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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story


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AAJ: That's the philosophy that spawned a lot of the one-off projects, like The Coach with the Six Insides [ESP 1019, an adaptation of Finnegan's Wake by playwright Jean Erdman and instrument-maker Teiji Ito].

BS: That could be called a digression or a detour, but I don't think so. We're role models for people who love music, so in that same boat, why restrict ourselves? Why not be open? It could be interesting from any direction.

AAJ: You did set up the Oro subsidiary later; how did that come about?

BS: Well, there were only four titles—All That the Name Implies, a group that was around for a nanosecond; Bruce Mackay [1069]; Todd Kelley [1097] and the Haryou Percussion Group [1067]. The idea was for a 'pop' label, and that's how we approached it, but we felt it was better to collect the music under one roof and let ESP be a unitary approach to a diverse number of ideas about music.

AAJ: You did mention some distribution deals in Japan and Europe. What happened there that was so specifically disheartening?

BS: Well, I made a three-year deal with Phonogram-Philips and actually flew over to Europe at one point. Something very strange happened—they had the opportunity to put out several titles, and then they dropped it. I never fully understood that.

AAJ: I've seen the Fontana-ESP records before, and it was always somewhat unclear what the story was behind those.

BS: Those were part of the deal. But you must remember this too, that the war in Vietnam was white-hot in 1968 when we made the agreement and there might have been pressure subsequently from the American government, because the Fontana license included records by the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine, and these artists opposed the war. It's entirely possible that Fontana-Phillips decided that they didn't want to put out records that attacked the American government. Not only that, but our pressing plant was bootlegging like crazy, and they might have been shipping them export, cutting the price—it's a riddle to this day.

JVC licensed us in Japan, and they had some kind of a problem—maybe the sales didn't meet their expectations or whatever, but they took a Billie Holiday album that they weren't supposed to have and they put it out, but they put it out off-peak and the sales were not what they thought they would be. There again, it is a mystery, and whether the US government got involved, I can't even begin to guess. We did have a staff member who was with the intelligence community, and he tried to wreck the company—well, he didn't have to try, as I was already wrecked by the bootlegging, but while he was there he worked constantly to try and undermine us and antagonize the artists towards us, everything he could do.

This would have been around 1972 or '73. I had moved to an apartment at 55th Street and 9th Avenue [the 300 W. 55th address found on some later ESP jackets], the top floor of an apartment building. We were trying to operate there, but we were out of business. We had been effectively out of business since '68, but for six years we kept going on money we had in the bank, and I guess we were just disregarding the reality of the situation. We went right on producing records, and that was nuts of course, but those records will stand today. For all intents and purposes, the company had stopped functioning in 1968.

At that time, we had the Pearls—both of the Pearls' albums were taking off [One Nation Underground, ESP 1054, and Balaklava, ESP 1075], and the Fugs were taking off, and three albums that were moving to the top of the pop charts and overnight we were broke. How that happened was that I got a call from Warner Brothers' Jack Holtzman, who ran Elektra Records and who sold his company to Warner Brothers. I hadn't known that, but he called me out of the blue and said "will you sell your company to Warner Brothers.?" I said we would think about it, but that I didn't think so. The reason I refused was because I suspected that the government had been pressing Warner Brothers to take over the company and shut me down.

AAJ: You would have probably lost the masters too, right?

BS: Yes, we would have, the whole company would have been sold to them. Peter Edmondson and Charlie Rothschild had signed the Pearls and the Fugs to management deals, and trotted them over to sign with Reprise because none of them were under contract to me. That was the end of their anti-war production, of course. The industry effectively shut down the Fugs and the Pearls in two ways: by getting the bootlegging going and taking the artists to Warner Brothers. So I was out of business.

AAJ: What happened after ESP was shut down and the catalog was licensed? I'm curious about this sort of unfortunate part of the label's history.

BS: Well, at the age of fifty I took on my first real law job, at the attorney general of New York, a prestigious title.

AAJ: How did that come about? It seems that, with running the label for so long, you were out of the realm of law practice.

BS: I certainly was, as I hadn't done any law practice during the label period, and when the label folded in 1974, I married. My wife and I moved to the farm that I bought in '69 in the Catskill Mountains, the idea being that New York was expensive and I was turning my back on that world and that scene, and moved to the woods. I loved the country, and the two of us moved to this mountain farm. It had been a dairy farm earlier, and we had an old wood-frame two-story rooming house, which we held onto for awhile before tearing it down. Anyway, I tried to get work as a lawyer which, in these backwoods small towns is awfully hard—I had a solid background and wasn't all that enamored of it, but I tried it and didn't get very far.

