There’s a saying in the jazz music industry that in order to make a million dollars you should start with two million.
Unlike some other musical genres, having success on the jazz radio airwaves doesn’t mean success in your bank account, and Neal Weiss knows this well.
As the founder of the Whaling City Sound record label, this Dartmouth resident and Long Island native saw something that no one else did: the abundance of jazz talent in the region that was going unrecognized and underappreciated. It was music he said was worthy of national recognition.
After he made the move to start the label on New Year’s Eve of 1998 over a bottle of tequila and in the company of some local musician friends, he was initially met with a good deal of skepticism. He stated to those around him that his goal for the record company was to be on a par with the upper-tier jazz labels Sony, Verve, and Blue Note — ambitions he would one day make good on.
Whaling City Sound has released 136 CDs and two vinyl records, notching seven No. 1s and 20 Top 10s on the jazz radio charts, as well as two Grammy nominations. In December 2022, Downbeat magazine’s Readers Poll ranked Whaling City Sound as No. 6 in the Best Label category — ahead of Sony and Verve.
Today Weiss’s stable of artists has grown from its regional foundations to include a roster that is comparable to any national label, with a list of contemporary greats such as Gerry Gibbs, Kenny Barron, Dave Liebman, Greg Abate, and John Stein. Last year, the label released the last studio performance by the late jazz giant, Chick Corea.
Building on the success of his New Bedford-based business, Fiber Optic Center (begun on Jan. 2, 1992), Weiss has persisted with his passion for jazz and his “addiction” to releasing albums, even during times of economic downturns. In one year he issued as many as 17, and in another year he put out only two. But through it all he has defied the naysayers, from his family to his accountant.
For Weiss, music hasn’t been as much about making money as money has been about making music. He sat down with the New Bedford Light to talk about the lessons he’s learned about running a record label, the music industry, the highs of achieving national status and the difficulties of turning down eager musicians who want him to release their albums.
New Bedford Light: What was your introduction to jazz?
Neal Weiss: I had an older brother who passed away about 15 years ago. He was a few years older than me and he was an early rocker. He grew up in the 1950s and in junior high he started buying 78s of Elvis, Dwayne Eddy, the doo wop bands, the Moonglows, the Clovers, Chuck Berry, early rock, and he also listened to some jazz. He got me started in jazz, and in a big way it was Ray Charles. I was a Ray Charles fanatic. There was something about Ray Charles that was pre-intellectual that goes to the brain and bypasses reason. It goes to the heart … Ray Charles was my Michael Jackson.
The dominant influence on me was Ray Charles. It started with his rock-ish stuff like “What I Say,” and then he started putting out jazz albums on the Atlantic label. His early jazz records like “Genius After Hours” had some piano trio and he had some small groups. The Ray Charles Group had all-stars — his tenor sax player was David “Fathead” Newman. His alto sax player was Hank Crawford, who I’m still a big fan of. In general his band was very strong.
Another big influence was the album “Moanin’’ by Art Blakely & The Jazz Messengers. At the time, the band included trumpet player Lee Morgan and the sax player was Benny Golson. They were youngsters in the ‘50s. But that record and Art Blakely in general was a big influence and from there it was Horace Silver and hard bop. This was before Miles Davis went electric, before [John] Coltrane got into experimental music in the early to mid-1960s.
NBL: What was the impetus for starting the Whaling City Sound label? What did you see that was untapped in this region?
NW: It came from me thinking that there were musicians in the area that were world-class quality but weren’t really available. I couldn’t buy their CDs. This was deep into the CD era, post-vinyl.
The label was dreamed up in the loft of the Fiber Optic Center. It was New Year’s Eve at the end of 1998. John Harrison and Marcelle Gauvin were performing at the Whaling Museum. We have a tradition that the deck is a good place to watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, and I invited them over to the building here at midnight for a party to view the fireworks being shot over the water. We were also joined by Lori Steiger.
