Jim West - When Retail, Jazz and Blues Were Hot Properties

Jim West.jpg

Submitted by Bill King

Jim West has been at this since 1983 – thirty six years of music, music, music, - jazz and blues and everything of artistic merit in between. Although the distribution wing of the business ended several years back the recording side continues to thrive today. I culled a couple paragraphs from the Justin Time website and merged with an interview I did with Jim in 2003. The significance of this – then, business was booming – jazz was thriving and CDs a hot item. Enjoy.

“As the old expression goes, "Time flies when you're having fun." Well, time has sure flown by. Nearly thirty years of some really outstanding recording sessions and over 375 total productions. It's interesting to note that our first three signings - Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, and the Montreal Jubilation Choir [arranged and conducted by Trevor W. Payne) - are all still recording with us today. We are very proud of this fact, and, on a personal level, I'm extremely pleased to consider them all wonderful friends.

We're also proud to have worked with some of the greatest musical talent in the world: the late great Oscar Peterson, David Murray, Dave Van Ronk, Paul Bley, Kenny Wheeler, Rob McConnell, Carmen Lundy, Jimmy Rowles, Sonny Greenwich, Bryan Lee, Diana Krall, Hank Jones, D.D. Jackson, Hamiet Bluiett, Billy Bang, Fontella Bass, Susie Arioli, World Saxophone Quartet, Frank Marino and David Clayton-Thomas - and this is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it address the thousands of featured artists on our many recording sessions.”

Bill: You early start in records and distribution?

Jim: Fusion 111. It evolved from working at Sam the Record Man in Montreal - going to work at Almada Corporation – an import company first as sales representative then being asked to stay on while the company was closing. They gave me some records as severance pay. I used those records and a couple desks to parlay my way into my own business.

Bill: How did you get a network together?

Jim: We all shared reps in those days. I would find out “who” the best rep was - let’s say in Toronto – then I’d call up and ask them to sell my stuff too. Then I’d go on to the next place.

Now of course it’s a little different.

Bill: What was the first label you distributed and when?

Jim: 1982. McGill University Records and The Montreal Men’s Lithuanian Choir.

Bill: What were the criteria for picking up a label?

Jim: Anything that wanted distribution! We just needed catalog. Some opportunity to sell
and open new accounts.

Bill: What was the biggest seller early on that sort of gave you some footing?

Jim: There wasn’t any single one. Charly Records was very important to us in those days. It was a huge label from the UK that had a lot of reissued stuff –Sun Records, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and all of the Chess recordings. Almada Corporation had that label but when they closed down Charly came to us to try and make a go of it. It was one of the best selling reissue labels in those days.

Bill: Was there any recording that gave you enough dollars to expand?

Jim: Our business has always been ones and twos - some fives and tens up until the last seven or eight years. What I mean is the quantities that stores would order at a time. I don’t think we had anything that was huge. It was always consistent catalog – steady new releases. One of the first biggest and best sellers for us was Richard Desjardin’s “Tu m’Aime Tu” CD which we sold over 150,000 copies to date.

Bill: You reached beyond jazz.

Jim: That’s right. We hired a number of label managers that specialized in various areas of music, to import labels in nearly every genre - excluding classical, for the most part, and country. Hip Hop, House and Electronica were and continue to be quite big. We do a lot of volume in those styles of music.

Bill: Did you follow trends?

Jim: Originally we were always handling the odd stuff. For example, we distributed Lyrichord Records and one of their recordings entitled “Music of the Rainforest Pygmies.” We actually sold significant quantities of those things. In those days buyers in record stores would take a chance and rack things like that. In fact Jason Sniderman from Sam’s who loved to work with the odd stuff like that used to put it in his stores in Montreal and Toronto and that helped a lot in that area.

Bill: Is it much more difficult these days?