I got tired and very depressed—you're out in the woods and no income. Eventually my wife said, "why don't you try the government and take the state and federal exams?" Then I could get a state job as a beginning lawyer, which was at $17,000 a year. I commuted an hour and a half each way to Albany and worked with the state government for almost two years (four in my car), and eventually I found out that the attorney general's office was down in New York City, and that the attorneys there seemed to have it pretty serene and liked their work.

So I went down to New York, to the World Trade Center, which at the time was the headquarters of the attorney general, and wandered up and down the halls and talked to various bureaus, and eventually to the mental hygiene bureau, which was run by the Republicans, who had been put there during a previous regime. They took me and decided I could work for them. The new attorney general, Bob Abrams, had just been elected, and I guess he heard from Albany that I was a diligent worker—I was already a state employee at middle age, and he said "well, I need veteran lawyers." I had almost no experience at that point, but I wasn't going to tell him that. I really didn't talk about my role in controversial music.

AAJ: Especially your ties to the Fugs...

BS: It didn't seem particularly appropriate. I passed muster, so they hired me. He said "look, I've got all these kids and I need somebody who is a mature lawyer." I wasn't about to argue, so I took on a decent salary—not for New York, but decent in terms of where I'd started—and we found a co-op loft in an industrial building with a number of co-op apartments in it, in Hell's Kitchen at 8th Street and 9th Avenue (which is now getting pretty hip). We were able to get it for relatively cheaply because I was a state employee, so I guess I was a good risk. I commuted down to the World Trade Center for about seven years, and eventually we sold it for an excellent profit.

We bought a condo in '87, which was a terrible time because it was just before the real estate crash, and we had a pleasant apartment down in the Wall Street area (which wasn't a residential area), and I could walk home for lunch because it was just a few blocks from my job. The work wasn't any strain at all, and I continued for another three-and-a-half or four years until 1991, when I retired. I had a tiny pension and a tiny social security check, and we dumped the condo and moved back up to the farm. Our marriage was breaking up too, and then a number of things happened.

First of all, I retired on my sixty-second birthday in July of 1991, and five months later there we are with my tiny pension, and suddenly we had word that a German record company [ZYX] wanted to license ESP—they wanted it out on CD of course, and they were good to their word and put out 115 titles. We did a monumental job of getting ready and spent all of our money on materials getting prepared for them, and they did a great job. They put them all out [but a few] and distributed them all over the world. [Prior to 1992] they were a dance label, and they had global distribution because dance music is very popular. That was a help to us.

AAJ: What was the deal with those Base LPs? Were those bootlegs or legitimate?

BS: Back while I was in New York, Base came to us and wanted to license them for two years, back in 1980, and they kept producing them illegally for about twelve years.

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.

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?

AAJ: In the sense that, by '68, you were pretty well established, and that people would come to you that had heard what you were doing.

BS: The momentum was there, but we were unable to provide support. We licensed to Philips in Europe and JVC in Japan, but our artists had challenged the US government and its ill fated adventure in Vietnam. This drew a lethal response—bootlegging would quickly destroy our business. I was profoundly unaware of the threats to our survival. No Federal laws existed at the time to counter bootlegging. Perhaps I should have had partners wiser and more knowledgeable than I, who understood the implications of our challenge to the system.

AAJ: How many partners do you have now?

BS: I have none, except for my ex-wife, but she is not active. I have a small first-rate staff now, and I have collaborators that I work with who are extraordinarily knowledgeable and helpful. In that sense, things have changed enormously—we are no longer flying blind. Things are happening, and I've taken a lot of initiative. I've accumulated a lot of connections over the years, and recognition has come to the label—I don't have to do a lot of selling, and think a lot of people understand what the catalog is.

That's what I've been doing—I've contracted to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic. I think we're going to be fine in Eastern Europe over the next several months. In China, I think we're making inroads too—I have a contact who wants to press our product, and these people say "you can't do that, there are no copyright laws and you'll receive nothing." But we'll give them something that nobody wants; certain things we're doing will have nothing to do with the Chinese market. I won't give them any product that's marketable—I'll give them things like samplers. If the Chinese pick up on this, that's great—they'll have samplers, and that will be our entrée.

AAJ: I suppose you could do another set of one-minute samples of forty artists [1051, the infamous ESP Sampler]...

