Slow & Steady Goes Beyond Jazz


Steven Lugerner and Ross Eustis put their experience in the non-profit world into creating Slow & Steady Records.

(Photo: Don Dixon)

In the land of 1,001 tech startups, Steven Lugerner and Ross Eustis decided to launch a record label.

Founded in 2018 by multi-reedist Lugerner and trumpeter Eustis, San Francisco-based Slow & Steady Records has expanded from releasing albums that they and their friends had recorded to representing creative artists up and down the West Coast.

“It is a very community-oriented label, and Steven and Ross help to curate a wide variety of music,” said Los Angeles-based pianist/composer Christina Galisatus, who released her debut album, Without Night, on S&S in early 2023. “The roster is just such a rich representation of our community and our scene,” agreed double bassist/educator Joshua Thurston-Milgrom, who hails from the Bay Area and also made his album debut on S&S, in 2020 with Thirsty Pilgrim Songs.

Like other successful ventures, S&S was rooted in some basic research and a little external inspiration. Lugerner, who is also Stanford Jazz Workshop’s director of educational and festival programming, had finished an album by his cross-genre instrumental SLUGish Ensemble and was trying to determine the best way to present it to the world.

A conversation with Hans Wendl, an ECM Records veteran who’s gone on to produce albums by the likes of clarinetist Don Byron, drummer Allison Miller and the late bassist/bandleader Charlie Haden, had some honest but ultimately encouraging advice. The state of the music business was challenging even for current Wendl’s clients with greater name-recognition.

“But he was encouraging me to just continue to self-release my own music,” Lugerner said in a joint interview with Eustis via Zoom. “It was disappointing on one end, because I was hoping that he would just give me a list of labels and say, ‘Oh, try these people.’ But it was reaffirming in another way, because that’s what I was just doing for years — putting out records under my own name.”

Two of Lugerner’s friends, pianist Richard Sears and Brass Magic leader Raffi Garabedian, also had new albums and called him to discuss the state of the industry. A record label that could provide a home for his and his friends’ new music was conceived.

The next step was contacting Eustis, a then-causal acquaintance who is a member of the Jazz Mafia collective and is also associate director, digital, for SFJAZZ.

“Since Ross was a member of Brass Magic, I thought, ‘Maybe instead of just continuing to put out my own music under Steven Lugerner perhaps starting a label would be a cool thing,’” he recalled. “We had a similar brain in regards to being a working musician but also being pretty organized. And we work for nonprofits and are just on a similar wavelength.”

The pair met over beers and confirmed they were simpatico. In setting the goals and parameters for S&S, the co-founders looked to others for lessons and took a deliberate approach in implementing their vision. “We asked ourselves ‘What are the best practices? How do you even go about releasing a record on your own? What are the things that an artist can expect?’ It helped to clarify things,” Eustis said.

“And being on the other side of it, I can’t tell you how many artists get booked in (the SFJAZZ Center’s) Joe Henderson Lab or even the big hall, and they don’t have a press photo or promo kit or even a website — the basic building blocks of how they can listen to your music and book you,” he continued.

“There was a theme there of friends completing records but then not knowing what to do with them,” Lugerner added. “They’d self-release an album and just promote it through social media posts. And I just thought, ‘It’d be cool if there was an infrastructure for hyping up the records of these people instead of the artists having to self-promote their own music constantly.’”

“We have services that we offer artists where we’re checking a lot of the boxes to ensure as successful release as possible,” Eustis noted. “‘What is the art associated with it? What’s the story behind it? How is it packaged and distributed?’”

“They provided a lot of materials with suggestions for how to go about things. But those were by no means requirements, and they ultimately left all of the creative control up to the artist,” Galisatus confirmed. “I think it is common for artists to struggle a bit with ‘control’ with labels, and that was just so far from my experience with S&S. They were very encouraging of the ideas I had about the release and ultimately functioned as a pair of supporters.”

Drummer Jason Levis’ Joseph’s Bones “avant-dub” project (Nomadic Pulse/Pulse In Dub, 2022) boasts three trombonists and three guitarists. Singer/songwriter Jimmy Kraft eschewed playing piano or saxophone to focus on vocals on his 2021 Lilacs EP, while trumpeter/composer Ray Larsen explored “orchestral-folk” with his 2020 Songs To Fill The Air release on S&S.

As for the future, S&S looks to expand the scope of its offerings.

“With Steven and me both coming from the non-profit world and seeing the power of fundraising, I think there’s certainly an opportunity to grow Slow & Steady into a non-profit organization,” Eustis revealed. “We have an initial donor to get us started with this, and we envision being something that provides resources to artists that need them. So a mini-endowment could be used to fund future projects, and very small percentage coming from album sales could help replenish that.” DB

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