The survival of Three Lobed Recordings—or for that matter, any such small independent label—during the last sixteen years is in and of itself a significant story. Founded, helmed, and operated almost entirely by Cory Rayborn, a business lawyer based in Jamestown, Three Lobed has withstood two decades of sometimes-cataclysmic changes in the music industry. Those same downward trends have caused many of Rayborn's peers to founder and, in some cases, shutter.
In that same span, Three Lobed has instead flourished, evolving from a label launched merely to issue albums by Philadelphia psychedelic drifters Bardo Pond into one of the country's most dependable, adventurous outlets for wayward rock and folk explorations. Just last year, Three Lobed issued two brilliant solo guitar titles (Daniel Bachman's acoustic River and Tom Carter's electric Long Time Underground) and a series of five split LPs, titled Parallelogram, shared by the likes of Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Kurt Vile, and Durham singer-songwriter Hiss Golden Messenger. And that was a somewhat thin year for the label.
This weekend, Rayborn throws an all-day Sweet 16 party for Three Lobed, the kid he continues to raise in the big basement of his Jamestown home. Many of the label's standbys, including Bardo Pond and brilliant singer-songwriter James Jackson Toth, will be on hand, making somewhat rare appearances in support of the rare label that acts more as a fan than a business.
Taking a break from desk duties, Rayborn spoke with me about that philosophy and how it relates to Three Lobed's longevity and success.
INDY: This is the sixteenth year for Three Lobed, which remains for you very much a side project. To what extent do you run the label as a fan, rather than the owner of a small business?
CORY RAYBORN: I'm trying to put together a way to present a record to the world. Whether finding the right voice to use for an essay or presenting the record to writers for publicity purposes, I'm going to people as a fan of something I'm into, hoping they may be into the same thing. I write all of the copy in my label updates, for instance, and it speaks with a singular voice. I'm trying to interest people and move attention toward things I'm doing that I think are worthwhile or important. That is the fan side. When I have worked on shows, I try to put together things that would be fun to go to if I weren't doing it myself. I have a vision for how I want to do it.
Has the dynamic of being a lawyer whosometimes works with music by day and being a label owner by night and weekend changed during that span?
The longer I have been a lawyer and the longer I have done a label, I've learned more about both sides of that coin and how the two interact. I'm better able to make commentary or parse out language in a contract than I was ten years ago. But it has not changed my approach. I don't have any contracts with anybody. It's all verbal. I help people with contract stuff they have, but I never draft my own. Nothing is written down. I only work with people I'm friends with or have a degree of trust in. That's probably going to bite me one of these days, but the cobbler's children definitely have no shoes with me.
Three Lobed is interesting in the sense that it operates on two planes: To some extent, you nurture young artists who move on to bigger labels, like Steve Gunn. But big artists, like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, also come back to you for smaller projects. How is that possible?
All these people know that I'm a fan of what they do first. From looking at the greater body of work, they know how I want to do things and how I want to present their work to the world. There are downsides to being a one-man label, but overall I'm only doing things if I think I have something to offer, and if it's something I'm interested in and really want to do.
I'm very cognizant of where the boundaries are, too. If someone's got some long-term, multi-record deal but we want to do something, we talk around the outline of what we can and can't do. That's usually a pretty easy dance. Some of these folks have technically exclusive deals, but the labels aren't going to enforce that stuff all the time. That makes it easy to keep a working relationship with folks who I have long, close ties with. I once used to think of this as a hobby, and I don't anymore. But at the same time, I'm not going to be selling one hundred thousand copies of anything I do. It's all purposefully lower scale. That makes it easier to coexist, because I'm not competing. I'm augmenting someone's larger legacy.
There's so much talk about shifts of scale in the music industry and the battle for survival. For a one-person operation that doesn't depend on the label for income, is it different?
I am insulated to a degree because there aren't sales quotas to hit. It's not a situation where, if this one title doesn't do well, I'm not going to be able to pay the mortgage. But I do feel stresses and pressures from the same factors that are bearing down on the larger music industry. People are less inclined to buy tangible things, which is where I still spend most of my time and what I'm interested in doing. While I don't need to meet certain sales goals, I still need people to buy records, or I can't keep doing it at some point. It's not going to be a bottomless pit of putting money in one direction and not watching it come out the other. As sales continue to slowly dwindle through types of media, I could see having to be more selective on the types of things I do or the timetable.
At the same time, though, the vinyl market has expanded. Since that's the primary vehicle for the label, has that offset the larger trend?
There's an element of that. My stuff is on almost every digital outlet, but most of the digital money flows through to the artists. I am very cognizant of how records and the occasional CD do, because that's how I measure the label. The increased interest has a good side, because there's a bigger audience looking for what you're doing. But there can also be the downside, because that increased demand as a whole can cause some problems. Everyone is bandwagon-hopping and doing more vinyl, and that slows things and creates quality control issues. But I'm still doing things the way I have done them most of the time. I'm not seeing too much indication I need to change my path.
You've mentioned the work you do withThree Lobed being worthwhile or important. In your mind, why is it?
There is a lot you can do as one person if you have the time and the effort and you're willing to organize and work. I do not mean for that to sound like I do all of this stuff on my own. I'm clearly not a musician. I'm clearly not a graphic artist or designer. But I'm good at putting all those parts together. I do think there is something to be said for orchestrating that. It's not the eighties, and it's not people calling around setting up tours at VFW halls. But there is still an element of that out there. As one person, you can still do a lot to help cultivate a scene and help voices be heard who you think more people need to hear. I'm trying to engineer that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Streaming Media"