Dan Einstein, champion of singer-songwriters, dies at 61

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Dan Einstein, champion of singer-songwriters, dies at 61
Dan Einstein, right, with Hank Neuberger, left, and Al Bunetta at the 1987 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, where the multi-artist anthology “A Tribute to Steve Goodman,” which they produced, was named best contemporary folk album. Einstein, a Grammy-winning independent record producer who championed the careers of John Prine and Steve Goodman, died on Jan. 15, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. He was 61. Sam Emerson/The Recording Academy via The New York Times.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NASHVILLE, TENN.- Dan Einstein, a Grammy-winning independent record producer who championed the careers of John Prine and Steve Goodman, died here Jan. 15. He was 61.

His death, in a hospice facility, was confirmed by his wife of 27 years, Ellen Krause Einstein, who did not cite a cause.

Most people in Nashville knew Einstein as the proprietor, with his wife, of Sweet 16th, the award-winning bakery they opened in 2004. But he had previously made his mark, in the 1980s and ’90s, as an independent record label operator who forsook corporate wisdom about economies of scale in favor of a smaller, more artist-driven approach to making records that proved feasible as well as garnering critical acclaim.

Having dropped out of UCLA in the early ’80s after his studies were eclipsed by his work with the campus concerts committee, Einstein became a partner with the Los Angeles-based company Al Bunetta Management, where he helped launch and run two successful musician-owned record labels.

The first of them, Oh Boy Records, was the brainchild of singer-songwriter John Prine, who, after parting ways with Asylum Records in 1980, had grown disenchanted with the commodification and excesses of major-label culture. The other imprint, Red Pajamas Records, was started by singer-songwriter Steve Goodman, who died of leukemia in 1984. (Prine died of COVID-19 in 2020, Bunetta of cancer in 2015.)

The two labels promptly won Grammy Awards. Red Pajamas won in 1987 for “A Tribute to Steve Goodman,” a multiartist anthology co-produced by Einstein, and in 1988 for “Unfinished Business,” a posthumously released collection of Goodman’s music, also produced by Einstein. In 1992, Prine won the first of his four Grammys with Oh Boy for “The Missing Years.” (He also won a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2020.) All three were honored in the best contemporary folk album category.

Oh Boy and Red Pajamas were, of course, not the only successful independent labels at the time. What was different was the resolutely antediluvian way Einstein, who by 1993 was based in Nashville, approached things before the advent of the modern internet.

Employing a boutique model without the benefit of major-label distribution, he and Bunetta relied on mail-order sales, grassroots marketing and innovative consumer engagement. They included comment cards with the orders they filled, inviting buyers to rate albums and offer feedback on packaging and artwork.

They also worked with artists who had left major labels for small independents, disregarding the usual trajectory in which performers are incubated at niche labels before graduating to big conglomerates and the money and prestige they promise (but only sometimes deliver).

“In the middle ’80s, the idea of running a label for an artist with actual traction seemed crazy,” music journalist Holly Gleason, who worked as a publicist for Prine in the ’90s, wrote in a eulogy for Einstein.

“John Prine — or Steve Goodman — were nationally known,” she continued. “Major accounts weren’t going to deal with a handful of titles here, a new release with maybe 100 copies there. And yet, with the customer cards and mail-order business, Oh Boy and Red Pajamas were making it work.”

In the process, the two labels became precursors of the human-scale, do-it-yourself entrepreneurship embraced by the Americana and alternative country movements of the late 1980s and beyond.

Daniel LeVine Einstein was born Dec. 11, 1960, in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up in New London, about 50 miles east. His father, Lloyd Theodore Einstein, known as Ted, was a physicist who helped invent the sonar systems for nuclear submarines for the Navy. His mother, Nedra LeVine Einstein, was a schoolteacher.

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1978, two years after Einstein’s mother’s death from cancer.

While at UCLA, Einstein became immersed in Los Angeles’s vibrant punk-rock scene. He frequented clubs such as Madame Wong’s and the Masque and soon began promoting shows, which opened doors to his partnerships with Bunetta, Goodman and Prine.

Besides his wife, Einstein is survived by his stepmother, Beverly Kaplan Einstein, and two sisters, Susan Richman and Loryn van den Berg.

When Einstein left Oh Boy to open Sweet 16th, his entrepreneurship and affability translated seamlessly to his new venture.

Referring to themselves, tongue in cheek, as “your East Nashville sugar dealer,” the Einsteins earned accolades for their baked goods from the likes of Southern Living and Glamour. And in 2021 they were named East Nashvillians of the Year by the magazine The East Nashvillian for their community-mindedness and generosity: Their hospitality extended both to hungry neighbors unable to afford the price of their award-winning breakfast sandwich and to those who had lost homes when tornadoes ravaged Nashville in 2020.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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