Brooklyn label Norton Records, back from the brink after Sandy

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Norton Records owners Miriam Linna and Billy Miller. (David Meir Grossman)
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The WFMU Record Fair was as good as place as any for the rebirth of Norton Records. At least it was nice and dry.

On Jan. 13, Billy Miller and Miriam Linna, co-owners of the Brooklyn-based record label, were hawking their wares at the Gowanus music venue The Bell House, holding court among their fellow record obsessives on, among other things, the finer points of '60s Cleveland garage rock, as they were frequently interrupted for hearty congratulations on their comeback.

Three special boxes of seven-inch records were labeled “Hurricane Survivors.”

When Sandy hit in November, the couple hadn’t initially been worried about their Van Brunt Street warehouse in Red Hook, which held most of their inventory. It was an old building, pre-Civil War, but it had been built well and was made to house dry goods, like sugar and spice; perfect conditions for vinyl. It had weathered previous storms no sweat.

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But when they showed up to check things out the warehouse looked like the Augean stables, mountains of cardboard trash and filth covering everything. They’d brought their video camera, and their shock is evident in the footage.

Linna, short, blond, and usually animated and confident with Brooklyn sass to spare, appears dead on her feet.

“It feels like I’m dreaming,” she says. For a moment she seems like she might cry. “I’m gonna wake up and say, ‘Hey, I had a really bad dream’ and people are gonna say, ‘That’s crazy, it could never happen.’”

In a blog post written soon after, Linna summoned a bit of that sass (and Rockabilly vividness), writing that the “insane and demonic combination of the hurricane, the high tide, the full moon and full-on interplanetary wrath resulted in a vortex that tore directly in through the waterways separating Brooklyn from Staten Island and straight into the island of Manhattan.” It had torn right into their precious stacks of vinyl, too.

The video spread quickly, thanks in part to getting picked up by Pitchfork and The Onion’s AV Club, who both encouraged readers to help in any way they could.

Miller and Linna first met in 1977 over a record. It was the 1968 tune “You Must Be A Witch” by The Lollipop Shoppe, which Miller sold to her. Two years later, they founded Kicks Magazine as a place to anchor their love of off-kilter rock. They had each written for more mainstream magazines like New York Rocker, but Kicks allowed them to speak directly to a small core of rock obsessives. Eventually they discovered one-man band Hasil Adkins—a guitarist and drummer whose bizarre yelps about headless women and hot dogs entranced them. Miller wrote a story about Adkins in Kicks and eventually Norton was founded to share Adkins’ music with the world.

Norton puts out “stuff that other labels won’t touch” said Rory O’Shea, a clerk at Earwax Records in Williamsburg, which sells Norton stock. Over the 25 years it’s been around, the label has garnered niche—but worldwide—appeal, with pockets of devoted fans throughout the country, as well as in Japan, Canada, and everywhere in between, fans looking for raw, weird, wild rock sounds, the type of ‘50s-era psychosis emanating from Nicholas Ray’s films and the Cramps’ music (a band Linna happened to play drums in for a few years).

Sandy came at an especially bad time for the small label. Although online sales have dramatically lowered the costs of distribution for such outfits, Norton remains a primarily regional, and a primarily in-person label, and they rely on the annual WFMU Record Fair (normally held in November) for a huge portion of their annual sales.

“It’s almost like overkill,” Miller said of the usual sales numbers for November. “I think we’ll get seven or eight albums ready, books, a lot of repressings. So we were ready to go in with the guns blazing.” Instead Sandy not only wiped out a good deal of the label’s stock but also ended up canceling this year’s Record Fair, a double blow to the label.

Norton had lost 175,000 records right off the bat, including a brand-new series of Rolling Stones cover singles that were supposed to have been their Record Fair feature. The 25,000 more records that weren’t a total loss were going to require serious measures to make saleable. Vinyl is finicky: no prolonged sunlight, no stacking on top of one another, and definitely, positively no contact with water. Norton Records faced an aficionado's nightmare on an apocalyptic level.

