Cory Rayborn had an unlikely bonus task to complete in the midst of his law school orientation, in the summer of 2000: package and ship the debut release from his fledgling record label, Three Lobed.

For much of the previous decade, Rayborn—a native of Jamestown, a small town between Greensboro and High Point—had burrowed into the catacombs of underground rock. As a teenager, he’d fallen successively for R.E.M., college-rock gods from Georgia who went on to become one of the world’s biggest bands, and then Pavement, the inestimably playful and magnetic indie rock quintet from California. 

By the time he finished a double major at Duke University, Rayborn had his own zine, was booking shows on campus, and had begun arriving at concerts toting microphones to record sets by such bands as Chapel Hill’s erstwhile Polvo and Durham’s the Mountain Goats. He would swap the recordings through an online network of fellow bootleg enthusiasts. That do-it-yourself ethic, combined with North Carolina’s status as one of the nation’s most fertile independent music scenes, sparked an idea: Why didn’t he just ask some of his favorite bands if he could release their records himself?

“With most things I do, I decide to bite off more than I can chew, at least the first time around,” says Rayborn, chuckling at his energy and priorities 20 years ago, when he first arrived for law school in Chapel Hill. “That’s the exact reason records came out once a year and only in the summer for a while there—school was daunting.”

In the years since, Three Lobed has released more than 100 titles and has become one of the country’s premier syndicates for experimental rock and folk music. Most Three Lobed titles, typically issued in limited pressings of 1,000 or less, quickly sell out. 

A safe haven for influential and sometimes-popular bands like Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo to explore their most outlandish or abstract impulses, Three Lobed is also a nurturing space for newcomers on the fringes of indie rock or modern folk, as with the guitarist Daniel Bachman or the harpist Mary Lattimore. For Rayborn, the key to Three Lobed’s success and survival may be the same thing that compelled him to start it: He loves to help the bands he loves to hear.

“I am a fan. That’s what fuels the label more than anything. Beyond my family and work, the thing I spend most of my time thinking about is music—records I like, records I haven’t thought about enough, records I want to listen to,” says Rayborn, now a 44-year-old father and a full partner in his law firm. He’s the rare label owner who gives artists on his roster free legal advice and contract oversight as they advance to larger imprints, and he may be the country’s only business lawyer who posts constant updates about what’s on his office turntable to a dedicated Instagram account

“It’s a healthy obsession—at least I don’t think it’s unhealthy,” he says “And I am just trying to show other people what it is I care so much about.”

It may feel unfathomable to consider a record label a service enterprise. Labels are, sometimes rightfully, typecast as historic supervillains, multinational enterprises that dangle exploitative contracts in front of artists and filch from the revenues their creativity generates. Even as independent labels have bloomed, creating an industry that’s largely separate from such corporate empires, these conceptions have persisted.

But Three Lobed’s origin story—and, really, its continued success—hinges on turning fandom into service. During Thanksgiving break of Rayborn’s senior year at Duke in 1997, he opted to stay on campus to complete a class project. To help pass the time, he stopped by a nearby record store and bought “Lapsed,” the then-new third album by Philadelphia psychedelic rock collective Bardo Pond. As Rayborn raves nearly a quarter-century later, “the interplay of the Gibbons’ brothers, structured chaos, these weird pop songs dumped under noise” spellbound him. He listened 20 times that weekend alone. 

Before long, and without even asking the band, he built a Bardo Pond webpage, then a relatively rare asset for acts anywhere beyond the margins of the mainstream. Less than three years later, Bardo Pond’s “Slab” became Three Lobed’s first release. It was, for him, a way to share the story of music he loved.

Three Lobed grew slowly. Rayborn allowed the label’s reputation to spread through word-of-mouth, then asked favorite artists if they had something that needed a home. He suspects Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore—the then-married couple at the core of noise-rock paragons Sonic Youth—were bemused by an upstart asking for something from their very occasional duo, Mirror/Dash. But they said yes, because they’d heard and liked some of Three Lobed’s early work.

“Even now, I never assume that anyone knows what I’m doing or what I’m talking about,” Rayborn says. “I go into everything saying, ‘Here’s who I work with. Maybe you’ll like it.’” 

Take a listen to Three Lobed Recordings.

One person who caught on early was young Philadelphia guitarist Steve Gunn, a fellow Bardo Pond enthusiast who admired Three Lobed’s advocacy of experimental American music. After Rayborn approached Gunn about releasing something from his ensemble GHQ, the two developed a relationship that grew into a mentorship of sorts. 

“I was just starting to play with other people and make music of my own, and I was spinning my wheels a little,” Gunn remembers. “But Cory offered a different perspective and advice—legal advice, life advice—about how to sustain a career. He’s so generous that I started to feel more confident.”

These days, Gunn releases rather popular singer-songwriter albums on Matador Records, arguably the flagship label of indie rock. But he continues to issue new music on Three Lobed, too—in fact, his catalogue there is emblematic of the ways Three Lobed has differentiated itself from the record industry at large. 

