Bruce Lundvall On Playing By Ear

Bruce Lundvall at Recording Academy hosted Special Merit Awards Ceremony in 2011

My January Wall Street Journal Cultural Conversation with Don Was, president of Blue Note Records, began with a sincere tip of the hat—via onstage hat-tips from pianist Jason Moran and Robert Glasper—to Bruce Lundvall, who ran that company for 25 years and who continues to provide guidance as chairman emeritus.
Lundvall’s story is a great one, about a singular man, maybe the last of his breed of music executive, whose work spanned a few important eras at a few major record labels, companies that also may be the last of their breeds.
In a July post, I interviewed writer Dan Ouellette, who was then working on “Playing by Ear,” a book documenting Lundvall’s half-century career.
Now that book is available. You can find it at Amazon, or by going to the ArtistShare page.
As he did with a previous biography of bassist Ron Carter, Ouellette pursued an interesting path, developing this book through the fan-funded Artistshare website. Besides forgoing a traditional publisher and offering readers various forms of participation in the process, Ouellette worked in a nontraditional biography form, he says, inserting “snapshot” chapters within the narrative of Lundvall’s life story. “A reader can choose to read the entire story on Bruce’s Elektra experience,” he says, “or choose to read the focused sections on Bobby McFerrin or Whitney Houston or Ruben Blades. This whole setup offers the reader options. Most people read a book cover to cover without skipping around. This format allows people to skip around at their leisure, kind of like someone listening to a CD and selecting different tracks to play versus the entire album.”
Here’s a brief excerpt, courtesy of the author:

I’m 78 and I’m still doing what I started doing in 1960. Why? I don’t know. It’s like the mob—once you’re in, you can’t get out….

When I started out, it was the record business. Now it doesn’t seem like it’s a business at all. In the short term, we’ve reached the end of a format, and the music business will become smaller. In the long term, there will be a new generation that will be exploring a different way of doing business, and I’m not sure what that’s going to look like.
The information world is changing by the minute. The future of the music business is all tied up with that, so there will be major changes. Maybe there won’t be record companies anymore. Already a lot of young people don’t even know what a CD looks like—let alone an LP. They receive their music from a cloud.
But one thing is certain: There are still artists who have great things to say in every field, and you still need people to find the talent. In jazz, the music has become international so you have talented artists from everywhere who are important. There are more and more originals who deserve to be heard, and artist development needs to be kept alive.
In the future we’ll need people who have a passion for the music in addition to having intelligent computer skills to be able to spread the music, to get it heard. No one in the business is a star. We have to remember that we are the middlemen to get creative music to market, even when you have a young generation that believes the music should be free—and treats it that way.
Those who are passionate need to seek out mentors who can help them bring the music into the future. They can’t do it alone.

Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

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