Q&A: Northern Spy Records' Tom Abbs and Adam Downey On Guitarist Tom Carter, Working At ESP-Disk' And Running Their Own Label

Chicago Underground Duo play Roulette on July 15 as part of Spy Music Fest.
Chicago Underground Duo play Roulette on July 15 as part of Spy Music Fest.
Peter Gannushkin/

This week, the Voice sat down with Northern Spy head-honchos Tom Abbs and Adam Downey to talk about the second installment of the label's Spy Music Festival, which will engulf this city's landscape from Friday through mid-July.

But in typical unselfish fashion, Abbs and Downey weren't in a self-congratulatory mood over their ascendant label, the impending celebration, and the lineup of killer shows. Instead, Abbs and Downey were not only intent on fixing the wrongs they encountered at their former label, ESP-Disk', by paying back decades-old royalties to that label's artists, they were itching for the same rep AUM Fidelity label head Steven Joerg has: to be as completely fair to their artists as possible.

That righteous ethos extends into being there 100% in support of musicians in need like Brooklyn guitarist and N-Spyer Tom Carter, who is facing an uphill battle after falling ill while on tour in Germany. Read on for outtakes that didn't make it into this week's piece.

You guys have a nice office setup here at Northern Spy House. Who's your staff?

Tom Abbs: We work as a cooperative. We have profit-sharing partners. [Looking around the room] Sammy, Joey, Marisa and Chris are partners and Alex and Samantha are interns.

How did the pan for N-Spy's formation hatch?

Abbs: I'd been fired three or four times from ESP, so I had always planned on starting my own label. I loved my job there, making records. I thought my boss was unstable and if this goes south, I am just gonna keep doing what I'm doing so I already had the plan in mind. Then one day, our boss basically hired somebody above me—I was general manager. My boss wasn't involved at all on a daily basis and he hired somebody above me because one day after three years he got greedy... Adam Downey: ... a patsy. [laughs] Abbs: ... and then she came in and said "Well, I need to see this and this and this" and I'm like "Who are you?" Basically, I left that day at the office and tried to negotiate with him [Bernard] for another week or two and finally I put in my two weeks notice. He wouldn't let me come back and changed the locks. So it was about two months before we started Northern Spy. There was three guys, including Adam, that I worked with at ESP and I was having secret meetings with them for two months. I was like "Hey, come with me, ya know? We'll start our own label." We started out with four partners, actually. The other two washed out after three months.

N-Spy has a mixed bag roster of free jazz, experimental and indie pop while a label like AUM Fidelity is strictly avant-garde jazz. Is your goal at N-Spy one of diversity?

Abbs: There's the same 700-800 people that buy every free jazz record. AUM Fidelity is a great example and I have a pretty good idea what the sales are like because I'm on one of those records. He sells like 500-700 out of the gate and it's stagnant after that and like any release it goes down. It's the same people, literally. At ESP, we knew the people as soon as we out put out or re-released a Guiseppe Logan or whatever, we knew it's the same people every time, the same buyers, same collectors, so it's just a really small crowd and they're aging. So finding a young crowd—that's a whole marketing thing trying to hit a younger crowd to that stuff. It's a very limited scene. That's the thing—it's a very limited space to be in. And that's where I'm not hip to the other stuff so that's where Adam comes in—educating me on the rest of the scene. He's out every night seeing music. [Adam laughs]

How do you arrive at the decision to sign a band to N-Spy?

