Michael Dorf opened his New York club, the Knitting Factory, in February 1987. Over the next decade, what had begun as a small, Lower East Side venue focusing upon avant-garde jazz and alternative music grew into KnitMedia, an entertainment conglomerate encompassing jazz festivals, recordings, the Internet, jazz education, booking and an expansion to Los Angeles.
It's an impressive series of accomplishments, and not at all what Dorf expected in the early '80s, when he was studying art and sculpture in Barcelona, Spain. But a serendipitous phone call from a friend who was organizing a band brought Dorf back from Europe to manage the group.
There was also another critical factor in the opening of the Knitting Factory. Dorf, with what he describes as "quirkily good timing," opened the room at a time when there were very few performing spaces for the players in the avant-garde wing of jazz.
But it was marketing skill rather than good timing that allowed Dorf, 37, to transform an offbeat venue into one of the most influential companies in jazz, and, in the process, enact some visionary methods of connecting musicians with listeners.
Question: What do you feel were the key elements in the early success of the Knitting Factory?
Answer: One, I was from Wisconsin so I was pretty green behind the ears. But more than anything else, I think it was because I tried to be honest and fair. We created a door deal, which we still use today with most of our artists, which is 75% of the gate. And if one person paid . . . [or] if 200 people paid, they got their money.
But essentially, our mission has been the same since the first day we started the club. It's basically an effort to answer a few basic questions: How do I bring an audience to the music, in a fair model that can create a living for me, and for the artists? What is the relationship with the musicians that is fair, and that works? And how do we expand the audience for the music?
Q: And do those principles apply to the other Knitting Factory endeavors?
A: Yes. Through our Web site, JazzE.com, we have made 50-50 deals with musicians on digital downloading of stuff that's never made it to record stores. For example, we just launched a program two months ago--to enthusiastic response--of some tapes that Rashied Ali recorded at his loft. Although he had permission to do something with them he could never manage it because the costs were simply too prohibitive to have the CDs manufactured.
So we made a nice deal with him. We gave him a very nominal advance. We have a 50-50 royalty deal on the sale of any of the recordings as digital downloads, secure, using Liquid Audio. He determined the price point of each concert recording. I think he came up with $6 for each. Three dollars goes to him, and then he handles the [payment] to the musicians; $3 goes to us, and we cover all the delivery costs, Visa, MasterCard, server, etc. And he has to pay the mechanicals on the songs, which is no problem since many of the songs are his and he's paying himself a royalty. So with a $6 sale, which is a lot cheaper than a record in a store, the consumer's winning, and $3 goes directly to Rashied, which is the highest royalty even on a $15 CD that he's ever gotten.
Q: You clearly seem to view the Internet as an important development for jazz.
A: Absolutely. Look at it this way: How do people find and discover music? I think there are five ways: There's the retail experience; there's word of mouth; there are the publications where there's information and reviews in print or online; there's the radio world; and there's the live experience. If we're able to replicate a few of those in a virtual or online way and then connect this e-commerce side to it, then I think we've got a really compelling Web site. . . . I think it's very interesting that the SoundScan figures for the traditional retail markets show jazz representing 3% of the market. Online, it represents 10%. Why is that? Probably because Tower Records is only so big. It cannot hold all the jazz catalog. There is no more shelf space for deep catalog. So the Internet is the perfect place to allow for that virtual shelf space to accommodate catalogs, and jazz is all about catalogs. It's vintage wine, and it just gets better with time.
Q: Do you think other jazz record labels will take the same aggressive approach to the potential of the Internet that you do?