PORTLAND, Ore. — When Peter Buck released his solo debut, the guitarist wanted to share the news with R.E.M. fans. His former band had sold 80 million albums before disbanding in 2011. So he posted the contacts for his new label, Mississippi Records, on the R.E.M. website.
A few days later, Buck ran into Mississippi’s founder. Eric Isaacson seemed amused.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I gave out the phone number of the store,” Buck said.
“I know. I got there at noon and the phone rang once a minute,” Isaacson said. “So I unplugged it.”
Buck is smiling as he recounts the exchange on a recent weekday. He’s just picked up a Thelonious Monk record at Isaacson’s store. And he’s not a bit concerned that the phone incident cost him sales on a record that included R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker. He’s actually tickled.
“Most people would have hired an extra person to write these orders down because it was a big seller,” Buck says with a smile. “He had one phone.”
The experience speaks to why he has a handshake deal with Mississippi. Other record labels hire publicists, send out email blasts and commit artists to the interview circuit. Not Isaacson. He doesn’t even offer CDs or digital downloads. And if you want to buy a record, you better have cash or a check. Mississippi doesn’t take credit cards.
It is a label as wryly iconoclastic as its guiding force, a quiet but opinionated figure who favors flannel and a knit cap and started the label back in 2003 fully expecting it to fail. Instead, Mississippi has survived and grown, despite a business strategy that’s more about self-regulation than expansion.
Isaacson is not interested in tapping into the vinyl record revival that finds hipsters slapping down $27 for an audiophile reissue of “Sgt. Pepper’s.” He measures success by a growing catalogue and a loyal fan base, some of whom subscribe to a special mail-order club that basically relies on Isaacson’s taste. Mississippi’s release schedule serves as a kind of sonic box of chocolates. He releases records when they’re ready, not to abide by a quota, and he’s not afraid to follow African funk or ’90s grunge with a pair of identical twin sisters whose main skill is yodeling.
“You may not like everything, but you trust it enough to give it a shot,” says Nathan Salsburg, curator of the Alan Lomax archive, which has collaborated with Isaacson on several projects. “You’re trusting him, you’re buying into his aesthetic vision.”
Isaacson doesn’t use a computer, preferring to write down all transactions in a small notebook. He’s not greedy, seemingly grateful just to be in business. And his label is not just an extension of his life – he loves music, which he says saved him from an isolated and lonely childhood – but a link to virtually everything he’s been able to accomplish.
The label allowed him to buy a modest house, which he shares with a pair of roommates. It also allowed him to purchase the corner building that houses Mississippi Records and a neighboring restaurant. He does not seem to need much more.
He drives a 1999 Camry and, whether business is booming or lagging, he caps his salary at $1,000 a month.
And as much as Mississippi may be benefiting from the vinyl revival, Isaacson remains proudly independent. He doesn’t do Record Store Day, the marketing event created by independent sellers in 2007 (“overhyped, disgusting”), list on eBay or stock pricey reissues he feels manipulate the market and take advantage of customers.
Asking to explain his philosophy, he describes why he unplugged the phone after Buck’s record came out.
“It’s a fragile ecosystem, this label,” he says. “Underground scenes are like mushrooms. They need darkness to grow. There seems to be a certain amount of integrity and I can’t be overexposed. Peter’s record sort of put it in danger. That I could become too big, too fast. I’ve seen too many other companies lose sight of the aesthetics of the company and keeping it small, where all the employees are happy. That’s just not a world I want to live in. I don’t even know how a record company that’s successful like that operates.”
Nobody signs with Mississippi Records to get rich. But for somebody like Michael Hurley, the outsider folkie who has recorded for multiple labels since his 1964 debut on Folkways, the reward is a transparency rarely seen in the music world.
Hurley’s deal could be written on a Post-it note. Mississippi presses 2,000 records. The artist is given 500 of them to sell at his gigs for $15 an album. He can keep all that cash. Other artists are paid up front. It’s just easier that way, rather than waiting for sales to come in.
“There’s nothing about this guy you don’t see,” says Hurley, 75. “If you don’t see it, it’s not there. This guy’s right on the table.”
That also goes for artists who are no longer alive. Isaacson finds their records during his travels, some out of print, others on shellac 78-rpm’s from obscure, defunct labels. Once he decides to make a record, he does his best to track down the descendants of artists so they are not only aware of his plans but can share in the small amount of money earned from sales.
Take S.E. Rogie, the West African singer and guitarist who died in 1994. Isaacson decided to release a compilation of his early work in 2013. He found Roger Rogie, the singer’s son, who runs a software company outside Los Angeles.
“What’s different about Eric?” says Rogie. “Honesty. Eric pays his bills.”
Isaacson, 41, never expected to run a record store, never mind a business. He grew up in Los Angeles, hating the city and struggling in school, where he spent much of his time alone. He read voraciously, listened to everything from old blues records to Iggy Pop, but he wasn’t particularly ambitious.
“I envisioned myself being a janitor,” Isaacson says. “My greatest dream was to work at a record store or video store.”
Just before high school, Isaacson left California for Portland to live with his Uncle Paul and Aunt Natalie. (His father had died when he was 13, and he and his mother were struggling to get along.) He felt at home in the more laid-back, less career-obsessed Pacific Northwest, where it was OK for him to skip college to work in a deli or as a janitor or ramble around in a rickety, old Econoline collecting records.
