Literary Labels

One is round and plays recorded sound; the other is rectangular,
conveying words and pictures. Otherwise, records and books can both
communicate artistic inspiration, something to which a handful of
book-publishing record companies can now attest.

In the 1990s, the record company Ellipsis Arts started
publishing books to accompany some of their CDs. Their recorded
anthology Gravikords, Whirlies and Pyrophones, which
featured music played on invented instruments (plucked bike wheels,
bamboo saxophones), cried out for illustration and textual

Brooklyn-based Akashic Records took the next logical step —
publishing books without any musical accompaniment — and actually
became Akashic Books in 1997. Founder Johnny Temple, bassist in the
band Girls Against Boys, says he ‘got enough musical satisfaction
as a musician.’ His strong political sensibility and eclectic
literary tastes have led Temple to publish nearly 40 titles,
three-fourths of them novels — including Arnaldo Correa’s Edgar
Award-winning mystery, Cold Havana Ground. Noteworthy
nonfiction titles include Bandits & Blues
Bibles: Convict Literature in Nineteeenth Century America
We Owe You Nothing (interviews from Punk Planet magazine),
and The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About

Chicago-based Drag City has struck a balance between making
books and making music. As Lisa E. Reardon reports in the weekly
Chicago Reader (Dec. 19, 2003), six years after
the record company made its publishing debut in 1997 with
Victory Chimp (a novel by a musician in one of the label’s
bands), books accounted for 12 percent of the company’s sales.
They’ve published about a book a year, and their best-sellers have
been two books by the late guitarist/musicologist John Fahey.
Vampire Vultures is a wild ride of self-psychotherapeutic
folk tales about ‘cat people’ and a godlike figure known as ‘the
great Koonaklaster,’ as well as thinly veiled autobiographical
accounts of being sexually abused as a child, hyperlucid
confessions, and letters, one to a would-be author who slept with
Fahey and then ripped him off. How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My
is an earlier volume that also blurs that arbitrary line
between fiction and nonfiction.

Reardon sees a ‘trademark irony’ tying together Fahey’s words
and the music of Drag City recording artists such as Smog. But why,
after 33 and a third years of putting out eclectic sounds,
representing everything from Colombian cumbia to pop
artists Nanci Griffith and George Thorogood, would Rounder Records
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, decide that its publishing debut
should consist of three books, two of which concern baseball? Turns
out that Rounder co-founder Bill Nowlin is a longtime baseball fan,
an author of baseball books, and now co-editor of Rounder’s
forthcoming The Fenway Project, which looks at a single
major league baseball game from the perspective of 61 fans.

Maybe it’s all about passion. Nowlin writes that over the years
Rounder has released albums ‘simply because we like the music and
believe in it, not because it looks like a moneymaker.’ With a
credo like this inspiring these new book publishers, listeners and
readers alike may be richly rewarded.

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