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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story


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AAJ: I think you can still buy a lot of them new.

BS: Well, they're not manufacturing them anymore, at least [laughs sheepishly]. As far as I know, anyway. With ZYX, we were committed to preparing the catalog and spent a lot of money doing that, but lo and behold, after the advances were paid, the money from royalties did not come in. I should've known, but I didn't, that when you license in this industry, you get your front money (which may seem very impressive), and that's it.

AAJ: That's a common occurrence?

BS: Yes, absolutely, it's a pattern. Unlike in an actual business, being able to audit is a difficult proposition, and the courts are unavailable to you. The six years were up, and meanwhile a young Dutchman had started a record label [Calibre] and he licensed the catalog from us for a year and a half. He did some beautiful graphics and packaging and put out about twelve or fourteen titles, and then he went down. Meanwhile, he had attracted an Italian company to license from him, and so he went along with that.

AAJ: It's getting soupier and soupier by the minute.

BS: Exactly, and meanwhile ZYX had also licensed our catalog on vinyl to an Italian company that we knew nothing about. I saw the records in stores, but being a dim bulb about it, it didn't really dawn on me what was going on.

AAJ: This is Get Back, right?

BS: Yes, Get Back and Abraxas. There was no way that in the last year of a contract, you would license vinyl to another company. They did it, and they were pressing the products poorly—the Italian company, during the Dutch year and a half—and we weren't focusing on it, but it went along in the deal to Abraxas, so now they have us on vinyl and CD.

AAJ: And they're making double what they would be otherwise.

BS: Exactly. They've never paid us for the vinyl, and somehow our Dutch colleagues had taken on the vinyl deal, and he was supposed to be paid and they didn't do that either. About three or four years go by, and they paid us initially—the Dutch guy had paid us a fairly substantial advance, and the Italians paid a small amount and two years ago they decided they weren't going to pay us any further. For two years, we haven't been making any money from the Italian deal—Abraxas has about 36 titles in vinyl and about 40-something on CD, which is disgusting. Here's our product out all over the world, and they aren't answerable to any of the calls.

AAJ: But royalties and payments have been something that plagued ESP as well, right?

BS: That is largely true. Following our launch in 1965, the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine were the only groups on the label that caught on; through word of mouth, they rose to near the top of the pop charts. Of course, the new improvisational music that we recorded and documented gradually found some acceptance among a small but growing global community of musicians and enthusiasts (granted, the sales of this music were never enough to recoup production costs or advance significant royalties).

Though our artists are now widely acclaimed for the integrity and power of their works, as a label we have always had to struggle. The recognition that came from being a part of ESP helped some artists to teach at the university level, participate in international festivals, and go on to major-label careers. Some of our artists later started their own labels, and they learned from experience the difficulty of marketing obscure serious music and obtaining significant distribution. I think most of them now recognize and appreciate the importance to their professional careers of having participated in the history of ESP.

But as you know, we were put out of business in 1968, after only three years of operation, by bootlegging of our chart groups. The label has never provided a livelihood to me—to survive, I worked throughout my life as a lawyer. If you look at the past 40 years, we have entered into ill fated licensing agreements with Philips in the Netherlands; JVC and Phonogram in Japan; ZYX; Calibre; and two Italian labels, Base and Abraxas. After paying an initial general advance, these companies, except Calibre and Abraxas, invariably failed to provide meaningful accountings or pay royalties. Abraxas sent credible statements of sales, but then did not pay royalties, and on top of all this, international licensing agreements in the music industry are not enforceable, and are not recommended.

AAJ: I've noticed that there are a lot of Italian bootlegs or whatever—do you know if there is some reason why?

BS: Lax government, lax laws. It's clearly abated, however; the Italians by and large, and the Germans and the French, have been cracking down and it's by no means as big as it was. It's largely dissipated for whatever reason—I think the governments just didn't want to tolerate it anymore. They're annoyed by it, and it's an international industry that has persuaded the governments to enact more strict laws. Italy, I don't believe, is the center of this activity much longer. I have done my research, and I believe it's true. So anyway, that's the Abraxas story, and we've struggled with that for about two or three years, and their contract if they observe it will expire this November.

If they extend beyond November, then we'll go to federal court because they have no pretext of any kind. They can wave the contract and offer all kinds of excuses or explanations, but they tried to grab my publishing. They forged my wife's signature and that of the Dutch guy, allowing them to take the publishing, and my wife never signed anything. It was dated May, 2005 to grab money which had been accumulating in Italy for several years, substantial monies, and Abraxas had been paying publishing money into society for three or four years. Money's been accumulating for years before that, and we had the Italian publishers send us a copy of this, which of course stopped the SAIE from paying anybody. I quickly checked with my wife and she said "no, I didn't sign any of that." I said "look, this is a forgery. Simply stated, it's fraud."

Abraxas are depending on licensing from all these major companies—important titles, so they're very astute. This is a big part of their business, licensing vinyl rights, because the majors had pretty much given up on it. They were making a pretty large business of making and selling vinyl all over the world, including 36 of our titles. My point is at this time, Europe is aware that we have gone back into manufacturing. The word is out—"what's going on here? We've been stocking these Abraxas titles, but here comes ESP with double CDs mastered differently, packaged differently and more liner notes, photos and additional material." We've been pretty much demolishing them.


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