The pioneer in the tech-market

July 9, 2013. Munich. After a 12-year absence from Munich the Keith Jarrett Trio performed in the Philharmonic Hall, the same day as the 70th birthday of ECM’s mastermind Manfred Eicher.

The concert was short. The trio played a 60-minute set and added three fast encores. There was no time to lose for Jarrett. The private jet was on the runway, ready to fly to Nice. That’s where Jarrett stays while performing in Europe. He knows his hotel and he appreciates the mattress of his choice. The hitch: the trio didn’t get authorization to leave from the Munich airport so they had to race to get their plane in Ingolstadt.

Jarrett sped out the door, leaving the rest of us to begin the festivities early. Long-standing ECM artists, such as Arvo Pärt and Anouar Brahem, many friends, business partners and a few journalists celebrated with Manfred Eicher.

ECM was an integral part of the story for my my life in music. I first heard about them in 1976. In that year, I’d gone with my friend Jens Kraft for a three-week stay in a Protestant Church Summer Camp in Sweden. What on earth brought us there? Kraft was an avowed anti-Christian and I was Catholic. But we had a good enough time. Kraft, who had long-hair, was funny and good-looking, and ended up making out with the only tight-jeaned hot girl in the whole camp. Me, I was stocky, pimply, inhibited – but “sweet.” My other friend was lanky, short-haired Rainer Patz. And he was an avid ECM fan. Through him I first heard Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielson, Jon Christensen….

Rainer had a tape deck. For hours on end we listened to the music accompanied by his analysis of the musicians and even ECM’s album cover art. LPs were strewn about the room. Further props included incense sticks, Hermann Hesse’s books, and buckets of tea. His conversation often turned to God.

Back in Hamburg the discovery went on. ECM artists regularly performed at Onkel Pö’s in Hamburg-Eppendorf. In Hamburg’s Musikhalle there was even an ECM festival stretching over two evenings. One night Jan Garbarek, Oregon and Ralph Towner all played.

But at some point I broke up with ECM. My tastes were broadening. First came Westcoast, then country and then soul, disco and New Wave, all far more exciting. They commandeered my Philips cassette recorder. In time, I lost track of Rainer and his favourite label. A recent Google Search told me there is a Rainer Patz who is a pastor in Quickborn. That must be him.

Once I’d left it behind, the following 13 years brought very little jazz. James Chance, bossa nova, Earth, Wind & Fire and Grateful Dead were the exceptions. It was my academic work writing a paper on “Jazz in the 3rd Reich” that perked my ears up and brought me back again.

What happened next felt a little like destiny. When I finished University in 1990 Tim Renner offered me a job as jazz product manager. Two labels were to be marketed in a modern way: Verve and ECM. Verve Records was cool. But ECM? I froze. Suddenly I was in the schoolyard again. But this time my schoolyard crush returned my gaze. I blushed. I had a foretaste of many lonely nights to come, all of them once again pondering the finer points of ECM aesthetics. Did I want to go back to that?

I risked a look at the catalogue. I hardly knew any of the albums. The music was still fragile, delicate, white, cool and distant. But I heard it with different ears. There were many new facets, new artists and genres and new composers, among them Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Charles Lloyd. ECM had developed itself. As did I, I suppose.

Lloyd was the first ECM artist I actually met. He had been something of a jazz-playing pop star in the 60s. With his quartet featuring Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, he sold millions of records.  He was even one of the Beach Boys’ studio musicians: a canonization, in a way. But he took too many drugs and was out of the game for years. In 1983 he reappeared and shortly afterwards he was an ECM artist.

His new quartet played in Oldenburg, in the main hall of the Oldenburg Sparkasse, a regional bank. Lloyd had relatives who worked there and who made the concert possible. During the day money passed over the counter; in the evening Lloyd passed on the riches of his music. A very bizarre setting, to be sure. But the band, the compositions and the timbre of Lloyd’s saxophone and flute turned this most unlikely venue into a kind of Carnegie Hall for northern Germany.