Jim: Oh yes! You’ve got to show numbers. “What did you previously sell or scan?” is the question we hear constantly. “You sold thirteen copies? – I don’t want it.” I’m exaggerating to make a point but it’s a different world now. You’re competing with so many new releases it’s nearly impossible to get rack space. You have to bring the marketing campaigns to the table now and show that you are going to promote and spend serious money on your release(s).

Bill: Do you find yourself competing against reissues?

Jim: Everything is competition in some shape or form – reissues, DVD’s, new CD releases as well as strong catalogue. Competition is good. It keeps you on your toes.

Bill: You were with Diana Krall at the beginning of her career. Didn’t you have the first three titles?

Jim: We had three but only owned the first one and signed a contract with Universal for the other two. Those contracts have since expired of course. We also took back the rights from Universal to our recording which we had licensed to them for a number of years for certain territories.

Bill: Solid seller?

Jim: Sure. We reissued it nearly three years ago in the states after Universal’s contract was over and the first year we did a hundred twenty-five thousand units just in the U.S. It’s a steady seller.

Bill: What prompted the creation of Justin Time Records?

Jim: Oliver Jones playing at Biddles. I went to see him play. He was playing before an audience of a hundred fifty to two hundred people and the audience loved it. It was a fun party atmosphere and he was very personable and nice. The age group was diverse. I said to myself there’s something right here that’s working quite nice. I spoke with him and suggested making a record. I didn’t know how to do that at the time, but I talked to him anyway. He agreed right off. Neither of us quite knew what the implications were or would be. It was quite funny.

We made the record live on eight-track tracks. The bottom line with that tape – it may not be sonically the best recording but it had a fun vibe. You can still feel that when you listen to it.

Bill: What kind of sales did he do?

Jim: We did five thousands copies in no time on that first record. When I looked at it I realized we’d sold five thousand copies and it only took me three days to record and mix and thought that it was easy. You do the math and it’s good money. Not every record does that. During his heyday he was doing between ten and fifteen thousand.

Bill: Many of the memorable classic jazz discs in the States rarely broke the ten thousand mark yet perception mints them gold.

Jim: Absolutely. If you could get the real sales figures – have a look at Sound Scan – what’s sold in Canada and what’s sold in the States, you’d be laughing. You’d see twelve, nineteen, and eighty-eight. You won’t believe the figures on some of those “big” artists.

Bill: Everybody’s crying about sales. Are you crying too?

Jim: I’m crying yet if you do it smart and do a big campaign behind it – look at Susie Arioli. She’s been a pleasant surprise this year. It’s starting to hit in England, France and the U.S.

We are consistent in Sound Scan every week. The States has been reordering and reordering. I think we’re going to hit good numbers eventually. We’re at twenty-five thousand in Canada.

Bill: She’s a trooper.

Jim: She works her butt off. That’s the key. If you’re good and you tour what else can you ask for? Diana sells records because she out there touring the world and doing interviews with fantastic marketing campaigns behind her.

Bill: Do you think Diana gets a bad rap?

Jim: She gets a bad rap because she’s commercially viable. That’s my opinion. She pretty true to her art form and I don’t care what anybody says- she was trained by the masters. You can say what you want and she may not be Oscar Peterson on piano – she certainly is a very good piano player. She has everything do you could want. Jimmy Rowles is no slouch and he used to tell me “She’s got the goods.” She has the whole package – the looks, the voice, the musicality, the demeanor, and willingness to do everything – everything that’s required.

Good agents, management, record label, marketing – that’s what sells records. It’s not by fluke or chance. She wanted it and went after it.

Bill: Have you had other artists you felt strong about that just tanked?

Jim: With every artist I’m hoping for a bigger audience but it doesn’t always happen.

Bill: You had mentioned before about the difficulties collecting on these country-to-country distribution deals.

