Unmatched Independent: On Record Label ESP-Disk'

August 19, 2012   •   By Jesse Jarnow

ONTOLOGICALLY SPEAKING, there are few squirmier genre descriptors than "indie," that colloquial shortening of "independent" that rolls so easily and unchecked from the collective tongue and onto the cultural operating table. Lashed to music and films and fashions and haircuts and God knows what, it's become a code for an increasingly mild-mannered aesthetic supposedly derived from seventies punk and the network of fan-run record labels that followed in its wake. But in the age of mechanical reproduction, it has meant a lot of things to be independent. And in the digital era, it's become a catch-all genus for anything outside the granulating monoculture. Which is to say; it means everything and subsequently nothing at all.

But in the 1950s, one could travel west from the ad-men lined canyons of Madison Avenue, across a still glitzy Times Square, and into seedy and comparatively low-skylined Hell's Kitchen, to find Jukebox Row. A 1953 Billboard report hyped the neighborhood — home to Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler's recently established Atlantic Records — as "one of the most vital and stimulating avenues of the music business” powered by "the hard work and boundless optimism of a score of indie labels, indie distributors, one-stops and jukebox operators." They were everywhere. In Cincinnati, Syd Nathan's King and Federal Records built an empire on bluegrass and soul. Across southern California, the R&B-powered network of Otis Rene's Excelsior Records, Joe Bihari's Modern, and others prepared the golden coast for surf-rock.

Documented lovingly in John Broven's Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers, "independence" — that most American of declarations — began to take root in the pop vernacular during the post-War boom, around the same time the American lingua franca turned to more down-home, genial shorthand like "indie." Few launched their own labels for ideological reasons or even fandom — though Syd Nathan's King was one of the first integrated record companies in the country — but the best of them seemed to implicitly understand the true existential nature of their tasks. While more bottom-line driven than their post-punk peers, the stakes were the same. True independence was more than just an economic position but a way of thinking; the most American way of thinking possible, even. By the end of the sixties one of Syd Nathan's soon-to-be-former stars, James Brown, was starting to phrase it less passively, equating music with self-agency. He sang "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)" on one of his last hits for King in 1969. Brown soon set up his own People Records.

Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disk', which issued 125 LPs between 1964 and 1974, might have been the most independent record label of all time. Celebrated in a valuable new book, Jason Weiss's Always In Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk', The Most Outrageous Record Label in America is a fantastic but incomplete adjunct to Broven's massive work, providing a bridge into indie's more recent mutations. Comprising some 40 interviews with Stollman and his cast of spiritual jazzmen and anarcho-surrealist folkies, Always In Trouble is the story of ESP's improbable existence and its real-life consequences.  

With offices at various midtown Manhattan locations on the fringes of the City's power centers (including one at 156 5th Avenue, almost exactly halfway between Jukebox Row and Greenwich Village) ESP-Disk' was structurally little different than any other small business behind a stone New York facade. They had a skeleton staff that shipped records to the same system of regional distributors that had been established over the nearly two decades of peacetime to get records thousands of miles from coast to coast (a sea-to-shining-sea coverage challenge never faced by British labels that would colonize "indie" a few decades later in a much smaller territory.) Like many of the other enterprises attempting to spread essentially regional music across the vast continent, ESP's financial treatment of artists often left much to be desired; ditto their marketing. But in the grand scheme of the universe, none of these negative traits mattered much to the ESP story, precisely because the label was also completely independent in a few very literal ways. ESP's discs were as idiosyncratic as mass-produced objects could be: labels, covers and even the color of the vinyl itself changing at the whims of Stollman's available resources and manufacturers.

"You Never Heard Such Sounds in Your Life" was one of the company's slogans. Few outside Manhattan had. ESP-Disk' — “ESP" short for "Esperanto," "Disk'" an abbreviation of Esperanto's word for record, "disko" — became arguably avant-garde music’s first committed champion in the broader culture, delivering the music of Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders, and countless others to college campuses everywhere via one of the underground's first pipelines to the world outside. The catalogue's Folkways-on-acid selection of far-out recordings included Timothy Leary, Charles Manson, anti-folk forefathers the Godz, a disc of Esperanto instruction (the inspiration for ESP-1001, in fact), gay cabaret folkie Ed Askew, and others. But mostly there was jazz; deep, uncompromising free jazz from a small, committed scene of downtown musicians who chased new harmonies and ways of improvising. While there were lots of indie labels, few represented as many artists so dedicated to making music truly at odds with the rock, pop, and schmaltz that dominated the charts at ESP's founding. In this respect ESP had no true peers.  

Weiss's oral history is a proper academic one, sorting his subjects into separate interviews, including 77 pages with label founder Stollman and anywhere between one-and ten-page transcripts with a few dozen ESP artists. This particular arrangement underscores the hardline independence of the operation and its artists, each character isolated in their own time-tracks. The book thus remains a collection of individual stories without much broader context, and the label's enormous narrative is refracted into small scenes. Unlike the Jukebox Row labels who banded together in a physical neighborhood on the literal fringes of Tin Pan Alley (not to mention jukeboxes everywhere), or '80s/'90s giants like Sub Pop and Matador who were connected by networks of fanzines and college radio, ESP had no such infrastructures. They were alone.  

