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Small Village People: A Look at CD-R Labels

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Dusted's Marc Gilman spent some time recently studying the outbreak of the CD-R label. After interviewing various label heads and tracking down some material, here are his thoughts.

Small Village People: A Look at CD-R Labels

Here’s an interesting statistic that’s been bandied about a lot recently: For an artist to make money on a major label record it must sell 500,000 copies. In 2001, 6,455 records were released by major labels and of those exactly 112 sold enough to be profitable.

It’s a pretty staggering number, 500,000. If you consider that the city of Baltimore, MD has about 730,000 people, an album would have to be purchased by roughly 67% of the population to finish in the black. Similarly, Madison Square Garden (capacity 20,000) would have to be filled 25 times and Soldier Field in Chicago (capacity 67,000) would have to be filled about 7.5 times to equal 500,000. Furthermore, sales reach 5,000 you’re only 1% of the way to profitability, if you sell 50 you are .0001 % closer to the magic number. 500,000 can be pretty foreboding.

The further down the profit scale one moves, the less money one needs to sustain themselves — an indie label would be happy and sustainable selling 20,000 records. When you finally reach the zero point on this scale you probably are in the company of self-released CD-R / tape / record labels. Indeed, when you reach the zero point for almost any type of entertainment / media / art profit scale, you’re most likely dealing with people printing a ‘zine using their photocopier at work, drawing comics in their basement, painting in their garage or playing pickup basketball on a park court, and all for one reason: they enjoy it.

There are probably as many recordable CD (CD-R) labels as there are genres of music. One can find virtually anything: from indie rock to found-sound collages. Of the labels I discovered, there was a pervasive sense that one of the main functions of the label was to put out music that would otherwise not be heard. At the core of the CD-R label lies individuality — the releases and gestalt of each label itself is normally consistent with the ideologies and sensibilities of the people who started it. Without forces like sales and marketing departments who mold the image of an artist to target a specific demographic, or adjust their style be more consistent with the overall tone of a label, a CD-R artist is given complete control over music, packaging and all other aspects of a release. In the CD-R label one finds the true instantiation of the claim (borrowed from Tzadik Records) that the listener hears “the artists’ vision undiluted.” The true concentrated sound is most easily found not on Mr. Zorn’s label, however, but on the many CD-R self-releases that populate the planet.

Idealistic diversity is alive and well within the CD-R world and I tried to learn about its different manifestations as well as the aesthetic, sociological and moral principles that guide it. I was able to contact five or six CD-R labels to ask them some questions about how they began releasing their music and why they do it. I tried to cover a range of different music when approaching people: straight-ahead pop, experimental, electronic and metal. I also strictly limited the survey to those releasing CD-R’s (or self-produced tapes and records) only. I think my sample is a small, but accurate one and by first presenting some background on each label it will be easy to examine some of their commonalities and probe the artistic and social questions that they raise.

American Tapes, founded in 1992, is probably the oldest of the CD-R (and previously tapes as its name implies) labels I examined. It is difficult to describe exactly the type of music they release but it is best summed up by John Olson one of the founders as “[t]he AT grave fog sound. It is a matter of hearing a certain mysterious sound, cutting it up, organizing it, and making [it] into a black leper mist.” American Tapes has released albums by Wolf Eyes, Universal Indians and Fountain of Youth. They take their package design seriously and continue to create elaborate and beautiful projects. In their infancy John worked as a furniture refurbisher and had access to all types of tools to construct the packages. The detail of the hand cut and constructed wood boxes of the early recordings is staggering (you can check out some photos on their web site). American Tapes is based in Ann Arbor, MI but John feels that it has little impact on the labels’ roster or sound. For American Tapes there is salvation in the little communities that pop up across the country — acting as a role-model of sorts, they seem to implicitly implore people that what they have accomplished can be done anywhere; someone just has to take the initiative to do it.