I talked about wanting to do the label and to put out CDs and John agreed that he could produce a CD, so we sat around with some liquid encouragement, which happened to be tequila that night, and we hung around for hours after everyone left the party and discussed this. We decided that John would produce the first CD and it would be by Marcelle. And shortly thereafter we could come up with a CD by John Harrison.
We went to work on the first one, and it took a while. We came up with the band and actually it remains, in many ways, one of our best CDs — it’s very strong, the playing is great.
NBL: What were the initial reactions of the people around you? What were people saying when you launched the label?
NW: The line was, “You’ll have fun doing it, but don’t expect radio to ever play your music. There’s too much music, you’ll basically be crowded out.” And it turned out that’s not what happened. Radio reacted very, very favorably, starting with that very first CD. And I remember very clearly going to a classical concert at a church on Drift Road in Westport. I got there and Ron Della Chiesa’s jazz show on WGBH was coming on at 7 p.m. and he opened the show with two songs from Marcelle. So the result was that I couldn’t get out of the car. So before he even spoke that night he played two songs from the CD, and really in a way, it’s continued that way with a few exceptions. Radio has really embraced the label and I get a lot of airplay.
But it’s not just airplay, it’s being added to the playlists of the stations. The music directors and jazz directors at radio stations pick very, very few CDs each week for their playlists. My guess is that they get a hundred CDs a week now and they pick two or three to add to their playlists, which means they also have to take something out of the playlists. So if you don’t get on the playlists you’re not going to be played very heavily on that station. So the trick is, in the same week, to have many stations playing your CD over and over and over again. A lot of stations will have a featured CD or two each week and they’ll play two or three tracks from it every day. So in order to get into the Top 10 on the radio charts you need seven or eight stations to play your CD, let’s say 20 times that week, or two or three times a day on multiple stations.
NBL: Can you explain why radio airplay doesn’t translate into sales?
NW: My business plan was that my effort was going to be focused on radio play, thinking that I would create an audience. That if people heard the CDs all over the country that they would go out and buy them.
What’s really fascinating is that I was able to prove it wrong. I was able to blow up the business plan. I had No. 1 CDs but in the last 20 years CD sales have diminished tremendously. The jazz audience is very small compared to pop, country, or rap. Classical is tiny — there are probably fewer classical stations than jazz stations. So generally, No. 1 CDs don’t sell. It’s gotten much worse in the last five years. Even older adults will tell me, “Neal, I have nothing to play my CDs on. My computer doesn’t have a CD player anymore and neither does my car.” I had someone in their 60s tell me that they just went out to buy a CD player and they had trouble finding one.
In terms of streaming, the label gets a hundredth of a cent for a stream. So two million streams is $200. So routinely, certain CDs that get in the tens of thousands of streams in a month, you’re talking about $25s. So there’s pretty much no income in spite of the radio play.
NBL: What can Whaling City Sound do for the career of an artist?
NW: First of all, it provides them with a thing, a touchable object, a CD that hopefully is very well done. The four areas we aim for excellence in are the performance, the recording, the packaging, and the compositions. When we do a CD together, and we work out a deal to do it, we try to really come up with the best possible object — the thing itself.
After we get played on the radio it gives them national recognition and we send quite a few CDs to Europe and elsewhere in the world. If they can get a good review in Downbeat, or Jazz Times magazines — and again there’s fewer and fewer and they’re getting thinner — that also brings recognition. Some of our artists have made it to the near top of the readers polls and critics polls, Greg Abate for one. Some artists have careers outside of Whaling City Sound, but we certainly haven’t hurt their careers. It gives them recognition and it’s cumulative. If you put out a CD that gets airplay and then you put out another one that is just as good or better, the decision makers on radio already know who you are, they’ll listen and say, “Oh, this is good, we’re going to play this one also.” The first CD they don’t know who you are, but after that they recognize the name and they know the sound and are willing to play it.