Heino Freiberg was the ECM representative at the concert. He was the first employee I met from ECM. Heino works for ECM Export, whose managing director is Karl Egger, the man who founded ECM in 1969 together with Manfred Eicher. He took on the business management while Eicher managed the artistic side. Although Karl Egger is still Co-Director of ECM Records with Eicher and Managing Director of ECM Export on his own, I haven’t even seen or spoken to him in the last 23 years. In the day-to-day, all business decisions were and are made by Manfred Eicher, in close cooperation with Heino Freiberg. Where’s Karl Egger? He spends most of his time on his organic farm “La Selva” in Tuscany. It’s a popular brand. A large “La Selva” assortment can be found in most every organic market in Germany and there are holiday apartments for rent on the farm. It’s still on my travel wish-list.

Shortly after I was hired, Tim Renner and I went for our first official visit at ECM in Munich. I expected a standard city office, but it was nothing of the sort. We drove to the suburbs of Munich, a neighborhood called Gräfelfing. The taxi driver dropped us off at a 70s industrial building, whose ground floor was mainly occupied by a huge tech market. To get into the ECM office, we had to go through the store. They sold CDs, too, that were lovelessly stacked as pallet goods and guarded by a surly sales team. Browsing was no fun here. The racks only offered Top-50 chart singles and albums filled out by tons of boring compilations. We reached the stairwell. On the second floor was the ECM office. The door was open, accessible to everyone. We entered and stood waiting in the hallway. Nobody seemed to be expecting us.

It was an extremely hot Munich summer’s day. Outside there was a relaxed, even festive beer garden atmosphere but not here at ECM. Here it was serious, tense. Kinetic. The employees were absorbed in their work and we only knew they had noticed us when a few discreetly nodded their heads. No time for a chat. Only Helga, the sweet soul of ECM, smiled at us. I was expecting to find a staff with the appearance of aging, lifelong students, drinking tea and discussing the current topics of the daily newspaper’s culture section while listening to ECM records. But there was not a whiff of it. The boss was in the house.

Manfred Eicher is ECM. For over 40 years he has been implementing his pristine vision of music production. He often brings together musicians who hardly know of one another and who may seem to have nothing in common. Yet under his direction, these spontaneous encounters develop a dynamic and individuality that is a distinguishing mark of ECM productions. Eicher consistently expands the repertoire. Jazz, classical music, folk and electronics are introduced, re-combined and developed in ever-changing forms. Eicher freely draws on long-established artists along with new, younger and unknown musicians.

While Polygram/Universal were still debating internally which musicians and music could set the next trend, Eicher was already in the studio and would surprise the world with productions that no one would have expected yet so many would come to love. Often enough and to the surprise of traditional marketing gurus, he delivered a big hit. He doesn’t do market research. He trusts his instinct, ability, experience, curiosity and intuition. Time has shown how right he is to do so.

Meetings with Eicher are unpredictable. Even if an agenda exists, it is turned upside down within minutes. Often, our first topic would be the upcoming Christmas season, the period responsible for his and our biggest sales revenue. At this meeting Eicher didn’t even want to hear about it. His interest focused on a single title, a rather obscure niche record that had been issued months before. We were lucky to have found 500 buyers for it, but Eicher wasn’t satisfied. He slapped on the table a short positive review from a well-respected critic, demanding the same financial support for this as we were prepared to spend on the season’s more commercial highlight. We were counting on it to make our year in terms of sales. After 2 hours the meeting was over, we had no Christmas campaign for the new release, but we had agreed to launch a second marketing campaign for his priority album. We knew a costly newspaper ad in the Die Zeit wouldn’t amount to a single additional sale, but Eicher had won as Eicher always does.

Then he hurried off. While we were meeting his artists had been calling and awaited his returned call. A taxi was waiting for him, its engine idling. That evening, as so many before and after, a recording session was scheduled or a concert was planned of a new artist or an old mainstay. The next day the staff was waiting with cover art proposals. Release dates were to be set. Artist contracts were stacked on his desk needing his signature. Distributors were waiting. Nothing at ECM, not even the clocks, moved without him. Yet he’d make his decisions but could change them at a moment’s notice. Unpredictability is a key to his success. Often at the expense of his employees. Turnover is high.

