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Armands of Pasadena about the lost value of a compact disc

Aleksandra Line

Jazz forgotten in between condoms at the petrol stations: when a CD is just an expensive visit card

Evilena Protektore

«Pasadena Group Promotion» is an organization that exists for 20 years already and is quite well–known amongst Latvian musicians to those, who have at least once released their recordings in some physical form. I remember my experience with a «Pieneņu Vīns» CD: a precise and straight to the point communication style, not a sight of modern European approach with the right phrases to tell the client. Not exactly wishing to say «physical recordings die» at any point, I came to the owner of «Pasadena» to conduct one of the saddest interviews I’ve ever done.

Armands Rušenieks is a tall, powerful man with a low voice who meets me by the door and leads to his small warehouse — inside a room full of boxes with CDs and vinyls, stocked from the ceiling to the ground, there’s a table and two chairs. He starts to talk before I manage to ask him how’s he doing, so I’m in a rush to turn my recorder on.

Yes, it’s very discriminating towards the girls, but nobody buys a CD if a girl’s singing. It totally doesn’t matter who the girl is. Just the dudes. It proves only one thing: if somebody buys something, that’s either a woman or that’s meant as a present for a woman. What’s the point of buying a Latvian girl singing in English — you can buy Beyonce or Pink — a way more qualitative music, better texts and performance. If you want to sell something in Latvian, being Latvian — for God’s sake, don’t sing in English! Zero sales for every product in English. If you sing in English — I’m sorry, there’s a whole world with a way better music, I’d better take that.

So what’s the success formula?

There’s a lot of stuff. Of course, the music itself matters as well. For example, «Instrumenti» — professional guys playing professional music, they are considered good among professionals, nominated for the Latvian Annual Music award, but the sales are very low. The people don’t exactly need it.

And what do the people need?

Pop music. Latvian, if we talk about sales. Thank God, «Instruments» are now doing their stuff in Latvian, which they didn’t before, and they’re not so dark anymore.

So the audience needs something positive?

Of course. But they have to be the hits, then things start happening, and the proof of it is an album of «Sound Poets» «Trīs» (Three), which is a professionally good album but there are no hits, and the sales statistics are very sad. I was actually shocked, knowing the great success of the previous album. One more thing: I have a great indicator — «CircleK» (gas stations, where the CDs are still being sold). If I call them and nobody tells me it’s the CD of «Sound Poets», they just tell me it’s the «Trīs», then something is wrong. If a salesman who sees this album every single day doesn’t know it’s the «Sound Poets», just knows it’s «Trīs».

So the problem is the design?

Of course! The font just has to be way larger. They think that if they did a sticker with a name of the band and small font on it, they saved the situation this way — they’re not saving anything. This is a problem of the cover. People don’t understand art. We live in a self–service era now — you cannot enter a supermarket and ask for a certain CD — if you don’t see it yourself, the seller doesn’t know where that is either. If you cannot find it, your hand won’t reach for it. That’s an impulse thing, and the impulse has to be powerful. Everyone knows how Whitney Houston looks like — it could be absolutely anything on her album cover, some flowers and all — but it’ll never happen, there’s her face and her name with the capital letters. That name has to be on the top not the bottom, if it’s too low, then when the CD is placed on a stand, the name isn’t visible — foreigners know these things very well, and Latvians always want to make art.

And if a musician comes to you and tells you he has released a CD, which criteria helps you decide whether you want to work with him or not?

First, in Latvia there are only two wholesalers — «Microphone Records» and me, if we consider the biggest ones. But let’s start with the fact that there’s nowhere to sell anymore. There are no shops. There’s «Randoms» that deals with totally different things, music is secondary there. There’s the old «Upe» which is struggling because it only wants to sell music. It has to be a big souvenir shop with a vast range of music CDs. Just as the second «Upe» — Iveta has survived just because she sells kokles (Latvian lutes) and some wooden thingies, not because she sells the music.

So where does «Pasadena» sell the music?

There are two major clients — «Circle K» and «Jāņa Rozes grāmatnīca» (a book store network). Book stores, of course, sell only the locals. It has to be in Latvian and performed by Latvians. And the second one is «Circle K» with 70 gas stations, but very small shelves.

And what happens next?

If «Circle K» and book stores stop selling records, I’ll have to close everything up and do other things. I’m not aiming to do this anymore, I’m fed up with this selling records. I don’t want to keep on doing this in life. This only brings losses to me. I just fool around, but soon it won’t be as necessary. It sounds sad, but everything has its own time — the end comes for everything. Further on — okay, I’ll be doing something else where they’ll pay me the money.