“I never owned a CD. I never went digital. It was expensive. I already owned a record player. I already had a tape player. Why would I want to add anything to my arsenal? I thought CDs were a scam from Day One.”
The record store was more of a pause than a plan. In 2003, Isaacson was walking around the Mississippi Avenue district, a spot that’s today dotted by boutiques and coffee shops but was then sketchy and in need of a makeover. He stopped to look at a building he remembered seeing a band play at and, at that very moment, the owner emerged. What would you do if you rented the space, she asked. Maybe a record or a video store, Isaacson replied. She said that sounded like a great idea and struck a deal to rent the storefront for $500 a month.
A year later, in 2004, Isaacson launched the label with a compilation of 1920s sides from Washington Phillips, a gospel singer who played on a zither. Honest Jon’s, the London-based independent store and label, heard about the Phillips record.
“We probably ordered 10 copies and started ordering them in batches of 20 and 30,” says Alan Scholefield, Honest Jon’s co-owner. “It’s such a one-of-a-kind. I didn’t think anybody knew what that instrument was. I think it was marketed as a child’s instrument. We sold loads of that record. It was clear right away that this label was very similar, very close to our hearts.”
In 2013, Isaacson purchased the store’s new home and launched the subscription service. Again, there is nothing complicated about it. You can mail in a check or give him cash to create a tab. As records are released, he’ll send them and subtract from your account. It is not an exact science. Some years, Mississippi has released as many as 40 records. Other years, as few as 15. He charges about $10 a record.
But the subscription plan sets Mississippi apart from other small labels. Sub Pop Records, the Seattle-based label that famously launched Nirvana and the Shins, used to run a similar service offering singles. But buyers at least knew they were getting indie rock.
“With Eric, you could be getting anything,” says Salsburg of the Lomax archive. “It’s whatever Eric’s into.”
Sometimes, Isaacson gives lectures. He actually calls them slide shows. With notes scribbled on lined paper and a digital projector, he will talk about the sometimes lost recordings he loves, particularly as they relate to his own label. One slide show focuses on Lomax, the legendary folklorist whose collection of field recordings spans more than a half century and stretches from chain gangs in Mississippi to fishermen in Italy.
Isaacson has always admired Lomax’s obsessive desire to share what he loved with others, even if it was deemed uncommercial.
In that spirit, Isaacson ran afoul of Smithsonian Folkways, the nonprofit label that issues so much music he loves. It came in 2014, when he decided to reissue the Anthology of American Folk Music, a 1952 set that many consider the Holy Grail of the ’60s folk revival. Isaacson had contacted the Harry Smith Archive, which represents the estate of the original box’s compiler. Things get murky from there. Isaacson thought he had the right to reissue it on vinyl. Buck loaned him $90,000 and he pressed 2,000 copies of an eight-record set in a lavish, wooden case.
Then Smithsonian Folkways learned of the release. The label holds the registered trademark on the Anthology. Its 1997 CD reissue was acclaimed and won two Grammys.
“This is our flag-waving, all-time best-selling, Grammy-winning reissue, and Harry Smith is really part of the legacy we’ve been stewarding,” says Atesh Sonnenborn, the associate director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Instead of sic’ing attorneys on Isaacson, Sonnenborn called and listened to his explanation. In the end, Isaacson signed a letter of apology and promised not to produce any more copies of the set.
“I think he dealt with us straightforwardly,” says Sonnenborn. “I can’t speak to his innermost ethical stance, I don’t know what’s going on inside of him, but I will say he’s sincere in what he does and trying to do something that’s of value in our society. And he did it with full belief that he had the right to do it. I just think he’s a man of limited understanding.”
That may or may not be true.
Isaacson politely declines to talk about the Harry Smith mishap – he says he can’t, according to his agreement – but Buck has his own theory.
“That’s kind of Eric,” he says. “He got it 90 percent of the way and said, ‘I want to do it, so we’re just putting it out.’ “
It is a Saturday afternoon. The store is humming. Customers scour the shelves. Hurley and one of Isaacson’s old girlfriends – he is currently single – chat at the counter.
A woman asks if there are any more copies of the G.I. Gurdjieff record, in which the late Russian philosopher improvises on a harmonium. Nope, sold out the run.
A record dealer, John Ritchie, stops in to search through the store’s 45s. He comes in because he knows Isaacson doesn’t charge what he could for used records. So it’s fairly common for dealers to visit and return back to their own stores with a haul that they, in turn, mark up for profit.
Just after lunch time, Isaacson takes a call and walks away from the counter. He’s pacing and his voice is raised.
“I do not have all the numbers from you,” he says. “I can’t negotiate a deal like this by combing through emails for random numbers.”
An angry musician? A scorned distributor? No, two of his friends, who used to run a small label, have split up as a couple and as business partners.
“I was an idiot,” Isaacson says. “I was like, ‘Oh, since I’m friends with you both I can help.’ I take on the role of negotiator a lot. It’s a terrible habit of mine.”
He takes his place behind the counter and starts pricing used records. Elvis Costello’s “Trust” for $6. Crosby, Stills and Nash for $2. R.E.M.’s “Reckoning” for $10.
And then a man approaches. He blurts out, for no particular reason, that “my girlfriend’s really getting into Patti Smith” and hands over a record by the German experimentalists, Can.
“Do you have a way of searching your inventory?” he asks.
Isaacson doesn’t look up as he scribbles down his latest sale in his notebook with a red pen.
“Just my head.”