Jon Halperin has held just about every job in music — managing bands, running an indie record label, overseeing a pop-up store at Coachella, booking bands for the Glasshouse in Pomona, Calif. and running point on talent buying for festivals stretching from the Dominican Republic to Long Beach, Calif., where he has lived for over a decade.
In theory, a pandemic is an existential crisis for a person constantly in motion, but with most of his music work put on hold, Halperin decided it was time to pursue an idea he had been batting around for a couple of months — the launch of Stay Free Recordings, a limited run music label specializing in 7-inch records on collectable colored vinyl by mostly independent acts.
Halperin is clear that the effort is not a money-making venture — he has a day job working for the government — although like many of the projects, Stay Free is another way for the 51-year-old punk rocker and Orange County and Long Beach booker to stay connected with bands. That’s helpful for events like the Isle of Light festival in Santo Domingo or the four-city Gridlife drift racing series he books each year.
Halperin says each release on Stay Free will be limited to 200 prints and says artists are welcome to re-record or re-release the tracks, as long the cover art is changed and the repressing is done on a different color vinyl. The goal is to protect the value of the limited edition releases for the fans and collectors.
“Artists retain all rights to everything. It’s an anti-label,” says Halperin, who notes that most artists record the stems for each song themselves and then Halperin hires a sound engineer to master each track for vinyl. Halperin also provides the art budget for each record and has them pressed at Pirates Press in Northern California. After the artist approves the test pressing, they’re paid their royalty for the 200 albums, which are then sold via Bandcamp.
Halperin said he and his wife Julia got the idea for Stay Free during what had become a pandemic ritual for the couple.
“During the summer and fall we were sitting out on our patio every night, listening to music with a boombox and a portable record player, playing cassette tapes and records,” Halperin says. “We agreed there would be no digital music during those listening sessions — just physical media.”
Julia often encouraged him to launch the record label as a creative output and suggested naming the project after his 1990s project Vegas Records, a quirky ska and punk label that released a number of compilation albums with titles like Hey Brother Can You Spare Some Ska?
The first release on Stay Free is a collaborative project released with Rene Contreras, who books Viva! Pomona music festival, as well as some the Sonora stage at Coachella. That project, released on Feb. 12, features Señor Kino and Margaritas Podridas, two artists hailing from Sonora, Mexico.
In March, Stay Free has two album launches planned — Guadalajara-based cumbia cover band Los Master Plus, followed by the duo of Glen Matlock, bassist with the original lineup of the Sex Pistols, and Earl Slick who has collaborated with icons like David Bowie and John Lennon.
Other projects in the works include Twitch hip-hop puppet show Boom Bap Kids, Nile Marr (son of The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr) and graffiti artist and electronic musician Pure Evil.
“The back of the record jacket for Pure Evil will be sandpaper with the idea that it will destroy any records it rubs up against,” Halperin says. When asked if a cover that destroys other records is really an artistic endeavor, Halperin responded “uhhhh — well, it is evil.”
Halperin is adamant that the project is not money driven and will likely lose a few hundred bucks per release, noting that Stay Free is the ultimate record collector project, creating albums for others to collect and trade.
“We’re putting out these records and we’re treating them as art that can’t be duplicated,” he says, noting that the effort is a statement about the value of art in a digital world, where music exists in the ether forever.
“Stay Free is about creating something tangible,” he says. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”