How Cultural Narratives Inspire Don Giovanni Records’ Independence

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, known as Sammus, is a rapper, producer and PhD student signed to Don Giovanni

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, better known as Sammus, is a rapper, producer and Ph.D. student signed to Don Giovanni. Justin Joffe for Observer

Joe Steinhardt is not special, he tells me in The Knitting Factory’s green room on a cold February Friday. And the label he’s built up to shine a light on his hometown scene in New Brunswick, N.J., Don Giovanni Records is not special either.

But to the 60-plus artists who’ve released records through Don Giovanni that span punk, hip-hop and comedy, this label is changing the game. Since founding Don Giovanni in 2003 with his best friend, Zach Gajewski, Steinhardt has transformed the label into a full-time commitment, all while managing to get his doctorate in Communication along the way.

Of greatest interest to Steinhardt are the narratives surrounding the music he loves—what story is this artist telling, and what life circumstances inform their work? As such, Don Giovanni’s roster is refreshingly diverse, inclusive, and tough to codify, standing wholly outside the culture industry at large.

Steinhardt first hit me up last fall and invited me to Don Giovanni’s New Alternative Music Festival in Asbury Park. Refreshingly devoid of sponsors, “branded experiences” and all the other dreck that music fans are used to dealing with at these things, the festival put DIY values into action. It even had a mission statement:

There is an alternative to music released and distributed by three multi-national corporations.
There is an alternative to music festivals as branded experience for millennial males.
There is an alternative to music steeped in sexism, racism and homophobia.
There is an alternative to corporately managed bands.
There is an alternative to music as a commodity.
There is an alternative to corporately run music festivals.

Now we’re meeting at The Knit as bands file in for the second night of Don Giovanni’s latest showcase. During the prior night’s performances, it fast became clear that Steinhardt didn’t need to be there to tell anyone’s stories for them. Nerdcore rapper Sammus told the crowd about growing up upstate as one of the only black kids in her school, and some shitty classmate who didn’t even try to understand her feelings of otherness. In refreshingly transparent banter, Mal Blum told the crowd of their struggles with anxiety, exacerbated through relating to someone who tries to control you.

“What’s the first thing that fascist regimes actually do? They start censoring culture.”—Joe Steinhardt

Steinhardt and I discussed why you can’t dismantle a system from the inside, why being truly independent means more than being on a smaller imprint of a major label, and why putting Don Giovanni’s artists onstage is a form of resistance no charitable donation can match.

We talked about the week’s announcement that one of Don Giovanni’s biggest acts, Downtown Boys, had signed with indie giant Sub Pop Records. And we arrived at the conclusion that artists need to own their own stories again, their own work, their own art.

“When some future human or alien race digs this up, what are they really gonna find?” Steinhardt asked. “Our art, our culture. They’re not gonna find out how much money Goldman Sachs made in a year, they’re not gonna care about anything besides what we create.”

Joe Steinhardt: I appreciate you doing [this]. I think they all can’t make enough money. Publications are closing, getting bought. The best music writers I know are writing about food, or something where there’s more jobs.

There’s a lot more collusion in music journalism, and arts journalism in general, because it’s entertainment—more branded content, more photo ops. I’m sure this is something you’ve at least brushed up against.

Oh yeah.

Do you consider yourself a curator of your hometown scene?

No, I think of myself more as a documentarian than a curator, if that makes sense? A curator has taste, and is selecting things that fit that taste. I’m more shining a flashlight, or a camera, documenting what’s happening in a scene rather than trying to form a scene. My goal is to let things happen and think of it more as documenting. I hate the word “curate.”

It’s so bougie.

It’s not the bouginess of it. Someone was telling me they were curating a festival, and to me, here’s the problem with curation—it’s the antithesis of what punk and DIY is about, which is that anyone can do it, that anyone can do anything. So anyone can do what I do, anyone can grab a camera and take a picture, anyone can write an article. And curation implies that there’s some expertise that you need. I remember when that word first came about, maybe six or seven years ago—

—Outside of galleries you mean?

