This Greed Pig Article - Wax Idols: The Changing Shape of DIY Labels
Calamity! Cry Havoc! The Music Industry is entirely FUBAR and it’s all your fault. It’s seemingly but an inevitability that one of these day’s you’ll turn a street corner only to be met with the grim spectacle of your favourite musician draped in rags holding a battered placard emblazon with “will drop pants for food” and it’s all down to you and your bloody downloading, you monster you.
At least that’s the chilling vision of things to come that we’ve been offered by the current music business establishment. But there is, of course, another perspective, exemplified by a selection of forward thinking music lovers at home and abroad. These go-getters have fully considered the landscape before them and thought that perhaps this time of flux within the industry is not so much a death rattle as it is a cry for change, a timely opportunity to revaluate the shape of “the biz” and not merely rebuild it in the same image but rip it up and start again. These new faces on the scene share an understanding that one aspect of the established idea of the label must remain unsullied, the understanding of the independent imprint as a brand one can trust, the proverbial older sibling who gently places one hand on your shoulder and uses the other to point you in the direction of artists that might tickle your fancy.
Though markedly divergent in the nature of their output, these young labels and the young people behind them are united in the view that previous industry models simply don’t work anymore and those who would have us believe otherwise are primarily striving to ensure they can maintain the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to, a lifestyle that the listening public are so callously trying to rob them of. These upstarts have decided to adapt models previously favoured by the majors, the very architects of their own demise, to benefit the artists unfairly overlooked for all too long while trying to foster their own reputations as purveyors of sound worthy of your attention.
Robs Farhat and Kearns are the masterminds behind Ensemble music, a still evolving audio-centric enterprise, showcasing an array of forward-thinking musicians who share a classical or jazz background. Ensemble’s very inception sprung from the understanding that great swathes of Irish musicians were being unfairly unrepresented, “We both come from a classical music background” explains Farhat in a coffeeshop a stonesthrow from their new offices, “I studied classical piano and viola/violin quite seriously throughout my youth and was kind of gearing up towards doing it professionally. After a year of playing music for a living, I decided that it wasn’t for me. It was the elitist attitude I kept encountering that really put me off , I think the other Rob would say the same”. Kicking against the stuffiness one associates with the classical scene has been a running theme with the Robs before Ensemble came to fruition, the pair first working together on the massively successful Trinity Orchestra performance of Daft Punk’s Discover in it’s entirely (Farhat acted as conductor and laboriously arranged the album for Orchestra and Kearns produced the live show as well as playing guitar). The Daft Punk experience was something of eureka moment as a greater generic curiosity in the general listening population came into focus. Farhat suggests that this omnivorous attitude to music consumption is a potentially a direct result of the development of digital music providers , “Audiences tastes have become so much more genre neutral in the last few years. People are eager to try new things. In the past, when you could only listen to music by buying records, you had to be so much more conservative in your tastes due to the fact you were paying for everything you hear. You’d go to your record shop and check out the genre section you are inclined to buy from, that’s not a criticism just a reality of people looking after their money”.
Ensemble’s relationship to the shifting sands of the industry as a whole doesn’t simply lay in it’s capitalizing on changing listening habits but also in their model it’s self, one that is unlike that which one expects from a traditional DIY imprint. Rob elaborates, “The principal is that in a music industry that has less and less money going into it, especially in the sorts of niche music we work with, it isn’t necessary to have multiple middle men taking a slice out of artist’s income. So, the idea in time, is to be an all in one music, management, concert promoter, label, publisher ,the works. So, we started out being mainly focused on artist management and concert promotion but by virtue of being a manger we essentially end up being a booker as well. Now that we’ve really got to grips with both those sides of things we’re really starting to focus on the business of releasing music”. This “structured DIY”, as Farhat describes it, is an approach shared by fellow Dublin based cottage industry,Paper Trail Records.
Jack Rainey and Dan Finnegan, the duo behind Paper Trail have adopted a similarly bastardised version of the dreaded “360 deal”, a model that was previously employed my majors as a means of exerting absolute control over artists through having an active hand in revenue streams like publishing and live performance. Paper Trail and their ilk have drawn from this model with a view towards having a converse end-point as they strive to cultivate a relationship that allows for greater artistic leeway and an increased chance of financial sustainability as opposed to restriction.
“I think the idea we have of the exploitive nature of some of these record deals Is a hangover from Industry as it was” explains Finnegan. Previously the “360 deal” was an excuse to be like ‘you have no money so we’ll take you in and do everything for you’, when in reality it was a matter of exerting as much control as possible over the artist with a view towards increasing label revenue. In our case, and the case of other smaller imprints, it comes from a position of necessity rather than greed”. There has of course been a degree of skepticism from the old guard concerning these new faces toying with well worn (if failing) approaches. “One of peoples biggest problems with the model on paper is that it theoretically would allow us to take a management percentage on top of our label percentage where they were previously kept separate as a managers job was to negotiate the best possible deal with a record label. We’re keeping it separate so it’s essentially a 360 deal but for us the label portion and management side are kept separate. So we’re not taking any slice on top of the label thing”.