Abbs: I don't make any decisions [about signing bands] by myself. It's not like that. We have an A & R team. When it comes down to a final business decision, we're 50/50 partners and we make the decision together, no doubt about it, so that's not even an issue. I'm older and maybe an influence [laughs], but we both have a veto. If I can't convince Adam and he can't convince me, then we know we're dead in the water. We also have the rest of our A & R team, which is Kurt Gottshalk, M.P. Landis, Mike Hentz, who are all really old friends of mine and lot of good friends of Adam's. I used to produce events at Brecht forum with Kurt and M.P. and I have collaborated for years. These are all people we trust. Most decisions are made as a group and then the final money decision—where we're gonna spend the money—is between the two partners. Downey: We listen to it in the office and then everyone will comment, the interns here... Abbs: ...we kinda use our own focus group here. [laughs] Downey: More and more though, the stuff that comes to us comes from bands we've signed. For instance, Zs suggested we get in touch with Charlie Looker and check out his band Extra Life. Abbs: We were talking to Skeletons and Matt Mehlan from Skeletons was producing Starring and that's how that kinda happened. Downey: It's turning out that everything is really connected now.


Colin L. Orchestra, "Smoking"

Adam seems to be the night owl. What about you going to shows and scouting the scene?

Abbs: Not so much anymore. I'm playing a few nights a week and have a couple of rehearsals a week. I'm going to the Starring show tonight.

So much stuff seems to be put out under the N-Spy umbrella. You have seemed to corner a rather expansive niche.

Abbs: There's definitely a group of musicians now that we're tied into that all do different stuff; they all go on both sides of the fence, stylistically. So, that's a big thing and how the downtown scene or the avant-jazz scene, as the Vision people would call it, connects to the Williamsburg scene and all that stuff. I've been here twenty years—I watched Williamsburg change from the warehouses to these 30somethings pushing their kids around. It's all connected. We listen to everything all day in the office. I'm not sure we see that anymore like "Oh, this is connected that way... " Downey: Yup. I agree. It makes me think of Ornette Coleman and Captain Beefheart. Reviewers talked about Trout Mask Replica and referred to Ornette. I love to see people getting into both jazz and rock and seeing the connection. Abbs: It's interesting. We're more of the rock indie side. Those people are more into the jazz; it doesn't often go the other way. Jazz guys won't listen to something with a straight beat and four chords. But those jazz guys need that audience—they need a younger audience, really bad.

Are all your signings maybe too much, too soon?

Abbs: Part of it for us was just keeping up what we were doing. We were putting out 25 releases a year at ESP, some of those reissues. There's a cash flow to label and eventually and we knew how much things were gonna sell and how much cash you needed to get by. So that's a big part of it. If we put out five releases a year for the first couple of years, it would be a long time before we were seeing profits and decent amounts of cash coming in. One of the things about ESP too is that they had a hundred masters when I started there and those masters brought in money. Digital checks came in, publishing money and the occasional synch check. We're gonna be at thirty masters by the end of the year. When we're at 100, we know we're gonna have significant cash flow, enough cash flow to do many things we like to do. [laughs] Part of it is having enough back catalog—it fills in the gaps and gives you that cushion. Getting a catalog out and also just getting on the scene—if we did a trickle, it would be years before we're sitting here with you or anybody else. We wouldn't be taken seriously. That was our business plan—to make the investment and to establish it.

When the Voice interviewed ZS and Diamond Terrifier's Sam Hilmer, he spoke about ZS record contracts and such. It seems like you have you shit together in that respect. Is that stuff you learned from your ESP trials and tribulations?

Abbs: It's a good story, actually. What happened at ESP is we got approached by someone. We put out the Billie Holliday box set and this was our biggest seller while I was there. We got approached by this guy who tried to have us sign some big rap artist, which we were not able to do. He was like, "Wow. There is really something happening here with this label and you should sign this guy... " I don't want to mention the artist, but he wanted a $30,000 budget. Of course, we were putting out records for, you know, 1300 bucks. [laughs] But his business manager was Burt Goldstein, who's the business manager for Phish and so we hooked up with Burt and Burt really gave us the framework for the contract—really the whole business plan was from Burt Goldstein. We were literally,in the middle of negotiating with Burt and ESP for an operating agreement, so we would have vested interest in ESP—it's one of the reasons I left, because it all fell apart and our old boss hired somebody above me and we were told me that was off. Really, Burt was my mentor all through the second half of my time at ESP. So we developed the contract and this was all planned for ESP before I left so we had the full-on contract, the 50/50 deal with an option, sometimes two options. We really had the whole business plan from him. We had it all organized. Downey: We definitely saw ourselves separately from a "friend" label that's just a handshake, press a hundred copies, you get some of them and if we're not too busy, we get them to a store... we hear about that a lot. We were just more fired up on building the audience and getting more people to listen to the stuff. Abbs: We don't license—that's another thing that a lot of labels do that we just don't believe in. We want the catalog to be together for a hundred years and really have that be a body of work.