Outside of art galleries, “this show was curated by” takes away the fact that a show can be booked by anyone. Now you need a curator.

“Anyone can do anything, and not just that, everyone can do everything. No one’s fucking special.”

My trouble with the word notwithstanding, I’m starting to put together shows, just as a fan, and I’m trying a way to codify what I’m doing.

You book shows! [Laughs] I book shows, I booked the show tonight. I don’t think I really curated it; the show curated itself. You know what I’m saying? Anyone can make a fanzine, anyone…the point about what what I do is that anyone can do what I do. There’s nothing special about me or Don Giovanni, it’s just that I’m doing it tonight and you’ll be doing it tomorrow. The concept feels natural to me because that’s how things were in the punk scene where I came out of in New Jersey. At some point this concept vanished from punk and I think that’s a really important notion. Anyone can do anything, and not just that, everyone can do everything. No one’s fucking special.

Well that’s a stigma about creative people—when people ask you what you do at a party, it’s never plural. And it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around someone who exists in multiple contexts. That’s the trouble with longform too. It’s hard to present complex connections to people.

And that’s why I like longform. I think it’s your best shot at presenting something deeper than just “here’s what’s out there tonight.” And so I tell people I do everything, everyone I know does everything.

You’re a doctor of communication?

Yeah, the stuff I study is pretty esoteric. I look at risk and health communication.

And that’s why you’ve said there’s no tangible thread, that you separate the two worlds?

Yeah, there’s not a good thread.

Izzy True

Izzy True @ Don Giovanni’s showcase on 2/2/17. Justin Joffe for Observer

Something that’s been coming up a lot in my conversations lately is this idea of accelerationism and hypernormalization, as they relate to media consumption and the 24-hour news cycle. Do you think there are conscious efforts afoot by capitalist, moneyed interests, be they conservative or liberal, to facilitate that?

Yeah, because you’ve gotta make money for somebody else now. We’re seeing a tightening. The top’s always been tight—people were complaining in the ‘80s, the ‘70s that the media was too consolidated. But we’re seeing even more consolidation at the top, that’s maybe switched from media companies to tech companies. That’s the shift we’re seeing now, from the big three media companies to the big three tech companies that have even more dominance—Google, Apple.

They’re compiling media now, too. AT&T bought Time Warner, right?

Yep, and it’s all merging. As a result of the ownerships, the media is just slurry to them, and they’re just throwing it out there. They don’t care if I’m consuming a piece that you’ve spent a week researching and writing or if I’m consuming a photo of a topless celebrity on the beach. They don’t care because they own both that topless photo and you. And they own everything in the middle.

I’m thinking about writing a book over the next few years, and that’s something I’m going to have to grapple with as a freelancer. If I want to pull from any of these great conversations I’ve had over the last few years—

Who owns them?

Not I!

That’s the point, and that’s what you’re seeing. But that’s why independent labels are more important than ever, and that’s why independent values are worth fighting for. To be honest, I have a bleak view of the future for independent music. I’m not sure if it’ll be a thing in five, 10 years.

Without the resources to do the ratfuckery that they do, sending out press materials and orchestrating campaigns, you have to step up your game in turn.

It’s not even that. I can compete on a physical level. It’s the digital shit. And they’ve always controlled certain infrastructures—they control radio, they control end caps at big retail stores, they controlled pricing at Walmart when that was a real thing that mattered. An independent song’s never made it to top 40 radio. Maybe it’s on an independent label that’s then partnered with Sony to get it on radio and Sony gets a bit of that.

That’s what distribution means, when we hear that a major label is helping distribute?

Yeah, to radio or to stores. Sony has an independent arm. That’s Orwellian—an independent arm owned by a major label. They think that’s real. By their definition of independent music, artists like Taylor Swift are quite literally independent, because she sits on this label called Big Machine, which does all this work with major labels.

“Who owns those models? Who owns these new ideas? I don’t want any multinational corporations controlling the entire culture industry.” 

It’s a semantic co-opting of the word and the ideals and the ethics.