A radio guy gave us a statement once that said, “We don’t preview your CDs, we open the envelope and put them on the air.” I don’t believe that. I think you always have to see what it is and listen to it and decide. But the sentiment is what matters. The sentiment is that they expect the quality to be there, they expect it to be something that their audience wants and they’re willing to play it. They’re predisposed to putting it on the air.
NBL: There have been downturns in the economy since you started the label. How did you adapt and why did you not close up shop? Some people were telling you to give up the label.
NW: It’s something I love to do, so I had to cut back. But I did manage to hang on. I had a few years where I did very few. There’s always too much music, always too many projects to do and I always have difficulties saying no. It’s very painful to turn someone down when they’ve put their life into a recording, but it’s very, very hard to make a good CD. I could probably come up with 15 areas that need to be excellent or darn close in order to make it a great CD, and to consistently put out great CDs. It’s very difficult, I think. So to have an artist come up and say, “Look, I have this CD, I think it’s very good,” and for me to say, “Nah, I don’t think so. Not that it’s bad, I’m just not going to do it.” Really, saying no is a problem.
Looking over the years I’ve said no to some CDs that were very close. There were aspects of them that were very close, there were aspects of them that I liked. The way I describe it is in one or two cases they should have had one or two more rehearsals, or they should have had one or two more studio sessions. But all of that costs money. So what happens most of the time is that people go in the studio with some musicians that are well rehearsed or not rehearsed, or something in between, and they lay down the tracks and they work with them a little bit but they run out of money. They can’t just sit in the studio with a bunch of musicians and keep going over and over it. In some cases it needed more time but they couldn’t afford it.
NBL: What determines how many CDs you can put out in a year?
NW: The big years were 2015 through 2017. I thought I had a lot of money and I made a lot of commitments, and it turned out that I overspent. So I had trouble living up to my commitments and I’m still struggling with that a little bit. The ones I’m putting out now, in general, are not new projects, they’re projects I committed to a while ago, but they’re just getting done now.
NBL: What are your relationships like with the artists on the label?
NW: They’re generally very good. There are very few that I’ve had a falling out with where we don’t see eye-to-eye about certain things. The more famous artists, I would say, have had a tough life — they’ve had some bad dealings with club owners and label owners — and they’re very wary. There’s a lot of mistrust. A couple of artists have said to me, and Joe Beck was one of them, “Neal, you’re different. You actually do what you say you’re going to do.” In a way, that says it all to me. They’re used to people feeding them a lot of baloney and when it comes down to it, not doing what they said. All you have to do is do what you say you’re going to do and then that makes you OK. In a way there’s a low bar, but it’s reality. There’s a lot of distrust. It’s not universally true, but the more well known an artist is, the more of a chance that they’re going to be a little bit touchy about terms and conditions.
NBL: What were your misconceptions about starting a record label — a jazz label in particular? And what have you learned? What advice do you have for someone who is interested in doing such a pursuit?
NW: My advice would be don’t do it. For a number of reasons, really. There must be a way to make money in the music business, but I haven’t even come close to figuring that out yet. Some of it is my own fault. I’m a product of the 1950s and ‘60s. In many ways I’m stuck. One line is that “My needle is stuck between 1958 and 1963 in terms of my musical tastes.” I go back to the era of records, the sweet spot of music in some ways. Obviously there’s exceptions, before and after, but in terms of when the great records that I’ll remember forever, I would say that those five years are tough to beat. It’s the emergence of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and Blue Note Records, and Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter, and on and on and on.
So my advice is that it’s tough to make money, but be honest with people. Do what you say you’re going to do.
I know what’s involved in putting the package together. A lot of it has to do with the team. You want to get good people to do the design and do the recording and put the whole thing together. Promoting — you want to get a good radio promoter, you want to get a good public relations person to do the press. Like any other kind of a company or an effort, it’s who you associate with, and how good they are at their job.
NBL: You’re a jazz connoisseur. How do you listen to music and what kinds of jazz do you prefer?