Charles Gayle busking in New York

So curating The Stone for two weeks morphed into the citywide Spy Fest.

Abbs: It just sort of happened. I used to put on festivals with Jump Arts, this non-profit we have, and so back between '98 and 2002, I actually played with John Zorn a little bit but when ESP started—he did a year or a summer or something, of labels curating last year and ESP was supposed to do it and I was the curator and then when I left ESP, Zorn called and said "ESP's two weeks is off" and I said "OK." I was really down about it. I already booked a lot of it but he just cancelled it. I tried to get him to keep it; I actually tried to keep it for myself. I was like "Well, just let me still do it" and Zorn said "Well, if you're not with the label, I'm just gonna give to somebody else." Once Northern Spy was up and running, I wrote to Zorn and said "Listen. I was really down about that. Can you hook me up?" And he did. Actually, we weren't gonna do the festival until the fall around our two year anniversary, but I'm doing this curation so I said "Let's just do it now." The Stone gigs are clearly jazz and we have indie as separate. We're not going to have the same audience, except people like Adam, who like both.

Some non N-Spy artists are playing the Spy Fest. Do you want those musicians on your label in one incarnation or the other?

Abbs: The simple answer is yes. We asked all the Northern Spy-ers and all of them who could make it, made it. I had already curated the Stone before we decided this was the Spy Fest. Those are all my old friends and people that I've played with and a few extras. All the bands were super excited about it. Downey: It's all stuff we love. Abbs: We tried to make it all almost all local stuff and as the label has become more and more local.

Who was N-Spy's first signing?

Downey: USAISAMONSTER. It was great because we did their last record and it's called R.I.P. In the beginning there was the end...

And Colin Langenus has his post-USAISAMONSTER band the Colin L. Orchestra on N-Spy.

Downey: It was really close to the last day at ESP, if not the last day at ESP. Matt Mottel is friends with Colin and Talibam! was on ESP and so Matt just said that Colin has a finished record and you should hear it and we loved it. Right around that time, Colin had a residency at Zebulon and I saw the Colin L. Orchestra and it was just magical. We were psyched about it and knew we wanted to work with him and in multiple facets too.

In hindsight, Colin's other band [CSC Funk Band] seemed like a good fit for N-Spy or on ESP-Disk' when you guys were there.

Abbs: They were supposed to sign with us and they called us one day and said "We just signed with the Fat Beats label." [laughs] Downey: We had talked to Rhys [Chatham] while at ESP and talked about signing him. That's somebody we took with us. Arrington, the Old Time Relijun, was on ESP, too. The first few releases were kind of an in-between transition period.

It was trippy that Talibam! had a record on ESP. I assume you had a hand in recruiting them.

Abbs: Yeah, M. P. Landis brought them on...

Boogie in the Breeze Blocks is such an awesome record.

Abbs: Ironically, when we first heard it, it was just a duo and then they added all this stuff to it. Downey: Oh, right. And the skits. Abbs: [laughs] It's not the record... I like it a lot but it's not the record that we got Bernard to approve [laughs]. Often, you hear a record when it's not done and you have to use your imagination and that [record] had a lot of imagination. When I heard it I was like "Okay, this is great" then I heard the finished product and was like "This is totally different!" [laughs] But they made an amazing album. Downey: A lot of people dug it. They got into it.


