A dozen or so Twin Cities jazz musicians were brainstorming ways to increase their visibility when guitarist Zacc Harris first broached the idea of a small, resourceful, artist-driven record label.
It was 2010. The record business had been radically altered from the days when imprints such as Motown, Blue Note and, locally, Twin/Tone were synonymous with entire subgenres of music, conjuring a vivid catalog greater than the sum of its individual artists.
To acknowledge this fragmented landscape, reshaped by internet streaming and YouTube overnight successes, Harris called his label Shifting Paradigm Records.
“Nowadays the idea of a label is to provide an umbrella for artists — not to tell them what music to make, or how to record. The whole paradigm has shifted,” he said, speaking from his Minneapolis home, which doubles as the label’s headquarters.
As its name suggests, launching the label required a high degree of trial and error. But with more than 30 albums now available — and even more ambitious plans for 2019 — Shifting Paradigm has shown that an artist-friendly business model can succeed.
Musicians receive at least 75 percent of the total sales revenue, a much larger share than the traditional label. They receive a much bigger cut of proceeds from discs they sell at concerts. And online distribution rights generally revert to the artist after five years.
All these semi-sweetheart deals left little margin for miscues.
“There was a heavy learning curve,” Harris said. “I had my own experience working with other labels and talked to a lot of musicians about what they did and didn’t like.”
Hits and glitches
The label progressed in baby steps. At first he just affixed the Shifting Paradigm moniker to his own projects, starting in 2012 with a Zacc Harris Group album and, a year later, “Expansions” by the Atlantis Quartet, a more established ensemble that the Illinois native co-founded in 2005 shortly after moving to the Twin Cities.
Then things got serious. In 2014, he persuaded a few colleagues to rerelease some of their better past efforts on Shifting Paradigm, adding four titles to the catalog. He launched a website, trademarked the name and began planning for a rollout of new releases featuring original material by other artists.
The ambition scared off two musicians who had been helping him, drummer J.T. Bates and pianist Bryan Nichols.
“I had just had my first kid, and another was on the way,” Nichols said. “J.T. had his own stuff going on, and we just had to say, ‘Omigod, this is becoming a real label. We have to check out for now,’ ” Nichols recalled with a laugh. “That was the turning point, when Zacc totally took the reins.”
The stakes were raised, but Harris persevered in his vision that Shifting Paradigm be an artist-friendly collective, with musicians responsible for artwork and significant decisions about distribution of their work, while he supplied the structural umbrella that helped shepherd it into the marketplace.
Inevitably, glitches presented themselves. He wrestled with the ever-changing technology around streaming and downloading until he found a platform, Bandcamp.com, that combined sonic fidelity and reasonable prices.
“For a while we encountered problems dealing with websites in a digital world,” he said. “Even just recently we were sending out a huge press release for a batch of albums, and our Dropbox link broke — we scrambled for three hours getting in touch with different people, trying to get them a media kit.”
By “we,” Harris primarily means “I.” His wife, Samantha Baker, pitches in on publicity, and random duties are assigned to music students who do internships to pick up business credits. But he acknowledges “it is pretty much me doing most of the day-to-day stuff.”
The label earns money, he said — “although I don’t want to think about what those earnings are on a per-hour basis,” estimating he devotes 10 to 20 hours per week keeping things functioning.
However modest, the financial success of Shifting Paradigm is due to karma as well as perseverance. Musicians learned that Harris was true to his word the artist would come first whenever possible.
For example: “I generally don’t make albums available on Spotify because the artist payout [for streaming] is so low,” he said. “Apple [Music] pays more than double. But some artists still want their music on Spotify for the exposure, and if that’s what they want, they get it.”
It ‘felt like home’
Three years ago trumpeter John Raymond, a Twin Cities native who was gaining a national reputation with a couple of well-received records after moving to New York City, decided that Shifting Paradigm would be a good way to launch his new trio, Real Feels.
The material was a mix of Midwest Americana, pop covers and delicate originals with a lot of heart.
“Part of my artistic process and evolution was returning to my roots,” Raymond said by phone. “At that point I didn’t know if I’d have success shopping it to major labels, but more than that, as an artistic statement, I really wanted the record to be part of something that felt like home to me.”
So he sought out Harris. That album, and a Real Feels live LP later that year, raised the label’s national profile. They were among eight new titles on Shifting Paradigm in 2016. The label matched that number in 2017, while increasing revenue by 35 percent. Harris estimates a similar increase for 2018, which saw 10 new releases.
His plans for 2019 are more ambitious. He has begun a subscription service on Patreon.com: For $60 a year, subscribers can download an album a month and get first dibs on new releases. At the $120-a-year level, subscribers receive physical CDs, too. Contributors above that level get access to online mini-lessons by Shifting Paradigm artists and other benefits still in the works.
With more than 30 albums now, Shifting Paradigm has established an identity.
“Most of the musicians have lived in the Midwest or have ties to the Midwest,” said pianist Nichols, who has two records on the label and will release a third this year. “Along with the geography, there is the connection of playing original modern jazz. That can mean a lot of things, of course, but I’d say it is about original compositions connected to some improvisation and pushing of boundaries.”
Harris is now flooded with submissions from artists across the country. While he doesn’t want to set limits on his label, “one of my goals is to increase the visibility of musicians in the Midwest and make connections between those scenes.”
Three of its first five albums in 2019 feature artists with roots in Milwaukee or Chicago. The latest, due March 1, is by Michael Rossetto, a Milwaukee guitarist and banjoist who made his name in Minneapolis with such groups as the Pines and Spaghetti Western String Co. His album “Intermodal Blues,” featuring Bates as drummer and producer, is akin to the desert blues of Mali.
Harris is compiling a database of record stores to get more CDs into communities where Shifting Paradigm artists are known. He booked label acts for a weekly showcase at Vieux Carre in St. Paul last July — a “residency” he will repeat in April at Icehouse in Minneapolis.
It brings that 2010 meeting, in which Shifting Paradigm was hatched, full circle.
“Not to sound corny, but this has always been about establishing a family of artists — a community demonstrating that making it in New York City doesn’t have to be the only criterion for success,” Harris said. “It’s great to see young artists steadily get better known. Great for them and great for the label.”
5 essential albums from Shifting Paradigm
John Raymond, “Real Feels” (2016): The album that greatly expanded the label’s national profile, it spins Americana and pop standards in a jazz vein with a Midwestern feel via a distinctive trumpet-guitar-drums trio.
Atlantis Quartet, “X” (2016): Label founder Zacc Harris is a charter member of this adventurous Twin Cities ensemble. This digital-only compendium of their first decade together is a solid primer.
Red Planet with Bill Carrothers (2017): The squirrelly, Coltrane-inflected ethereality of guitarist Dean Magraw in this superb local trio finds its ideal complement in the surprisingly raucous contemplations of pianist Carrothers.
Thomas Nordlund, “Miles Left Behind” (2018): Spacious but not aimless atmospherics from guitarist Nordlund, a master of slow explosions, with the banjo work of Ben Abrahamson providing a delightful contrast.
Johannes Wallmann, “Day and Night” (2018): Director of jazz studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, German-born bassist Wallmann corrals a top-notch ensemble of jazz luminaries including saxophonist Dayna Stephens, trumpeter Brian Lynch and Real Feels drummer Colin Stranahan.
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis journalist and critic.