Last week, Basin Street Records announced that three of its 10 artists appeared in Billboard‘s jazz charts dated May 21, 2011: the Rebirth Brass Band, with Rebirth of New Orleans (No. 10); Irvin Mayfield, with A Love Letter to New Orleans (No. 11); and Kermit Ruffins, with Happy Talk(No. 16). This was a re-entry into the charts for Ruffins, whose Happy Talk was released in 2010 and soared to number five on the Jazz charts, the highest spot ever for a Basin Street album.
Traditionally, topping Billboard charts is taken as a sign of sales success, but it doesn’t say quite the same thing for jazz albums as it does for rock and pop. Rock and Pop chart action typically indicates that artists are selling thousands of records per week, but because jazz doesn’t sell as well as pop music, jazz musicians only need to sell a few hundred records to top the charts. It is also an imprecise barometer of sales because Billboard tallies sales using Nielsen SoundScan, a sales tracking system that primarily tallies albums sold at major chain retailers, leaving out many of the sales from independent music stores. Basin Street Records’ presence in major chains “is almost non-existent” according to owner and president Mark Samuels, so it’s hard to know exactly how sales of Basin Street artists stack up next to other jazz artists. Barry Smith, owner of Louisiana Music Factory, says, “I’m selling a lot of unreported units for Basin Street throughout the year, and I’m sure there’s other independent stores like mine around the country that are doing the same thing, especially in the jazz world.”
Ruffins, Mayfield and Rebirth’s chart success is at least partially due to the recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. During Jazz Fest, hundreds of thousands of people are focused on New Orleans music. Samuels believes that the successes of the Rebirth album and Mayfield book/CD are primarily due to the fact that “they were all new for Jazz Fest, and Jazz Fest is always strong for us.” Barry Smith, owner of the Louisiana Music Factory, agrees. “Jazz Fest is by far our biggest selling time and certainly helps lots of the artists,” he says. “They’re certainly all great records and they were three of our top sellers here during Jazz Fest, so I would certainly say that they were deserving of any rankings that they got.”
Regardless of the imprecise nature of the Billboard charts, Samuels is proud of the accomplishments of the artists and the label. “When you’re talking about a major label, you may have an employee there who’s somewhat of a fan, but they’re certainly not the one who’s putting up all the money,” Samuels says. “And they’re certainly not the one who goes to see them. I’ve seen Kermit 700 times.”
Editorial assistance on this story by Suzette Lake.