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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story

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AAJ: Wow. Alderson deserves a lot of credit for that, too.

BS: He's marvelously skilled, and he's still going strong. I talked to him the other day, and he's back in the industry. But, [this experience] told me something. What I thought was going on was not what was going on. There was no way they could have picked up the way they did without it being orchestrated. They knew what they were doing—everyone knew precisely what he was doing—it wasn't random, it sounded totally improvised but it wasn't. They had a clear idea of what they were saying, and it was something that was awesome, a stunning experience.

AAJ: It really drives home how in tune they were with one another.

BS: Right, this was no random conversation. They had something going, and each one knew exactly what it was and how to contribute to it. That was one of the most inspiring and interesting experiences of my career. It told me that I had an awful lot to learn [laughs]!

AAJ: There was not really a template of what to do or what not to do that you could go from. You had to go by the seat of your pants.

BS: In every possible way, just about, except one thing—the recording contract. With my training as a lawyer and my instincts and values, I thought 'give them a simple agreement and go your own way. Ignore the industry and the thirty-two or forty-page contract. Don't take away the music, share it with them.' Our agreement said that we owned the masters, and in those days, the industry said the label owned the publishing, so we co-owned the publishing. Every step of the way, everything I did just seemed logical and natural, and had no relation at all to what the industry was doing. I would not put the name on the record as producer—my sense of it was the artists themselves were producers. Why should I move in on that or make any claims? So I didn't do it, I pointedly and purposely kept my name off of the credits. The artist alone decides.

So that's how that happened—it was an expression of my own personal, if you will journalistic impulse, and I guess I'm a muckraker. I've always chosen to tweak the beard of convention. I don't particularly feel any need to get in line. There's no reason to—I go my own way, a maverick or whatever. I didn't go to critics and hire them to do liners either, I thought to pay someone to do liner notes struck me as silly—how can you describe something with words that cannot be described? That was my feeling. How do you write about music? It seemed to me, always necessarily, like a priest doing a voodoo incantation. To talk about music in a meaningful way? People should hear it. I don't feel that way today; I've read extraordinary, marvelous writing about music, and there are some superb writers—the New York Times' Ben Ratliff; Gary Giddins did some beautiful writing for the Village Voice. I've read some remarkable prose journalism about music. So I was wrong, and I could have hired people, but I chose not to. Of course, with that in hindsight, we are now using liner notes in every one of our reissues.

AAJ: But that also helped to set ESP apart.

BS: In a sense, I suppose, in some devious way I was trying to break all the rules I could find. It worked, and it established us firmly as iconoclasts and that's a good place to be.

AAJ: When the records started coming out, how did you gauge the reaction?

BS: Here's what happened. The distributors across America took them, but they took them on consignment, which was always the case in the record industry. They didn't mind taking them and putting them in the shelves for awhile—it didn't mean anything. The critics were ecstatic—I can't say enough. They were wonderful, both here and in Europe, and I put out twelve releases this way. I did it to make a statement, of course, that this isn't some vanity label by an artist or a small wannabe effort. I was serious, and that's how they took it. They took it as the ascension of what could be a major label.

AAJ: I guess I didn't realize that you'd put out that many at first. I thought it was maybe four or five.

BS: I gathered up twelve and within a month or two another twelve came out. So this caused a tremendous impact, just by virtue of the volume, and I was walking up 57th Street just as this was beginning and saw a crowd at the [Sidney] Janis Gallery. Janis had just launched what he called Pop Art. [George] Segal, Warhol, the whole crowd. The gallery owner had brilliant inspiration; he had taken what I thought were artists that had little to do with each other, but were part of the time. Their work—each one's approach was very distinctive and original, and I couldn't pick a correlation among them, but he did and he called it Pop Art. He put a frame around it and said "this is the new movement."

I thought this was a brilliant thing to do, give it some kind of name and give people something to hang onto. You couldn't find people more different than Segal doing his plaster sculptures of people or Mary Salle and her particular tack; each was very distinctive and very much on their own wavelength. He had tied it together with a label, and I thought that was a fine idea. When I started ESP, I said to the world at large "this is the New Music," [laughs] and the idea apparently did catch on. It was acknowledged to be a particular movement with a given name. It was a rudimentary lesson, but one I learned, and it was a good idea.

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