A Guitarist's Guitarist Is
Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
International Herald Tribune - January 2, 2002
new year finds Mike Stern trapped between a mega media
merger and an economic meltdown. His record company,
Atlantic, a historic label (John Coltrane, Ray Charles,
the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman) merged with
Warner Brothers several years ago. That eventually
became Time Warner, and now the guitarist-bandleader has
been put on hold by the newly formed media giant AOL
Time Warner, where downsizing is the order of the day.
After making 10 CDs in 15 years for Atlantic, he is
in danger of being dropped. He could find a smaller,
independent record company (there have been offers), but
such a change would make it difficult, if not
impossible, for him to get his current release,
"Voices", marketed and heard.
In the more
immediate future, Stern is, or was, scheduled to begin a
South American tour in Santiago, Chile, on Jan. 9 -
followed by Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Panama.
He is popular in South America; he toured Colombia
last year. However, between looting, devaluation and a
falling government, Argentina has become a whirlpool to
be avoided, and the dates there are also on hold. Stern
is calling agents and impresarios to try to fill the
possible gaps. (Either way, he is booked for three
nights in Tokyo at the end of January followed by a
week, Feb. 5 to 10, in the important New York club
It is ironic that a musician well known
in the trade for just wanting to play has to navigate
such a geopolitical Scylla and Charybdis.
Stern still seems to enjoy making music after 25 years
is a big part of his personality and professionalism. He
still loves to spend hours practicing Coltrane
improvisations at home.
But in the real world, to
play he must also cast a band and sell it, help set up
the tours, co-produce and at times co-finance his own
recordings and keep nagging his multinational record
company to set up promotional tours like the one that
recently brought him through Paris.
Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and very few others, the
55-year-old Stern [MFL: Mike's age is 49. In NYC, he
plays in 55 Bar] remains both a respected and
financially viable jazz act. That he plays electric
guitar helps him continue to find a young audience
around the world. As do his credits.
years he was a sideman with Miles Davis and is on the
trumpeter's albums "Man With the Horn" and "We Want
Miles". He has worked with high-profile fusion names
like Blood, Sweat and Tears, Jaco Pastorius, David
Sanborn and Steps Ahead.
Explaining why most of
his gigs are abroad, he said: "There seems to be more
interest in the arts in general in Japan and Europe.
It's called culture. In America, the closest thing we
have to it is agriculture". This was accompanied by a
boyish smile, a shrug and an unspoken apology for such
His rock-flavored records sell
modestly but "enough so that the record company and I
get our money back and make a little profit and I can
tour behind them". Modest goals. Unlike pop records,
quality jazz continues to sell, year after year, in
small quantities that eventually add up. All 10 of his
albums remain in Atlantic's active catalogue, a rare
availability. This would probably change should Atlantic
terminate him. The distributor has to be willing to
service the stores, and to convince them that Stern is
worth their shelf space.
Stern has gotten to know
sales clerks and the office people who arrange
interviews and radio play and send out review copies in
the Time Warner offices around the world.
Meanwhile, preoccupied with synergy, AOL Time Warner is
considering consolidating several of its labels into a
new division. It is possible that the name Atlantic will
just disappear - presumably along with the jobs of many
of those office people around the world he has taken
such trouble to stroke. Unlike many, he considers
interviews and networking as part of the job.
Stern, it's not about making lots of money, but earning
it, no matter how little, with music. Stern still goes
out of his way to play, for peanuts, one or two nights a
week in a tiny club called the 55 on Sheridan Square in
Greenwich Village. Guitarists often make up half the
audience at 55, as in similar clubs in Europe.
"Sometimes the bread isn't so great, and the clubs can
be kind of funky", he said. "But it's essential to
continue to play for people. Miles used to say that he
was always trying to 'catch somebody'. Put your heart
and soul into your music and maybe you'll catch one
person out front. Catching one person will always be
enough for me."