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Michael "Red" Comunale Explains Why He's Shuttering 56th Street Records After 17 Years

HotRock SupaJoint, one of 56th Street Records' proudest exports.
HotRock SupaJoint, one of 56th Street Records' proudest exports. Jim Louvau

In a year full of shocking departures, it may have been easy to overlook a short Facebook update posted on the last day of 2016.

“Today, on the last day of 2016, I am announcing 56th Street Records is closing its imaginary doors for good,” wrote 56th Street Records owner Michael “Red” Comunale on the label’s Facebook page. In a year where downtown seemed to be dying the death of a thousand cuts, this was one of the most subtle yet deepest ones.

If you’ve paid any attention to the local scene over the past 17 years, odds are good you’ve come across a 56th Street Records band or stumbled onto one of their many music videos. They’ve been a quiet fixture of the community, working with hardworking and ubiquitous artists like Andy Warpigs, Nerdzerker, RPM Orchestra, and one-time New Times cover star HotRock SupaJoint. And while small labels like Rubber Brother Records and Related Records would come and go, releasing a bevy of great tapes before slowing their respective rolls, 56th Street has been consistently releasing new work and chugging along for years. Until December 31, 2016.

I went to Comunale's house to talk to him about the history of his one-man label, as well as his place in the downtown community. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, he seems to crop up all over downtown history over the last two decades: Whether it’s playing trombone for fire-breathing jazzbos Sunorous, living at the notorious Black & Tan speakeasy, producing 13 episodes of the weirdo after-hours television show Television Noir with sideshow artist Stephen Strange, or co-producing WOW 99.1’s “That Weed Show” radio program, the mild-mannered yet verbose Red has seen and done just about everything. He also bears an uncanny resemblance to his label’s breakout star, the notoriously faded SupaJoint.

Sitting out on his porch with his wife, the sculptor Kiersten Red, Comunale holds a long box containing every in-print 56th Street Records CD. Over our heads, ghetto birds circle and sing their ominous call.

“We’ve been running for 17 years,” Comunale says. “It’s always been out of my house. I’m just one dude. I’m not a record label: I don’t have 10 people on payroll trying to hype this shit.” As the sole driving force behind 56th Street Records, Comunale has worn many hats: promoter, producer, mixer, filmmaker, editor, and graphic designer. Some of those hats have been a tighter fit than others.

“I just came to the realization that the music business is all about hype and I’m not getting the hype anymore,” says Comunale, professing a weariness when it comes to the hustling aspect of the music business. “You look at Seven Trill, Odd Squad, and these other hip-hop groups out in Scottsdale. [Those] dudes drop a video and five hours later it’s got 92,000 views on it. So obviously they’re doing something right that I’m not doing.”

56th Street does have a healthy online presence, thanks to a Youtube channel bristling with content, and music on Soundcloud, iTunes, and CD Baby. “All the online stuff will still be available, and you can also digitally download shit on Spotify and iTunes, but I’m just not putting out any more stuff.”

According to Comunale, his real ambition lies in building a studio and helping people make music.

“I’m more interested in finding a place that people can do work from, where we can record stuff," he says. "All this stuff that I’ve recorded previously has been done at other people’s studios.”

Another aspect of 56th Street’s long tenure in downtown that’s fascinating is their lack of enemies. Any community fixture that’s endured for so long is bound to attract its share of detractors and salty haters, but little drama surrounds the label. This probably has something to do with the way Comunale did business with local bands.

“At 56th Street, I didn’t sign bands, I signed albums. I don’t like the idea of ownership over people; I like ownership over product. So I’d sign bands on a per album basis. I’d give them a $100 of my money to help cover copyright costs, get them up on iTunes and CD Baby and get physical CDs printed. We’d make a video to let the world know that they’re there because we’re in a video society. Soundcloud is great and all, but where you’re really getting your views is through video. It’s more than just music; it’s the look, the aesthetic, all of that. So I’d put that money in and 40 hours of my time, and if the album took off I’d get 25 percent off the backend.”

Red admits that after 17 years of running the label, he’s barely broke even, but he’s proud of all the albums he’s released and the band’s he’s worked with. He rummages through the long box of CDs, pulling out shrinkwrapped albums. “Andy Warpigs, The Invincible Grins, Orangabang, Mother of Sorrows… I even did a band called the Castration Army. It was saxophone, trombone, and drums. It was all about removing the testicles of your mind and snipping the pins of reality.”

His proudest 56th Street Records accomplishment in 2016 was creating HotRock’s “Chakra Khan” stoned guided meditation video. “I spent four months animating it, lining up the mouths to lip sync. 35,000 frames of animation for 25 minutes of video. And no one else has done anything like it.”

Comunale confided that he looked forward to moving on with new projects, even if it meant feeling a little out of step with the changing, gentrified face of downtown. “Everything is changing in downtown. There’s been such a huge shift this past year. It was a realization for me, you know: Figure your shit out or get off the pot.”

Comunale sets the box of CDs aside as we wrap up our conversation. “56th Street Records has always been about ‘Let’s get it done so we can work on the next thing. I don’t want to sit on a video for six months. I want to get it the fuck done so I can work on something else. In kindergarten, you’ve got a school teacher who’ll tell you when you’re done with your coloring. And as we grow up, nobody is telling us when we’re done with our shit.”

Hearing that sentiment, I mention that one of my favorite maxims is one of Facebook’s corporate slogans: “Done is better than perfect.” Comunale gestures to the box full of his label’s history.

"That’s 17 years of done.”

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Ashley Naftule

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