Heresee, previously based in Chicago, has uprooted to Baltimore recently. Like American Tapes, they tend toward the dark and abstract and have released albums by the Nautical Almanac (of which the founder is a member), Meerk Puffy (part of the Forcefield crew) and Neon Hunk. Heresee seem to be a perfect example of one of the “creative pockets” to which American Tapes allude. Although there may be no direct influential link between the two labels, there is a shared attitude towards what CD-R labels can do and accomplish — fostering a sense of community. Heresee, in addition to the CD-R label, run the Tarantula Hill space in Baltimore where Nautical Almanac and other perform.

Another Michigan label is We’re Twins which began as a one-off project for a student film and continued to release various indie-pop and electronic artists, as well as some free jazz. The label keeps its release prices to a consistent $3 and relies heavily on the local scene as well as contributors and listeners across the US and outside the country. We’re Twins tries not to limit their releases to any specific genre and is breaking some new ground with an upcoming release by Kelly Caldwell, at age 10, doing a capella versions of Poison songs.

Unsung Heroes Records was created due to the dearth of a real metal scene in Atlanta. UHR puts out all types of metal—from grindcore to black metal. It seems that UHR is the closest to the traditional ideal of the punk underground label. It’s reminiscent of the stripped down aesthetic of Dischord where the music is most important and all else lies secondary. UHR harnesses the Xerox copy machine and has a “take no shit” individualistic attitude that’s refreshing in the face of major label sterility.

I came to find out about Toast and Jam Recordings after checking out their compilation We Bore which asked contributors to submit a remix of a song they did not like — taking something they didn’t like and make it into something they did like. The list of contributors included Greg Davis, Marumari as well as T and J staples mL. The majority of the T and J catalog is electronic, but they’re also working on some death metal releases as well as indie-rock. Previously based in Portland, where they were heavily influenced by local artists; T and J have since moved to Seattle.

Musically, the CD-R scene is diverse, and although they share similar independent and open-minded approaches to releasing music there are some issues on which the labels differ. One key factor for some, which was disdained by others, is the presence of the Internet as a means for distributing and promoting artists. Opinions range from that of Alex Norman who confessed “without the internet there would be no T and J.” This attitude can be contrasted with the ideals of Heresee, that the Internet is useful for booking shows and the like, but is also “a very dangerous thing because all you have to do is flip a switch and it’s gone”. Furthermore, Heresee seems to have broader vision for the role of arts’ proliferation within modern culture, stating “People need to build their networks / communication lines separate from this whole electronic medium.” Although the Internet might be a useful means for music distribution, it could be said that one of the main goals of music itself is to open up or operate as a dialogue between musicians and their communities, making the physical interaction between musician and listener just as important as the recorded form.

Regardless, most agreed on the fact that the CD-R itself is extremely successful as an inexpensive tool allowing the music to reach the public. The affordability and ease of distribution is crucial to the success of the labels. This flexibility also extends to the music itself — the idea that a release can go out-of-print is no longer valid; as long as the music exists on a machine somewhere it can be accessed and reproduced.

Indeed it seems that each label I spoke with had a different vision of their role within a community. Be it the actual geographic location where they operate or in the virtual digital realm, each felt that there was a specific function or purpose to what they were doing. Whereas American Tapes and Heresee seem to envision themselves as blueprints or examples that can be implemented elsewhere, creating and fostering a sense of shared community, others like T and J and We’re Twins strive for a wide distribution of their music; filling in gaps otherwise left unexplored. To a certain degree this kind of categorization is reductive. It’s difficult to broadly characterize the personalities of these labels with tidy descriptions, but there are clearly some concrete differences between them. What seems unique about CD-R labels is that they draw these debates out more readily than any major label. Whereas the majors are primarily interested in the bottom line and the creation of a product, CD-R labels, by virtue of their existence and practices, address broader philosophical and aesthetic questions. CD-R labels also evidence the human effort put into each release; the CD itself can be tangibly linked to its manufacturer. I would posit that CD-R labels are a necessary part of the music industry. Offering glimpses into otherwise unseen perspectives, providing an alternative to mainstream music and distribution and perhaps most importantly serving as a springboard for inquiry into the role of music and art within contemporary culture.

By Marc Gilman

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