Dusted Magazine Reissue Interview Series, Volume 1: Acute
Acute Records, in only its third year of existence, has become one of the most high-profile and celebrated independent reissue labels around, specializing in rare post-punk and no-wave recording from the late 1970’s. The label is run by the dynamic duo of Dan Selzer, a DJ and party promoter in New York City, and Todd Hyman, who also runs the electronic-themed Carpark Records and the Animal Collective imprint Paw Tracks. Since their first release, The Theoretical Girls, Dan and Todd have reissued two other projects featuring NYC downtown luminary Glenn Branca, as well as a number of recordings from France’s Metal Urbain, and most recently, the UK’s Prefects, who would later become The Nightingales in the 1980’s.
I had a chance to sit down with Dan and Todd on a lazy autumn afternoon in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where we discussed the recent explosion of reissue labels, the ways in which they shape our understanding of the past, and the newfound relevance of the reissue in an increasingly revival-oriented contemporary music culture.
Joel: Let’s start out by going through the process of reissuing a record. How do you get from the concept to an actual release? In what way are the artists involved?
Dan: Well it’s all about finding people on the Internet, being able to track people down, and that sometimes dictates what we’re going to put out. There are certain things that I think would be great to put out, but we just don’t know how to get in touch with people. Sometimes who we can get in touch with gives us the ideas about what might be interesting to put out. It’s all about the networking. But initially it wasn’t about records, I was going to do MP3s or something. I met Jeffrey Lohn, and I heard all the material that he had, the Theoretical Girls, and that’s what made me think to start a record label.
Joel: When you found these people, were they mostly enthusiastic about getting their stuff back out?
Dan: It really varies. Some people are surprised that we’re even interested in their music… they’ve forgotten about music, they can’t believe anyone would want to hear it. But they say “Yeah, sure, I guess. Do you think…?” And then the flipside of it is people who have this memory of how important their music was, and they expect a lot of it. Sometimes they have to be reminded that it’s just a small reissue label. Record sales have changed a lot. Back during the heyday of the punk/post-punk era, some of these bands were selling six, ten, fifteen thousand copies of seven inch singles. If a band was able to do that today, they’d be on MTV.
Todd: MTV2, maybe.
Dan: Maybe MTV3.
Todd: I think it’s sort of half and half. For instance, with Glenn Branca, we didn’t really approach him, it was sort of through Weasel Walter, he was already ready to get it out, so that really wasn’t as much of an issue. With Metal Urbain, everything was sort of ready, we just approached their manager and said “Can we license this? We really want to be a part of this.” And with the Prefects, Dan just emailed Robert Lloyd.
Dan: Metal Urbain and Branca had a big idea about what their music is worth. Jeffrey Lohn from the Theoretical Girls was surprised that anyone was even interested in his music. The Prefects is right in the middle. Robert Lloyd has had an on-and-off music career since 1977, when the Prefects formed, and it honestly didn’t seem like he cared very much. I think he was more like “I can use the money now, so sure, if you’re going to do a good job with it, go ahead.” He has a really funny attitude about the whole project.
Todd: It’s that kind of laid back, old punk rock attitude, self-effacing.
Joel: In terms of the actual licensing of the music, were their any roadblocks or difficulties? How did you deal with all of the legal matters involved?
Dan: Well that’s an important part of the relationship between Todd and me. I had the Theoretical Girls, I was going to do it, the tapes were all owned by Jeffrey Lohn. There was no hold up, because Jeffrey just owned the stuff. The thing with Todd is that he’s got the lawyer, he’s got the contracts. He knows how to run a business and I don’t.
Todd: With Glenn, it was also pretty easy because he owned the music, so it was basically just a matter of agreeing on details like advance, how long we’re going to license it for, those little nitpicky things. We had a couple of exchanges about it and sorted those things out. With Metal Urbain, it was a little more difficult just because they’re in Europe. We had a little more difficulty getting stuff from them, not necessarily the contractual stuff, but just getting the materials from them. For instance, with the Metal Boys CD, we had planned to have it out a certain month, and we’d already submitted a one-sheet, but they still hadn’t sent us the CD and artwork. After weeks and weeks, we finally get this stuff, and we end up having to delay it for a month. So those sorts of things are kind of annoying. But its been pretty easy for us overall, I would say.
Dan: Well it’s been easy with those.
Todd: And Robert Lloyd owns the Prefects material. The problems have mostly been with things that we’ve wanted to reissue, but we haven’t yet reissued. We’ve encountered a lot of problems. For instance, the Distractions CD is something that Dan had really wanted to reissue, but their main record came out on a major label, and we’ve talked to the label, Dan’s emailed them, and they basically told us they’re not interested unless we can sell 10,000 copies.
