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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Independent Music: A Talk With Peter Janson

Peter Janson is a professor of music here at UMass Boston. He is also a professional musician who owns and operates his own record label. A solo performer with a truly independent vision, Janson, who has been performing and recording since his youth, founded Eastern Woods Music with his wife, Bernadette Levasseur (who also paints the cover artwork that graces Janson’s albums), in order to create and distribute his music on his own terms. I spoke with Janson recently about the problems and benefits of being an independent artist.

Q: Have you recorded on a record label prior to starting your own?

A: I’ve never done any solo work on labels. I have played with other musicians for works that were either on independent labels and a couple of things that were designed for major labels but were not released, unfortunately. But I have a pretty long history of doing recording…I’ve had a couple pieces of mine that were used in independent films, some things that were shown at Sundance, things like that.

Basically, it was local things and small label things. And sometimes I would just get hired [for studio session work]. I’ve done recordings in New York and here in Boston, at the bigger studios like Blue Jay and Longwood Farm.

Q: When you decided to start recording your solo work, what made you decide to start your own label as opposed to trying to get on an already established label?

A: I originally was playing a mixture of acoustic songs and electric songs, and I had done a bunch of fusion songs in a band setting. I had made a contact with the person who was the VP of Jazz down at Atlantic in New York…and he told me about the business side of the record business and the numbers that they look for and stuff like that. He really liked my stuff, which was encouraging. He was the one who said that for a genre that probably is only going to sell 25 or 30,000 CDs that it’s probably best to start your own record company and do it as an independent or get somebody that you trust as an independent label.

It was over this period of time that I had decided that I really wanted to play solo. I spent a couple of years really working out what I wanted to do and during that time was when we [Janson and Levasseur] decided that we were just going to go for it and so I researched the people that had done it and tried to find out how they did it, how they succeeded at it, what pitfalls they had to avoid, and then used that as a basis for forming a game plan. Initially it was just the two of us and then we’ve had a variety of people who have worked for us for a short time and things like that. I have a couple of part-timers who work with us and we farm out a lot of stuff.

Since that time I’ve come to learn a lot about the music industry, both the business side of it and the artistic side of it and the business people do a ton of work and it’s easy to see how much is involved that I never really quite realized. Its one thing to think you know but it’s another thing to do it and see for yourself.

But I’ve also grown into a position where I think that the record companies take way too much money away from the artists. The idea of the label getting 96% of what the artist makes is just scary to me.

Q: That’s something that must work out a lot better for you, having your own label.

A: Well, its 100%. How we decide to allocate it is entirely up to us. The difference is that if you sell 10,000 CDs, which is really the range that I’m in…as an independent I’m making the equivalent of if I sold 100,000 CDs on a label.

Q: Do you find that having your own label gives you more creative freedom as well?

A: Yeah, it’s totally free. In fact it’s almost too free. I have to sometimes sit back and say, “Well, wait minute, I am trying to run a business too.” There is validity to that concept of needing to know what it is that you’re giving to somebody when you say, “Hey, I want you to carry my CDs in your store,” and they say, “What kind of music is it?”…In a sense I have so much freedom that I have to watch out that I don’t shoot myself in the foot.

Q: Is starting your own label something that you would recommend to musicians who are just starting out in the recording world?

A: Well, [for me] it’s starting to become that as the business end of it grows it wants to take so much of my time that I have to step back and say, “I can’t do that.” I’ve got to play, I’ve got to write, I’ve got to practice, I’ve got to perform. That’s the whole reason why the company exists at all…But I think that if you keep that in mind and you set parameters that you refuse to cross, then when you get to your limit you’re going to have to hire someone else to come in… I think if there could be a way to have someone that you really loved…run the business, that would be the best alternative. To have them do it and you spend twenty-four hours a day doing your music.

I have to say I do recommend it. I think you are going to find that it’s a hell of a lot more work than you thought it was going to be. My experience so far has been that its been really difficult to make your way into the places that you need to get into to because there are a million artists and the real booking agencies or record distributors are inundated. And they all hear the same thing. Everyone who approaches them approaches them because they believe they’re the best that there is, so they get overwhelmed. It’s very difficult and it’s frustrating if you don’t keep that in mind that of course everybody is going through this.

But…having complete control over your artistic destiny and having the ability to associate with the people that you choose to, that’s one of the things that I really love.

Currently, Janson is at work composing songs for his next CD, which he will record in the early spring. The CD will feature duet work with Canadian guitarist Jamie Bonk and will most likely be released in the late summer. For more information on Janson and his record label, log on to his website at www.peterjanson.com