And how did it begin at all? How did the music take its place in your life?

Let’s begin with the fact that I’m 57 years old and I’ve done some things in my life for quite a time. It’s hard to tell why I had such an interest in music — maybe that’s because I come from the Jurjāni family of composers and my mother had a great interest in music her whole life. I was too lazy myself — in the beginning I wanted to go to Leningrad to study sound engineering, but in the Russian times (when Latvia was a part of Russia), I didn’t want to move there. From the age of 14 I’ve wanted to play at the disco’s all the time — I began at the President’s palace, a Pioneer’s palace at that time, then the Anglicans, then the Polygraph for ten years. This was a job — I had to play for 3–4 times per week at nights. We’ve traveled around Latvia, toured the Soviet union, played everywhere. Youth festivals in Moscow for the foreigners. Now there are so cool discos in Russia, Latvia isn’t even close to that, but at that time it was different, they didn’t have anything. Then all the discos moved to the bars and pubs. At that time everything had to be closed by 11 p.m. We didn’t want to move to the pubs, worked like this for several years, then stopped, Ainārs Mielavs began working with «SWH radio», and I went on to the television, to entertainment broadcasts. I’ve worked there for some 7–8 years on the musical broadcasts, there was a creative union «Lifts», featuring me, Arvīds Babris, Jānis Rušenieks (my brother), then Dita Torstere — the people who work with events now as well. At that time a project appeared — RBS television, there we began leading projects with Jānis, but due to financial difficulties everything has ended. There are some certain calculations that determine when private television becomes rentable, and those are some seven millions and up, everything else is just suffering, so we have MTG TV Latvia organisation, which manages everything, not many small organisations to provide programs for smaller amounts of money. At that time we aimed far too high with our plans and then I turned calmer and started working with Ojārs Grasmanis — at that time he worked as a representative of BMG music company in the Baltics. He couldn’t manage it himself, so I became the marketing director of BMG Baltics.

No personīgā arhīva

Then at some point BMG didn’t want us in their budget anymore, they’ve wanted us to found our own company and become their exclusive representatives and earn money ourselves. So that’s how «Pasadena» was born. I have no idea why «Pasadena», Ojārs thought of a name. We started working this way, and then «Circle K» came into the market with just a few gas stations and began dealing with music, it was some 20 years ago. There was a company that dealt with «Warner Music» directly, and at one point they gave representation of «Warner» to us, BMG joined «Sony» and became their representative in the region, and so we’ve represented «Sony». Then both «Microphone» and us were working with «Sony», and with «Universal» which was even larger. Now the situation is completely different: shops can order themselves a lot, and I take only the things I need, or one of my clients needs. Actually, if we speak about price policy, of course, if we’re talking about local music, the price matters — if the CD costs 10 or 14 euros at the shop. But if we talk about foreign music, where a new record will cost 18, 19 or 20 euros at the store, it doesn’t matter. A person who wants to buy it won’t look at the price. The main thing is a wish to actually buy a physical record, but if you don’t want to do that, you won’t buy it even if it costs 3.

And what’s your experience with jazz musicians?

If we talk about foreign music, there’s a certain interest, people really know what they want. If they want a vinyl of Charles Mingus, for example, they search for it and order. Of course, the numbers for jazz are relatively small. Sure, «easy listening» is way more popular — some think that Michael Buble or Sinatra sing jazz. But the interest in this music is huge. Yesterday I, for example, found one CD of Jan Garbarek, and was listening to it — hey, that’s cool, but I thought — when was the last time someone asked me about it? What concerns Latvian musicians — I can’t take that risk and put jazz in «Circle K» anymore.

I, on the contrary, noticed that there’s some jazz there — I drove into one of the gas stations on my way from somewhere, and quite ironically there was «Jazz for Lovers» album near condoms close to the the cash register.

«Jazz for the Road» and «Jazz for Lovers», yes. Chewing gums, condoms, rubber by the rubber. Earlier on it wasn’t as terrible that you had to put jazz near condoms, earlier the whole shelf was our musical shelf up until the point when they thought they needed to reduce the territory. When the territory was larger, I was providing a wider offer, and I could risk for some jazz things. Those two selections I’m putting there every time, because I can take them for a fair price — I cannot put the «full price» products there, only those that are budget or medium price — 10 to 15 euros, not more. Otherwise nobody buys it, especially a Latvian. When we were selling a lot of Russians, it was completely different — it didn’t matter how much the CD costs, a customer just took it. Latvian takes it, holds it in his hands, thinks for quite a long time.