Cleaning water-damaged vinyl was one thing, but in many cases the packaging was destroyed, and for an obsessive clientele like Norton’s, the details of album art are particularly fetishized. Like parents whose kids have flown the coop, Miller and Linna proudly recounted the bold colors and designs of jackets that were destroyed in the flooding.

But the couple devised an ingenious solution: Avi Spivack, an artist friend, was commissioned to draw special illustrations for brand-new sleeves that no sympathetic or obsessive fan could resist. In the record-collecting world, there’s nothing more alluring than a limited-edition release.

“These are very exclusive!” Linna said, half-joiking, so they turned the tragedy into an opportunity. This solved a related problem of having something to sell right away to get cash flowing into the business. Donations also came pouring in from a PayPal link on their website as well as from a series of benefit concerts and even mixtapes made by indie gods Yo La Tengo. Favors also came in from every level of the production chain: discounts were offered for sleeves, record stores called to settle up on money they owed the label.

“They all understand the immediacy of it,” Linna said

Money and advice are great, but with tens of thousands of items to clean and dry by hand, time is one thing that no one can help with. WFMU provided some relief by organizig a Wash-a-thon at the Brooklyn Bowl, where WFMU D.J.s played while volunteers sliced open sealed, soggy albums, washed the vinyl, and gave them crisp, fresh inner and outer sleeves in assembly-line fashion. They got through a lot of LPs, but there were many, many more.

Among the roughly 80 volunteers at the Wash-a-thon was vice president of A&R at Sony Records Rob Santos, who turned Miller and Linna on to a small piece of rectangular plastic called the SpinClean. The device, spun gently by hand (almost like pottery-making) cleaned dirt and grime more delicately, completely, and quickly than a person could by hand. Miller and Linna ended up buying a dozen and even recording a promotional video for the device. A second Wash-a-thon was held using SpinCleans, but Miller and Linna still have a lot of salvageable inventory to go through, so the wash-a-thon continues in their apartment.

Right around New Year's, I paid a visit to the Prospect Heights apartment that serves as Norton Records' headquarters and Miller and Linna’s home. But before even reaching their apartment door there was evidence of what was happening: The public corridor was lined with records, and seated among them were two young Norton employees, studiously cleaning them.

Inside the apartment, where every wall was lined with mementoes of rock's back pages—L.P.s, 45s, and vintage posters of forgotten legends like the Executioners, the Midnighters, and Faye—more boxes of salvaged stock were stacked high, creating a labyrith for Miller, Linna, and Queenie, their dog, to navigate.

“People drop in at all hours to do this with us,” Linna said as we surveyed the work happening out in the hall. 

There, methodically and nearly daily, Linna, Miller, and their employees rip jacket covers away, stick albums and singles in cleaning baths, run them through the SpinCleans, stack them between napkins to dry them off, and hang them up for final drying using a system Linna’s quite proud to have concocted.

“This just came to us,” she said, “because the mother of, what is it?”

“Necessity is the mother of invention?”

“Yeah!”

The drying rack is composed of several broomsticks and curtain rods, hanging between the shelves. Dozens of pieces of vinyl sway in the gentle breeze of a fan on the floor.

“We got the ceiling fan going too,” Linna said. “When it’s all going on we could dry hundreds of records overnight.”

At the January make-up WFMU Record Fair, Norton indeed had hundreds of salvaged records for sale. They also had the best table in the house, positioned right in front of the entrance. It was busy for most of the fair, with people perusing the rescued, cleaned, and repackaged records by artists like Sur Royal Da Count, Nothing and the No Names, and “Bucket o’ Blood” (a “Big Boy Grooves” single).

I picked out a single: a Ronnie ‘Goo Goo Muck’ Cook single called “Big Sam’s Plush Cat.” I stuck it on another browser’s portable record player and put the needle down. A little Dick Dale surf guitar, a lot of saxophone, references to some obscure bar that existed wherever Goo Goo Muck was a drinking man. It was a lot of fun.

“Oh, Goo Goo Muck!” Linna said. “He was friends with Mad Mike, the D.J. out of Pittsburgh! What a great guy, Mad Mike. Actually, I think we reissued some Goo Goo Muck stuff….. Here, let me get it for you!”