At the level of Taylor Swift it’s just good business. She gets a better deal with Big Machine. So there’s reasons for it, but the idea of independent has nothing to do with Dischord or Lookout! or us.

That’s why I rush to the word curator I guess. Because you’re someone who’s brought a lot of emerging bands to that next step, to that next audience waiting to hear them. And you’ve done so gratefully without any of the classic drama we’d see on VH1 of the old manager suing for royalties or any of that shit. I think there’s a selflessness involved here that operates wholly outside of that infrastructure, and then the challenge just becomes, how do you not stay cynical.

I don’t stay cynical because there’s still a real fight to be had. And we’ll lose that fight—independent film kind of had that fight in the and lost. There’s really no such thing as independent film anymore. They tried to have films distributed outside of the major motion picture companies and they lost that fight. Music’s kind of wrestling with that right now. [But] there’s still a chance, and that’s why I’m not cynical.

Well we’re seeing these new models for distribution emerge now I guess.

Yeah, but who owns those models? Who owns these new ideas? All you’re really doing is shifting control from Sony to Apple. There’s no difference to me between Sony and Apple. Major labels’ powers are minimized, but now we’ve maximized Apple and Google and Amazon’s powers. I don’t want any multinational corporations controlling the entire culture industry. We’ve seen some of these new models just shift the power from music companies to tech companies. [Laughs]

They haven’t figured out how to solve some of the things that true independent or DIY infrastructures do really well. The grassroots label throwing a secret show, the reality of playing a last-minute secret show at a small venue when the band is in town. There are some things that you have to be present with people or just frequent a space or live in a neighborhood to get.

Right, and on that level, that is why these “independent” labels that are basically majors have a role, because they can react to things faster, deal with less higher ups. And if I’m a pop artist, yeah, I don’t want to deal with those people either, I want a middleman. But I’m trying to fight all of that shit with what I’m doing.

Let’s come back to this idea of you seeing yourself as a documentarian, because it’s a really interesting frame for looking at  the music you release. Had I never met you before, and only based my assumptions of the wizard behind the curtain on the bands that he books, I’d take you for some pockmarked California liberal waving a wooden picket signs. You know my point. You take a lot of risks, well not risks, because it’s all great music, but you go out of your way to include people who are perhaps aesthetically or culturally outside your own demographic and your own history.

And that’s the benefits of an all-ages space, too, I guess. It’s for the queer kids, the kids who might not be old enough to get into a real venue where they can vanish into the dark and dance for a few hours.

If I never got into this before I was 18, I never would’ve gotten into this. That’s an important point.

You were at this event at Rutgers a while back and it made me wonder, what’s the pulse like between the label and the college community?

They recently opened a music archive, archiving the New Brunswick scene, maybe that’s what you’re talking about?

Yes.

Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females at 4 Knots Fest '15

Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females at 4 Knots Fest ’15. Justin Joffe for Observer

Well it actually opened this year, but two years ago they were announcing it, and that’s when they had me and Marissa [from Screaming Females] and Jim and Ronin come and do a panel. Jim’s been doing this Jersey zine called Jersey Beat my whole life, maybe doing it for 30 years, and Ronin wrote a book about New Brunswick and was in a political band I used to listen to a lot in high school. Jersey Beat broke shit like The Feelies and Yo La Tengo.

Do the hallowed Jersey indie bands have any notable contemporaries from New Brunswick?

Well the big New Brunswick band was The Smithereens, but I never really got into them. New Brunswick’s always kind of had its own thing. It’s definitely got a college-town feel, but you could be there and not see any signs of college there.

What passions inflamed during this talk? I heard Marissa said something about how Rutgers didn’t support art.

Oh yeah, well that was the thing—we were at Rutgers doing this panel on the New Brunswick music scene, and Marissa and I wanted to make it clear that one of the biggest threats to the scene was Rutgers. We brought that up on the panel.

Just as an expansive business and landmass, eating resources and properties?

Yeah, but to a bigger extent there’s an arts community in New Brunswick that the school could be fostering or putting money into. Who has the most space in New Brunswick for legal performances? Rutgers has a million fucking rooms.

