"This guy blew nonstop for twenty or thirty minutes. After he played, I went over to him and said, 'I'm starting a record label and I want you to be my first artist.' The voice in the back of my head said, 'oh you are, are you?' Six months later, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock recorded the tracks that would be released as Spiritual Unity (ESP 1002): "I remember at the recording, I said to [Annette Peacock] 'what an auspicious beginning for a record label.'
Featuring a silk-screened drawing of a saxophonist in black on a blood-red background, with a drawing of the Gnostic "Y' symbol connecting images of the trio and a booklet of poetry by Paul Haines, the first edition of ESP 1002 was not just a record, but an art object. With eleven more releases ready to hit the shelves (recorded in late 1964 and early 1965), from reedmen Giuseppi Logan and Byron Allen, pianists Paul Bley, Bob James and Ran Blake and the music of the New York Art Quartet, ESP-Disk was launchedincluding Folkways-style wraparound sleeves with pencil sketches and photo-montages of the artists done in a black-and-white documentary style. The ordering information was in Esperanto and the label address was Stollman's tiny apartment on Riverside Drive.
"Around that time, I went to my mothermy parents were immigrants and were affluent, they'd worked all their livesand I said, 'I've found what I want to do. I'm going to document this whole community of improvisational musicians and I'm going to start a record label. I want my inheritance now.' So she gave me $105,000 (which was a fortune in those days) and in eighteen months I produced 45 records."
The label went on, in those first fifty-odd releases, to put out the first widely available recordings by Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Milford Graves, Marion Brown, Charles Tyler, Burton Greene, Sunny Murray and proto-punk by the Fugs, the Godz and the acid-folk of Randy Burns and Tom Rapp's Pearls Before Swine. "Most of the time I didn't know what they sounded like [before putting out the records]to me it was just circles inside of circles... somehow everything worked because they were desperate and the music was happening. Someone had better capture it."
However, it only took a couple of years for ESP to run into financial problems, mainly because Stollman was not aware of the wily nature of some distribution centers and record dealerships. "[graphic artist] Jordan Matthews came to me one day and I was depressed because I'd shipped these twelve releases and they weren't selling, but I was getting interest from critics in Europe and Japan and offers to license them. By and large, we were struggling, the money was disappearing and I was feeling pretty low... the American public isn't interested in this music."
"Jordan said, 'you've got no problems. You've got the Fugs.' I said, 'what do you mean?' 'I've talked with them. They're very impressed with what you're doing and they want to be on the label.' They wanted to be identified as artists with the whole ESP phenomenon." For a brief period, The Fugs (on ESP 1018, 1028 and 1038) were a consistently-selling artist on the label, until they signed to Warner Bros. in 1968 (ESP didn't require contracts for its artists"we were a farm team ).
In the late '60s, Stollman contracted with Philips and JVC to release selected titles from the label in Europe and Japan, under the Fontana and Globe monikers: "they had an opportunity to lease them for two years and then they dropped it." Though some titles were released, Stollman wasn't paid in full for the license. Also, in the late '60s, Vietnam was one of the major sticking points in world relations and it even came down to ESP and its countercultural image. "What they licensed was anti-war and it's entirely possible that Philips decided they didn't want to be spreading music which criticized the American government."
The US government was, during the Goldwater period, also closely monitoring the activities of countercultural businesses: "I had a staff member who was from the intelligence community and he tried to wreck the company... he worked constantly to try and undermine me and antagonize artists towards me. He was a monstrous individual." By this time, ESP was in serious financial trouble: "I was out of business in '68, but I kept going for six years on money in the bank. I was just disregarding the reality, but I went on putting out new records... [with the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine] I had three albums moving to the top of the charts and overnight, it was done." In 1974, ESP officially closed up shop; Stollman put the masters in safe-deposit box and became, for a time, a New York state prosecutor.