BS: We can [laughs]—but I'm not sure I want to do that again; I'd rather give them complete selections. I did find something I do want to put out—it's Wavy Gravy and Marshall Ephron doing nine or ten one-minute commercials for 99-cent samplers, and they stand on their own. It's genius, funny as hell, and I can't just have them sitting. People should hear this.

AAJ: And these are from the sixties?

BS: Yes—they're hilarious. They're wonderful little exercises. These were standard commercials, no tape splicing or anything, and they did them off the top of their heads. Wavy Gravy and Marshall are so brilliant—they're one after the other, boom, boom, boom. Having just rediscovered them and laughing about how bizarre they still sound, especially now, that I have to find a way to get them out.

AAJ: Is there anything else in the unissued vault?

BS: We have acquired a session trumpeter Norman Howard did in Cleveland with altoist Joe Phillips [originally slated for ESP release, but the masters ended up on the collectors' market], which we intend to issue. There were never second takes, and there was never any material other than what was out. It was the most frugal, most economical operation you ever saw in your life—the guys went in, did their record and came out. There was nothing to talk about, so there are literally no unissued takes. But we have discovered material, some sessions that we didn't know about that somehow got overlooked, and some tapes from the artists themselves who kept their tapes, and we found them—that is how we have Sun Ra Volume 3 [ESP 4002].

I made friends with collectors who have a bounty of material that I can put out, but I'm not going to do it without contacting the artists or the record companies that they may have signed to, so I have a major job to do on my own before any of that material can be released. There are films and videos as well. Bernard Fox, my associate who invented Sonature, records in the 5.1 surround sound medium (www.sonature.com). Ellis Marsalis was our first artist to have a release in the new format. We plan to record artists in live performance in New York over the next several months utilizing this process, and videotape them in HD DVD.

We're about to reissue the Godz in a box set, and a box set of Randy Burns, both with new material. We also plan to reissue work by Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, the Fugs, a double CD of Patty Waters, Albert Ayler at Slugs,' and several other reissues from our catalog. We anticipate releasing previously unissued work by Lucky Thompson, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Bud Powell and other major artists. We're moving ahead in the same vein and the same mindset as we were before—if it's something that works, we go with it, if it's basically a sound idea, why discard it?

AAJ: It's been interesting to watch ESP come back.

BS: Stay tuned, because I think you'll find some surprises. I would like to think that today we have risen like a Phoenix from the ashes. Our reissues have been repackaged and remastered and are sold throughout the world by our network of independent distributors. New releases are being prepared for the months ahead. Our staff are dedicated music professionals, and we utilize a state of the art accounting system. Our books are open to inspection by ESP artists or their representatives, during business hours by appointment; our telephone number is 212-731-2048. It should be noted that we have voluntarily increased substantially our uniform artist royalty. Statements and payments are now being sent quarterly to the artists featured on the new releases.

Visit ESP-Disk on the web. The site is updated regularly on the ESP Blog; if you are an artist, former or prospective, and seeking to make contact, please check the label website for more information.

Recommended ESP-Disk Releases

The Sea Ensemble We Move Together (ESP-Disk, 1973)
Charlie Parker Broadcast Performances (ESP-Disk, 1972)
Frank Lowe Black Beings (ESP-Disk, 1972)
Ed Askew Ask the Unicorn (ESP-Disk, 1969)
Erica Pomerance You Used to Think (ESP-Disk, 1969)
Pearls Before Swine Balaklava (ESP-Disk, 1968)
Free Music Quintet Free Music One and Two (ESP-Disk, 1968)
The Godz Contact High With the Godz (ESP-Disk, 1967)
Alan Sondheim Ritual All 7-70 (ESP-Disk, 1967)
Frank Wright Your Prayer (ESP-Disk, 1967)
The Fugs The Fugs (ESP-Disk, 1966)
Burton Greene Burton Greene Quartet (ESP-Disk, 1966)
Various Artists The East Village Other (ESP-Disk, 1966)
Albert Ayler Bells (ESP-Disk, 1965)
Sun Ra The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (vols. 1-3) (ESP-Disk, 1965)
Marion Brown Marion Brown Quartet (ESP-Disk, 1965)
Patty Waters Patty Waters Sings (ESP-Disk, 1965)
Albert Ayler Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk, 1964)
New York Art Quartet New York Art Quartet (ESP-Disk, 1964)
Pharoah Sanders, Pharoah's First (ESP-Disk, 1964)

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