And they’re not taking advantage of them.

Not only not taking advantage of them, going out of their way to not let that kind of stuff happen. So that’s what we brought up. There are all these spaces that we could be booking shows in.

Maybe you just need a student committee to advocate for it.

No, we’ve had that happen. That’s the thing—the school could have this and make this a thing that keeps happening, but they make it very difficult.

“So when a band leaves, on the outside it looks like a success, but on the inside, I ask myself, where’s the failure? It’s good for business, but I’m not talking about business. I want to know, what happened?”

Politics?

Probably. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been getting more involved with the city there. We’ve been doing these outdoor shows working with the city, trying to win some minor little influence with them and say “you should put more resources into this.” They’ll give us a bit of money, but it’s not real money, and we’re seeing how that goes. We’re trying to build a better relationship with the city to show that the arts community is really important there, and maybe they’ll nurture it. We do a free show every summer, [Chris] Gethard hosts it, Screaming Females plays, Downtown Boys, and it’s big—we get hundreds of people there.

Congratulations to Downtown Boys, by the way. They had a big week.

Yup…I wish they were still doing records with us, but you can’t fault them there or anything.

You’re like a mother whose kids are constantly going off to college. Are you wistful about it?

It’s not so much wistful, and it’s not success or failure. It’s more that I have to look at it like, “Am I not able to provide enough without the label infrastructure of Sub Pop, and if not, why can’t I provide that?”

So you have to look at that critically every time [this] happens, and figure it out. As a label you make more money passing off your bands, because now somebody else is spending the money to promote them instead of me. But that’s never been the goal of the label.

The goal has always been to keep the bands here. So when a band leaves, on the outside it looks like a success, but on the inside, I ask myself, where’s the failure? It’s good for business, but I’m not talking about business. I want to know, what happened? I forced myself to grow over the years to serve my bands, and I do a lot of things I really don’t wanna do.

When it seems like they’re really violating my personal ethics and values about music I won’t do ‘em, but some things are things I’ll do that I just happen to think are stupid. Like we go to SXSW now and do a showcase there, and I think that’s fuckin’ stupid. But when we go there, it’s on our terms. There’s no sponsors, it’s all ages, etc.

And I deal with Spotify now. They’re one of the most vile companies, but our bands want to be on there. I’ve offered, “Do you want to get off Spotify?” “No.” “Then I’ll schmooze with them and try to get you on these dumb fuckin’ playlists.”

I’m here to serve the bands because if I don’t, then they have no choice but to leave for labels like Sub Pop. So I’m proud that at least with Downtown Boys, they had a choice—us or Sub Pop. It’s not like they had no choice.

And I don’t think I failed with them. Because I can’t fault them for trying out something different, but I’m proud to be able to say, “You can do all this stuff with or without Sub Pop.” We’ve had bands play Coachella, we’ve had bands that were on MTV and license songs to video games and films. You can do that stuff with us, or you can do that stuff without us. I never want bands to be able to say, “I can’t do that stuff on Don Giovanni Records.”

Those are very tangible benchmarks of ascension, but I think on a very simple and basic human level, too, you’re there for them. What was that band last night after Big Eyes?

Mal Blum and The Blums.

You got the singer a beer! That’s what it comes down to. And this is obviously someone who’s very talented and can totally fucking rip, who’s very transparent about the shit they’re working on in their own life with that banter. Fostering a sense of community that intimate for someone with so much talent who’s finding out how to be themselves in a creative ecosystem is important.

Well I was kind of drunk last night and saying, “this is important, this is power.” Why am I doing this when I don’t take money from this? I think culture is the most important thing, that’s why I study communication. What’s the first thing that fascist regimes actually do? They start censoring culture. They don’t build prison camps first, they start censoring books. Why did they burn Helen Keller’s book in Nazi Germany? Because if you see that someone like that can write a work that beautiful, all of a sudden you can’t put them in a camp.

