Interview with Jazz Promoter and Label Boss: Ahmet Ulug

Spanning a career of over 40 years, Ahmet Ulug is a Turkish Jazz music promoter and today’s interview guest.

He has organized many festivals like Akbank Jazz and Cappadox in Turkey. Alongside one of the most prominent labels in Turkish music history Double Moon, he’s also one of the founders of Babylon, the legendary music club in Istanbul.

After his recent move to New York, he’s now back with his new label: Omni Sound which released Sun Ra’s Living Sky record in late 2022.

With his long years in the music industry, he’s sharing his thoughts & memories on the current state of jazz, best platforms to drive album sales and his first ever show with Sun Ra in 1990.

Credit: Deniz Sabuncu

Hi Ahmet, how are you?

Thank you and you?

I’m good. Thank you. How’s New York?

New York is cold, but always busy. Let’s say something is always happening.

Oh yeah, New York Winter Jazz is around the corner. So yeah, I’ll get back to that but firstly, you know, can you just please introduce yourself a little bit for Jazzfuel  community and your label Omni Sound as well?

So my name is Ahmet Ulug. I’m from Istanbul, Turkey.

At the moment, I’m in New York, but we started getting into this business in 1989, we started with promoting around, just musicians in Turkey and actually everything started with Sun Ra.  We were students in the States and we had a chance to see Sun Ra live. And we were extremely amazed and impressed by his stage show and by the music. And we thought that, when I say we, I have two partners, one of them is my brother, the other one is Cem. And we thought that we should promote it  in Turkey. We thought it was so fantastic, we thought everybody would jump on it. But at that moment in 1988, there was only the Istanbul Cultural Foundation doing concerts.

So we proposed, we said there’s this guy, an artist called Sun Ra, he’s fantastic. Why don’t you bring him to Istanbul? And they said no. And of course they were not interested. Because they had their own agenda and they had their own ways. And we realized that if nobody else is doing this, maybe we can do it. That was the idea. And then we realize that there’s nothing happening in the winter time in Istanbul at that time, and there are no promoters to promote this kind of music.

So our first concert was with Steve Lacy. He’s an American, soprano sax player living in Europe. Our first concert was that and then our second concept was, luckily with Sun Ra Arkestra. So we promoted it and after seven different concerts, we thought it’s too difficult to do stand alone concerts. We should do a festival. So we convinced Akbank, one of the major banks in Turkey, to sponsor our festival. So in 1991 we started the Akbank Jazz  festival again. so in those years, mainly the music we promoted was avant-garde jazz.

It was difficult at the beginning because the Turkish audience was expecting more classical stuff. They were not used to our music. And now you know at the first concerts we always have people leaving after a few songs. But slowly and slowly people knew what to expect. They got used to the idea of free improvised music. So after a few years, we had our audience and nobody would leave the concerts, and the concert halls still would be full and then again after 4-5 years, we realized that  free improvised avant-garde jazz is not the only way to go, so we thought we would have a wider spectrum and make it more accessible, which was a wise decision.

So we started also being more inclusive as far as European Jazz and other attitudes of Jazz and that also became successful, then we started doing bigger concerts especially for a tobacco company: Parliament. And we moved outdoors, we’ve done the Parliament Jazz Festival. We had bigger names like Tony Rollins, James Brown, and Joe Cocker, more commercial names. And that was successful.

Then we started doing special projects for the Jazz Festival. Bringing Turkish musicians with American musicians together for special projects. And then when those projects were successful, we thought why don’t we record these projects? Because they are so valuable. So we started recording the projects, then we started the label called Double Moon. After a few years of that, we started Club Babylon. It started as more like a jazz club. But again, it turned into a venue that promotes all kinds of international music and also Turkish music, And Babylon also became successful. And after 10 years, we started doing an open air rock festival. You know, we kept on growing and getting bigger.

