Mention Carlos Jones
, and the word "reggae" will soon follow. He started playing in the late 1970s as a sideman with the legendary Cleveland band I–tal before becoming a bandleader in 1984 when he launched First Light. Since 1998, Jones has headed PLUS
– Peace Love Unity Syndicate band.
described Jones' ongoing legacy just last year: "Carlos Jones is to reggae what Jim Brown is to Cleveland running backs: the undisputed champ." But Jones' prominence and talent haven't shielded him from the vicissitudes of the music industry, with its declining CD sales, disappearing downloads and scant pennies from streaming. Hence, his latest project isn't a new album or a single.
Java lovers can buy "Carlos Jones' Positive Vibrations" gourmet coffee in its first retail location, the Coffee Phix
on Mayfield Road. The coffee is also on the menu at the Players Club sports bar
and Local Sol
, both in Willoughby and at Best Gyros
in Northfield Village and in Cleveland Heights. The coffee is roasted and distributed by Berardi's Fresh Roast
in North Royalton.
While Jones is a coffee drinker, he says the project is the brainchild of his manager and record label owner Larry Koval. Koval's label, Little Fish Records
, is home to Jones and numerous reggae artists.
"I wish I could say that it was my savvy business acumen that spawned the whole thing, but in truth, he pitched the idea to me and I liked it, since I am
, after all, a believer in good coffee," Jones said in a correspondence.
Koval says he'd been looking for profitable alternatives to live performing so Jones didn't have to work so hard. A friend had mentioned importing coffee from Costa Rica. That project fell through, but Koval liked the idea. Jones sampled about 30 or 40 coffees before deciding on the blend that bears his name.
The coffee was first released in 2011 as a "perk" of sorts. It was a bonus to spur sales of Jones' compact disc, also named "Positive Vibrations."
"We started out just selling little two ounce bags, and we packaged it with the CD," Koval says. "So you got the CD and a little bag of coffee for seven dollars."
Customers can still buy the coffee at shows, along with tee shirts and other merchandise. In fact, merchandise sales at live shows are compensating for money lost now that streaming is dominating downloads and compact discs sales.
"People are not owning music," says Koval. "And the streaming companies aren't even making money."
The entire industry is losing revenue, according to industry analysts. In 2015, the recorded music business made about $7 billion – roughly the same amount of revenue they'd had for years, per the Recording Industry Association of America's year-end report
But more than one-third of that money came from streaming, which has overtaken downloads as the primary platform. Streaming, however, doesn't trickle down much of the proceeds to artists. The retail rate per stream is only about half a cent. So artists, large and small, are touring and selling merchandise to make money.
Those same trends are also playing out on Koval's spreadsheets.
"I was depressed because I knew the downloads were going away and the streams were replacing them at a fraction of the money," he says. "But I looked at our numbers for 2015 and I realized [merchandise] we had sold at our live shows made up for it."
In the new music world, Jones' biggest asset is his brand, which he notes "cracks him up that he even has [a brand]."
Carlos Jones performing at Reggae On The River at On Air Studio in the Flats
"I know that merchandising seems to be a necessary part of the equation when it comes to an artist making their presence known in the 'marketplace', but by the time I formed this band [22 years ago], I had pretty much turned my back on all that, and had decided to simply make music for the pure joy of it, " Jones adds.
But other prominent Cleveland musicians are turning the necessity of merchandising into an incubator for creativity. Colin Dussault
of Blues Project fame, for instance, designed a tee shirt
spoofing the controversy over Donald Trump's nomination: "Greetings from the Cleveland: It's Gonna Be A Riot." And while it's now shuttered, Cleveland's own skinny little boy Alex Bevan
and wife Deidre dabbled in the Skinny Pickle
business for a time.
One thing they all share is a brand and fans, a combination that's becoming crucial to a successful music career.
"If you can build your community of people who gravitate towards what you're doing – that's the music – then you can create commerce through that community," Koval says.
Afi Scruggs is an independent journalist and #BadassBassWoman. Follow her on twitter @aoscruggs, or on Facebook at AfiPlaysBass.