"I knew from the inception that it might be a generation before this music would be accepted," says Stollman. "I couldn't give them the promotion that a major label could. I didn't have the staffing, the resources, or the expertise to do a proper job. I knew I could issue and distribute their records. What happened beyond that was beyond my control." The latter part, at least, might not be entirely true if some of Always In Trouble's subjects are to be believed. Stollman, a trained lawyer who put out ESP-1001 because he'd been hired as a publicist for the Esperanto League of North America and grew passionate about the language, was hardly an aficionado of the avant-garde. Nonetheless, he found himself with the extraordinary ability to identify fellow independent spirits. And document them. Throughout Always In Trouble, the artists get a chance to settle scores or make peace. Each shared grievance illuminates another tiny strand of Stollman's complicated persona, which — owing in part to the book's structure — remains a cipher throughout.  

A facet of Bernard Stollman's (and ESP's) persona was borne of another kind of independence. Stollman’s parents had founded a successful chain of clothing stores in upstate New York after WWII. Their wealth and generosity gave him the chance to pursue his dream, to channel his own particular creativity. That support included their help at the office and they even gamely manned the door when ESP rented the Village Theater for a year-long Fugs residency. The Fugs' Ed Sanders, who declined to be interviewed by Weiss, owing to the publication of his own memoir, Fug You! last year, wrote that "the oi is still oi-ing in the Oi over [the Fugs'] ESP contract terms" and went on to confide that "a close relative of the label's owner told me the family viewed the owner as unstable and helped bankroll in lieu of therapy or confinement."

Reading between the lines of Always in Trouble, this case could be made, though Stollman seemed to understand the commercial futility of ESP, too, giving up the label at an age when he couldn't run it anymore and spending a decade and a half working as an assistant for the New York State Attorney General. Likely, his bookkeeping was terrible — perhaps even intentionally, especially as the label ran out of funds. But even more likely, almost none of the music was commercially viable to begin with. Occurring in parallel with the maturation of the baby boom from teendom into the country's dominant economic force, the fire-working of pop culture that began with the Beatles' 1964 arrival in the U.S. was also marked, at almost exactly the same moment, by the inception of ESP.  

Understanding that Stollman ran ESP because he could afford to (until he couldn't) isn't the same thing as solving the label's abiding mystery: that of the universe mapped out by its artists and the post-War American society that had advanced enough to have a viable, if unsupportable, avant-garde. Lester Bangs himself felt compelled to write "I believe in ESP" in an impassioned 1971 love letter to the label called "Do the Godz Speak Esperanto?" Weiss’s story gets the constellations right but doesn't often animate the myths behind them. One place the book does excel, though, is creating a social history of the only half-arbitrary subset of jazz musicians who recorded for ESP — what Stollman describes as "circles within circles" — where Stollman would often sign a new artist, unheard and merely on the recommendation of another signee.  

ESP's independence is also marked by its continuous vitality. The perpetual currency of the label's artists led to Stollman's ongoing licensing of ESP music (albeit to shady Italian labels) and an eventual 21st century relaunch, wherein they attempted to right past wrongs with their artists. The most telling part isn't that Stollman screwed over the musicians, but that the music has remained his to license. 

More than Alan Lomax, John Hammond, Harry Smith, or any other culturally suspect middleman, Bernard Stollman inspired continuous revolution. A half-dozen artists interviewed in Always in Trouble speak of founding their own labels, an idea that had very much come by the time ESP wound down operations in 1974. Always in Trouble is hardly the final or definitive word on ESP, but — like ESP themselves — it has no peers. It is best considered on a shelf next to Broven's Record Makers and Breakers, Valerie Wilmer's magnificent history As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the new jazz, Lester Bangs' epochal "Do the Godz Speak Esperanto?", Ed Sanders' Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side and, of course, as many ESP LPs as one can locate without paying astronomical prices.  

Gradually, the idea of "indie" has become more and more commonplace, the mechanisms of mass media ever more accessible to the People and, occasionally, to the kind of true weirdoes and visionaries that ESP championed. As Weiss, Stollman, and his interviewees make clear though, the label's founder hardly belongs to either of the latter categories. Mostly through chance, he found himself — after law school, a military stint in Korea, an ill-fated move to Tucson, a misadventure in textiles, and an Esperanto fixation — at the intersection of jazz and law. He wasn't even particularly a huge fan of the "new" music, as it was often called, working unbilled for the likes of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. "I was naive, and my responses were totally spontaneous," Stollman says of his engagement with free jazz.

In many ways, this might seem to encapsulate the story of ESP and Always in Trouble: how a relative civilian might be transformed by one of the great American art forms. It's not untrue, either, but — based on the accumulated evidence — it is perhaps the other way around, and that the relative civilian instead transformed the world he touched. ESP stands as a still-breathing example of independence — not in the American marketplace or even the new global one, but the very real world, a sequence of business and practical decisions made by Stollman and Stollman alone. Though some artists arguably lost money by signing their ESP contracts, they surely received (or reaffirmed) something via the arrangement: the knowledge that independence isn't just a personal mission, its life. The artist alone decides but, really, so does everybody.


Recommended Reads: