Detroit Music Factory is creating a path for home-grown artists.

published March 17, 2013 | posted by detroit

Pianist and composer Scott Gwinnell has released three CDs on his own label. But his latest, "Cass Corridor Story," was issued on Detroit Music Factory, a new imprint owned by Mack Avenue Records, an important locally based jazz label with an international profile.

During a recent chat on Facebook, a friend in North Dakota told him that she had just heard "Cass Corridor Story" on the radio. That's what a label with wide distribution can do for a Detroit artist of modest means -- get the music into corners of the country where it would be unlikely to land otherwise.

"It's really nice to know that the music is out there, because that's not something I could ever accomplish on my own," said Gwinnell, 39.

Launched this winter, the Detroit Music Factory fulfills Mack Avenue owner Gretchen Valade's desire to showcase more homegrown Detroit musicians on her family of labels. Valade, an heir to the Carhartt clothing fortune, is well-known for channeling her wealth into her passion for jazz. She endowed the Detroit Jazz Festival with a $15-million bequest and remains its primary patron. She also owns the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms.

The Detroit Music Factory adds a new wrinkle to her advocacy by creating a megaphone for Detroit musicians. It's a business proposition, not charity: Artists are offered a licensing deal in which they are responsible for delivering a finished master recording (at their expense) while the label assumes production costs, marketing and distribution. Artists are also given 1,000 CDs to sell on their own, keeping all profits. Meanwhile, revenue from the company's sales are split down the middle after taxes and fees.

"There are so many good musicians here, and they can't seem to break out," said Valade. "We all have our responsibilities, for heaven's sake, and this seems like it will help them, which is what I wanted."

Such licensing deals are not uncommon among smaller labels, though 1,000 CDs for the artist is unusually generous.

The Detroit Music Factory's first three CDs are:

Gwinnell's suite of compositions for his small group, with the music inspired by Gwinnell's living in Detroit's Cass Corridor. Released earlier this year.

• "Swingin' the D" by the neo-swing band Planet D Nonet. Due April 9.

• Drummer Sean Dobbins and the Modern Jazz Messengers' "Blue Horizon." Due this spring.

The recordings represent a sampling of leading foot soldiers of mainstream jazz in Detroit.

There are two more projects on the way, one led by bassist Ralphe Armstrong, the other by drummer Gayelynn McKinney. Mack Avenue CEO Tom Robinson said the label would like to release five to 10 Detroit Music Factory CDs a year.

CDs still valued in jazz

Valade has to green-light any project, but all submissions are also evaluated by Mack Avenue president Denny Stilwell and executive vice president of A&R Al Pryor. The recording also has to pass technical muster in terms of sound quality.

Though CDs can sometimes seem like merely high-class business cards, the physical object remains valued by jazz musicians, even in the age of digital downloads. They add gravitas to a musician's reputation and forge a connection with a jazz tradition in which albums remain the defining currency of a player's legacy.

A typical recording project made locally can cost an artist $3,000 to $5,000 or more depending on the size of the ensemble, studio time and whether a big-name guest is involved. Investing in publicists and other promotion can add thousands to the outlay, and significant distribution is all but impossible as a lone wolf.

Artists also say the imprimatur of having an established label behind a project makes a difference. "It's nice when someone calls up on your behalf," said drummer RJ Spangler, 56, a co-leader of Planet D Nonet. "It's the next level of professionalism. You move up a notch when you don't have to pitch it yourself."

Mack Avenue's distribution network will work to get the CDs into outlets throughout North America, Europe and Japan, and music will also be available through services like iTunes. Robinson said the company plans to advertise in jazz magazines.

Mack Avenue is also creating a website, , where CDs and downloads will be sold and each artist will have a dedicated page with biographies, itineraries and the like. It's expected to be up this week. Robinson said the label might also be able to help in other ways, such as subsidizing an appearance at a jazz festival outside of Detroit.

The artists hope to parlay the CDs into increased visibility and more opportunities at festivals and clubs out of town, as well as increasing their local presence.

"The biggest thing as a musician is that you're doing so many things," said Dobbins, 37. "Your playing leads into other things like clinics and university concerts. I'm honestly hoping it turns into a longstanding artistic relationship with the label that works out for everybody."

A modest investment

Robinson described the label's investment as modest, noting that licensing allows the company to keep costs low as opposed to releasing the CDs on Mack Avenue, which operates on a traditional model: It signs an artist to an exclusive contract with an advance paid up front. Royalties on sales are not paid until the company recoups the advance and recording costs. The roster is loaded with big names, including Detroit-born alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Kevin Eubanks, as well as other players on the national scene and highly touted newcomers like singer Cécile McLorin Salvant.

Launched in 1999, Mack Avenue has morphed from idiosyncratic outlier into a notable industry player. In recent years it has diversified its product lines by acquiring several labels specializing in jazz-R&B crossover. It also releases albums in non-jazz idioms on its Sly Dog label. Mack Avenue's only signees based in Detroit are the Hot Club of Detroit, which has released four CDs rooted in an updated vision of Django Reinhardt-inspired Gypsy jazz, and the late Detroit bluesman Johnnie Bassett, who released two CDs on Sly Dog.

Making money in the record business in an era of downloads and Spotify is not easy. Robinson declined to say whether the label was profitable, but said its steady upward trajectory was encouraging and the value of the company had grown with its acquisitions and the notoriety of the artists now under contract. "We're moving forward," he said.

The Detroiters with CDs coming out on Detroit Music Factory also see the launch of the label as a step forward for the city's jazz scene, because it promises to help make the case that Detroit's rich jazz legacy remains an ongoing concern. "We have our own spirit and our own flavor here, and I want to share that," said Spangler. "This will help."

Story by Mark Stryker



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