Labels… I hate them. I pull them off the sofa cushions and mattresses with utter disregard for the “law.” I cut them out of my clothing. If there's a label stuck on something, sooner or later, I'm going to peal it off.
Music labels are no different. To me they are scratchy, uncomfortable and distracting. I understand the need for them when it comes to retail. There are a lot of CDs. Without some sort of labeling system, browsing for CDs you might be interested in at the record store would be very difficult. I can even understand the need for it in radio. With all of the stations on the FM dial and all the commercials that go along with them, it might take a long time to find a station that is playing music you want to hear.
I understand it. But I still don't like it.
The minute something gets a label, it gets a definition. The minute something gets a definition, it becomes bound to it. And if it steps outside that definition there could be hell to pay! And what if the label doesn't fit the product?
Take “Smooth Jazz” for instance…
There are a lot of problems with the label “Smooth Jazz.” It started out as a name for a radio format, but it has become to many people a confusing label for a music genre; one that annoys people from all across the music spectrum. Traditional Jazz devotees proclaim loudly that it isn't “jazz” at all. Contemporary instrumental devotees proclaim that it isn't all that “smooth” and know all too well that many people equate “smooth” with “boring,” hence, “Snooze Jazz.”
When SmoothViews was in the planning stages we struggled with what to name it. But in the end, we all agreed that like it or not, the label “Smooth Jazz” has been attached to this music far too long to successfully scratch it off now. So “Smooth Jazz” it is. But defining what exactly Smooth Jazz is remains the hard part. David Sanborn said, “… whatever they choose to call it is less important than what they choose to put in it.” (SmoothViews, Feb. '05)
The radio format called “Smooth Jazz” is very formulaic, but as anyone who has ever bought a CD or attended a concert of an artist who gets airtime on Smooth Jazz radio can attest, there is more that doesn't fit the format than does. And that's a big part of what we celebrate here at SmoothViews. And it's the artists who refuse to be pigeonholed by any formula that continue to bring us the best music out there. Take artists like Steve Cole. In a time when most songs that get airplay on Smooth Jazz radio are heavily R&B influenced, and layered with slick tracks and programming, his new CD Spin takes a deliberate departure from that and shows us how great the saxophone sounds doing music in the Pop/Rock vein backed-up with acoustic guitars and live bass and percussion… picture John Mayer on the saxophone, if you will. Take artists like Mindi Abair whose recordings run the gamut of Pop influenced tracks, acoustic guitar-driven tracks, and down-right straight-ahead jazz tracks. Take artists like Dave Koz who pioneered the acoustic guitar-driven sound combined with the sax almost ten years ago with Off The Beaten Path, and then a little over a year ago moved out in entirely new directions with Saxophonic. And take artists like Rick Braun, who decided to do a live set in the recording studio and gave us a concert with all the intensity of a live show in our living rooms anytime we want it with Sessions.
We get a lot of CDs sent to us at SmoothViews. One of the most common comments our staff makes about CDs we listen to is, “It's a good CD, but it's nothing we haven't heard too many times before.” For the most part, the artists putting these CDs out are trying to plug into the Smooth Jazz radio formula way too hard, and we end up drowning in a sea of sameness! And as Steve Cole commented in an interview with SmoothViews last month, “… if you're going to keep making the same record over and over again, why is anyone going to want to buy your new record. So I think we owe it to the listeners to give them something different and creative every time we make a record.”
Peter Spellman, a professor at Berklee College of Music said, "Nothing speaks louder than something creative. No one can define 'creative' but we all know it when it's present."
“We're living in an age now where that's the business model. And it's kind of hard to operate economically in that kind of climate because it stifles creativity. It certainly makes it a lot harder. You have to really stand up for it, and you have to be willing to take the hits if it doesn't work.” (David Sanborn, SmoothViews, Feb '05)
“I've always been one to be for the doing away of labels. I just think that so many times people have a lot more to say than just being pigeonholed into one style. And it's a shame to make them feel pigeonholed and make them feel like they have to stay in that.” (Mindi Abair, SmoothViews, May '05)
Instead of finding more ways to celebrate mediocrity in music, let's find more ways to celebrate and support the kind of creativity that thinking outside the box allows.
“I think it's really exciting and it's going to break down a lot of boundaries and allow people to realize their vision without necessarily feeling they have to be hemmed in by what they perceive to be the constraints of the genre. Because I think good music has no constraints. I think the radio stations have an open mind about that, and the record companies do, and if you do great work it's going to work for everybody.” (Steve Cole, SmoothViews, Apr '05)
So do we, Steve.
Go ahead. Pull that label off. We'll all be better for it.
- Elizabeth Ware