There was a time a year ago or so when things were looking very, very righteous for the East Bay. But it was pure Schadenfreude on my part: Every San Francisco music institution I held dear looked like it was going to be forced to move to Oakland by greedy landlords and space-sucking Internet companies.
In those heady days, I would walk down to Jack London Square at dusk and glare out across the water at the City. “Soon, my pretties,” I muttered, rubbing my hands together fiendishly. “Soon you will all be mine.”
My cackling nighttime displays began to frighten customers at the Barnes and Noble Starbucks, so I stopped doing it. But I never lost hope in the imminent Great Migration, even when things cooled down in the San Francisco real estate market and people and places in the City that hadn’t already been shaken out decided to hunker down and stay there.
Which is why the Berkeley arrival of San Francisco transplant Cory Brown and his Absolutely Kosher record label is such a heartening sign. Brown is relocating Absolutely Kosher’s operations to the East Bay on October 1, when he, his girlfriend, and his girlfriend’s four-year-old son move into a house they bought off Gilman Street.
You may not have heard of Cory Brown or Absolutely Kosher Records, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of some of the label’s artists, like grad-school folkies the Mountain Goats. Or the cranky pop librettist Franklin Bruno. Or country whammy-bar tweakers Virginia Dare. In the past year, Absolutely Kosher has also stamped its imprint on CDs from Portland’s rock instrumentalists the Swords Project, Philadelphia’s electronic popsters Eltro, and the East Bay’s own densely emotional guitar theorists, the Jim Yoshii Pile-Up.
If the mix sounds like a strange one, it is. Ever since the label’s inception, Brown has always looked to adventurous indies like Matador and Merge for inspiration. His moxie shows: In its eleven releases, Absolutely Kosher has managed to put out a consistently impressive roster that veers all over the map, musically speaking.
“People ask me incredulously about why the bands on the label all sound so different,” he says by phone from his soon-to-be-packed-up SF apartment. “It shocks me. It really surprises me. Why would you want them to all sound the same? Why would you want to be able to sum up what the label does so easily?”
Absolutely Kosher’s genre-bending approach pays off, turning customers into avid converts — sometimes a little too avid. Brown, who puts his address on the back of every Absolutely Kosher CD, recalls a strange run-in he had with an exuberant fan recently.
“A month ago, the doorbell rang around dinnertime,” Brown laughs. “And there’s this guy I don’t know standing there. With a female companion. And he’s like, ‘Uh…Uh. Is this Absolutely Kosher Records?’ I’m like ‘Yeah, this is it.’
“He’s like, ‘Hi…uh…uh. I was listening to the [Mountain Goat’s CD] Coroner’s Gambit today, and it rocked! It’s great!’ And I’m like ‘Holy shit! These guys are in my neighborhood!'”
Having the cachet to sign gush-provoking musicians like the Mountain Goats seemed beyond the pale when Brown started Absolutely Kosher three years ago. Back then, he had a lot of record-store and music distribution experience under his belt, but his experience at running a label was woefully small. Undaunted, he sold nine hundred of his CDs on consignment at Aquarius Records to get the seed money to put out his first record.
Since then, finding bands who want to work with him has become easier. Though he’s quick to point out that the indie record business is not the income-generating hobby many perceive it to be.
“It’s more difficult now for independent labels than it ever has been,” Brown says. “Especially with the damage the major labels did in the ’90s by sucking up and spitting out independents and removing the energy and community from the underground, or at least diluting it. I think we’re still really feeling that.”
The sunnier clime and improved parking situation in the East Bay, though, should make things a little easier on Brown. Well-wishers who want to drop by and welcome Absolutely Kosher to the neighborhood will have to wait and get the address off the label’s first East Bay release, due out in January. metronome diary