Is there any solution for a Latvian jazz musician who struggles and does his thing here?

The main thing that has to be done is to try to play a lot and be everywhere. And sell your records there. Then the money is yours, without any mediators. If you’ve dared and created that physical CD. Another thing is vinyl, which keeps people interested. There are many collectors who come to me asking for that. This is also one of the things that helps me to survive. That’s a really expensive thing, and the print should be at least 300 or 500 copies. And what will you do with them? How do you sell them here? I don’t know. But everyone has to sell at their concerts, that’s the main thing! Then maybe God helps you cover your expenses at some point. Because you won’t earn with it. You can earn only with the concerts.

And what do you think of an opportunity for Latvian jazz men to promote their physical recordings in the foreign market?

They could probably try. Let’s say there are some things that are distributed by a huge company called «Bertus» which is in Holland. Talk to Mareks Ameriks — how’s he doing with those jazz things. If he had any success with the foreign markets. He should know more pros and cons — he really has some good jazz projects with some good names. Visibility is really important in Latvia. People know Deniss Pashkevich, they don’t recognize anyone else.

Even though there’s a lot to offer, because many have the quality.

They do! I’m not saying they don’t. Guna Zučika also could tell you how she wanders around with this «Carnival Youth» for two years already. As far as I’ve talked to Zučika myself — this only sounds nice. I tell her — well, for how long can you wander there in your England, play at that club — for how many, 50 people? That’s it. 50 listeners in the middle of an English «nowhere». Playing for food.

My daughter, for example, studies vocals at the Rotterdam Music academy. Her friend is Rūdolfs Ozols — a guitar player who’ll graduate from this school this year. They have a band, maybe you’ve heard of it, «Bad Tones». They all study in Holland, the drummer will graduate this year from the Latvian Music Academy and will move to Holland to do the masters. They study there also for the sake of the fact that they can be teachers and for what’ll be written in their diplomas. They play good music, everything was born thanks to «Pink Floyd». People nowadays don’t realize what psychedelic rock is like. «Pink Floyd», especially in the beginning, 1960ies, and «King Crimson». They play amazing music, and I say — you’ll graduate, come here, where will you play with «Bad Tones»? Once a year for your friends? Hey, that’s my daughter, at the most commercially successful event (shows me the DVD with a live concert record of «Brainstorm» of the summer 2018, and the pictures of his daughter, Linda Rušeniece, on back vocals). She comes here in the summers, has nothing to do. I tell her — okay, go sing, you’ll earn some money. Just the same will happen to her here — if her favorite singers are Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, what is she going to do in Latvia? She attends workshops by producers of Whitney Houston and Pink, sends me her concert recordings, and I listen to that and say — what are you going to do here? (plays me some recordings, we listen for some time)

What do you listen to yourself? Besides aforementioned Garbarek.

I’m quite a great collector myself. The story is quite sad: I’ve a specially built wall in my apartment where everything is placed. Of more than 4000 recordings some 2000 are cellophane wrapped and aren’t even opened. I’ve calculated: if I listened to everything that I have in my house, if I listened to one album per day, without repeating it, I’d need 10.5 years. I’m a rock person from my younger years: in my opinion, speaking of energetics, «AC/DC», is a number one band in the world, and this is proven by the fact that when they go on tours, at the end of the year they still are the most commercially successful band in the world. Nobody else isn’t even close — people like them. I’ve grown up listening to rock of the 70ies–80ies, not so much listening to new stuff. I’m not as wise when speaking of jazz — I like brass guys like Till Brönner, for example. Sometimes I get a collection of sorts: once I thought I needed all «Cirque du Soleil» music, which exists for 35 years already, and they have original music for every new show.

And what would be your reasons to take something out of this large collection and listen to a record for the second time?

I, of course, don’t have a lot of time for that. Sometimes I listen to what I’ve played long ago, collected some remixes. I’ve got a lot of hits of that time, what we’ve played ourselves, there are versions which nobody has heard of before, released in America or Japan.

