For this month’s Label Spotlight, we chat with Miriam Linna and Billy Miller of Norton Records, purveyors of primitive, retro Rock and Roll, Rockabilly, Garage, Proto-Punk and early R&B for the past 27 years. Norton Records grew out of a love for records, first out of Billy selling Miriam a record by The Lollipope Shoppe back in 1977, and then out of their co-published fanzine, Kicks, devoted to obscure Rock, Soul, and Rockabilly (still the best fanzine ever in my eyes!). In 1986, they published an article on Hasil Adkins that received a response so intense that they decided to form Norton Records in order to reissue his music.
Fiercely independent, Norton has stayed true to their artists and fans even since, especially in the wake of the loss of their storage warehouse during Hurricane Sandy — more on that shortly. This month sees the release of a new two volume compilation series, 20 Pounders, to serve both as a label sampler and to coincide with a series of Sandy anniversary shows.
Ok, Miriam and Billy, let’s get started…
Can you give us a brief overview of the label and its history?
Miriam: Norton Records was born in 1986. We’re a Brooklyn label and took the name of our hero Ed Norton, the sewer worker character from the Honeymooners TV show, which was based in Brooklyn. We had begun publishing a Rock n’Roll fan magazine called KICKS in 1979 — it was focused on great unknown records, where we tried to get the stories of the artists and labels, and wrote about these record and artists. We involved our like-minded friends as contributors, never accepting ad revenue from anyone except fellow contributors and fans. We have always felt that fandom and integrity were cornerstones of what we do. We’re an independent label and publisher. We do not have investors, advisors, or financial wizards to answer to. With Hurricane Sandy, we received nothing from any insurance company, and we did not take any public assistance from FEMA or any other federal, state, or city organization. Our survival and comeback as a label and publisher has been fueled by the energy of our artists and authors, our faithful followers — all true believers in the music that continues to thrive in the hi-octane world of Norton Records.
Tell us about an album that you put out that taught you the most about running the label.
Billy: Our first album OUT TO HUNCH by Hasil Adkins was our debut as a label, in January 1986. We made 500 copies and expected to go to the grave with 400. But we loved it and soon found that everyone else did, too. It’s still in print and a week doesn’t go by that we don’t get asked questions about it. So we were in the deep end of the pool right off the bat, learning about distribution, record pressing, promotion, dealing with the press, taking Hasil on the road — having a successful release right out of the gate taught us pretty much all the basics.
Miriam: Billy’s right. Aside from the learning experience, OUT TO HUNCH was a declaration of what Norton is about and continues to express that fact that we issue music that we are gone-crazy about, and that we want people’s cranium’s to crack over!
Hurricane Sandy affected you greatly. Can you describe the outpouring of support you experienced and the significance of the 20 Pounders compilations (out on November 12th)?
Miriam: Total destruction of our place of business, our life’s work, virtually all of our stock, personal collections… gone with the wind. We were astonished at the worldwide efforts to make the label float, from the umpteen locals — friends and new-found friends, people with expertise on specific issues, all coming forward — it was the trip of all trips. It felt like a dream going through it. Getting to bed exhausted in the wee hours, and getting up to go back to Red Hook’s watery grave, day after day — every morning I’d have a split second of thinking, “wow, I had the craziest dream,” and then I’d realize it wasn’t a dream. And it was off to the salt mines. There was a lot of grief, confusion, railing at the fates on a spiritual level. I honestly have no clue how we would have survived in spirit, let alone as a label and publisher, without the motivated thousands of supporters who selflessly buoyed our survival and, really, rebirth one year later. The spirit comes forth in these debut volumes of POUNDERS which are random samplers of Norton Records. If anything, they show the intensity, the excitement, and the attitude that we want the world to recognize as “Nortonian.”
You also have a series of shows this month to mark the Sandy anniversary. Who are you most excited to see?
Billy: All of them! It will be the first time we will see La La Brooks perform as a Norton artist. We’re looking forward to getting together with all the Norton fans and supporters. Should be a blast!
Miriam: Every musician on the bill is tops. Personally, seeing and hearing two of the groups that impressed my teenage brain forever — The Flamin Groovies and The Sonics — on one stage on the same night — will forever galvanize us in knowing that this music is what it’s all about. Nothing mysterious about it — Rock n’ Roll is here to stay!
What piece of advice would you give to other label owners?
Billy: 1. Don’t ever think your day will end at closing time. 2. Get everything in writing. 3. Be one step ahead on anything you do.
Miriam: Go with your heart. Release only music that you could defend to your dying day. Be responsible. Do it right. Don’t give up. Hang in there, baby. (Maybe I have an alternate career in recreating motivational posters!)
Where do you see the industry headed?
Miriam: Our stubborn love of vinyl makes us stand by our years-ago declaration that we will make vinyl records until all the vinyl forests are chopped down and grow no more. And we will do exactly that. But we also understand that the music is what is in those round little records with the grooves on them. We grew up as radio fans, and know that music and its arrival in any given location is electric — we know we need to make our music, by definition, “Norton music” available by any means possible — we are grateful to The Orchard for making that happen. Our initial doubts about whether physical format will be killed by digital music have been quelled in knowing that our “real records” coexist with their digital alter-egos, and actually support each other.
What are your must listens for 2013?
Miriam: Personally? 20 POUNDERS VOL. 1 and VOL. 2. As advice to others, be they dyed-in-the-wool Nortonians or new initiates to The Loud Sound, POUNDERS VOL. 1 and 2. This is the tip of the Norton music iceberg — climb on over. It’s COOL up here!