by Niklas Göransson
Elegy Records, a cornerstone of American black metal, is closing its doors after being forced out of business. Robert, the label’s founder, reflects over twenty-six years of uncompromising underground devotion.
– Elegy Records was founded as an official business in 1995 – that’s twenty-four years ago now, twenty-six if you count the two years prior when it was managed as a hobby. A friend and I founded the label as a means of promoting the music we revered. During the very beginning we dealt mainly in tape trading; I owned two double-cassette systems so we could make tapes quick and with minimal degradation. Back in the golden years of underground music, we’d just pay for the covers and one master and then it was up to us to replicate. I’d make sure to purchase only quality cassettes so we consistently sold good products and things took off rapidly from there. When my friend moved out of Jersey, I ended up taking over all duties myself. The first Elegy release was the debut of ABAZAGORATH, followed by INCANTATION’s “Tribute to the Goat” for which I personally smeared goats’ blood upon the first 666 tray cards.
How did the INCANTATION release come about?
– John McEntee and I were good friends. A band I played in, SOLEMN, shared a rehearsal room with INCANTATION at one point. We had twenty-four-hour access and due to splitting the cost it was exceptionally cheap. However, it was also in the ghetto; no heat or AC, the community bathroom toilet was broken… or should I say, didn’t flush, not that this stopped the degenerates from pissing and shitting into what looked like an event horizon. This all came to an end when one of the other rehearsal rooms was broken into and all of the band’s equipment stolen. Once the police showed up and saw the squalor, the space heaters, and sheer dilapidated state of the place… wall to wall carpeting – and I don’t mean just floors, I mean all the walls as well – the fire chief was called and he immediately forced the owner to stop renting it out. The band that was robbed was MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE.
Following the INCANTATION record, Elegy‘s next release was “Of Great Eternity” – the third album of American black metal solo project JUDAS ISCARIOT.
– I was an immediate fan as soon as Odin from Moribund Records sent me his music, it was so raw and unrelenting. Akhenaten contacted me regarding working together and I was more than willing to release this darkness on Elegy. I communicated with both Odin and Akhenaten, just to make sure there would be no conflict with his Moribund obligations. Odin articulated that he already had more JUDAS music than he’d managed to release at the time so it worked out for the best. The deal was for two CDs: “Of Great Eternity” and “An Ancient Starry Sky”.
The latter never came out though, how so?
– This was mainly due to the amount of recordings Akhenaten had ready at that point. We wanted to promote JUDAS ISCARIOT in the most beneficial fashion possible, one which spread his music and its message without being bogged down in back-to-back releases. When I speak of ‘we’, I’m referring to Odin, Akhenaten, and myself. I’m not betraying any big secrets in mentioning that capital and funding also played some part as we were both still fledgling labels. At the time of inception, most did not hold JUDAS ISCARIOT in high reverence – there was not much widespread respect or admiration back then. But this was not the case with either myself or Odin, we stood fully behind his work. It is for this reason I conveyed first to Odin and now here that I’m leaving him and Moribund full rights to all of Elegy’s JUDAS ISCARIOT releases. I know of no one else who would carry on Akhenaten’s early work with the proper respect.
This is particularly relevant, given how these releases appear to have landed Elegy in one of the most tumultuous circuses of black metal business in recent memory. Upon leaving the black metal underground and essentially severing ties with the entire scene in 2002, Akhenaten specifically made it known that he did not want any of his records re-pressed on vinyl. However, in June 2018 it was announced that Ascension Monuments Media – operated by NACHTMYSTIUM frontman Blake Judd – was collaborating with a number of prominent American labels in releasing all JUDAS ISCARIOT albums on LP.