One of the most fascinating aspects of what Paper Trail are doing is also closely related to the idea of approaching the business of releasing records and promoting artists from a distinctly Web 2.0 informed position. Their first release comes from New York based, dreamy indie concern Cloud. Finnegan and Rainy speak frankly about how, despite their pride in the home, Paper Trail was never really intended to be understood as an “Irish Label”. “we always kind of wanted to exist “on the internet” if that makes any sense? When people thought of paper trail we didn’t want them to think ‘Oh, that’s that cool Irish Label putting out cool Irish bands’. Which you could look at as being a response to the shape of the industry as it is. There’s also a bit of a mindset that when you pigeonhole yourself geographically that there is a ceiling to what you can achieve”. This fiercely independent mindset, the notion of being an island within an island, is for the Paper Trail boys at least, a necessity for potential success. Rainey elaborates; “There was certainly an element of people being fearful about entering into the industry in any serious way just due to the horror stories but it’s becoming more apparent that you can still be a success” and Finnegan goes on “ having interned with labels previously I quickly realized there’s almost no benefit in working for somebody else if you can avoid it. If you’re happy to resign to yourself to the fact you’re not going to be a multi-millionaire you have to ask yourself what’s the benefit making shitty money for someone else when you can make shitty money working for yourself.”
A similarly independent if not isolationist outlook is immediately apparent in perhaps the only sphere in which actual physical sales can be guaranteed, Electronic Music. Glenn Astro is a respected name within house music circles as is and as of this January he teamed with friend and collaborator Max Graef to start up their own imprint, the playfully titled Money $ex Records. Speaking with Astro over skype the comparatively unconsidered nature of what he’s been working on is obvious “Me and Max were shopping around for different labels to put out our collaborative EP that ended up being the first Money $ex release. We eventually got tired of waiting and said ‘Fuck it, we’ll put out ourselves’ ”. As Astro chuckled through my laptop screen his laid back approach, true to the hypnotic, sonambulantly groovy nature of his own musical output, was a stark contrast to the others dipping their toe into the shark tank of the industry. Money $ex is DIY in it’s truest sense, the result of a relaxed collaboration between friends, an idea that was clearly not subject to the same late night scrutiny as that of his less explicitly club-focused contemporaries. Ultimately though, It needn’t have been, Money $ex sprung from a culture within which label awareness from consumers is taken as a given and physical sales remain the lifeblood of a label as each small press vinyl becomes an object of lust for the discerning DJ who will always favor wax over flacs. There’s no small irony to the fact that within the electronic music scene, commonly considered one of the more forward looking musical realms, there is a shade of traditionalism as ultimately selling physical records remains their bread and butter as opposed to a hangover from an industry in decline.
There is inevitably a darkside to the desirability of physical music in the dance circles. The ideology of fostering an, as Astro puts it, “manufactured scarcity” for these new releases runs rampant. “When you have the means to press 300 records that you know you’ll be able to sell but choose to print 100, I don’t like that, It’s a problem in the scene. People go into a record shop buy up the five copies of some small-run release that they have in stock and then immediately put them up on discogs at a higher price” elaborates Astro, his frustration plainly having little to do with monetarily capitalizing on demand and more concerned with the backwardness of depriving ones own fans of the records they want, while facilitating your fanbase’s exploitation at the hands of glorified touts. This movement of hyper-small pressings for reasons other than lack of finances or uncertainty of demand is particularly hard to swallow when it is so prevalent within a culture that has always traded off the idea that it is a bastion of inclusivity and equality. To pile irony atop irony, this willful limitation of the availability of physical product is happening in the only scene in which there remains a certainty of demand, it’s a problem that everyone else featured in the piece would probably love to have.
One outlook that Astro shares with his fellow label newbies is a lack of interest in having his output be viewed through a geographically informed lens. To some extent this hesitance might come as a result of the ubiquitous nature of Berlin within dance music discussion “Our records don’t sound particularly ‘Berlin’ there’s a sound that’s associated with the city or some of the clubs obviously, Berghain and what have you, but we don’t feel the need to identify our output through that. It’s not always a bad thing to have a sound associated with a place, look at what’s going on in East London at the moment, I love that stuff and it’s very much of a particular place, but we never thought or spoke about how to market ourselves as a ‘Berlin’ label”. Even those lucky enough to call supposed cultural hubs home are reluctant to define themselves and their output by lines on a map.
Ultimately, all these new endeavors share a healthy skepticism of business ‘truths’ once understood to be gospel but now carrying a distinct air of the arbitrary. This is the new DIY, the new punk, it might be a little bit more paperclip than it is safety pin but that doesn’t make it any less exciting or defiant a movement. It’s a long road ahead for these burgeoning artistic stables but for the first time in a long time the prospect of the journey can be met with optimism lieu of dower fatalism and one can’t help but feel even that change in outlook is indicative of a victory in and of it’s self.
Words by Danny Wilson