Extra Life, "First Song"

Tom, how about you as a bassist. Would you put out records on N-Spy you've played on?

Abbs: I have a couple of Andrew Lamb records that came out recently that I played on. I'm not interested in putting my records out on Northern Spy. The vanity label thing. I did that at ESP and got a lot of shit for it. We put out the Yuganaut record, which is an amazing record but if it doesn't sell well, you only have yourself to blame.

N-Spy is putting out the record by Black Host, a supergroup type band with Gerald Cleaver, Darius Jones, Brandon Seabrook and Cooper-Moore.

Downey: We put out our friends' records. Abbs: If you don't like the people, it's horrible. There's times with people who you are not super close to, it's really rough. Being close to them and being a fan internally makes a big difference. You're inspired. You know them well enough to avoid the business crap and the pitfalls.

Do you think there is a competition forming between N-Spy and AUM Fidelity? Many of those artists from Black Host AUM has put out records for.

Abbs: Gerald's been one of my favorite drummers for like a decade. Really my second favorite next to Chad Taylor, because Chad's been a friend since we went to the New School together in the early nineties. Steven puts out his favorite artists. Listen, Gerald's one of the best drummers around. It's not like a competition at all. Downey: Those two labels, ours and AUM, they're very different. I think part of what Gerald wanted to do [with Black Host] was he wanted to get a different audience listening. He sees our label, he sees the kind of stuff we're putting out and a different audience is gonna hear this... Abbs: ... plus he's adding electronics in the mixing process and post-production stuff—probably stuff you wouldn't hear on an AUM Fidelity record. He 's trying to get an indie audience, a rock music audience and he's trying to tie in all this stuff. Even Chicago Underground Duo came to us and said, "We see you're doing all kinds of stuff. We just don't want to be on a jazz label." So they see it as an opportunity to cross over.

Steven Joerg at AUM has a stellar rep with paying his artists and how fair he is. Tom, you're one of them.

Abbs: He pays me every year. I get a royalty check from Triptych Myth. Downey: it's super important to us that people say the same thing about us. The shit we dealt with at ESP which was people coming up to me and yelling at me at Vision Fest when I was selling ESP discs and yelling at me about Bernard or something. Tom dealt with the contracts and paying back royalties and you got it worse than I did. I was there a couple years.

Was it ever good at ESP?

Downey: What do you mean "good?" [laughs] Abbs: Things got much better. We did a royalty settlement program. We made an announcement that we were doing forensic accounting back to 1964. We had the old accounting records and we went through everything. Downey: And every contract was different. Abbs: Yeah, there was like five, seven different types of contracts. There was a stack of old ledgers. Once we did that and let the artists know "We're doing this and come to me if you think you're owed money." Before that, It was literally phone calls every day of them screaming at me or at Adam. It was When I first started and I was like "Fuck this. I'm not going to go on unless we can do something about the situation." I had an experience where we put on a gig—a monthly series at Bowery Poetry Club—and I was there and it was one of the first ones and there were musicians I knew at the bar and someone came up to me and said "Those guys are badmouthing you." I realized right then they were blaming me, saying "Why is Tom working this place?" So I just had to fix it. My reputation was on the line. You kinda go into it naively. It's a job. Then we started the settlement program and then things got much better. Out of the people we negotiated with there was some really hard ones—musicians and their lawyers and dealing with that and lots of threats and stuff. We'd show their accounting and they wouldn't believe it. There was a dozen people that we got through and things really settled down. I told my boss "I can't be a general manager unless we're allowed to fix this." We were trying to do things there. One is establish the company as not just a reissue label. So we were trying to put out all these new releases, we're doing six or seven a year—new artists, new releases and it's a risky game and your investing money in that and [Bernard] wasn't so happy about it. And then we're putting money into paying back royalties every month, and really paying royalties for the first time. It wasn't a lot [of money] really because the original contracts were fixed rates. Downey: What was it? A quarter a release. Abbs: A quarter a sale, yeah. Downey: It's funny because Ed Sanders's book Fug You just came out, and he talks about it. He doesn't talk about ESP a lot but it's like two paragraphs and he's like "I signed the worst contract of my life" or something. "A quarter a unit" or something. Abbs: It was a quarter domestic and half that for international. It really didn't add up and plus the accounting records weren't complete so you have these huge gaps of time.