At the time we were fighting piratism. Who killed the pirates? It weren’t us. Internet killed the pirates. There was nothing at that time — either you’re listening for free, or you pay a lot. The situation is yet more difficult when we talk about visual things — who’ll go and buy movies or DVDs now, and there’s also Blu–ray — even better quality. And one can compare the volume of sales, for example, with the «Brainstorm» CDs or DVDs. Concerning the fact that there were more than 110 thousands people at the concert series altogether, ooh, dear, that’s just a huge number. If every tenth person would buy a DVD to keep as a memory of what was there, those would be 10000 units sold. Bullshit! Three, four thousands at most.

And what, in your opinion, would change the industry for the better?

Nothing, nothing is to be changed. Music industry changes itself. Music industry creates movies. Just look at what happened to «Bohemian Rhapsody» — they did a great movie, and you cannot buy any «Queen» recordings anymore. CD, vinyl — everything was sold in a month, and everyone now hysterically tries to produce something new. Actually, not a lot of DVDs are released by foreign bands now — not because nobody buys them, but because there’s no information about their concerts and how it looks like, at all. If you want to see what we are like — come and watch! We don’t film, we don’t show, come and watch for money. There are only some 1–2 DVDs released per month. «Coldplay»’s was released after a year. Latvians also could do this. «A Star Is Born», a good movie, would be a greater success if it weren’t released at the same time with the «Bohemian Rhapsody». And now a movie about Elton John will is being produced, can you imagine? Come on, he’s still alive! Why a movie? An initiative moves on — they do movies on those who’re still alive! They should quickly do the movies about Elvis Presley and the others, and they will, trust me! Those boys in Hollywood have caught the idea that it’s quite a thing to film movies about musicians, not just documentaries or autopsies.

And all of this is happening somewhere far away. What can be done in our tiny Latvia?

Speaking of Latvia, I don’t see any super cool ideas how we can develop a recording industry. Play as much as you can. I don’t have any recipes. Especially in jazz, it’s so hard to get recognized and booked, if you don’t get invited everywhere. Where can you play then — in that pub? Who’ll come to listen? Maybe you’ll earn some money for food. Who’ll recognize you there — those who come and get wasted? You need the right people to see you. And there are no such people and such venues in Latvia.

If we take the same «DaGamba» — they’re doing really good in Russia now. But where’s that Latvian Music Export organization which is supposed to help? Did they help the band? The band’s done everything by themselves. The Export sends everyone to participate in some trade fairs, and nothing happens. They think we should go to the West? Forget it! We’ve long ago realised that we have nothing to do there. Now at a New Year’s party at the Russian Central television four dudes are called on stage — Meladze, Leps, Presnyakov and Busulis (a Latvian vocalist). The things Busulis has done there are fantastic, indescribable. You have to learn one thing: a stadium in Chelyabinsk is just as big as a stadium in Hamburg. And he gets it sold out! That’s it, what’s the difference now, Hamburg or Chelyabinsk? All jazz cats and blues people want to play in America, of course. No one will let them do that!

Someone got there already — Zigis (a manager of several Latvian blues bands) is bragging about his people.

Alright, «Coolmans Report» study in Berkley, the result will follow. I’m surprised that not a lot of people have been talking about it in Latvia. But what will they be doing when they graduate? Most probably, will just stay there. It simply is so, when Sting or Clapton teach you classes. So I tell Agnese Cimuška (a head of Music Export): if we talk about music in whole, then Latvian musicians in the world are really good! If we talk about academic music, for example, our opera singers, conductors — Jansons, Nelsons, Kremer — all of them are «Grammy» nominees and winners! Opera singers, mamma mia! Everyone’s talking about Garanča — but look at Rebeka, Kalna, Opolais, we have to be proud! How did Music Export and LaIPA (Latvian performers and producers association) help them to get there?

What do they do then, in your opinion?

LaIPA manages money flows. As far as I understand, they manage about two millions per year. Then they get their percent. That’s good that such an organization exists, because other way poor musicians wouldn’t get anything at all. If we’re being honest, I think that Raimonds Pauls could get quite a bunch of money from them. We have released a number of albums with «Pasadena» long ago, and I’m receiving something from them all the time. I don’t remember anymore, which albums are those.

That’s quite a sad talk we’ve had.

It isn’t so sad though. It’s just that everyone has to do his thing right. Musicians have to create and play, I have to offer all this, and the others have to support those whom they love to listen to. We could also find where to buy music records, but if the bookstores and gas stations won’t do it, this will get sadder. I will do something else, but where will the musicians sell their records then?