Mal Blum and the Blums shreds

Mal Blum & the Blums shreds @ Don Giovanni’s showcase on 2/2/17. Justin Joffe for Observer

Why is Trump fighting with SNL? Because culture’s important, arts are important.

That’s why Rex Tillerson got on Twitter a week or two ago and said that he actually supports the National Endowment of the Arts. We’re America’s greatest export.

Oh yeah, and that’s why this stuff is so important. You’re giving [someone like Mal Blum] a platform to say this kind of stuff, that’s a big deal. People usually don’t get platforms to say this kind of stuff. They’re usually sitting in the audience or at home. And that’s also why keeping control away from the establishment is important.

How can we help our artists have a loud voice without needing to join Sony? Or be someone like Beyoncé, who is protesting through the establishment? The establishment’s controlling that, they’re getting all the money from it. With every dollar she spends protesting, they might get three dollars against it.

That’s what the trippy BBC doc Hypernormalisation suggests. That even these channels of art and culture we think we’re absorbing from a countercultural lens or a subversive means have this monied interest driving them and putting the work out there, that the things we think are feeding our own heads are really part of someone else’s narrative. And you can make your own narrative when you completely withdraw from it, can’t you? We’ve seen how narrative has been hijacked over the last several months.

And that’s what I was getting into at school. I study the importance of narratives. I think about narratives a lot, how we tell stories and how that influences reality and politics. That’s why it’s important to keep cultural narratives in the hands of the purveyors, not corporations. A lot of art comes out of major corporations, but what have they done with that power? They’ve worked to destroy artists.

I imagine you don’t care much for the word “content” either.

I never thought about it, but I’m also not a journalist.

You know what I mean, though. That’s what happens when you take the story away from the storyteller and turn it into something ubiquitous. I really enjoy having these conversations.

I do too, and that’s what I’m saying—that’s why I go out of my way, much to my own detriment, to not take money from the label to really separate finance and the label. To really separate finance and the label. The label has money, but I’m able to put it back into the label and have it so I could just spend it all on records I’m never gonna sell again if I want to, I have the freedom to truly be able to separate the cultural interests from the financial interests. And that’s the thing that people usually find totally insane about me, but people have been telling me I’m insane about this for 15 years. So maybe I’m insane, but it’s working.

“Operating outside the mainstream though, right now and always—under Obama, under Bush, under Clinton—that’s the most important act of resistance for a business in a capitalist system. Putting the artists that we do onstage instead of ones that might sell more and represent less is resistance.”

Well when everything is inherently political these days, when things are politically stigmatized that weren’t six months ago, you could argue that blending the culture and the finances is the best weapon against that.

It’s so cliche, but I think money is the root of all evil. I’m thinking about The SCUM Manifesto, when Valerie Solanas was talking about destroying all the banks and destroying money. I’m older now [to] where I believe in that in a more mature way than I used to.

Like throwing shit through windows.

This is the thing—I still think it’s worth throwing shit through windows.

The Black Bloc, dude, they punched Richard Spencer in the face. But there’s also something to be said for working inside an infrastructure that you don’t respect to slowly dismantle it from within, or reform it.

It’s funny, I had this discussion with a friend of mine who works at Sony just two days ago, she was there last night and she’s probably gonna come tonight. I was actually arguing the opposite—I don’t know if you’re ever gonna dismantle stuff from within. I don’t know if it’s ever happened before. Everyone’s got this plan, “I’m gonna get into mainstream politics, run for Senate, change everything. I’m gonna become a lawyer and restructure it.” No, no. If you wanna destroy law, you have to operate outside the law, make it work, and then show a new model that works outside the law.

That’s what Kafka said. And Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan’s a genius, but he definitely operates inside the system.

Although they did find him walking around on his own looking at random houses.

I remember that, that made me really happy when that happened. That was in Jersey, too, wasn’t it? I think I really get him.

Big Eyes

Big Eyes @ Don Giovanni’s showcase on 2/2/17. Justin Joffe

Are there any conscious attempts to use your adjunct infrastructure and grassroots channels to feed the resistance around the current administration’s policies and practices?