Dan: There’s a whole bunch of bands with an issue like that, and obviously that’s not the stuff we’ve put out yet. With The Distractions, the bulk of the material came out on a major, and the attitude that we’re coming down to is that we might just go ahead and do it anyway. In a situation like this, you’re not screwing over the artist, we’re actually working with the artist. I’m completely against the idea of bootlegging. I’m completely against the idea of doing stuff without the artist’s wishes. There’s something that we’re working on releasing now where the music is owned by a record label and not by the artist, but we’re actually communicating with the artist at the same time just to make sure that we’re doing it to everybody’s satisfaction. I wouldn’t want to put out something that the artist wasn’t happy with.
Todd: If the artist owns the rights to their material, it goes really easy for us. The problems that we have are when it’s owned by some guy, or another label. And then, as it turns out with our experiences this far, these people have other things to do… it’s not their number one priority like it is for us. So we have to keep bugging them. We’ve got a couple of reissues that we’ve been talking about for years now, and we’re waiting for some guy to master the tapes and send them to us, something that would not necessarily take a long period of time, but they’re not going to take the time out of their schedule to help us out.
Dan: I don’t mind the idea of doing something like The Distractions CD without the label’s permission, because you’re paying the artist for their music, giving them the recognition they deserve, and all you’re doing is screwing out one of the largest companies in the world.
Todd: But it’s pretty scary. Not only do they own the copyright, but they own the publishing... everything. If they ever found out, there would be a huge lawsuit, even though it’s a minor blip on their agenda.
Dan: The whole point is that they would never notice. Other people have done this and are doing this. That’s why I almost don’t want to talk about it. There was a period where I was trying to move ahead with this un-named major label, trying to get permission, but I realized the further I push them to get permission, the more I would be pointing out to them that I’m going to do this. So if I ever went back without their permission and did it, we’d be worried about.
Joel: Going back to something you mentioned before… the whole idea of a reissuing something that was previously forgotten but now could receive more recognition is in a way giving credit where credit is due. Do you feel that your role is to bring justice to wronged or marginalized musicians?
Todd: I don’t know if they’ve been wronged or marginalized, at least not all the ones we’ve worked with. Maybe some of them.
Dan: Some of them were famous then and have been forgotten. Some of them haven’t been forgotten, it’s just that no one has thought to put the record out, even though everyone’s still talking about them. I even go one step further, and I say this a lot: we’re rewriting history. Not being around back then, it’s hard for us to tell how popular or how influential something actually was. Something might come out now… a Swell Maps CD, or The Homosexuals CD, and it seems like such a big deal. And I wonder… did anybody actually listen to these bands back then? One of our next big projects is 3 CDs from a band who is a favorite of mine, I’m just not going to mention the name until I get a signature on a piece of paper, and I know for a fact that they were obscure then and they’re obscure now. Their records pretty much flopped then and are not remembered now. And yet the few people that do remember them, including myself, think they’re brilliant, and I think that with the right promotion and exposure, they could actually be popular. And I could imagine a situation where if we put them out, within a couple of years people would say “oh yeah, all those classic post-punk bands like Wire, and Joy Division, and…” this other band.
Todd: I think that’s definitely the case. I’ve read reviews where people name-drop Metal Urbain now, and that definitely wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago.
Joel: And there was a whole reunion tour as well.
Todd: Yeah, they’ve toured a couple of times
Joel: So for a lot of these bands, you’re talking about completely reinvigorating their career.
Todd: Well, we didn’t tell them to tour. We’re always kind of weary of bands playing live 30 years after they were popular…
Dan: But they were fantastic.
Todd: That was something they wanted to do, and they just asked us if we would support them, so obviously we did.
Joel: But there’s almost a whole formula now with these kinds of reissues, where you have bands that never really got listened to when they came out, but now after the reissue, they get back together, tour, and find new fans. I’m thinking of something more like The Silver Apples…
Todd: I think Metal Urbain sold more then than they do now. They were actually very popular in Europe. They weren’t as popular here obviously, because they didn’t have distribution.
Dan: They did have a significant music career back then. It’s not like they didn’t exist. A lot of these bands like Metal Urbain had a really tough career, but they were remembered. They were remembered as an influence. I mean, their second record was the first release on Rough Trade, so they were a pretty significant band, it’s just that they never got as far as they should have.
Todd: A lot of the time, we’re working with artists to try and make them more popular than they were. Other times, they may have been more popular then, and we’re just trying to bring them back out into the open so that people who are into this sort of music now can find out what they were about.
Joel: It’s interesting to see how these reissues interact with the contemporary music scene. Do you feel that you can actually have an impact on they way things are going today by bringing out stuff that’s been out of print and unavailable to people?
