The Collapsing Barn Essay No. 1: What Hands Make
The start. One evening in the early 2000’s, chatting about records and tipsy on cider, a good friend showed me what would become a defining record. Without sounding heavy handed, this was a key point in my life and without it, I never would have considered starting a record label.
On the cover was a rectangular grainy photo of a train’s rail wheel, set inside a burgundy frame. On the grooves of the LP the sound of a train line rings out, scraping and chugging into what I imagine is a cold night. Inside the record sleeve, there were an assortment of ephemera including a flattened Canadian penny, likely done so from the pressure of a locomotive. The record was “F♯ A♯ ∞” by Montreal collective, Godspeed You Black Emperor. That single penny, cold in my hand, lingered with me for a long time. