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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story


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AAJ: That was one of my questions—whether this will be confusing, or that it's the right time to put it out again.

BS: I'll put it this way: we're not going to sit back and watch and let them exploit our catalog again. It doesn't make any sense. My answer is that we'll checkmate them by putting out double CDs for only slightly more money—double reissues at a low price. Most emphatically, though, we are going to issue new products and previously unissued historical products. The history of this label is as an iconoclastic label which breaks new music and I don't really want to repeat 1965. There are recordings that are extraordinary that have not had their day in the sun, but they're quite remarkable, so I see no reason why we can't continue to go forward with new music. It's a strange thing; when we went out of business in 1974, disco came in. Speaking musically, when we left, it stopped, and now that ESP is back, I think we had something to do with introducing change and innovation to the industry. That stopped when we stopped.

AAJ: There are some important factors to consider—I mean, ESP certainly got the ball rolling for independent production. One thing I'd thought of, and that you've alluded to, was how your moniker, "The Artists Alone Decide What You Will Hear on their ESP-Disk, maybe inadvertently had a strong effect on the emergence of privately-pressed recordings in the '70s and '80s. With ESP gone, the artists were putting out themselves what would have likely been on ESP, with a similar aesthetic.

BS: I would say that we probably did succeed in some degree the way that unions helped eliminate child labor, by virtue of establishing if you will a standard. It became a standard that artists weren't going to be pushed around by record companies regarding repertoire the way they had in the past, and that it might be possible to do your own record. We were part of something that was already in motion and we accelerated this outlook.

AAJ: As far as a lot of contemporary independent labels, so much has sprung up in the wake of ESP, but who are you watching and what things are you looking out for among the contemporary independent labels that could help you?

BS: Eremite is doing a wonderful job, Delmark, Pi, Tzadik, Boxholder, and CIMP in the US, Hat Hut in Switzerland, and Leo and Emanem in England. These are the ones that come to mind as being innovative and having a good ear for change.

AAJ: Do you feel you can learn a lot from these labels, possibly how to approach things differently—although it's now a different climate, I guess.

BS: To some extent I have been studying what other record companies have been doing around the world, what they publish on their website, doing a survey to learn what distributors in certain countries are picking up on the labels that I respect. There are some fine labels in the world, and any distributor that picks up on these labels is a distributor that we should be interested in.

AAJ: That would make sense, as it was certainly one of the major problems before.

BS: It certainly was—we made a lot of mistakes, and we're probably still making mistakes, but I hope we're making fewer of them. We have established strong relationships in the United States and in Europe and Japan since our launch in March, 2005. They are all paying their bills and sending reorders, which is very gratifying. We are hopeful of finding representation in Arab states, in Central and South America, and in Africa.

AAJ: This might pertain to some of the earlier ESP discussion, but in terms of improvisers from other countries, how did things start trickling in from Gunter Hampel [1042—Assemblage], Peter Lemer [1057—Local Colour] and some of the European artists?

BS: I guess there was no pattern to it, it just sort of evolved. we had things from Willem Breuker and in '74, the last year before shutting down, we received from Peter Brötzmann the Machine Gun record [BRO 2/FMP 90], which was wonderful—the only problem was that we were out of business. So we didn't end up putting it out, though we intended to. There was a Japanese guitarist as well, who played this guitar just unreal—lightning fast, all these remarkable lines...

AAJ: Was that Masayuki Takayanagi?

BS: Yes, I committed to put his music out. I'll never forget this—an emissary came from Tokyo with a master, beautifully packaged with graphics and everything, all ready to release. I was mortified—I had made this commitment, we were out of business, and there was nothing I could do. It was very stupid of me, very blind, to nurture anything because we were out of business in '68. We went on, but it was totally an empty exercise, except for the producing end of it—there was no marketing, we weren't selling these guys. You could say what we did was not very sane.

AAJ: ESP marketed itself by that point, I would think.

BS: In what sense?


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