Dan: It’s absolutely no coincidence that we’re doing what we’re doing right now. People always talk about a twenty-year cycle of revival… In the mid-‘90’s, there was a Metal Urbain CD, there was a Glenn Branca CD, and no one bought them. People weren’t ready for them. Nobody was thinking of promoting them in such a way, and they disappeared. The artists may have thought at the time that their careers were over, and that they weren’t going to have another chance for it to be revitalized. Todd and I were actually listening to that music then and paying a lot of money to get those CDs, and couple of years later, we’re seeing younger kids all over America and all over the world… these new bands doing that style, and it was apparent that now is the time. There’s one project we’re working on, where there was a CD put out in Europe, and they had just let it go out of print. I talked to these guys, and they said “Yeah, we have a couple left, no one wants it.” And I said “If someone put that out in America right now, you’d sell a thousand copies in the first month.” They had no idea. They didn’t have the foresight. They weren’t seeing this whole post-punk revival thing going on now. We’re here in New York City, we’re hanging out with The Rapture, and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and !!!, so we’re hearing this stuff and seeing what these bands listen to, what they’re drawing from.
Todd: There’s definitely a lot of interest in this period of time right now, and that’s definitely to our advantage. I always wonder if the interest is going to go away any time soon, and whether our reissues won’t be as successful.
Dan: We keep telling people that they have to get back in touch with us.
Joel: Because this moment is going to pass?
Dan: Personally, these are bands that I like, and I’d want their music to be in print forever, but I can also look at the market and see that a hip, funky, Dancey post-punk band from the late ‘70’s, reissued right now, would sell. But it’s definitely getting close to being passed its moment. In a couple of years, someone’s going to be like “ugh, another post-punk reissue.” When we started, there weren’t a lot of other labels doing this, there was one or two. Now, there’s a lot of people doing it, everyone from Soul Jazz to Troubleman.
Todd: I think it’s reissues in general, not just in our particular area of music. There’s just been a tremendous amount of reissues in the last few years.
Joel: And it’s the way they’re marketed too… usually, a reissue will come out, and it would be targeted towards the original fans of the music that were around at the time. But nowadays you’re pushing this music to a younger audience that’s discovering it for the first time. It’s almost like they’re new bands in a way.
Dan: That is absolutely our attitude one hundred percent. As a record collector, I relate to the sort of bearded, fat, smelly record collector archetype, and I know those labels exist, those labels who elaborately package things and try to work for that small market, but that was never an interest of ours. The point to me has always been that I’m making a mix-tape for the world. We’re introducing younger kids to older music that they should like.
Todd: And right now, that’s what people want to listen to. People just want to hear this old music. If you get the Other Music email update every week, there’s always some really obscure folk record from like 1967 that they’re praising that no one’s ever heard about… people are talking about records now that nobody knew about even back then. Like Vashti Bunyan reissues and things like that. They were pretty marginal even then, even though they’re great records. Fat Cat is working with Vashti Bunyan now on new recordings, and she’s going to have a new record out.
Dan: She’s on the Devendra record too.
Joel: It seems in so many ways that the indie, underground music scene nowadays is very backward looking and thinking… if new bands aren’t referencing the late ‘70’s, then they’re referencing the late ‘60’s…
Todd: It’s been like that for years now. I was getting tired of it back in 2000, 2001, when the White Stripes were starting to come out.
Joel: But obviously a reissue label is participating in that kind of thing. I guess the word ‘retro’ has kind of a negative connotation, but…
Dan: Here’s the important thing. The reason why some of the new bands might not be as interesting as they should be is because they haven’t been exposed to enough of the old stuff. One thing that made post-punk so interesting was that you had all these punk bands listening to dub, reggae, funk, free jazz, disco, krautrock, etc.… so The Pop Group and Gang Of Four and The Fire Engines, and all those great bands, were drawing from all these different things. Years later, you have bands that are really just drawing maybe from Gang Of Four, and not from the Gang Of Four’s influences. So the important thing to me in reissuing more of this post-punk stuff is that it’s my way of saying “look at the breadth of this. There’s more to draw on, there are more influences, there’s more stuff that’s already been done.” Hopefully, it would make new bands push themselves further.
Todd: I would sort of disagree. I think it’s more that people are always ripping off bands, but in the mid-‘90’s, Stereolab could get away with ripping off Neu! because no one had heard Neu! records. But now, a band can’t get away with just ripping off Gang Of Four or Wire, because of all the reissues around.
Joel: Do you think that’s a positive development?
Todd: Well, it makes it harder for bands to make new sounds, or sounds that people don’t automatically associate with someone else. Now that there’s all of these reissue labels, people are generally more interested in finding out where bands get their music, and it’s become more of a scholarly endeavor to be in a band now, as opposed to fifteen years ago.
Dan: There’s a quote that I always say… it was actually referring to graphic design. This designer Jeffrey Keedy said “designers are no longer judged by their originality, but by the obscurity of their sources.” And that’s exactly what what’s going on right now with music.
By Joel Penney