Interview: Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square Records on His New Book and Running an Indie Label


Tompkins Square founder Josh Rosenthal and his daughter overlooking their home of San Francisco.
  • Tompkins Square founder Josh Rosenthal and his daughter overlooking their home of San Francisco.

When it comes to the music business, Josh Rosenthal is familiar with change.

The Grammy-nominated producer spent the ’90s working a variety of jobs at Sony, back when CD sales were peaking. At one point he even had a hand in helping local band Lamb of God land its record deal at Epic.

Then the bottom fell out thanks to the Internet. He left Sony and in 2005 started an independent label, Tompkins Square Records, now based in San Francisco. Since then, the 48-year-old has established an impressive track record of unique releases within the genres of folk, old-time, gospel and American Primitive guitar. These include artists such as Daniel Bachman, Alice Gerrard, Charlie Louvin, Ryley Walker, Michael Chapman, Roscoe Holcomb and many others.

Rosenthal’s thoughts on record collecting, the music business, and many of the inspiring artists with whom he’s worked are covered in his entertaining new book, “The Record Store of the Mind.” It’s really about the joys of listening and discovery -- something any music lover would appreciate, especially those who may not have had the talent to create music but found a way to make it integral to their lives.


Rosenthal will give a reading at Steady Sounds this Sunday, April 10, at 3 p.m. He’s scheduled to appear with quirky folk singer Diane Cluck of Charlottesville and guitarist Mark Fosson from Baltimore [see videos below].

“I’m also going to lunch with [Plan 9 co-founder and owner] Jim Bland when I’m in town. He’s an old friend,” Rosenthal says. “Last time I was in town with [guitarist] Dan Bachman in 2013, I found some great shit at Plan 9.”

Rosenthal grew up in Sysosset, Long Island (known for homeboys, Lou Reed and Billy Joel), where he was childhood friends with the soon-to-be-famous comedy writer and film director Judd Apatow. You might notice similarities between Rosenthal and the record label executive played by Paul Rudd in the film, “This Is 40.”

Some of the most interesting chapters in the book are the personal ones in which Rosenthal discusses growing up around music, interviewing artists in high school and within college radio. He once got Elvis Costello to show up on air by dropping some cassettes off at his hotel and sending a limo for him.

Personally, I’ve been dealing with Rosenthal by email for around 15 years -- he was the guy who helped restore country legend Charlie Louvin’s legacy near the end of his life, bringing him to Ashland Coffee and Tea for a memorable show.

Unlike some publicists who hound and call you at work, at home, on the weekends and around the clock leaving messages -- Rosenthal mostly lets the music do the talking. But he’s just as committed, if not more, to his artists.

It was a pleasure to finally talk to him by phone from the Bay Area.

Style: I guess we could start with you giving me your thoughts about modern-day record collecting.

Rosenthal: Well, I think there’s a light side and a dark side. The dark side is all this looking and seeking and trying to have something very few other people have -- there’s something psychologically messed up about that. You see the dark side in a lot of record stores and record fairs. There are a bunch of guys who really don’t seem very healthy. They don’t seem like their hygiene is together. I mean, what is that? Is there an emptiness that needs to be addressed, you know? A hole that needs to be filled? Sometimes I think about that and it deters me from over-shopping.

Then the light side of it is: It’s endless. That’s what’s fun about it. I keep getting older but I keep finding new things from the past. It’s such a deep well. How is it possible all this great music was committed to vinyl so long ago? It’s just mind-boggling.

Right now, I’m working on this “Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8,” which is completely dedicated to American Primitive guitar, private press stuff. I have guys who are producing it and working on it, but there’s tons of unbelievable shit I’ve never heard out there -- and I think I know the genre pretty well. So really there is no end to it. I’ll go to my grave still finding stuff that is interesting and cool. It’s a miracle ....

Of course, things have changed. There’s more demand and there’s less high-quality collections. That’s one thing record-store owners will complain about: the lack of high-quality collections in good condition because there’s so much competition for them.

Seems like there’s also the light side of turning people onto music they might’ve missed. You started your own label and you’re sharing with the public. Putting it out there without the chance of making much money from it.

