Houston’s Young Turk music producers have cut a new groove in the record industry.
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Randall Jamail could have looked forward to a cushy career as a high-powered attorney when he finished law school. After all, he had worked as a glorified notetaker for his father, Joe, when he was successfully representing Pennzoil in its multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Texaco in 1985. Instead, Randall bought time at a Houston recording studio and hired professional musicians to help him put some of his musical ideas on tape. The experience led him to conclude that he wasn’t a very good guitarist or songwriter. “But,” he says, “I also learned that jazz players were the best musicians to call in to do session work.” So Jamail decided to become a music mogul and put all that jazz talent to work.
Today Jamail’s Justice Record Company is proving that a small boutique jazz label, operating in Houston, of all places, can profit from sales of 15,000—instead of 15 million—units. With an eclectic roster that includes guitar legend Herb Ellis, Swedish pianist Stefan Karlsson, and a young California trumpet player named Rebecca Coupe Franks, Justice was cited as the jazz debut label of 1990 by the trade publication Radio & Records. Jamail himself was singled out for praise by Forbes magazine for creating an artist-friendly recording contract.
The 35-year-old Jamail isn’t the only young white-collar refugee in Houston making a career switch to the record biz. His neighbor David Lummis, 34, quit his job as an investment banker for Lazard Freres five years ago to head up Discos MM, a label specializing in Hispanic acts. As part of the deal, Lummis also purchased Sugar Hill Recording Studios, one of the oldest recording facilities in the South. Jamail uses Sugar Hill for his local productions; so does Tab Bartling, a 37-year-old geologist who kept his day job at his family’s oil exploration company when he started up Heart Music, Houston’s other new jazz imprint, whose roster consists of saxophonist Tony Campise and guitarist Erich Avinger.
The timing of all three executives couldn’t be better. Big record companies have become so out of touch that small independents with a closer ear to the sounds of the streets are undercutting them. Houston’s streets, as far as Jamail, Lummis, and Bartling are concerned, are teeming with talent. Bartling discovered Campise and Avinger in local clubs. Half of Jamail’s acts—drummer Sebastian Whittaker, vibraphonist Harry Sheppard, pianist Dave Catney, and R&B singer Wendi Slaton—are hometown products. Lummis’ tejano lineup includes such Houston-based acts as Rick Gonzales and the Choice, Elsa García, Jerry Rodríguez y Mercédez, and a Latino rock band known as the Basics.
But it isn’t just the talent that makes Houston attractive. Lower labor and studio costs mean that a record can be completed for 40 percent less than in Los Angeles or New York. And with Houston being out of the industry loop, Justice, Heart Music, and Discos MM can avoid the lemming mentality the music business is famous for. “In Houston we don’t have time to sit around and watch what the competition is doing, because there is no competition per se,” Jamail says. Justice’s solid financing allows Jamail to experiment with his own distribution network, which Heart Music is plugging into. But David Lummis can’t afford that luxury, which explains Discos MM’s distribution agreement with recording-industry giant Capitol/EMI. “We’re trying to work some sort of middle ground, where you hold your investment down and work with a big company,” he explains. “But maybe after three years, we’ll know distribution well enough to do it on our own.”
With only two artists and four releases, Bartling’s Heart Music has required the smallest cash outlay. Although Campise’s debut, First Takes, sold only five thousand units, his latest release has cracked Billboard’s Jazz Top 10. By augmenting a three-person staff with independent radio, press, and retail specialists on a project-by-project basis, Bartling can remain true to his vision of recording acoustic jazz artists and still pay the rent. Says Bartling: “The industry doesn’t know what to expect of us here, which is why it’s so much fun to see if my acts can knock David Sanborn and Natalie Cole off the charts.”
Although theirs are businesses built on dreams, Jamail, Bartling, and Lummis are commercial realists. Jamail, who is currently producing a project that includes rockers from the band Living Color, rapper Chuck D, and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, explains his success: “I capitalized it. I’m running it. This business is not a good environment for partners or banks. I don’t have time to explain to someone who’s not in the business why I’ve made a certain decision.” Bartling keeps his overhead low by operating out of the family’s oil company headquarters, where CDs, promotional photos, and stereos are stacked beneath geological maps. Similarly, Lummis depends on Sugar Hill’s studio business to help defray the expense of running Discos MM. “It is not a get-rich-quick business,” he says. “But it is tremendously exciting. And frankly, the alternatives in investment banking aren’t so great.”