Saturday, June 8, 2013


That record labels still matter, especially in electronic music, is obvious (think of how frequently electronic music websites focus on labels) and important. The need for labels isn't what it used to be--it's trivially easy for independent artists to get their music on iTunes, Amazon, &c. without any sort of record deal, or to put their music up for free online (e.g.), so distribution isn't the big issue as it once was. Yet artists keep releasing on labels, even in cases where there's little to no possible monetary benefit (e.g. tiny white label releases that, even if they instantly sold out, wouldn't generate any significant profit).

Tied to this is the rise of tiny artist-run labels, of which there are more and more. Of course, musicians have been starting their own labels for ages--Ian Mackaye founded Dischord back in 1980, for instance, and 4AD (1979!) is a sort of weird example of this, being co-founded by a very hands-on producer--but that
was as much a distribution thing as anything. If there's not a label, you can't get the music out.

But now anyone can get the music out, label or not. So what happens is that labels function less to distribute the music and more to create a story around the music. A key example would be Basic Channel, whom I've written about previously from another angle. Basic Channel wasn't a group, it was a label--or, rather, it was a label started by two people, Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald, to release only their own music. And it wasn't the first label they started: at around the same time they had Main Street Records, which also only released their music, but focused on much more traditional house music. And there was Chain Reaction, a "sublabel" of Basic Channel which released music by other people (notably Porter Ricks and Vladislav Delay). So you've got this weird situation where there's a label that only releases music by one artist yet somehow has a sublabel that's releasing stuff by other artists who, by the way, are all extremely indebted to the stuff that came out on the parent label years earlier. And there's yet another sublabel for solo, dancey stuff by Moritz Von Oswald, and a sublabel for the duo's reggae releases (which nearly outnumber the original Basic Channel releases), and yet another sublabel for their reggae/dancehall reissues.

So what we have is a set of record labels that exist not for the sake of releasing music but of organizing a narrative. Each label has a unique aesthetic. And what this does, which is what I find fascinating about the whole thing, is that it shifts the framing of the music so that the label, not the individual artist or individual piece of music, is the piece of art. The label itself, the set of releases, becomes the unit for critical consideration (& labels begin to be known for distinctive art as much as distinctive music, because it's a total aesthetic package).

The line between artists as creators and artists as curators, as collectors, is just completely blurred. I could name probably dozens of examples (Italians Do It Better, Hyperdub, and Perlon all come to mind), but I'll look at just one here, which is Kevin Martin. Martin's earliest music was very aggressive, industrial-ish stuff under such aliases as GOD and Techno Animal; toward the end of the 90s he began releasing music under the alias The Bug, an alias he still uses, which was still very harsh & aggressive but chiefly influenced by reggae and dancehall music.

Artists using different aliases to divide up their projects: that's happened literally as long as techno's been around (& indeed, Martin created yet another alias for his slightly more peaceful collaborations). What's more notable would be that the most recent of Kevin Martin's new projects began not with a new alias but with a new label. And that Martin is fairly vocal about the importance of labels in getting into music, and that he's curated various compilations going all the way back to the 90s. Even his original music works in curatorial terms: his latest project, Acid Ragga, is about mashing up acid house & reggae, just as his previous work as The Bug was a combination of contemporary dubstep & 80s dancehall. Creation itself becomes a kind of curation, a very conscious splicing together of past works. And it works, in Martin's case, because he's damned good at finding exciting stuff to reissue and borrow from.

No comments:

Post a Comment