The joy that I get it out of it too, is many times I become involved with a family member of a deceased person whose relative made music -- they were passionate but never reached any kind of an audience. I’m bringing it back to the fore, I’m doing publicity and their loved one gets recognized. Of course, there are dozens of people still with us who I’ve worked with who I feel never got a fair shake. For instance, I did a record the other day with [rock/blues guitarist] Harvey Mandel in the studio and it was incredible. He’s 71, sort of known to some hardcore fans but not really. He is such an awesome musician and he’s had 20 cancer surgeries. Just to give him that experience of cutting a record at his age with young guys ... those human elements of it, I really enjoy. That’s just thrilling for me.

So what is your favorite city for record stores?

I like it out here [in San Francisco]. There’s a huge concentration of record stores in the Bay Area, and new ones all the time -- three new in the city proper lately.

My favorite though is the Thrifty Hippy [sic] in Petaluma. They also sell jewelry and used clothes. The dude who runs it is a super-positive guy, kind of a hippie. Very welcoming, really nice, he’ll cut you a deal. He’s not all caught up in the Discogs thing, where, “Oh, this record is 30 bucks.” A lot of the fun of record shopping has been stripped out by two things: the reissues -- a lot of stores have loads of reissued vinyl, which is good that people have access. However for someone like me, I like to look for original pressings of stuff, so they’re kind of in my way.

The second thing is now proprietors know how much a record is worth, almost to the dollar because of Discogs -- it does take some of the fun out, the unpredictability. It prevents them from getting ripped off too, I know. But in the old days, it was basically guesswork or whatever [price tag] the record-store guy put on there. There wasn’t this strict watermark of price.

However, you can still go junking, find a garage sale, flea market, if you want that kind of experience.

Of all your jobs in the business, which was most fulfilling?

Being at Sony was great. Working with incredible musicians [Public Enemy, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam] and some of the executives who really inspired me and taught me stuff, or mentored me. I think for the time it was awesome to be at Sony because we were selling so many CDs, that was like the heyday of the music business. Toward the end of my tenure, the old model was toast. They couldn’t figure out what to do. It was, “We can’t sell hundreds of thousands of CDs at Best Buy anymore, and we don’t have an alternative.” That time, the first decade of 2000s was bad -- and it was a bad time to start a label, but I did it anyway.

Back then you worked on the Robert Johnson box set that did so well, selling over a half million copies -- did that help kick-off the reissue or box set craze?

It was a heads-up for people. A lot of it was from celebrity endorsements, people like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. And the press kind of followed behind that. Also, it was the first time that stuff had been reissued since the LPs in the ’60s. I played my little part in that -- people at Columbia were like, “What are you doing talking to NPR?”

Today, that’s like a first-stop place. But in those days, you went station to station.

I’ve got to ask you about your efforts to help locals Lamb of God. How did you first come across them?

It was kind of a fluke to be honest. I was in a record store randomly, I think in Philly, and I saw the CD of “As the Palaces Burn.” I bought it just on spec, I liked the name of band and the CD looked cool. I played it in the car and it blew me down, it was the heaviest thing I had ever heard.

So I knew this great metal A&R guy at Epic who had worked with the Clash -- he was Japanese and really doesn’t speak English well. And I had gotten close to him and enjoyed being around him. No ego, down-to-earth guy. He was on this quest, he would always say, “Need new Korn.” What he meant was Korn was dying and all we had were shitty bands like Mudvayne.

I heard [Lamb of God] and thought it might work, I played it for him and we signed them pretty quickly. I didn’t get any benefit from it financially, but I’m proud of it. They sold millions of records. And I gave the company what it needed at that moment. It was just something cool that happened. [Drummer] Chris Adler might remember me. He was a real gentleman and sent me a note thanking me for my part in it.

The chapter about your boy Judd Apatow was interesting. Did you ever confirm with him that you were (to some degree) the inspiration for the record executive character that Paul Rudd plays in “This Is 40”? The guy who is trying to revive Graham Parker’s career?

We don’t talk about that stuff. He’s got “Freaks and Geeks” too, and I see shades of myself in a character or two there. I don’t know. We rarely talk about his creative [work]. Of course, I did send him the chapter before it was public to make sure he was cool. But nothing I said was anything he hadn’t already talked about publicly.

