There are media innovators out there, even in the music industry
An email to customers from the co-founder of Mosaic Records is a reminder that those that love what they do can find innovative solutions to even the most daunting media problems
The music industry is usually held up as maybe the best example of old media not getting how the world is changing, of trying hard to hold on to its profits, and of worrying more about its bottom line than the interests of its customers and artists.
I certainly understand how people can feel that way. But at the same time, there are great examples of music labels thinking differently, and producing interesting and innovative new projects.
Here at TNM, for instance, the site has sometimes featured the new releases of the Catalan master Jordi Savall, who in addition to single CD releases, has produced more than a dozen book/CDs with his Alia-Vox label — projects than combine CD and DVD content along with massive booklets, published in multiple languages.
LPs long included liner notes, and CDs often contain multi-page booklets. But a Savall project, such as Erasmus Van Rotterdam, has a booklet 666 pages long (though admittedly this is also due to the fact that content is published in seven languages).
But if I had to point to one label that long ago did things differently it would be Mosaic Records.
The jazz label was founded by Michael Cuscuna and Charlie Lourie in 1982 as a solution to a unique problem. Cuscuna had been in the jazz record industry for a while and had been working to find and produce reissues and lost session records for Blue Note. Cuscuna discovered 25 minutes of unreleased session music from Thelonious Monk but realized that this would not be enough material for a complete LP.
“It was too short for an album and I was obsessed with how to get this music released,” Cuscuna wrote in an email to Mosaic customers today. “It then dawned on me that all of this important material needed to be retransferred and assembled in chronological order as a significant historic document. I solved my problem of releasing those 25 minutes of Monk music and Mosaic Records was born.”
By licensing the music from the labels, Cuscuna and Lourie could produce box sets of music in limited editions. The boxes would contain a booklet with full session notes, as well as historical information and background. My first Mosaic Records box set was #6, The Complete Blue Note Recordings of the Tina Brooks Quintets. My booklet shows that my own box was #352 of 7500 issued.
Up until at time, 1985, none of Brook’s LPs were available in the US, but if you were lucky, your local jazz record store might have imported a copy of True Blue from Japan. Brooks was a tenor saxophonist (and a man) who released only one LP under his own name in his lifetime, three others would have to wait until either a Blue Note special archive issue appeared, or Mosaic got around to releasing them as part of this box set.
“We struggled along working out of Charlie’s apartment with no salary for about a year or so and gradually we were able to take a salary and make a go of it,” Cuscuna told All About Jazz in July 2000.
They were, in others words, like many start-ups.
“Charlie was my best friend and working together was a joy,” Cuscuna wrote in his letter to customers today. “I remember during those lean years worrying if we could afford to put out a Tina Brooks set. Charlie looked at me in amazement. ‘Isn’t that why we started this thing – to do what’s important without anyone telling us no?!’ He only had to say it once.”
No one else was doing what Mosaic was doing, and it took a number of years for the labels to wake up and realize that they had potential sales just laying around in their archives. Cuscuna soon was back with Blue Note as reissue director and was responsible for reissuing some of the labels gems on pristine vinyl and with solid cardboard covers (those first Blue Note LP releases are amazing, and yes, I still have them all).
Mosaic, like the rest of the industry, soon moved to CD, and it had to evolve as many labels realized they should be releasing their own archived material. But Mosaic continued to be able to release box sets by finding unique opportunities — sometimes on vinyl because no one else would.
It’s latest release I believe is #264, Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, which is a 10-CD collection of material from the jazz label from 1945 to 1949 (except for the Charlie Parker sessions, as those are widely available).
But, sadly, the end of the line may be approaching. Charlie Lourie died on December 31, 2000, and now the Michale Cuscuna has sent customers an email that sounds ominously like a farewell.
“In this time and place, the Mosaic business model is becoming harder and harder to sustain in this rapidly changing world. We aren’t sure what the future will hold for us, but we want to let all of you know how much we appreciate that your support has allowed us to constantly make our dreams come true with set after set and that we intend to persevere,” Cuscuna wrote.
“We are not certain how Mosaic Records will continue going forward or how many more sets we will be able to create and release. We’ve got a lot of great plans but few resources.”
Thirty-five years is a long time for any start-up, even an innovative company. And should Mosaic Records eventually fold, they have a long list of appreciative reviews, thrilled customers, and one Grammy Award (for a Nat King Cole Trio box set) to savor.
But for the purposes of TNM, I think the thing to remember is that there are always solutions to unique media problems if one looks hard enough, and cares that much about the content. Cuscuna and Lourie are owed an incalculable amount of thanks for the music they preserved and the love they brought to their projects. I am lucky enough to have been able to buy a number of sets, and wished I had more. Their work inspires me every day.