Record labels are a dime a dozen these days. As I write this, and as you’re reading, chances are there’s some musician sitting in front of their computer, uploading some demos they
recorded to Bandcamp under a rinky-dink name as a label. In the age of the internet, the middleman has gone the way of the dinosaurs while the artists and advocates have the endless marketplace at their fingertips to inject music into the masses.
To stand apart from the herd, a label has to be a bit different while remaining a reflection of the community it’s supporting. That’s what New Brunswick, NJ-based Don Giovanni Records has been doing ever since Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski founded the label while attending Boston University back in 2003.
Gajewski hasn’t had any involvement in Don Giovanni in nearly a decade, while Steinhardt
has taken the reins of the operation. One of the many things that makes Don Giovanni unique is its focus on the independent music scene of both its home state of Massachusetts and New York. That’s primarily because Steinhardt is from New Jersey, and he’s been involved in the city’s scene since before his college days.
“During that time, I was going down to New Jersey and New York at least once a month, if not more, as much as I could,” he says, talking about the start of Don Giovanni Records. “That was still a scene that I was a part of and involved in, so that’s why the label had that focus at the beginning. After I graduated college, I just moved back to New Jersey and kept running the label there.”
He reflects on the time that’s passed: “It’s interesting how things have changed, in a lot of ways they haven’t but what really changed is how I’ve grown, so has my own definition of what punk is. I still run the label in a lot of the same ways as when I started it in college when it was just me, my dorm room and a closet. I still handle everything as much as I can.”
Steinhardt admits that, “The internet changed things a lot, especially with social media emerging a year or so after Don Giovanni started. It could be for worse, but what [it] did was turn regional scenes into scenes based more around common philosophies and identities. I kept kind of documenting that same type of thing which went from being a regional focus to more national because of the community I was in spreading around the country.”
Don Giovanni’s roster is wide-ranging, with the likes of Philadelphia experimental poet, musician and activist Moor Mother, New Brunswick punk trio Screaming Females, Long Island singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson, Birmingham, AL rock and roll act Lee Bains III and The Glory Fires, Manhattan anti-folk and comic artist Jeffrey Lewis, and Ithaca rapper Sammus being a few. While it may appear to be eclectic, Steinhardt argues that they’re all part of the community that he’s immersed in, citing that many of the acts on the label have collaborated.
“A lot of our artists play shows together and they’re from the same community, which is how I got connected to them. Moor Mother has opened for Screaming Females, I actually went to school with Sammus, and it’s a similar thing with Lee Bains. What this represents is artists who want to operate outside of the system and in a certain way that embraces the punk, independent, DIY ethos.
“With our roster, I can’t speak to their specific views but with a broad stroke we’re all very
interested in things like social justice and being part of a true countercultural movement and a true independent movement.” He adds, “I think those things do and always have gone hand in hand, but sonically there are all kinds of stuff that aren’t really saying the same thing. I can point to so many things that sound like punk, hardcore, thrash or whatever but they don’t embody the ethos, then point to things that you might not even think sound like music but embodies everything that punk and hardcore are about.”
Steinhardt believes in music and art with a message. Without that kind of substance it’s irrelevant to the world. “I’ve never been interested in music that says nothing,” he explains, “If it wasn’t important and it didn’t say things while having real meaning and real power for social change, governments wouldn’t censor it nor would they try to control it and make their own. I think there’s a clear understanding that this stuff has power and I’m not interested in stuff that doesn’t acknowledge that.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Don Giovanni, but Steinhardt says it’s still too early to see what’s on the other side of the horizon. “I think it’s not as productive to predict it as it is to think about getting through it, picking up what’s left and seeing what we can do,” he says. “When the pandemic started, things were looking really grim and there was a period where people started really buying music online at unprecedented rates. It felt like that could be sustainable and our artists were getting the biggest royalty checks of their career and it was replacing the money they would normally get while on tour. Then that subsided, people are not spending as much money.
“On top of that,” he adds, “there have been production delays so all of the records people are ordering aren’t actually getting to them. People also aren’t ordering new things because the first ones they’ve ordered haven’t gotten to the labels yet, now things are looking grim. My focus has just been on trying to survive and continue doing what I’m doing until I can see what that world looks like and then I’ll start making decisions.”