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Big plans abound in the current age. Kickstarted, world-changing, cognitive surplus-enabled, hash tag-ready, on-the-shoulders-of-giants plans, all of which employ the full brunt of modernity’s infrastructures to realize their lofty ambitions. Tom Abbs and Adam Downey are two Brooklynites with a plan—which Downey recently characterized as “to just go for it”—that has lately absorbed their life savings.
In just under a year, Abbs and Downey’s Northern-Spy Records has stepped into the Brooklyn music world and set some big goals for itself. To go with their label’s already dozen-deep catalog, Abbs and Downey’s latest schemes include releasing two records a month during the next two years; throwing a two-day, two-venue, 14-act festival and record fair; and, eventually, opening an arts center/recording studio in Ulster County. But if one thing separates Northern-Spy’s ambitions from pretty much every other home-run label in Brooklyn, it is the way those grand goals are rooted in practicalities. The label has a publishing and licensing back end and solid national distribution, marketing strategies and a business plan, and a heady roster of non-dilettantes unlikely to be tagged with genres playing off the suffixes -wave, -pop, or -fi.
Abbs and Downey make their big plans at a long table in the bay window of Abbs’s apartment, located near the Fourth Dimension Driving School on the unfashionable side of Prospect Park. A full-time office manager and a rotating cast of interns busy themselves in the background. “We have a two-to-four-year plan for every signing,” says Abbs, who does most of the talking. “It’s fun to have that much product flowing through. You’re making babies. It’s like procreating.”
Abbs remains active as a musician—fresh from a session a few days ago with saxophonist Daniel Carter, Abbs’s upright bass is tucked just inside the front door—and he has owned part of the building that serves as Northern-Spy HQ for the past half-decade. The setting suggests a more unassuming New York, a city of reasonable financial expectation and modest entrepreneurism where a small record label dedicated to experimental music might turn a profit.
Both Downey and Abbs know exactly how hard that might be. Both are former employees of ESP-Disk’, the legendary avant-garde imprint founded by lawyer Bernard Stollman in 1964 and re-established in 2005. Once home to Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, the Fugs, and other late-’60s visionaries, Abbs helped spearhead a wave of new signings as the revived label’s general manager. “The artists alone decide,” ran the label’s mantra, but despite it being printed on the sleeve of each release, that guiding principle wasn’t enough.
“Working the ESP table at the Vision Festival, I would sit there and get yelled at by every older musician,” Downey remembers. “They had complaints about not getting paid.” Although ESP’s young staff helped set up a royalty program, a series of falling-outs with Stollman led to Abbs, Downey, and others quitting last summer. A nondisclosure agreement prevents Abbs from saying too much, but they learned plenty. While ESP continues to operate, Northern-Spy seems to be its true 21st-century heir.
The label’s new release board, placed atop an upright piano, plots out the next two years of releases: the prolific output of post-minimalist noise-spiritualists Zs, including side projects, zip drives, a box set, new LPs, and a few cassettes; releases by avant-vets like 200-guitar guy Rhys Chatham and blues deconstructor Loren Connors; and a double LP by the Colin L. Orchestra, led by the former USAisamonster leader Colin Langenus.
This weekend’s Spy Music Festival will double as a mixer and mark the first time many of the label’s acts will meet. Ground has been broken on the Spy Arts Center in upstate Big Indian, where a recording studio will help the label defray production costs. More locally, Abbs notes: “We’d like to have a retail store. It might be another year, but have a retail performance space with our office in the back.”
Northern-Spy does not offer advances to its artists; instead, label and band split revenues 50/50 once an album has recouped (usually after about 800 copies have sold). And—in a move removed from the indie norm—the label owns the master recordings. “All those DIY labels that don’t own the masters and don’t own the publishing rights are not profitable,” Abbs says. “I guarantee it. Our sustainability is built on our intellectual property and our ability to exploit it over time. Quite a few people balked at us. But we’re equally invested in every record, so they know we’re motivated to work on it. And, at the end of the day, if we don’t pay them, they get their master back.”
Abbs and Downey admit that none of the releases have quite made it to their second printings. But that is the dream, not to mention the answer to the now-eternal question: Record labels, what are they good for? As it turns out, music.
The Spy Music Festival happens October 1 at Shea Stadium and October 2 at Zebulon