His relationship with artists are close and intense. For decades he has been working with a core group of musicians, composers, directors and actors. Some of them are notoriously temperamental, yet Eicher is known for his steady relationships to them as much as for the quality he brings to their projects. To be the exclusive producer and label partner of the eccentric pianist Keith Jarrett for over 40 years alone would be a life’s work. But he has the same faithful partnerships with Jan Garbarek, Arvo Pärt, John Abercrombie, Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko and many other artists, many of whom he’s been with for 40 and 50 years. Even ones who left him, like Charlie Haden and Chick Corea, found their way back again.

In addition to the superlative artistry and renowned graphics, ECM’s international distribution is another plus. Over time the label has built up a dedicated network. In many markets – the USA, Japan, France and Germany – Universal has been handing distribution for years. But there was no overall deal with the Universal headquarters in London, only individual contracts with the respective national companies. In small markets and in England, they were handled by select independent distributors. This has its advantages, with all coordination controlled directly from Munich. It avoids time-wasting bottlenecks that are inevitable in major companies such as the usual political squabbling, territoriality and all the rest. Sales generated by new releases and a large, profitable back catalogue are crucial to all companies. Manfred Eicher delivers on both so distributors work hard to keep him happy. The next Keith Jarrett release will certainly come, the market is waiting and it will usher in new revenue.

Manfred Eicher always looks ahead. As soon as a production has been released, it is finished, done. It is a work of art, not to be tampered with. If Keith Jarrett’s best-selling Köln Concert had been released by Universal, we would have repackaged it at least 15 times in the last 40 years. We’d have printed new booklets with anecdotes from the artist, the producers, concert organizers and whoever else was lucky enough to have been there. We would have added tales of the grand piano that almost doomed the concert when Jarrett refused to play on it. A new cover would have been created, new ‘exclusive’ photos, DVD footage, and don’t forget the new mix and remaster. It would have been arranged for symphony orchestra, with the inevitable ‘unreleased’ tracks added – something can always be found. It would have been packaged as a de-luxe-box in a metal slipcase or in cooperation with some cologne manufacture. There would have been different formats, different prices…

But with Eicher, with ECM, it never happened. He’d feign interest as we laid out the proposal, showed mock-ups of the artwork, committed marketing money… But a year would pass, another and another and the release would remain exactly as he’d first issued it. It didn’t help that when Keith Jarrett was interviewed about the Köln Concert in Der Spiegel, he said  “This production should be shredded.” What effect did that have on the album? Within hours worldwide stock sold out when they press declared it would be pulled from production. It wasn’t. Instead it was one of the most successful marketing campaigns I ever saw. Not that we’d planned it.

This year, 2013, Manfred Eicher was again honored widely for his 70th birthday. The Munich Haus der Kunst held a huge exhibition, the first for a record label. To add to his countless Grammys and Gold and Platinum albums, he was awarded honorary Doctorates, and the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit in the Federal Republic of Germany. Eicher takes home the honors and quickly moves on. The fire still blazes. There are new plans, new albums, new artists awaiting.

Two days after his birthday, I visited the office again, the ugly industrial box of Gräfelfing. I walked through the tech shop, climbed the stairs and stood in the hallway. Nobody was expecting me. Everyone was absorbed in their work. The office looked just as it did 23 years before. There were stacks of newspapers and magazines from all over the world, mountains of CDs everywhere, the same stereo speakers hung up in the same place. It was another of those hot summer days, but a relaxed one this time, since the boss was traveling. Helga smiled briefly at me again. I felt such melancholy. For 37 years ECM has accompanied me, so much of my life. I think of this accomplishment. A vision from one man in an ugly industrial office in a suburb of Munich has circled the globe. This man, this pioneer Manfred Eicher, with courage, with originality, with art has conquered the world.

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