– Blake, or should I say Noel, contacted me with a very lengthy email. I remember being surprised over how long it was. He wanted to release the old JUDAS ISCARIOT CDs on vinyl and claimed to have secured somewhat of a handshake deal with Akhenaten that if anyone began bootlegging JUDAS ISCARIOT, he had permission to release it proper as long as the original labels were given fifteen percent of the pressings. I forwarded the email to Pat from Red Stream and then called him a little while later. I found out that Pat had recently done business with Blake, or Noel, and he’d always paid up. I don’t want to go into what we spoke about but I told Blake to call me and he did the next day. I only had the rights to release the JUDAS ISCARIOT and WELTMACHT material on CD, not vinyl, so I couldn’t officially give him permission because I didn’t have it myself. Once he found out that I had the “An Ancient Starry Sky” and “Of Great Eternity” DAT tapes plus original artwork, he wanted everything right away, overnight express. I must say that he at this point paid for everything up-front and even shipped me a tonne of merchandise from his label at no cost. He assured me that everything was legitimate and how he’d never do anything to dishonour his friend Akhenaten, who he looked up to. I’ll not place the full blame on Blake as far as him fooling me, I think we all knew that this was the most tenuous of all deals but it was at a time when I could see the end of my label approaching and, as a fan, I wanted to see some of the old dark magic return. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have gone forward with this and it was entirely my own fault.
After a steady stream of increasing online drama, the venture ultimately came to a crashing halt when both Red Stream and Elegy received emails from Akhenaten himself.
– He asked us what the hell was going on and firmly denied having ever given authorisation for these LPs, or the “An Ancient Starry Sky” CD version I’d released. Not an easy conversation to have as I’ve always been one hundred percent honest with all my bands. I explained to him what happened and that I couldn’t do anything about the CD which had already been released but told him I’d cancel the upcoming special version. Akhenaten understood what had occurred on my part. I’m not going to say he was happy with the outcome but I relayed to him how – with the LP of that album being released – unless there was a CD version available it would absolutely be bootlegged. It already happened a long time ago; if you ever see the stupid artwork with Abraham about to sacrifice his son, it was a mock sample done back then and any CD with that on the cover is a total bootleg. I will admit that I’m not sorry about preventing some shitty bootlegger from releasing “An Ancient Starry Sky” on CD.
Rob recalls speaking to Blake on the phone regularly as it all came tumbling down, and initially thought he was going to do the right thing.
– Now, I never offered any counsel as some father figure but he’d often ask for my advice on things. I was angry at what had transpired but implored him not to rip anyone off. I told him to make sure everyone who pre-paid or however they sent money would get something in return. Blake confessed to me some of the problems he was having with everyone calling him a rip-off and all the other invectives cast his way – he even considered changing his name. He was also aware of the trouble brewing here at Elegy at the time. I was absolutely against him using pseudonyms or trying to conceal his identity and so conveyed to him that he’d have to own up to his past and just take the bad insults and everything that came with it. The only thing he could do was to release his titles and prove himself by evidence to be a changed person.
Did you end up losing any money on this debacle?
– I lost no money since I didn’t have anything to do with the vinyl releases. I never did get those original DAT tapes back though – which I wanted – nor did I receive any of the LPs but, honestly, I don’t care. Looking back, there was no real need for him to release the JUDAS material as he was already carrying good titles. I’m not going to pretend as if I know what got into Blake’s mind but perhaps the pressure became too much when people wanted their investment money back. In the end he just turtled up, didn’t respond to emails or phone calls and from what I was told pretended to be some guy from Sound Séance Records. I guess he fell back into the only thing he knew how to do. Drama! Quite the tale told by a fool on a stage with no one listening.
We return to the early days of Elegy Records, in which American funeral doom band EVOKEN played an important part. Their debut album, “Embrace the Emptiness”, was released in 1998.
– EVOKEN is one of my all-time favourite doom bands. I became friends with Nick Orlando, the original guitarist, back when the band first started. I think it was called ASMODEUS at the time. He’d come over to the house for practice; I had two roommates, Dave and Daryl, and they all started FUNEBRARUM together. Nick and I became fast friends and ended up playing together at some point, from just funny stupid shit – with him singing incredibly horrible, like a stuck pig – to old brutal Swedish style death metal. We tried starting a proper band but both of us only wanted to play and record music, without dealing with all the bullshit of performing live. He’s a recluse, as am I, so it became the road never taken.
