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Jazzed-up Savoy Group Offers Adult Alternatives

The Hollywood Reporter, 11.20.03
Tamara Conniff

The Savoy Label Group, known for its stellar jazz catalog that includes such artists as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Lester Young, is revamping its image by breaking into new jazz, adult contemporary and adult alternative music.

Hot on the heels of such successful standards albums as Rod Stewart's "As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook, Volume II" and Bette Midler's "Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook," Savoy has released Lou Rawls' Frank Sinatra tribute album, "Rawls Sings Sinatra," as well as a Charlie Parker remix album, "Bird Up," which features such artists as Me'Shell Ndegeocello, RZA, the Kronos Quartet and Dan the Automator.

"I think the pressure that has been on the business for creating music for 17-year-olds has gotten really hard," Savoy Label Group president Steve Vining says. "A lot of us -- the artists, the A&R guys, the guys that run record companies -- we're all at a point where we've kind of stepped back and said, 'We can't make that kind of music anymore. Let's make music that we all love, that we all relate to and that we can really do justice to.' "

The adult music phenomenon was best seen last year with the multiplatinum success of jazz chanteuse Norah Jones. These types of records target an older, more mature listening audience. "The kids are not buying stuff because they are stealing it," Vining says. "What we've done is evolved to creating a product for a place in the market that has a disposable income and will still buy finished product and either isn't tech-savvy or doesn't have the time to go steal it."

Bookstores are a key retail outlet for such releases, Vining says. The Rawls album, for example, has sold about 12,000 copies with next-to-no airplay. "Bookstores are making a real business out of products for adults, and they are thriving," Vining says. "We're lucky that at a time where we're losing some of the old conventional (record retail) chains, there is a real comfortable place for adults to go to search out music and buy it."

The company's Savoy Jazz imprint has an impressive quarter planned, with new releases from James Moody, Mark Turner, Hubert Laws and Andy Bey set for early next year.

"We're trying not to be bound by any old conventions of thinking about what the music should be like," Vining says. "In the case of Mark Turner's group -- that stuff is very challenging and really interesting, but it's as different from James Moody as you can have and still have it under a jazz umbrella."

The Savoy Label Group is the North American unit of Columbia Music Entertainment (formerly Nippon Columbia) under CEO Strauss Zelnick. Vining says Savoy has gone through numerous stages of revamping in the past year and a half -- from inking distribution deals with RED and Koch, overhauling the catalog with new technology and new packaging and expanding the artist roster to include such adult acts as Joan Armatrading and Paul Carrack.

While the five major music groups are looking at massive mergers and layoffs, the future is looking bright for indies like Savoy. Says Vining: "For us, every time one of the majors merge, there are interesting, attractive artists that get (cut) who still have careers that are viable. They might not be selling 500,000 records anymore, maybe they're selling 50,000-200,000. We know how to make a business out of that."