Jim: It’s a major nightmare. I lost about four hundred thousand dollars last year in the U.S with a company called DNA. I’ve got attorney fees galore and nightmares with the continuing legal battles. I ended up getting my stock back that I had to “buy” out of the bankruptcy and of course I lost my total receivables which at the time was a couple hundred thousand U.S. dollars. Fusion III lost with Sam’s but it was easier to absorb a hundred thousand with them than it was to absorb four hundred thousand through Justin Time. Picture that. It was a tough year. I was ready to throw in the towel.

Bill: How are things looking this year?

Jim: Much better. Sales are up but we’re rebuilding all the time. That market in the US is such an incredibly strong market. If you work it properly you can do great. The other side of the coin is what happened with DNA – you can lose quickly. Europe is good and is set up fairly well but I’m a believer you must be fairly close to what you’re doing to keep on eye on things.

Bill: What about Asia?

Jim: JVC has been great for us the past fifteen years. Sales are consistent. It’s easier to communicate with our distributors these days, but as we all know, sales on the average for our industry are declining. The market isn’t what it used to be. Japan however is the lion’s share of it, as well as Hong Kong.

Bill: Do you get a lot of Canadian artists coming to you with product?

Jim. Yes

Bill: How difficult is it saying no?

Jim: That’s the hardest part of the job. You know that whatever is brought to you is someone’s honest to goodness best effort. To say “No”– I can’t even use that word. I almost feel like I’m Japanese at that point. In Japanese culture they will never say no to your face – it’s very difficult.

First of all, I can’t take on everything. There’s some great stuff out there but it has to be analyzed to see if it makes financial sense. We also need to see that commitment from the artist to do all the things that are required to help sell records. Making the recording is generally the easy part these days.

In a distribution deal I want to see a marketing plan. If they look at you like a deer in headlights and ask, “what’s a marketing plan,” then you know you’ve said the right thing and just cut it right there. The business has changed so much and you need those MBAs out there who know the business world. Unfortunately, you can’t just only love the music.

You need solid marketing experience.

Where the label is concerned, everyone does things for passion’s sake and we’ve all done recordings that we know aren’t going to turn a profit or even come close to turning a profit, but are nonetheless important to document. The trick is to limit this as much as possible. There’s a fine line.

Bill: Is that true with someone like David Murray?

Jim: No. Globally he does fairly well but his budgets are huge. To me he’s one of the top players in the world today. We have a Cuban big band recording coming out in January and he’s going back to record a new record with strings.

Bill: Russell Gunn.

Jim: Oh Bill is he ever good. I guess if we are able to do our job as a label and promote him properly, he could be on top of the world. It has total crossover potential written all over it and anyone who sees him perform loves him.

Bill: You’ve partnered with Enja?

Jim: What we’re going to do now is take that label and release as a co-venture label with Justin Time like we did with American Clavé at one time. We’ll pick the commercially viable recordings – by Maria Schneider and Abdullah Ibrahim for example – and a new Chet Baker actually – whatever we feel is the cream of the crop.

Bill: Looking back, is there any particular recording or recordings you’ve produced that have a special place in the heart?

Jim: Of course I’m very glad I did the Diana Krall record. The Jimmy Rowles and Jeri Brown record we did in Los Angeles would be another. Denny Christianson’s Big Band featuring Pepper Adams called Suite Mingus. Everyone on the date knew Pepper was dying at the time and he did this solo - I think it was on “My Funny Valentine” - that was long and beautiful – the band spontaneously put their instruments down and began clapping. It was mind-boggling. Oliver Jones’ first record is certainly very special to me. The Bryan Lee live recordings – that shit-kickin’ blues I love. Some reissues, like the Sarah Vaughan record, are gorgeous. Still, one of the highlights was sitting down with Oscar Peterson and Dave Young. I used to dream of this. To sit in the studio with Oscar Peterson when he was recording and for him to ask if there was a certain thing I wanted him to play – I almost froze. He’s been my idol for many years. When you grow up thinking about things like that and it comes to fruition – it’s a funny scary thing.