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Selling new sounds

Gail Priest

In response to the growth and strengthening of sound arts, the last 5 years has seen the emergence of numerous small CD labels. This survey, though by no means comprehensive, looks at several of the labels to see what they make and why, and if recorded sound art is finding a market.

One of the longest running experimental labels is Dr Jim’s Records. The Melbourne-based label was founded in 1990 by Jim Glaspole and Edgar Lee and features releases by prominent artists such as Tim Catlin, Adam Simmons Toy Band, Philip Samartzis & Rasmus B Lunding, Sean Baxter, David Brown, Tim O’Dwyer and various combinations of the above under the different monikers–Lazy, Bucketrider, Western Grey and Candlesnuffer. With 35 releases over 15 years, and an impressive international distribution network, Dr Jim’s is evidence that running an experimental music label is not complete madness

Synaesthesia has also proved a fine example for many of the newer labels. Encouraged by Peter Rehberg of renowned Austrian label Mego, Mark Harwood’s first release was Fennesz + Rosy Parlane Live @ Synaesthesia in 2000. Since then he has released a prolific catalogue of CDs and vinyl by artists including Anthony Pateras, Robin Fox, Snawklor, Dèlire and Canadian artist Tim Hecker–19 releases by the end of 2005. Of particular interest is their latest 4LP set by Marco Fusinato, 0_Synaesthesia. Fusinato is a visual artist who has produced 4 albums of nothing–no actual intentional sonic content–instead concentrating on drawing the grooves that are then pressed to vinyl. This is the commercial realisation of Fusinato’s prior gallery explorations. Harwood has solved some distribution problems, not only for himself but for many other labels, by expanding his vision into a record store (Synaesthesia is also the name of Mark Harwood’s store, a place of pilgrimage for all experimental music lovers visiting Melbourne), stocking a vast array of local and international releases. While he has secured international distribution he is not too concerned about the size of the companies he uses, preferring to connect with smaller communities rather than massive networks. Next up on the catalogue is the ‘bedroom explorations’ of Francis Plagne, a split 12" by luminaries Bernard Parmegiani and Phil Samartzis, and an LP by Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood.

In Sydney, Dual Plover is the brainchild of the always surprising and usually extreme performer Lucas Abela who decided to create a label to document his own work and the projects that interest him. The first release in 1994 was of recordings of his kombi van. Now run by Abela and Swerve, the label seeks "artists who share a maverick attitude to music making. We have had everything from the electro pop of the Funky Terrorist to the splatter rap of Suicidal Rap Orgy and now show tunes from Singing Sadie." Abela isn’t completely sure who the audience for this work is, "quite possibly because I never pandered to them to start with. I’ll happily press a disc without knowing if anyone would be interested in it." But he believes that "people follow the label so intensely [because] they like the surprise of what’s next?" On average Dual Plover would press 500 units which in the past would take around 5 years to sell out. Recently the new titles have cleared in around 2 years. The label has just secured US distribution through Revolver and has small distributors in various cities in Europe. "You need to choose between small niche distributors that love your work but have minimal clout or a large distributor with wide distribution but too much to deal with to realistically promote your label." Abela believes the solution is to "consider publicists to create a label profile or, better yet, tour as nothing is more effective in creating interest in music than playing live in front of people."

Just approaching its fifth birthday is Brisbane-based room40, run by Lawrence English. English started the label because he had "come across some incredible recordings [that] weren’t seeing the light of day." He describes it as a "friends and family label", having a strong relationship with all the artists he releases, and looking for "projects that have a unique voice–something that sounds intense and focused. I feel that’s an important quality for a document to lends it longevity." As well as his own work his catalogue includes releases by Ben Frost, Erik Griswold, DJ Olive, Chris Abrahams, Rod Cooper and several limited edition live recordings with visiting internationals such as Scanner, David Toop and Maria Rosenfeld. English isn’t sure who the label’s audience is but feels that a lot of his sales are off-shore, although he does say about international distribution, "I’m not sure if we’ve made any [large] effect as such, just another dedicated boutique label focused on releasing sounds that excite us and adding another layer to the discourse on sound and new music."

Associated with the performance events is caleb k’s impermanent.recordings. He started the label feeling that "there were...very few Australian labels who support[ed] truly experimental music. As with the live scene here at the time there were one-offs but no Sydney-based labels." In 2002 he simultaneously released Stasis Duo’s Hammer & Tongs and Peter Blamey’s Salted Felt. "All of the artists are somehow related to The label does not accept submissions, instead it invites musicians to release work." Not just focused on Australian artists, last year saw the release of Toshimaru Nakamura and Brett Larner’s After School Activity–Toshimaru’s event Off-Site serving as the inspiration for Caleb K has no illusions about the audience for this type of work, admitting that it is small, moving around 200 units. "A-musik who distribute the label in Europe (through Germany) stated that they believed Stern and Guerra’s Stitch was the best experimental release of 2003 [but it] only sold a small number of copies in Europe. They are having a tough time moving any stock let alone a label of obscure Australian musicians. Basically I am dreaming of a format somewhere between a CD and a CD-R. 500 units is way too many for this music but I don’t want to go into CD-Rs." Impermanent.recordings fifth release, Arek Gulbenkoglu’s Points Alone, will be out in the next few months.

Relative newcomers are Cajid and Nature Strip both emerging in 2003 in Melbourne. Cajid is the creation of Jacques Soddell who states, "we have a preference for composed rather than improvised music and actively seek women composers." Cajid has released albums by Thembi Soddell (his daughter), Bruce Mowson and Lawrence English with a new one by Camilla Hannan and Thembi in the pipeline. 500 copies are distributed via the internet, Synaesthesia and at gigs. "[It is] very difficult to get a response (even a negative one) from international distributors, despite excellent reviews in major publications like The Wire." Cajid is planning a 12-concert national tour to further promote the work and Soddell hopes to release video art in the future.

Nature Strip founded by Hamish Sinclair, and now involving Joel Stern, has a clear agenda–"works must have an inherent connection between the music/sound and the/their environment." Nature Strip has 3 releases–solo albums by Tarab and Toshiya Tsunoda, and a compilation of Tarab, Tsunoda, Stern and Lawrence English with one by Loren Chasse due for release in 2005. While acknowledging the audience is small, Sinclair believes it is global–"without international distribution we would not exist."

So predictably, the audience for this work is passionate but small. Is CD production for small labels really viable? This is a question that Shannon O’Neill, founder of Alias Frequencies is tackling. Alias Frequencies was "founded in the late 90s after bad experiences (as artists) with other labels. We are driven by a love of interesting and under-appreciated music, but...we keep expectations low and don’t make promises we can’t keep." The house genre tends to be "electronic music with a collage aesthetic." After releasing 4 CDs (some with additional computer playable video) and 2 CD-Rs by artists such as his own duo, Wake Up and Listen, Puzahki, Hinterlandt and Rik Rue, O’Neill has decided to concentrate on "MP3 releases published on our website and distributed free through p2p [peer to peer], audioblogs etc." Instead of paying, there will be an option to donate via Paypal, although O’Neill is realistic about how successful that will be. He justifies this approach–"Only a tiny proportion of (popular) artists have ever been able to make a living from CD sales alone…So far we’ve lost money releasing CDs which leads to cashflow problems, which slows down the release schedule. By releasing MP3s instead we can keep costs down [and] release a lot propagation of music is the underground musician’s best distribution option at the moment...The CD format is dead. Files are the future. Music recordings want to be free." Bold rhetoric–it will be interesting to watch the development of this new strategy.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 47

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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