Arrington de Dionyso (live in Portland, 2010)

Ultimately, did you establish trust back with paying back the royalties owed?

Abbs: It's the squeaky wheel hits the grease kind of thing. There were certain people that were kind of loud and those are the people we settled with first and then it was kind of a couple people a month after slowly trickling in because word got out we were doing it. If it happened all at once, we would have bankrupted the company right away. It would have been just a disaster. There was a certain point where the owner wasn't getting any money because there's this investment happening—we're investing and reestablishing the label and fixing the reputation and there was about two and a half years of that. We were about to really take off. We had the new contracts, we had a whole bunch of people we were gonna sign and really establish the label. But Bernard's tolerance for not making money ended it and at that same point we're we would have taken off, we took the whole plan with us [to Northern Spy]. We didn't have to plan that much to start Northern Spy. We changed the name and actually didn't have to deal with the people who didn't trust us anymore, which is great. All this stuff [of N-Spy] would have been on ESP. We were already in touch with Regina Greene, who's the manager of Neptune, Chicago Underground and Rhys, all of it was connected already and the connections we made over the years.

Were there artists signing with you at ESP who had reservations because of Bernard?

Abbs: Yes. A lot of those things were stalled but in the works. It was me saying "Listen, you're going to be dealing with me, not him and trust me." I put my word on the line for a lot of artists like "You're gonna get paid and this and that."

Was Bernard a presence at the ESP office?

Abbs: He was there. He's a lawyer and had other projects, other intellectual property type of things he was working on for many years. He really wasn't involved [with ESP]. On a daily basis, he'd come into our part of the office like once and we showed him reports once a month and that was his involvement for three years.

Do you follow what ESP is up to now?

Abbs: Up until six months ago, they hadn't put out a release since we left. We had to put two releases out a month just to make the bills. So they did a year and a half with no releases. I don't know how they paid the bills. They just started doing reissues again a couple months ago.

Did people from ESP come with you to N-Spy?

Abbs: The accountant that was at ESP for seven years came with us. He's gone.

Do you know if musicians are still looking to be paid by ESP and if Stollman is paying them?

Abbs: I'm the one who got people paid. Bernard didn't pay for 35 years. Every one of those settlements I did. Certain people will get paid by being loud. They'd get a payment but it wouldn't be for royalties. He wouldn't do accounting. He'd just give them shut up money. Downey: ... or cash out of his pocket. I saw him give Guisseppe Logan cash out of his pocket. He came in and Bernard was scared he was gonna get attacked or something. Abbs: Guisseppe has been ... Downey: Supposedly, Giusseppe had punched Bernard decades ago.

What's coming up on the N-Spy front, release-wise?

Downey: Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear is producing the new Diamond Terrifier record. He certainly has some sort of influence on it. It just has a poppier feel than you'd expect from Sam. I think it defies expectations. It's amazing. He'll be touring in August. Abbs: We're doing a John Butcher record that he recording at the new Issue building. It wasn't at a show. It was just in the space. He uses the acoustics of the empty hall. Downey: We're talking to Justin Fry about doing the next PC Worship record. We're really excited to work with this band. I think Justin makes amazing records that too few people end up hearing. Hopefully we can help change that.

The Spy Music Festival runs from Friday, June 29 through Sunday, July 15 at the Stone, Death by Audio, and other venues across New York City.

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