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

chicagoundergroundduo_2012.jpg
Peter Gannushkin/downtownmusic.net
Chicago Underground Duo play Roulette on July 15 as part of Spy Music Fest.
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.


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