From ecstatic re-imaginings of the world’s musical traditions to the farthest reaches of avant experimentalism, Chant Records releases adventurous and uncompromising music across the spectrum from a worldwide community of artists.
Run by Jon Madof
What made you start a label?
I’ve been working with bassist and producer Shanir Blumenkranz since I moved to New York in 2000. Since then we’ve been involved in a lot of projects together including my bands Rashanim, Blivet and my 10-piece Jewish/Afrobeat band Zion80 as well as work with John Zorn and others. So at this point we go way back. Around 2014 we started talking about wanting to create some way that we could release our music as well as the music of other musicians in our community. We weren’t sure what form it would take. We talked about doing something as small as possible, as large as possible and everything in between. I was initially kind of skeptical about the idea. It didn’t really seem feasible with everything else we both had going on, and I wasn’t completely sold on the need for it.
But then around mid-2015, I was preparing some materials for a gig with Zion80 and looking up recent bios of all of the musicians. I Googled Shanir’s name, and a Bandcamp link came up for an album he had made with a band called The Fugu Plan: singer/composer Yuka, Brian Marsella on kays, Yuval Lion and Yoni Halevy on drums, Eyal Maoz on guitar and Cyro Baptista on percussion. The music was amazing – Japanese folk meets psych rock meets improv and noise. Before that moment I had no idea the album existed. An album of amazing music by some of my closest friends, and I wasn’t aware of it. He of course wasn’t hiding it from me, but he does projects all the time and just never happened to mention it.
Kind of in a flash I realized that we needed to create a solution to this, a way for us to get the word out to the community of musicians and music fans who would probably love not only this album but all of the projects recorded by our family of musicians. If my band has let’s say 100 fans, I at least need to let them know that something exists featuring many of the same musicians and made with the same same uncompromising spirit of creativity and artistic exploration. Multiply that by however many artists we work with, and there’s a label.
We began getting organized, meeting all the time with each other and many others, throwing ideas around, me staying up way too late for someone with three young kids and a day job. But the more we planned, talked and thought about it, the more it became clear that it had to be done. After many months we had a solid plan of attack, starting with a 101-song compilation featuring a tremendously generous group of musicians who Shanir reached out to, all willing to let us use their music for free as a giveaway to help build our mailing list. We were off and running.
What are some of the challenges you see as a label owner?
The challenges are too many to name! And it seems like there are more every day. But when you’re surrounded by a close-knit group of people who are rooting for you, who know you’re going to make mistakes but who have your back anyway and are excited to work with you to release their music, you can take each challenge as it comes and build something little by little until it’s a real thing in the world.
The biggest challenge for me is finding the best way to navigate the music business as it exists today. It’s of course totally different than it was a few decades ago when I got started, in fact it’s exactly opposite in many ways. And this is true for independent artists and labels as it is all the way up to the biggest musicians in the world. For example, it used to be that your business revolved around recordings. Artists would tour to ‘support the album.’ Now it’s the opposite: music is free. Let me say that one more time. No matter how we want it to be, no matter how it used to be, the general expectation is that it’s free. Period. Many musicians bemoan this fact endlessly, as if this will change the situation. But it won’t.
But – I believe there’s a bright side to the way things are now. Yes, music is free. But the cost of recording and distribution, while not free, is a fraction of what it used to be. You can get an interface for your laptop, some software and a few mics, record an album and distribute it internationally for very little money. And you can figure out how to ask people (nicely) to pay you to make music using crowdfunding platform and other means. And people do it. That’s how I funded the Zion80 album ‘Warriors.’ And there’s Bandcamp, which for Chant Records as a new label has been huge. Fans can get hi-res downloads, their press wing is great and we’ve gotten a lot of new fans.
Also, these changes in the way the music business works is a lot of the reason we have music to release in the first place. Artists come to us with finished albums and we handle the distribution, promotion and most importantly the aggregation with other artists on the label (building off the original spark that started the whole thing with The Fugu Plan’s album). I don’t think all of these artists would have albums to give us if recording costs were as high as they used to be.
What is your take on Spotify and streaming services?
This builds off of the last question. It’s a new world, and our default approach is to embrace it and use the tools available to us. So the majority of the Chant Records catalog is available everywhere, including streaming services like Spotify. But that being said, if an artist we’re working with doesn’t want their album on Spotify we won’t distribute it there. I certainly understand the problem that a lot of artists have with Spotify – you used to get paid a certain amount for CD sales and even downloads, now you’re making a tiny fraction of that with Spotify. But many artists stop there and simply complain about how it is and long for ‘how it used to be.’ To me, complaining isn’t a strategy to move forward. You need to be educated about how everything works and make informed decisions about how you want to move forward.
