If you run an independent music enterprise, it’s probable that at some point you’ll realise you’ve become something of a geek. The music industry is vast and complicated, with so much to learn that a nights-and-weekends project can quickly become an all consuming interest and profession. I myself run an independent record label called Brainlove Records that occupies much of my waking (and sometimes sleeping) thought—from a quite natural enthusiasm for supporting and presenting exciting, creative music came this enterprise that has, over the years, become an activity bordering on an obsession.
Something that nags at me a lot is what it means to be a completely independent one-person label in a field populated by monstrous international companies with office blocks full of people working to make the wheels of the industry turn. It can feel like the larger organisations are running the table, and not producing an awful lot of worth in doing so.
But there’s value in what us small independent labels do. Major labels are large business concerns for whom success can be measured in album sales and the resultant gold and platinum discs that line the boardroom walls: awards, chart positions, sold out arena tours. This generally means that the artists they select must have a populist element, and must have, in someone’s eyes, the potential to fulfil these commercial goals. While many people at independent labels would no doubt be happy for such glittering prosperity in their projects, this will rarely be the raison d’être.
That might sound obvious, but if these broad differences are accepted, they illustrate a profound difference in attitude to the matter of what music is, and what it is for. From one of these perspectives, music is a commodity, a resource to be tapped and exploited, delivered en masse to a hungry marketplace through a highly developed infrastructure. From the other, music is an art form that needs support structures—musicians to be given time and freedom to develop, with an audience that also develops in a more organic fashion. And most importantly of all, music is seen as something with an intrinsic cultural and artistic value first and foremost.
This isn’t to say that independent record labels have no business sense or desire to sell well—at the very least labels need to have money flowing through them from somewhere in order to operate. The people making this good stuff happen have to eat, after all, and the more time they are able to dedicate to their endeavours, the better. If the bands can quit their day jobs, they can concentrate harder on writing, recording, touring, and generally being musicians, and the label guys can concentrate harder on directing projects, managing press efforts, making sure the records get into as many shops in as many countries as possible, and all that unglamorous but important stuff. Equally, this isn’t to say that everything pouring from the majors is bad. Good music does emerge from those labyrinthine structures sometimes.
Which might suggest that the difference in perception between the majors and the indies is philosophical. But this doesn’t make it academic. We can see what starts to happen when the music-as-popular-product mentality runs to its extremes in the “talent” shows on British TV; and even the people at the heart of those shows can’t think Gareth Gates or Susan Boyle will be valued for their output in the same way as independent artists like Tom Waits or Björk.
And if, because of this kind of media domination and retail muscle, the major labels are the gatekeepers that decide what music a large proportion of the public discover at all, then their philosophy of what qualities define worthwhile music becomes very important, and the need for independents to participate in the process paramount.
Brainlove Records will host an evening at Iceland Airwaves ’10 at Faktorý on Friday 15th October, as well as several off-venues. There’s more information at http://www.brainloverecords.com
Bastardgeist was a solo guy from Chicago, Illinois when I first spotted him on MySpace, but now there are a couple of extra members for the live show. What caught my attention first were the crackly old loops from classical pieces that had been played over on ‘Run To The Hills’, making the repetitions slide around a bit with the live playing. Then there are slabs of bass-heavy drone with a sense of drama and depth, and a beautiful falsetto vocal dancing over it all; and just a feeling that there’s a creative mind behind all of this, making the decisions, writing the words and pushing the buttons. We’re going to make his debut album an exclusive for gogoyoko around the festival, so Icelanders will be able to hear it first. Also, I have never met Joel, the guy behind it: it’s all been internet so far. So that’s pretty exciting, for me at least.
Pagan Wanderer Lu
Pagan Wanderer Lu is one of the main artists on Brainlove, in that we’ve worked together for a few years now and released a couple of albums and a handful of EPs. When I first came across his demos, they were recorded on a four track and sounded kind of terrible in terms of production, but the songs and lyrics were just very obviously brilliant. I think PWL has grown up alongside the label in some ways. His new album ‘European Monsoon’ was home recorded but sounds really pop, thanks in part to the brilliant mixing done at the DREAMTRAK studio in London but also just his own curiosity and eagerness to learn. I guess you could describe it as weird, intellectual electronic indie-pop, if you are into doing that sort of thing. Lyrically, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to compare him to the real English greats like Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker—smart, political, observational and funny. Musically… I can’t think of any comparisons. That’s a good thing though, right?
I’ve thought We Aeronauts would go down well at Airwaves for a while now so it’s cool to finally be bringing them over. They’re like a folk mini-orchestra, playing very pretty and well-formed songs on a tonne of instruments that they alternate between. They’re a group of really good friends, and you can feel it in the music—it’s personal, warm, honest stuff. They vanished off to France a while back on a road trip with a car full of instruments, and came back with an EP that we’re putting finishing touches to now. It took them a while to get the choir parts recorded, in some old church in Oxford apparently. But, in case you are thinking this all sounds a bit twee, they dispelled that illusion with me after one heavy night out. Don’t let them fool you with all the nice and polite Englishness. But do buy them a drink and get them to tell you dirty jokes.
Posted October 15, 2010