And then 2013, after 25 years in the business, Turkey is a difficult country to promote music and to do cultural things. Because, as you know, we have too many political and economic problems. And as we’re aging,  we thought maybe we should sell the company because when you, because we never made money in that sense because all the money we made was invested back into the company to make it bigger. But sometimes you need security in your life, so we decided to sell the company, which we manage. And then we ran the company until 2018. And then I exited. But I didn’t want to retire because I like my international circle of friends and international community and being around jazz musicians and being in the kitchen.

And at the same time, I didn’t want to do anything aggressive or risky. So, the easiest thing for me to do was a recording studio and starting a small label. That was that, it would keep me busy and also keep me in the circle. Our first project was Sun Ra Arkestra, which we recorded in 2020 in June. I knew the arkestra for a long time and I knew their potential. So we asked them to record an instrumental album to make it accessible. So that it can reach a wider audience. These were just two requests. I didn’t know if they would deliver the music or not and when you know you’re working with such big names, you can’t ask too many questions. You have to trust. We went into the studio. And luckily they delivered what I was expecting.

And we released the album this year. 2022, October. And I’m very happy with the outcome, because it’s my baby so I’m not objective, but the reviews that came out were very good and the reviewers kind of mentioned all the things I wanted, I expected to be mentioned about the album. That it’s like that. It’s very, it’s like meditative it’s not, it’s spiritual, it flows from beginning to end. That it is also music for the younger generations at the same time, it is honouring the heritage of Sun Ra. There we are. And we are just working on the next projects.

Living Sky by Sun Ra Arkestra

Yeah, I was gonna ask that.

One of the upcoming projects is Sun Ra’s Poetry. Because the album was instrumental. And Sun Ra is a poet. and, I’ve read his poems before. But at that time, when I was young I didn’t grasp the beauty of poetry, but now with this album, when I go back to it,  I love them. I thought they were very accessible and they were very meaningful. So we asked 13 musicians from the jazz world in New York mainly, some of them in London and Los Angeles to read this poetry, with no music. So they did that. We recorded that and that’s gonna come out soon.

We also have another album produced by Michael League of Snarky Puppy, which he produced with Kurdish musicians. So it’s more like a world music album, roots album,  but the fact that Michael League produced it, makes it special in the sense of the arrangements and the sound. It takes the music beyond world music and it makes it very valid. So that’s exciting. That’s the third album that’s going to come out. We are working on the fourth one but we’ll see what that is, I cannot say now. But it will involve musicians from New York. Let’s say.

So the label’s scope is jazz, world music so can we expect more genres as well?

Anything goes with the label because the label is not going to be a label in the sense that we are going to chase,  do A&R chase young artists, sign them, develop them. Try to stay with them.

We’ve done that before with Double Moon, but I know it’s difficult because young artists always have bigger aspirations and you’re never good enough for them. So after a certain time, it becomes difficult to keep them and all your investment and time, developing the artist but the artist moves away and you’re left with the old records but you have developed the artist. So we don’t want to go through that process. We don’t want to do that. We want a curated label which means that we’ll just do one of the projects with artists and we’ll try to make it  a special projects.And also, we are not trying to release too many records, right? One or two records per year is enough for us.

Sounds like a very different and niche project, but very exciting for me. So in today’s jazz industry, what kind of genres do you see become prominent? Modern jazz sounds versus the old ones?

Complicated question. But what’s happening now in jazz, today is especially beginning with England, the young generations, and young generations of musicians. They are making a big scene. They are developing their own sounds. And it’s also in the United States, Los Angeles especially. Chicago is very strong. And of course, New York is strong and we have a new generation of jazz musicians. It’s coming on and they have an audience.From Spotify when I look at it some of the established young names and maybe they are not so young anymore,  but I’m amazed by the number of listeners that they have.

These are the new generation of jazz musicians. The older generations are struggling with Spotify of course because maybe they don’t know how to use it.  The younger generations emphasize and sympathize with their age group.  So when you’re young you want to see somebody young on stage or you associate easier with young musicians, that’s the advantage of the young musicians, it’s easier for them to reach young generations. For the older musicians,  it’s more difficult in the sense that their audience is also aging and it’s a niche audience.