Oh yeah. The resistance is primarily through perseverance and continuing to do what we’re doing though. Of course at some base level we’ll be doing some fundraising, but I think that’s the smallest thing. What’s the least you can do? The least you can do is give money to important causes. Operating outside the mainstream though, right now and always—under Obama, under Bush, under Clinton—that’s the most important act of resistance for a business in a capitalist system. Putting the artists that we do onstage instead of ones that might sell more and represent less is resistance.

[We talk for a bit about the editing process, and Joe explains how his academic life has trained him to be great at turning things around quickly and his writer brain scrutinizes his own words to tell him how something he said could be explained better.]

So in many ways, with regard to the self-discipline of routine and mitigating schedules, the academic tract has really served your label operations.

They’re also similar in this broad sense. It fits my personality in that being a research professor, I can produce whatever I want to produce as long as it’s enough to keep afloat in this weird way. I get to pick my own research problems and find out how to pay for them, just like with the label.

If only we could get grants for musicians.

I don’t even think we’ll be able to get any federal grants for science foundation research in the future.

I remember when that second Think About Life record came out with a little scrawl on the back saying “This record was created with the assistance of the Canadian government” or something similar.

Yeah, Canada does a lot of that, which is great. The government should be supporting the arts. It doesn’t necessarily mean it should be supporting our art, but the government should be supporting all artists’ lifestyles. Education, healthcare…there are things the government can do to make it so you have artists, because you need artists.

That’s all it is man. When some future human or alien race digs this up, what are they really gonna find? Our art, our culture. They’re not gonna find out how much money Goldman Sachs made in a year, they’re not gonna care about anything besides what we create.

What do the next six months look like for you?

First we do the La Neve tape, Joey from Downtown Boys. That’s 2/24. 3/24 is Kissing Is a Crime’s debut album. 4/7 is Aye Nako’s new album. And this could change because of art issues, but it’s supposed to be 6/1 and it might be 6/15 or later, Lee Bains’ new record.

How do you keep yourself open to new sounds outside of your comfort zone?

I’ve never thought about it.

You like who you like.

Yeah, and that’s what I’m saying about narratives in culture—I’m really drawn to that stuff. If you look at the records at my house, you might not be able to tell what I like to listen to until I talk to you about them. Some of its free jazz and improvisation. I have a lot of outsider private press stuff, a lot of mainstream music, and punk, indie, whatever—but there are threads that go through all of it related to the people making it, the time and place. Outsiders are always big to me—does it come from inside a system or outside of a system?

So you’re really interested in all the context that informs the work. You like to look at through different lenses.

Yeah, narrative’s what it is. Why is that Shaggs record so good?

The story around it.

And why do some people say it’s so bad?

Yeah.

I listen to a lot of early blues, folk, and jazz, when people were making their own instruments and making up their own rules. I listen to a lot of field recordings, just people trying to express themselves literally however they could. But I also listen to a lot of polished stuff too. Singer-songwriter type stuff. Like Iris DeMent, one of my favorite singer-songwriters. She operates outside of the system at this point. She runs her own record label and puts out music on a timescale that has to do with culture, not marketing.

Bill Fay always struck me as someone like that, he’s on his own trip.

Bill Fay’s great, yeah. So stuff like that. Gillian Welch is amazing—her and Dave Rawlings control, release and master all their own shit. There are these sort of narratives that draw me to music more than sound I guess.

Is this the future of how we reclaim our own work? If there’s this consistent pattern across the media industry of the creative class being at the bottom this totem pole, the expandable bottom, is this what we’re gonna have to do to curb that?

Only if there’s not people fighting to operate outside that system. People need options. And whether it’s someone like Gillian Welch, the type of stuff we do, or your local hardcore scene, there need to be people fighting for who owns the culture and not just what it sounds like. Who controls the narratives. Who profits. To me that’s what matters, that’s what’s important. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a record that sounds better than another, objectively or scientifically. Why do you really like the records you like? Either it’s been marketed to you with a narrative, or you made up your own.

How Cultural Narratives Inspire Don Giovanni Records’ Independence