'Adapt or Die': Jade Tree's Darren Walters on Running a Major Indie for 15 Years

From left: label manager Mehron Moqtaderi, co-owner Tim Owen and Darren Walters

Courtesy of Darren Walters/Jade Tree

As a high schooler in the late '90s, the punk-aligned but never pigeonholed label Jade Tree loomed large in my world. So imagine my excitement last week when a report said the label had returned from a hiatus I wasn't aware of. After reaching out to the label's heads, however, I found out that that wasn't the case. At all. Here, Darren Walters explains how his artful label has weathered the beating that the new music industry paradigm gave his label.

The new millennium ushered in an era of music that changed the music economy in dramatic and exciting ways. It also issued a challenge to musicians and labels.

Adapt or die.

The emergence of digital music, with its accompanying players and rampant downloading, signaled a seismic shift in the industry that forever altered how music was consumed. It was the beginning of the end of the massive compact disc sales which had kept the music industry grossly prosperous for three decades.

My label, Jade Tree, has sold over a million copies of our records, all titles and formats combined, much of that prior to 2000. For a label the size of Jade Tree, CDs accounted for ninety-five percent of sales, and despite being lauded by fans and collectors, 12" and 7" records were outsold by compact discs on a consistent ratio of about 10 to two, depending on the artist. For example, at the time of its in release in 1998, Jets To Brazil's "Orange Rhyming Dictionary" (Jade Tree's largest release to date) had CD sales close to 100,000. LP sales were just over 4,000. As digital music became a larger priority to customers, CD sales dropped, market conditions changed, distributors and retail chains began going out of business, and an entire generation of consumers began to grow up within the digital age.

Operating in (a literal) alternative universe, Jade Tree was largely immune from many of the negative impacts from digital music's emergence... for a few years. However, as the decade progressed and iTunes and iPods became ubiquitous, it was quite clear that digital music was going to stay. By 2004, Jade Tree could feel the encroachment of downloads on our sales, in addition to a higher percentage of people hearing and sharing advances of future recordings. Overall sales were impacted and vinyl was at a near standstill for many artists. The decline in sales, albeit somewhat slower on the indie side, was a troublesome phenomenon. Labels like ours began to realize that digital music had legs. Many labels partnered with burgeoning players such as eMusic, while others, like Jade Tree, held on to our catalog despite a hefty advance offer from an emerging digital company that hovered in the six figure range. I felt that the market was in its early days and that there was no telling where this could go. My gut told me that a sizable offer, on unproven sales, meant that the label would be wise to hold on to the catalog and see what the future could offer.

Around this same time, the industry at large was feeling the effects. Large music retailers were drowning -- HMV shuttered in 2004, followed by Tower Records in 2006 -- all while iTunes sold its billionth song (in 2006). It was inevitable that Jade Tree would feel the reverberations. And so, in 2005, Jade Tree's distributor, Mordam, who the label had been with since 1992, was sold to Lumberjack Distribution, becoming Lumberjack/Mordam. Mordam had found that the advancing digital world, combined with continued loss of the physical platform, was too much to bear. During all of this I lost my mentor, Ruth Schwartz, and a staff of lovely individuals, who moved on to other prospects. Jade Tree attempted to weather the transition, but found that the new distribution group did not provide the needed assets that the label required. A decision to depart the group was made later that same year.

Changes in distribution, location, and format of sales created a new set of stubborn issues for the label. The rise in blog culture and social media meant that an artist could play a show and instantly become a buzz band. I was aghast. I relished watching an artist grow and rightfully gain an audience. This increased our internal discussion as to who could be Jade Tree artists, and when the timing was right for the label to become involved. What was once a no-brainer approach to working with artists became more premeditated as sales declined and the rise in digital economy and increased competition became more and more persistent. Thus began a cycle of releases that were essentially demos, as the label's output of EPs rose dramatically. The reasoning was twofold: one, to immediately sign an artist, and two, to keep our release schedule full. However, most of theses releases simply clogged an already bloated system of physical releases in the 2000s, adding to the growing phenomenon of too many bands, not enough fans.

Some people thought Jade Tree stopped releasing records. Some think Jade Tree is making a comeback. Neither is true.

The artists themselves were also growing noticeably different. Generally speaking, there were artists who were savvy to the web and its emerging offerings, and those who resolutely chose to stay old school. Artists slow to understand, recognize, or come to terms with the evolving industry began to be left behind. As a label, it was a difficult transition time. There was an artist, three albums in, struggling to find an audience for their record as attendance at shows remained level, gas prices rose and guarantees remained the same. On the other hand, our discussions with newer artists were markedly different from roster artists due to diverging expectations. Developing artists utilized the web and took advantage of tools such as home recording.

It was never the same with any artist ever again.