Dave Rempis Works the Chicago Scene

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​Rempis started his Aerophonic Records label in 2013.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Although he operates in a musical milieu that treasures spontaneity, agility and invention as much as anything else, Chicago reedist Dave Rempis has only been able to maintain a life in music thanks to his impressive discipline and rigor.

He possesses a rarely matched firepower and intensity deployed in explosive ensembles like Ballister, with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, or more measured ones like his collective with cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams, but he’s developed and honed his specialized technique on saxophone over decades, forging a unique language through endless practice and steady gigging.

Rempis has long been a vital part of the city’s jazz and improvised music since emerging in 1998 as a member of the Vandermark 5, when he replaced Mars Williams in Ken Vandermark’s old flagship group. It wasn’t long before he became involved in the infrastructure of the scene, launching a weekly improvised music series at the defunct Humboldt Park space 3030 back in 2002. When 3030 had to shut down due to noise complaints, Rempis took the program to Elastic Arts, the vibrant multi-arts space he helped create and for which he’s served as board president since 2015. He was also involved in Umbrella Music, a collective enterprise where several weekly presenters in Chicago worked together to present concerts and festivals, including a long-running endeavor that brought important European musicians to Chicago to present their work and collaborate with local musicians. Rempis also works as operations manager for the annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival. He’s long had his hands involved in logistical and business concerns with presenting jazz and improvised music, so it was no surprise that he eventually launched his own label.

Before starting Aerophonic Records in 2013, he’d released music on a variety of small independent labels in the U.S. and Europe, but over time grew frustrated with the lack of control such arrangements yielded. He reached the end of his rope in 2012, perpetually waiting for the delivery of a new album by a collective trio called Wheelhouse with bassist Nate McBride and vibist Jason Adasiewicz. A local album release concert he’d organized was quickly approaching. The trio ended up playing in support of a recording that wouldn’t drop for almost another year, when Rempis took it upon himself to release it.

Rempis doesn’t compromise his music, but he’s extremely pragmatic and realistic about the financial reality of what he does. He did plenty of research, consulting other musicians, label owners, distributionors and music journalists so he’d be informed about each aspect of running an imprint. Although he didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, he now says, “I think Nate McBride gave me the best piece of advice — and this came more from his work as a contractor than as a musician. He said, effectively, what you’re selling is yourself. You’re branding yourself. And that’s what people are buying into.”

Since then Rempis has released 37 albums — mostly on compact disc, with several as vinyl-only titles — in addition to some 15 live recordings posted to the label’s Bandcamp page. Aerophonic generally releases four albums annually, and some of those are scheduled to coincide with tours, where Rempis relies on selling titles from his catalog since performance fees often don’t cover the various expenses. “I generally try to get a record out before my spring touring, after my spring touring, before the fall touring, and then after the fall touring, because I actually have to be here to fill orders,” he says.

Every release has turned a modest profit. Although he’s paid some of his contributors in cash, most of his collaborators accept payment in product, which they can sell at gigs or on their online platforms. Rempis noted that while he lost a primary source of income during the pandemic, his followers made up for the difference. “It was a remarkable period of time,” he says. “During 2020, my sales jumped by 200%.” While things have come back down, he says sales still remain 50% over the pre-pandemic average.

One of the reasons Rempis was able to weather the pandemic is that he’s in-tune with the people that support his music, and that relationship helped him recognize the merit of what McBride had told him years earlier. “At this point I have a very dependable customer base who are people I know and communicate with,” he says. “When every release comes out, I’m gonna spend hours sending emails to my regular customers. A lot of them are friends at this point. They’re people who were buying my music even before I started the label, but now I know who they are. I see them when I go to concerts.”

While digital and streaming music have cut sales of physical releases, even in this particular niche of the music world, selling catalog items on tour remains crucial. “What I make in fees is almost matched by my merch sales,” he says of Aerophonic product at gigs. “It’s a major economic part of making tours work.” DB



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