One thing I didn’t mention is, as a label, you know, when you produce a record, you either put it on Spotify, Apple music and you wait for the streaming income, which is not so much. Or you put out vinyl, and you sell it on Bandcamp, which is a good source of income.

Also, if you’re a touring band or musician, you sell it at the concerts. I think  that’s a great market for the artists because if they’re popular young artists and if they are touring after each concert they can sell, you know, 30, 40, 50 records, maybe more, maybe less. But  that adds up. And the income from the sale of the vinyls is more immediate and it’s kind of nice.

Okay. So, how about free jazz? Is it still relevant today? Are they still producing some new Free jazz we can listen to?

Free Jazz is a big term now. But, of course, it’s more difficult. There’s an audience for it but you know, it’s a very limited niche audience even for the young generations. It’s again easier for the young generations if they’re playing free jazz, easier for them to reach some audience, but for the older generations and in general, free jazz is very niche and it will never have a big audience.  Because it’s difficult and demanding music, you cannot listen to Free Jazz in any jazz club.

For Free Jazz, venues are more like not clubs, but more like cultural centers, small rooms.. they need a place for that. I mean, there are still very good outlets for free jazz, but these are cultural spaces. These are dedicated,  non-commercial places.

So, the classic question. So, how do you see the Omni Sound label in five years?

Yeah difficult because like I said we are not going to chase artists and sign them and develop them. Therefore we are doing created boutique projects and the income from that is limited because our artists are not, you know, they have all other projects as well. So I’m not sure how much they will be interested to push.  But I think that our main income will be from synchronization, selling to the movies and films. We hope to produce more cinematic sounds. You know, instrumental and moody.

I think we hope to be able to reach that channel and create some income from synchronization. As it’s not a big commercial label as long as we make enough money to keep it going that’’s great.. So in five years, hopefully, of course, with this label once you start producing, then artists are coming to you. With the music that they produce, they need an outlet, they need a partner.

So sometimes, you don’t spend so much money on the production because the artist comes with the product ready, which happened with the Danuk, The Michael League produced album, the Kurdish music. So they had the album ready and we thought it was beautiful. So, it’s not a big expense for us. But five years later, we hope to produce two nice boutique beautiful records per year.

So I would like to ask some insider questions. So in terms of album sales and engagements for your first release for Sun Ra. Which platforms brought you more sales and more followers? Spotify or Bandcamp or something else?

Bandcamp. And of course, Spotify is important. in the sense that’s the main marketplace or that’s the main gathering place. But Bandcamp is where music enthusiasts, collectors buy their music. It’s good and the money comes directly to the label there. Bandcamp is definitely essential for the artist. but what’s also more important is  you have to do some PR. Without PR it’s very difficult to get heard, especially for every label, like Omni Sound for boutique labels.

The first thing you have to do, is you have to have your own little community, your own followers, even before you start anything. So those people will get other people listening to you, and also, people will be the first ones in bandcamp supporting your music. And then, you know, with that base audience, you can start developing it and using Instagram to reach more people. So TikTok doesn’t mean much for jazz. But for some musicians, Tiktok is a great channel to promote their music and make some income.  But I think Instagram is very important, Bandcamp is very important, Spotify, Apple music is important. And doing live and getting heard is very important.

Okay, last question. Can you recommend some new music that you recently discovered?

Ahmet Ulug: Isaiah Collier, he is a big name now. He’s from Chicago. He’s already known, he’s on the move up and he’s doing some great stuff because sometimes I listen to so much music and sometimes the things that used to excite me 10 years, 20 years ago, doesn’t excite me anymore because it’s the same thing. Same attitude. But Isaiah Collier is great. And I think anything that comes out from Chicago from the international Anthem label is great.

About Omni Sound

Omni Sound is an independent label based in New York and Istanbul.

Working within an international network of composers, musicians and artists from a variety of creative disciplines, Omni aims to nurture interdisciplinary and culturally transcendent collaborations by compiling a catalog beyond genres through delicately curated project releases.

Connect with them via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram

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