Ancient Future History: 1998 to 2003
After twenty years of development, the world music scene surrounding Ancient Future flowered with collaborations between some of the world's top masters of traditional music. The Planet Jammin' concept evolved out of these collaborations on recordings and concerts.
On the concert front, in 1998 Ancient Future began offering a new collaborative world music and dance series featuring top world music and dance masters such as Pandit Habib Khan (North Indian sitar master), Irina Mikhailova (Russian vocal diva), Zhao Hui (Chinese national treasure), Georges Lammam (Arabic violin virtuoso), and Sapphira (world dancer). A quick check of Ancient Future's concert schedule will reveal quite a few of these collaborations. The effect of this has been to bring even more variety to Ancient Future shows, and to provide a forum for various configurations of the ensemble from a duet on up to a 12 piece group including the world music and dance masters above.
On the recording front, several projects grew out of this vibrant world fusion music scene. First to be completed were several all-star projects featuring Pandit Habib Khan, who is regarded as one of the best sitar players in the country today. He was born into a family of musicians and can trace his lineage back several generations to when classical music enjoyed the patronage of the nobility and royalty of India. He has produced three CDs featuring collaborations with Ancient Future leader and scalloped fretboard guitar master Matthew Montfort. The lineup also includes Indian tabla master Swapan Chaudhuri, jazz drummer Danny Gottlieb of Pat Methany fame, Persian santur master Alan Kushan, pianist Ira Stein of Windham Hill and Narada fame, George Brooks on saxophone, and others.
The seventh Ancient Future record, Planet Passion, is a very ambitious project featuring the full Planet Jammin' lineup collaborating on the theme of music inspired by rituals having to do with love and procreation. For instance, the record takes themes from traditional music associated with love gods such as Ochun (Afro-Cuban) and Semara (Balinese) and uses that as source material for contemporary collaborations. The record began production in 1996, and was in stores starting in late 2002. A selection from the record was included on the May 1999 Rhythm Magazine sampler CD. The recording was produced by Ancient Future without financing from a record company. Instead, money was raised from fans of Ancient Future. While the fundraising total fell short of goals, enough was raised to allow the music to be created and released without pressure from a corporate record label more concerned with marketing and trends than music.
By the year 2000, Ancient Future had established itself as the top world music group on the Internet. Ancient Future had taken number one positions in nine categories (World, World Fusion, Irish, Indian, Asian, Arabic, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Indonesian) on mp3.com. Ancient Future songs had been featured on many mp3 samplers from sites such as riffage.com and mp3.com with a combined distribution of 750,000 units in 1999 alone. The song "El Zaffa" received top reviews in its category at riffage.com, and was featured on barnesandnoble.com. Ancient-Future.Com was the top world music web site 1999/2000 on the mPulse Internet Music Chart, which ranks music sites by numbers of daily unique visitors. The band Ancient Future even beat The Backstreet Boys to become the number one major artist site.
However, rampant free file sharing had resulted in the value of recorded music being zero in the minds of many. It was widely alleged in the media that this would be great publicity and result in more sales. But those sales never materialized for Ancient Future. For example, even legal downloads at mp3.com (which has since gone out of business), complete with "buy now" links to purchase CDs did not result in increased sales. To the contrary, only 1 in 899 legal free promotional downloads could be matched with a sale anywhere in the distribution chain. This doesn't include the many illegal downloads that also occurred. Many other independent artists at mp3.com reported legal download to sales figures at more like 1 in 5000. Faced with these obstacles, in 2001, Ancient Future leader Matthew Montfort was involved as a proposed Class Representative for Independent Musicians in a lawsuit against Napster, and proposed a set of solutions to the problems facing musicians in an Open Letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee and Napster CEO Hank Barry on March 14, 2001, in which he advocated a statutory license for file sharing to insure that the practice could continue, but with payments to musicians. On April 3, 2001, Mr. Barry made a plea to congress with a proposal substantially similar to the one Montfort had advocated earlier. The proposal was opposed by the major record labels, and was not adopted.
2002 and 2003 were tough years for Ancient Future financially. Scores of independent record stores that had in the past carried Ancient Future's CDs went out of business, causing the other stores to be very conservative in their stocking decisions. Out of 100 stores that agreed to stock Ancient Future's Planet Passion CD, 10 went out of business in the first two months of the release. In addition to the problems in the record industry, there were severe cutbacks in arts budgets. The California Arts Council Touring Program which supported the band's touring activities in California was terminated due to state budget cuts. Many of the presenters who had sponsored Ancient Future concerts in the past were forced to severely cut back their schedules or take a hiatus.
A new concert booking system involving email letters and streaming audio was developed in late 2003 to deal with the emerging situation, and by late 2004 bookings were up. That year a deal was signed with an internet distribution company that resulted in getting Ancient Future's music on the legal download sites such as iTunes. While further cutbacks in the arts in the USA continued to take their toll, a new focus on international performances resulted in booking tours of Spain for 2005 and India for 2006, when Planet Passion was released on Music Gallery India.