Stroll through the label’s discography, and you’ll notice that the same names reappear in new configurations and guises. Members of Sonic Youth, psychedelic savants Sunburned Hand of the Man, and polyglot miscreants Sun City Girls populate the Three Lobed discography in a dozen different ways, from extemporaneous solo projects to one-off collaborations. 

Gunn, for instance, began his 14-year stint on Three Lobed in 2006 with a live recording by GHQ. Just three years later, “Boerum Palace” became an early breakthrough for Gunn, earning him entrée into the teeming world of solo acoustic guitarists. After another year, in 2010, he and drummer John Truscinski made their debut as an electric, electrifying instrumental duo on Three Lobed. That album, “Sand City,” came about because Rayborn told Gunn over dinner he just wanted to hear the new project as a fan. 

“I work with bigger labels now on my bigger albums, and I have all the pieces of a ‘music career.’ But Three Lobed lets me be myself, and I need that personally for an artistic endeavor,” says Gunn, who will release his fourth Duo album, “Soundkeeper,” on Three Lobed in October. “It’s important for me to be able to still explore where I started. I don’t second-guess anything he does, and he also offers me the freedom to let go and do what I want.”

Three Lobed is less like a label than a confederation of interactive musical outcasts that slowly welcomes fresh recruits or an extended family that occasionally grows through new relationships. Indeed, Rayborn attributes his sense of inveterate loyalty to the bands he records to the example set by his own family—particularly his father, Jim, who lived in Guilford County all his life and maintained lifelong friendships there until his death, in 2017. Since finishing law school, Rayborn has lived within a few blocks of his childhood home and worked at the same nearby firm. His wife and fellow Jamestown native, Rebecca Mann Rayborn, is a two-term member of the town council.

This kind of commitment has insulated Three Lobed from the urge to chase trends. More than a decade ago, Three Lobed’s signature sound was briefly in vogue as part of a musical boomlet loosely dubbed “New Weird America.” As those sounds faded back toward relative obscurity, Three Lobed remained steadfast, largely letting its artists guide the label’s evolution. 

“I’m not afraid to fold new people in, but I like continuing to do things with people I know, too—to help the same crowd,” says Rayborn. “And I want to give them the freedom and resources to chase their muse.”

For most of the past 20 years, Three Lobed has developed much like a long-term art project. It’s released loads of stand-alone titles, but almost a third of its catalogue has arrived through box sets of LPs or series of CDs, unified by themes and designs. Rayborn has curated compilations and facilitated novel collaborations, working through new-to-him ideas of what it means to run a label.

Again, the label’s relationship to Gunn is illustrative. Not only has Gunn released 10 albums on Three Lobed in various forms, but also he’s contributed to a compendium of modern acoustic guitarists and made full albums with Durham folk-rock band Hiss Golden Messenger and the singer Kurt Vile. For Rayborn, these are all avenues of potential exposure for musicians he admires.

“There isn’t a ton of money in doing this,” Rayborn says. Three Lobed has never been his actual job, even if it’s sometimes felt that way. He admits that the occasional physical toil—that is, loading a few hundred pieces of paper-clad vinyl into cardboard mailers, taping them shut, and toting them to the post office—can be a lot to handle. “But I get reward,” he continues, “from the feeling of knowing someone is listening to an album or artist they might not have heard otherwise. And that I played some part in that process.”

 

This year was supposed to be a landmark one for Three Lobed. Rayborn collaborated with Duke Performances, the ambitious performing-arts wing of his alma mater, for a multiday twentieth-anniversary fête on campus. He’d planned to release the first titles from a commemorative anniversary LP series around the same time. As with much of the world, though, Rayborn postponed them both. The concerts may happen at some point in 2021. 

Rayborn, however, has found other ways to share music during quarantine. In May, he issued the first volume of a multipart series of online mixtapes, culled from the hundreds of live recordings he’s made since 1996, on the music blog Aquarium Drunkard. And in August, Sonic Youth—a band that shaped his life and label—released a live tape he’d captured during a surprise appearance at Carrboro’s legendary club, Cat’s Cradle, in June of 2000, just two months before he began mailing those first Three Lobed records.

“I’m sitting here typing this, somewhat in disbelief that this show was right at 20 years ago,” he wrote in an accompanying essay. “It is one of those things that formed memories so pleasant and vivid that it still kind of seems like it was yesterday.”

Early next year, Three Lobed will release a Sonic Youth title, their second for the label. This time, Rayborn didn’t even need to introduce himself.


 

 

About the Author

Grayson Haver Currin is a native of Harnett County, North Carolina. He has written about music for a living since 2005, when he became an editor at The Independent Weekly, where he worked until 2016. He has since become a regular contributor to The New York Times, NPR, Pitchfork, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, No Depression, and Bandcamp. He and his wife, Tina, live in the mountains of North Carolina with too many pets and four black chickens.