Red Toucan/Cactus Records

Red Toucan/Cactus Records
Name: Red Toucan/Cactus Records
Date of Birth: 1993
Releases to Date: 36
Biggest Seller: Joelle Leandre No Comment
Current Releases: Steve Cohn Iro Iro, Szilard Mezei Ensemble Nad/Reed

Retail sales of music continue to spiral downwards and those at the fringes of retail existence are facing extinction. For Michel Passaretti, who heads Montreal’s Cactus/Red Toucan, running a label remains a way of contributing to the meagre food chain of "the left field” of jazz, as he puts. Over its 15-year history, Red Toucan has released three-dozen discs. Its top seller moved 1,200 copies, which, during the first few years of the labels existence, would barely cover manufacturing costs. But Passaretti freely admits that CDs are most useful as calling cards for musicians to get gigs and cobble together tours, which are the real lifeblood of improvising musicians. Often these releases are a means to showcase an artist’s current working unit to prospective booking agents.

Doomed from the start?
From the outset, Passaretti and his former partner were wry about his endeavour. "How did I come upon those names? A cactus survives in the hardest conditions, and as a friend told us, we are kind of a rare bird in this industry. We knew right from the start that because of the nature of the project, we would probably never make enough money to make a living from making the music of the Québec jazzmen and other creative musicians available.” But Passaretti’s idealism is never far from the surface and he’s proud to have upheld his mandate over the years. "We chose to produce Québécois and Canadian artists. We wanted to help them play with international musicians to better develop their creativity and chances to play their music. We also like to produce the first recording for a particular ensemble. You’ll find a lot of that on Red Toucan.”

Micro Management
Most releases happen when an artist supplies a recording and a certain amount of promotional money. They then entrust it to the label’s manufacturing and promotional contacts, even though an artist who plays regularly becomes a primary means of distribution. In the global micro-economy of modern jazz and improvised music, labels that do relatively well are those that land on merch tables at gigs. At that point, even if it’s several years old, a CD has equal "rack space” with everything else on display; it’s the best way to connect with a potential customer. Passaretti explains the advantage to the artist: "Nobody has any exclusive contract with anybody in this field. Artists release as many recordings as they can — mind you, some release too many of them — because they know that’s what’s going to help them get to play live all around the world and that’s how they can make a living. We press between 500 and 1,000 at a time with reprints of 500 when we have a hit!” Distribution beyond gigs remains the biggest challenge. "We have several very small distributors scattered all around the world who specialize in this type of music. Lots of our distributors work online. In the past, we signed with a couple of big distributors but that proved disastrous [because] these people just weren’t interested in selling that music. It didn’t sell enough.”

Push It Real Good
Promotionally, Red Toucan isn’t innovative, just modest. They concentrate on the fundamentals. "Advertising all depends on how much money you have available but the important thing is to target the good media sources; the ones who reach your clientele, not necessarily the big ones. We prefer to send promo copies to reviewers, magazines, radio stations, et cetera. Again, you must find who will play or review your CDs.” Fortunately though, because this economy is so minimal, distribution acts as a form of advertising. If a Red Toucan disc by a recognizable artist gets distribution, the artist’s reputation helps push the label, no matter how small. "The distributors and online shops do offer all creative music no matter where it comes from.” But any label is just one piece of the survival puzzle for contemporary improvisers; the entire network suffers if the artist can’t line up live work. In the end, that’s the artist’s struggle. "We can’t afford tour support; we always find bookings in Montréal for them and sometimes at FIMAV (the modern jazz/experimental festival in Victoriaville, QC) but that’s it. The most important thing is that artists must play live as often as possible. They must tour, they can’t stay home playing in the local clubs all the time.”