What are your strongest memories from the metal underground at the time?
– The earlier scene had an absolute magic to it. We had the ‘snailnet’ back then; when receiving packages, they’d be exploding with flyers and ads from other bands, labels, distros, and magazines. There was no instant gratification – you had to actually write to the entity, get postage, and then mail it off. My opinion is that this process made what you were spending your time and money on far more valuable. You held that piece of art in high regard, coveted it, equivalent to the hoarding dragons of old. It was definitely not another hundred gigs of music buried on your D:\ drive.
Since Elegy was operational before the underground turned digital and moved online, I’m curious how Rob experienced this transition.
– Much like a rock-solid punch to the face, to be honest. I’d never have imagined that what started as low quality files would turn into the beast it is today. I was completely unprepared and am honestly still perplexed as to how this is going to work with labels in the future. I was never against mp3s but my philosophy has always been that if you really enjoy the music, then support the band by actually buying their merchandise. I was selling imports for between eighteen and nineteen dollars back in the old days – now they are ten dollars which is, obviously, a big cut in profit.
It’s interesting to note how Elegy Records stuck to CDs this entire time – from the format’s heyday through file-sharing, streaming, and now an all-time low in the midst of a full-on vinyl and cassette revival.
– You are correct about the compact disc being at an all-time low, but it’s still a necessity – I don’t see many people with cassette players these days, especially not in their vehicles. I have a vinyl collection as well as an old turntable and can certainly appreciate firing her up every now and then to listen to some of my old 45s. I stuck with CD for two main reasons: one, I had cultivated a very lucrative deal with manufactures and printers over the many years I was in business and this meant my costs were incredibly low, so despite the lower margins of selling CDs it was still viable for me. Secondly, I’m a grumpy, stupid old man who saw no need to diversify. I could’ve done so much more had I only been more focused on what was to come, but it would seem the future had other plans for me.
Elegy Records is presently in the midst of shutting down operations. This unfortunate turn of events began in August 2017 when the label was cut off from PayPal without explanation.
– PayPal suddenly severed our business ties of seventeen years – I think I activated my business account there in the year 2000. There was never a true ‘reason’ given why they stopped working with me. You’ll find that most of these companies always claim you violated their Terms of Service, which essentially covers everything and anything. The only explanation I received was an email stating that my account was suspended and required immediate attention. Logging in, I saw this triangle with an exclamation point saying I could no longer use PayPal and had to remove all their logos from my website. When I called or pressed further on how and why this happened, I only received the same story of Terms of Service. It was an absolute nightmare as I had customers asking why they couldn’t order. At this point in time I’d say about ninety-eight percent of my sales came through PayPal. It was a major financial setback and my income dropped dramatically that day.
Since all this took place, the same has now happened to Moribund Records and several other underground labels. Rob’s fall-back solution – credit cards – only lasted about a month. Adding insult to injury, he was informed about the cessation of two decades of flawless collaboration through an ‘Invalid merchant account’ error message as he went to process an order.
– Darkness and despair indeed! At this point, I was officially cut off from any form of payment and being able to make a pay-check. The panic at this point was that the order I’d tried to process was worth three-hundred dollars. This credit card company that cancelled me – back some twenty years ago they sent a rep over to look at my setup. This is common, he even ate dinner at my place! But now I was suddenly a promoter of everything vile. At this point I still hadn’t fully grasped the severity of the situation but found myself in survival mode and was able to get credit card processing through Square. I don’t have an exact timeline here but I’d say that lasted for a good ten months before deactivation due to Terms of Service. Things escalated from there, within a week or so Stripe went down and once again I had no means of accepting payment.
Any idea who orchestrated this?