NW: A lot of my listening is work. Let’s say I was making movies. If I was putting out movies it would be very hard for me to go to the movies and relax. I couldn’t see something just because I wanted to. I’d be sitting there thinking, “Oh, the soundtrack’s a little loud here,” or “I really can’t make out those last two lines, the actress garbled her lines.” What I’m saying is that I’m always, always critical. Music is a product in a sense, and how I listen is to take something apart. It’s natural. If I was a writer and I picked up the newspaper and there were spelling errors or bad sentences … that’s what happens when I listen on my own. I listen to a lot of Whaling City Sound. It is possible to go to Spotify or Pandora and call up Whaling City Sound and just randomly go through them. There’s 136 CDs, it could be a thousand hours. When you hear something randomly, quite a bit of the time you can’t tell who the artist is and what the CD it is. There was a time when I knew every note of every CD, but as I’ve gone on, particularly in the years when I put out too many, they get by me a little.
We’ve been very good about different styles. We have some big band, some swing, a lot of be-bop, some post-bop that’s experimental, some electronic stuff, vocals and instrumentals, different instruments — a variety of styles. We have four or five classical CDs that I think are very good recordings and unusual works. We have three or four rock-and-roll CDs, some that border on folk music. Sea shanties with the New Bedford Sea Shanty Chorus — “Lovely Ernestina” is one of our biggest sellers.
NBL: You have a lot of albums by professors at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. In your estimation, what makes this area so rich in talent? What do you like about this area?
NW: Access to Berklee is huge, it’s a hot bed. You look at MIT and you think electronics and science, and Berklee is it for jazz. It’s a whole ecosystem and environment. So in addition to hundreds of students practicing all the time, [there are] probably 100 professors or more who are all at the top of their game.
I say I’m slightly less of a jerk than other label owners. Once the word gets around that I’m someone you can deal with and once you put out a couple of good CDs, people notice. So if a professor there wants to put out a CD, he might ask someone else in his department, “who did you use for your last CD?” They’ll say, “talk to Neal.”
Again, I have to turn down most of them, but that’s where they come from. But as far as the area, New Bedford has an incredible jazz history. The Jazz Wall mural outside of this building (The Fiber Optic Center), with Paul Gonsalves, who was Duke Ellington’s main soloist for decades, lived in the area at times, he was from Pawtucket, originally, I believe. There were great jazz clubs. Big bands came through here in the 1940s and ‘50s. The musicians loved New Bedford, because it was racially integrated. I’m sure there was some bias and prejudice in New Bedford, but it was considered a fairly friendly space for African American performers, and the audience was known for being knowledgeable. New Bedford had a jazz audience that loved music.
NBL: Besides releasing CDs, what economic impact has the label had on the city?
NW: For 20 years we have sponsored AHA! Nights from June through September on the second Thursday of each month. We’ve brought 50 different acts with over 250 performers, which means bringing people downtown to go to restaurants and other businesses. We have sponsored more than 10 concerts as benefits for the YWCA. We have sponsored programs by two scholarship groups, the S.S. Sacramento, which is the Portuguese Feast scholarship fundraiser, and also CVRC, the Cape Verdean Recognition Committee. For many years we have been a sponsor for their scholarship evening. We have also contributed to many other nonprofits downtown.
NBL: Why is Whaling City Sound, in retrospect, been successful? What are the factors in your success?
NW: Trying to say no to things that don’t quite make it. There has to be something that’s exceptional. I have questions in my mind and I apply them when I hear a CD, and one of them is “Would anyone besides this person’s mother buy it?” So in addition to being quality — it could be perfect quality — but if it is so out there, so fringe, that it just doesn’t have any general interest, then I probably won’t do it.
An example: good CDs that I’ve come across by some legendary performers, people who had a career in the ‘60s through the ‘80s and the CDs are good and the performances are unique, but there are just too few people who care about this performer. So yes, they were great players during their lifetime, but they were an acquired taste. You have to be a connoisseur to have even heard of them.
Sean McCarthy is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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