1990s-2000s: The CD reigned supreme, but as the well of reissues began to run dry -- at least compared to the cost of keeping even a small percentage of the label’s vast catalog in print -- the label had to look for new hits. “That connoisseur, upper-echelon attitude serves jazz well, but it does not preclude the fact that you need best-sellers,” Cuscuna says. “We had to look to the things that could cross over, and primarily that was guitarists and singers.” Enter Norah Jones and her debut Come Away With Me, which spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was eventually certified Diamond by the RIAA.
2010s: At the start of the decade, jazz had a serious reputation problem. “We'd ask people if they liked jazz, and they said, ‘No, I hate jazz,’” says Blue Note president Don Was of the market research they did when he started at the label in 2010. “But we'd put on The Sidewinder and they’d say ‘Oh, I like that, what's that?’” Since then, streaming has made the label’s vast catalog instantly accessible -- if you already subscribe to a streaming service, you don’t need to pay $16.99 to hear John Coltrane’s Blue Train.
Playlists and YouTube videos offer an easy way into a genre that was viewed for so long viewed as niche; now, catalog streaming makes up 41 percent of Capitol’s (Blue Note’s current parent label) jazz revenue. It’s also just a far cheaper way to keep older titles accessible than maintaining a stock of CD copies: On the label’s list of albums that still need to be digitized, only about 50 titles remain, all of which should be available in the near future. For new and living artists, playlist placement is as important as it is for pop musicians, and as it always has been to promote to radio. Charles Lloyd, for example, has generated seven million streams off two track placements on Spotify’s “Coffee Table Jazz” playlist.
The resurgence of vinyl has also been a boon for the label, which will reissue 60 titles to mark the 80th anniversary on top of the 40 or so that they regularly keep in print. The Blue Note Review, the label’s own premium, limited-edition subscription service, as well as canvas prints of classic Blue Note album covers, also help sate the jazz fan’s desire for physical product. Together, streaming and vinyl have made Blue Note’s catalog easier to hear -- and to leverage towards new artists -- than ever before. “Blue Note always had cachet with every generation of musicians,” Cuscuna concludes. “We just tried to capitalize on that.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of Billboard.