult consumer base that still likes to buy physical product. The aging demographic concerns us, especially considering more and more physical retailers are closing or cutting back on the amount of acoustic jazz recordings they carry. A portion of our consumer base will continue buying physical product because they want high resolution sound quality, liner notes, photographs, CD-credit information and a number of features not available yet online. We understand the convenience of a digital retailer, and one our challenges is broadening our brand image online through more than just our cover art.
PS: What's your assessment of the jazz scene in St. Louis?
CM: St. Louis has a very strong jazz scene. There are some good venues presenting local jazz musicians almost every night of the week. From a national perspective, Jazz St. Louis, which books Jazz at the Bistro, brings in top-notch talent. This year I’ve seen performances there by The Bad Plus, Stanley Clarke, Chris Potter and Brad Mehldau for example. There are also some very good performance venues including the Sheldon Concert Hall and the Touhill Performing Arts Center. In fact, Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio, featuring two of our artists, Mulgrew Miller and Russell Malone, just performed at the Touhill as part of the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival.
PS: Have you ever considered signing a Kansas City-based jazz artist? What are you impressions of the jazz scene in Kansas City?
CM: We haven’t signed any Kansas City-based jazz artists, but we’re certainly fond of artists like Karrin Allyson and Kevin Mahogany, both natives of Kansas City. I haven’t attended any concerts at The Gem or the Folly Theater, but artists of ours who have performed there have had good experiences.
(Original image by Plastic Sax.)