I had a conference call with him and his team of writers when he was making the movie about getting certain things right, like the lingo of the record business. That was as close as I’ve ever come to being involved in any of his projects.

We’re friends. I’ve never asked him for anything, never needed to. Our relationship is more like -- he’s still my high-school buddy. To his credit, he’s pretty humble. He knows what he’s doing and what his talent is -- and he’s been enormously successful. But he’s still the same neurotic kid I knew.

There are so many little funny moments in the book. I was stoked to read that when you were growing up, you interviewed the great Shirley Hemphill from “What’s Happening?” What was she like?

Shirley Hemphill, R.I.P.
  • Shirley Hemphill, R.I.P.

[Laughs] It’s funny, I just recently gave Judd the autograph that I got that night. Judd was just here in town with that blonde actress doing stand-up, what’s her name -- Amy Schumer -- so I put that in my pocket and presented it to him that night.

I don’t remember much from the Shirley interview. Just that she was really nice. Judd probably has the tape.

Oh, and I laughed out loud when I read the quote you got from punk legend GG Allin where he said, “My high-school principal used to tell me I was a penny waiting for change.”

Oh yeah, I don’t have that tape anymore. That interview was set up by Gerard Cosloy from Homestead. When I was talking to GG, he told me he was in jail for having sex with his brother.

People might be curious: Where do you learn about obscure artists you might want to reissue? Are there any places more fruitful than others?

There’s really no formula. When you’re on the road, you come across different opportunities. Some people will slip you something. You find a record you want to reissue. Different things happen.

I don’t have any real talent. I can’t tour. The only way I can tour is by reading my book and that’s got a limited window. It’s not cost-effective for me to go out with artists like I do with Daniel [Bachman], and I have kids here.

But it’s very valuable. It’s nice to meet people like yourself who I’ve been emailing with for 15 years. Make contact with real-life human beings instead of hovering over your computer all day, which I have to do.

Where are we now with the record business? According to Nielsen, 2015 marked the 10th straight year of growth for vinyl units (nearly 12 million sold last year) while 45 percent of vinyl sales came from independent record stores, all while streaming continued its upward climb.

Still, seems like people have reason to worry.

I try not to get involved too much in the macro aspects of the business because I can’t control it. What I can control is the quality of my creative content. I try to stay with that and not worry too much about the rest.

However, I am concerned. We’re moving toward a two-format business. CD is dying. Mp3 is dying. Streaming is up, but not generating anywhere near the kind of revenue and margins anyone would expect. So that’s really worrying.

I don’t know -- vinyl and streaming? Is that really going to do it for everybody?

Vinyl is nice if you’re an indie rock band and you can sell 10,000 records, you’re in great shape. But if you’re like me and everything you put out is basically like a bunt base hit, and maybe you make 1,000 LPs, sell 600 out of gate and have to worry about selling the other 400 over time. Then you have this excess inventory that’s paid for and not moving. That’s not with everything. But if you put out something quirky that maybe is not going to get NPR and Pitchfork or any of those things that move the needle for you, you’re just going to bump along.

Are music blogs moving the needle at all for you?

I think those things are great, but I don’t know if you can quantify what happens when they write about something of yours. If you get a Pitchfork review that’s 8.0 or higher, you’ll sell records for like, 48 hours. Same thing with an NPR hit. You get a blip and it’s nice and good, but it’s very short-lived.

If [media attention] is all you’re about, you’re going to be very disappointed. Even the best media you can get won’t really drive sales that much. It’s better than not getting it, but it’s not time to pop the champagne.

I’ve been lucky with this book. You called me. Washington Post, Boston Globe, on all my stops it seems like I have something going. But I make no money on the book. My margin really sucks -- it’s almost as bad as the one on a CD. I’m only making a dollar or two a book, it’s just the way it is ... and I don’t care.

I can’t control what the media will do. In order to stay in this game, just concentrate on things you like, the music you’re passionate about, the best you can.

Josh Rosenthal reads from his book "The Record Store of the Mind" at Steady Sounds Records on Sunday, April 10 at 3 p.m. He will be accompanied by musicians Diane Cluck and Mark Fosson.