I had a really great experience when I was invited to speak at the 2018 Jazz Congress at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It was a panel on crowdfunding, but the conversation of course involved streaming and other music delivery methods. I was coming from the perspective of using the tools and then generating revenue by giving our fans the added value of a hi-res Bandcamp download, or the benefits that come from supporting an artist on a crowdfunding platform. Composer Maria Schneider was also on the panel, and I learned a lot talking to her and listening to her approach. She’s simultaneously embraced crowdfunding and building an online community, but her music is only available on CD. So she has a select group of people who support her, and the model works brilliantly. Instead of complaining about where the industry was going, she made a way for herself that allows her to have a very successful career. And while Chant Records in general might take a different approach as far as streaming, I really respect where she’s coming from.
One other thing about this – I recently re-watched the Napster documentary ‘Downloaded’ and I highly recommend it for anyone interested not only in digital music but the internet and technology in general. One point I really took away from it is that the major labels have ripped off artists for decades, so in a way it’s a kind of justice for the way they do business. And they do it whether the platform is albums, CDs or Spotify. Another point is that the creators of Napster were kids who did it out of a pure passion for tech and music. Once it got huge, they approached the majors and tried to work with them to create some sort of revenue model, but virtually every record company rejected them immediately. Napster of course got shut down, which led to the creation of countless other download and file sharing sites, which in turn set the bar for the cost of listening to music at 0. I don’t fault the artists like Metallica who didn’t want their music on Napster – it’s their property (or more likely the property of their label) and they can do with it what they want (I’m not a fan, so I don’t really care). But the combination of turning music into 1s and 0s and the existence of a worldwide network to share those 1s and 0s to me makes it only a matter of time before someone figured out how to marry those two things. All of this led to the situation where we find ourselves today: music is free to listen to, cheap to make, and there are a million new albums every day. It’s up to each artist and label to figure out how to navigate that.
Is there a specific focus as far as genres or local/regional aspect of music you’re releasing?
Our goal at Chant Records is to build a worldwide community of music freaks. You might be the only person in your town (or for miles in any direction for that matter) who knows who Koby Israelite or Robert Dick is, but with the internet and social media you can find your tribe online. We’re trying to build on that and create a hub where people can go to find out about this stuff. And we’re catering to people who are open to hearing music from all kinds of genres along with music that blurs genres or smashes them together to see what happens. Everything we put out has a certain experimental vibe to it, but that can take many forms. Shanir deals with our artists directly, and we often talk about if a submission ‘feels like a Chant album.’ It could be anything from anywhere in the world, but it has to have a certain feeling for us to want to release it.
Do you believe that music could bring about social change?
That’s a great question. And I want to say ‘Yes, of course! In fact, all social change has come from music!’ but to be honest I’m not sure that’s the case. Social change comes from people who decide that the way things are is not right and that they can be better. They build movements, connect with like-minded people, and hopefully come from a place of real humanity and compassion and try to make the world a better place. Music can certainly play a part in this – it can be the motivator, the expression of frustration and anger, or the soundtrack. But I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say the music itself would bring about social change. Speaking personally, I make music and listen to it because I love it. It’s a kind of medicine. When I don’t listen to music for a day or two I actually start to feel like something if off, out of balance. Everyone has their own individual motivations for doing things, but that’s how I see it.
I also personally think that real music should be made for the sake of itself. It’s not a means to some other end or goal. If you’re making music to get a certain point across about society, the music is then subservient to that message. Kind of like a jingle – the music might be fine, but in the end it’s about making a sale, not making a great song. But this is kind of contradicted by a statement by one of my musical idols, Fela Kuti – I’m paraphrasing, but he said that music needs to be made for revolution. And in his case that seems to have been a large part of why he made the work he made. But to me when I hear ‘Zombie,’ it hits me on a very deep level beyond words, messages and ideas. It gets into my whole body, gives me goosebumps, makes me smile. It’s a very visceral experience. So even though he may have had a certain political or social motivation for creating his music, that’s not the level where I primarily experience it. Again, that’s just me. But to release an album on Chant Records, Shanir and I need to feel deeply that the music works on its own terms.
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