Continuing our conversation with Janine Irons on the development of the UK jazz label Dune Music.
Willard Jenkins: What’s the relative significance of Dune Music being a black-led operation?
Janine Irons: As a funded arts organization, it’s very significant. In the mid-90s when the Arts Council was funding a lot of projects of dubious quality, they faced fierce criticism from the government and the public and in response cancelled much of the funding that had previously been in place for a number of black and white-led organizations. Tomorrow’s Warriors however was ‘promoted’ by the Arts Council to the status of Regularly Funded Organization, and had it’s funding significantly increased. We were seen as a strategically important national organization. This was no mean feat because it placed us — in terms of strategic importance, if not perhaps in terms of overall levels of funding — on a par with much larger national organizations. And Tomorrow’s Warriors was one of very few black-led organizations to achieve this status.
As a commercial organization I think it’s significant that a black-led organization has managed to stay the course in this industry and develop its own niche. Let’s face it, it’s still very hard for black people to gain any kind of foothold in this, or indeed any other business. As my father says: ‘As a black person you have to come first to come third’, so we have to work much harder and be significantly better than our white counterparts to get just a fraction of what we actually deserve, or to get as far along the field as we should for the same level of input and endeavor.
It’s also important for us as black people to create our own opportunities because there ain’t nobody out there going to hand them to us on a plate. If we want to change our lot we’ve got to go about changing it ourselves. We have to dig our own foundations and build our own ‘houses’ so that we can have some control over our own future and have something solid to pass on to those who come after us. Furthermore, we hope that our successes will inspire others to follow suit and give them the confidence to take their destiny on their own hands.
WJ: Who are the artists currently recording for Dune?
JI: [Bassist] Gary Crosby, [trumpeter] Abram Wilson, [saxophonist-rapper] Soweto Kinch, [saxophonist] Denys Baptiste, [pianist] Andrew McCormack and their various outfits.
WJ: [At the time this is entering the Independent Ear Blog the big 2008 South By Southwest (SXSW) independent music conference held annually in Austin, TX — sort of the Sundance Film Festival equivalent for independent music, primarily progressive rock — is coming up shortly. In 2007 Dune Music participated in the SXSW conference, an interesting choice for a jazz-oriented concern.] Given your experience at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference — an event not normally associated with music quite like Dune Music’s output — why or how did you determine to take part in that conference and what was the nature of Dune’s involvement?
JI: We’ve heard a lot about SXSW in terms of it being the largest live music conference and a good place to be seen by a lot of promoters and festival producers. AIM (the Association for Independent Music — which is a body supporting indie labels in the UK) also recommended it as a good event for us to showcase at. However, what we didn’t realize at the time was how few jazz and world music promoters actually attend the event. But our objective in going was to try to introduce promoters (essentially U.S. promoters) to some of our Dune artists, and to look at opportunities for touring.
WJ: Was SXSW ultimately a successful venture for Dune?
JI: In short… no! I think the event is too big. There are thousands of people attending the event but since so few promoters or festivals actually register (I suppose because they don’t want anyone to know they’re there!), it is impossible to find them. Also, unlike MIDEM in France nobody bothers to go into the tradeshow so it’s pointless having any kind of stand, and thankfully we didn’t. Plus with SO many showcases going on it’s incredibly difficult to get the right people coming to your showcase.
We had a full house but essentially this was mostly local people coming for a night out. We had only a handful of press or promoters there. I think the majority of the key promoters attend the big showcases hosted by the majors — usually high profile affairs with lots of free booze and unfortunately people in the music industry tend to favor events where they’ll get a pile of free drinks! That said, our showcase was successful in terms of finding some new fans. And Abram did a live radio performance which led to his album making it to No. 1 on the radio chart in Austin.
WJ: Did you envision this as an initial effort at raising the U.S. profile of Dune?
JI: No, we’d already started doing that a couple of years before when we showcased Soweto, and later Abram, in New York. These showcases were successful in getting a good deal of press coverage and radio play. At the time we had distribution through Synergy, out of Denver, CO, and managed to rack up some fairly decent sales. We retained a good PR man (Mitchell Feldman) who did a really good job in raising awareness of Dune. However after only a few months of having our albums on the streets of America Synergy defaulted on paying us. Having only recently been hit for a 35,000 pound [debt] by two of our distributors going bust, I wasn’t going to hang around to be stung again. So we cut our losses with Synergy and looked around for distribution elsewhere. Synergy has since folded as far as I’m aware… still owing us money!
So far we haven’t managed to find another U.S. distributor, although we do undertake a small amount of trade through North Country Distribution.
Just before we went to SXSW we launched the new albums of Soweto Kinch [A Life in the Day of B19: Tales of The Tower Block] and Abram Wilson [Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta]. Both are digital releases only in the U.S. since we don’t have a physical distribution deal in place, and both have done really well on radio. In fact, at the start of the campaign, we were up against Wynton’s release for a short time and gave Blue Note a run for their money! So we’re continuing to have some kind of presence in the U.S. and are slowly building a fan base there; but it would be great if we could sort out some licensing of our product and get our product out to the jazz masses.
WJ: What’s coming next for Dune and how can potential U.S. and worldwide audience best access Dune recordings?
JI: We’ve just released Abram Wilson’s album in the UK and will be releasing the second part of Soweto’s B19 album in the fall. We currently have no plans to record anything else this year but we’re hoping to be able to create a special Dune anthology to celebrate our 10th year. This will of course depend upon our resources. It’s difficult because we have so many live projects on the go and no label manager to exploit the catalogue.
Right now, if someone were to give me a bag of money, recruiting a label manager would probably be the first thing I’d do. We’ve worked it out that for the volume of work we do we need a minimum staff of 10. We actually only have 2 staff and 2 interns, so you can imagine how stretched we all are at this moment in time, and how committed they must be to put in the hours to get everything done!
Project-wise we’ve got loads of things on the boil. Not only are we celebrating 10 years of Dune we’re also celebrating 200 years of the Abolition of The Slave Trade Act in Great Britain. So along with our artists’ regular projects we also have some projects significantly celebrating the end of the slave trade — at least the end of the official slave trade — but that’s another story!
Just to give our readers an idea of the nature of Dune’s efforts and their admirable project orientation, among Dune’s projects which celebrated the 200 year Abolition of The Slave Trade Act in Great Britain in 2007, Janine detailed the following:
Abram Wilson & the London Community Gospel Choir: "Roll Jordan Roll" (a tribute to the Fisk Jubilee Singers).
Soweto Kinch & CBSO Orchestra: "The Midnight Hop" (a music theatre/period drama looking at 18th/19th century Black Music in Britain and the contribution made by Black musicians to the classical music heritage of the UK) – with jazz ensemble, chamber orchestra, actors and dancers.
Denys Baptiste: "Anasi: Reunion" (with the migration of slaves, the character of Anasi has metamorphosed into different animals. Here Denys brings together all the different characters from around the world in a kind of family reunion) — with jazz ensemble, narrator, and illustrator.
Jazz Jamaica: "Tighten Up!": celebrating the music from the Caribbean that has contributed so much to cultural diveristy and race relations around the globe.
As to how people in the U.S. and beyond can get their hands on our music, our entire catalog is available on iTunes, Napster, and a few other digital stores. North Country Distribution carries some of our catalogue, but not all, so they can order from them. Or they can order directly from our website at www.dune-music.com, where we have both digital and physical product.