– I don’t know who was involved but no doubt some self-appointed righteous jackass who sees fit to audit what’s acceptable in underground music. I’m not sure if people were actually targeting my payment providers though – it probably had more to do with what was being said about the label online. When I began trying to get card processing, I’d get shut down as soon as it went to the underwriters.
An underwriter is someone who determines if the business applicant fits their lending standards. Alas, checks on Elegy would come back as ‘REPUTATIONAL RISK’, with accompanying red flags such as promoting hate, violence, and rape.
– The promoting of hate and so on was said to me by phone when I called my merchant account, I wish I had that in writing but they’re smart enough not to put it on paper. How can you defend yourself against such allegations when hate and violence are key components of almost all true underground black and death metal? It would be analogous to calling a horror movie creator an advocate of murder. Credit card processors seem to have forgotten their place in this ecosystem. Banks are payment agents; mediums for transferring money from one party to another. They’re not paying us, the customers, the people who give them patronage – we are their source of income. I’m not stating that banks don’t play a role, they do and are compensated for each transaction. Never in the old days would a processor get involved in what you were selling. They might inquire about it but certainly nothing beyond that.
Rob tried circumventing all this by seeking out high-risk processors, the type of outfits which primarily work with online gambling and porn sites. Even they denied him. After additional frantic searching, Rob found a payment provider associated with his local bank that was potentially willing to take him on. They sent an employee over to his house.
– She stopped over and we spoke for a bit, I showed her my flat with all CDs, computers, and shipping supplies. After going onto my website she mentioned seeing no reason why we couldn’t work together. Now, remember she was at the house and looked around my office – the walls are covered with posters, banners, and flags which are not PC by any standards. After the meeting I spoke to her manager and, for a brief moment, it looked like things were going to be okay. I filled out all the paperwork; they make you go through a painful process with social security card, three months of unredacted bank statements, front and back of your ID, business Tax ID, and form after form. A week went by and I didn’t hear from them. I called her but got no answer and left a message, she never called me back and a week later I received a generic denial letter. It was utter insanity. An unquestionable death blow, an e-commerce site unable to take e-payments is obviously not sustainable.
Were you able to get by on savings during this time?
– I grew up in an old-school Italian household and a big part of that was being sound with your finances, so I’ve never spent money on things I didn’t need. I don’t even own a TV. For a very long time I also had part-time jobs due to the high cost of having even the cheapest health insurance, but I couldn’t survive solely on this.
Then, finally, after being denied by essentially all of the shadiest credit card companies, Rob found one that would take him on. I’m assuming this was the next step down from the aforementioned services.
– Yes, this is indeed the last grasp for people in my situation. High risk equals high fees. The stipulation is simple, they get to hold on to 10K of my money as an insurance just in case I decide to do something unscrupulous. I don’t know what they’re worried about other than the content of what I sell. As a merchant I’ve always been golden, never any credit card scams or deceptions. Oh well, I take it as a cost of doing business with them. At this point it came down to making some money or no money at all, and seeing as how I have over 40K in CDs here there really wasn’t much choice. The agent I’m working with told me they can choose to drop me at any time, so it won’t be if but when. I told him the business is closing and running a blowout sale so they understand what I’m doing. If I can’t run this small label my way, then I’d rather just not run it anymore.
How is the sale going and what are your future plans?
– The sale has been fantastic. Moreover, this entire situation has united people like I’ve never seen before. Most of the mails and orders show not only support but sheer disgust over what’s taken place. Even people who do not like the music or my releases have shown support. I don’t think the clowns thought that would happen. As for what’s next – very good question and, honestly, I don’t know. I do have some skills other than the label but I’m almost fifty and what exactly am I going to put on my resume? ‘Ran Elegy Records, you should look it up. Now, how about that job?’ There’s a point of trepidation but we shall see. I have no regrets; I did things entirely on my terms and refused to bend knee to anyone. Buildings will crumble and wood shall rot but ideas and ideals are eternal. Thanks for the interest and for bringing some light on this new trend of de-platforming.