Delmark Records: Modern Day Scrappy in Chicago

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Julia A. Miller, owner of Delmark Records

(Photo: Dan Kasberger)

Guitarist, composer, electronic musician and Art Institute of Chicago professor Julia A. Miller took a bold step three years ago when she bought Delmark Records, America’s oldest, continuously operated indie blues and jazz label, from its founder, Bob Koester.

But she was well-prepared. With more than 750 titles in a catalog rich with albums by Delta-songsters, rent-party pianists, South and West Side blues progressives, jazz traditionalists and modernists, iconoclastic and now iconic AACM musicians, and re-issues of rarities from historic imprints, Delmark had a solid reputation for quality music, a roster of active artists and plentiful inventory in its own building with a reputable studio.

However, Koester, who also owned the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, lagged in taking advantage of many 21st century digital opportunities. And Miller, who has taught courses on music business as well as composition and the evolution of audio playback machines, knew that territory well. She had enjoyed some 25,000 downloads of her experimental Solo Variations, with another 50,000 or so of music by her band, Volcano Radar, which she leads with her personal partner Elbio Barilari, on the internet-only digital label Pan y Rosas.

“I could see that model had a future that needed to be implemented,” Miller said in a phone interview, fresh from jamming in the studio with guitarist Billy Flynn. “I had also been involved in an internet radio project, and I had earlier set up a very small business venture for several composition and band projects I had going on to see how this might work. I’d done a lot of research over a long time, so I understood distribution, copyrights and other fundamentals. And my family has had a series of businesses, mostly in manufacturing, for the past half-century, so I grew up seeing how such things work.

“But Delmark was a much bigger challenge. So one condition to taking this on was to work with a professional CFO to put together a detailed business plan and projections based on analysis of the information we were receiving from the Koester family.”

She and Barilari, who is a musician, journalist and professor and now Delmark’s artistic director, invested plenty of time getting to know the company and catalog before the purchase. “We had a five-year plan when we started,” she said. “Two years into that arc, we had to switch around some planned components and accelerate others, due to the pandemic. But it’s worked out well. For example, we always planned to focus on the digital side, and did a ton of that work over the pandemic year, increasing our digital presence to more than 11,000 tracks from 1,500.

“People tend to overlook that, unlike before, our only retail outlet is our website. Otherwise, we sell wholesale or sell to artists. Bob Koester’s orientation was toward retail, but we’re oriented toward distribution, creation and also artist support.

“We’ve worked really hard to make the catalog available in all digital formats: downloading, streaming, internet and terrestrial radio, and also sync placements, which are usually excerpts used in commercials, TV or film that provide good visibility for the artist and the label, and income, too. We still deal in CDs, vinyl — we need to reprint covers to return some Delmark classics to availability, and even audiophile reel-to-reel versions.”

The label continues issuing vibrant new material — about 20 albums so far in Miller and Barilari’s tenure. Among the standouts: Every Day Of Your Life, reigniting the career of 92-year-old guitarist and singer Jimmy Johnson; Too Hot For Words by vocalist Dee Alexander with the Metropolitan Jazz Octet in tribute to Billie Holiday; and General Semantics by the trio of Geoff Bradfield (saxophones and bass clarinet), Ben Goldberg (clarinets) and Dana Hall (percussion). “We look for particular recordings by particular artists,” Miller said. “They might be categorized as jazz or blues, but to us they are special records, critical recordings, that fit with the rest of the catalog.” DB



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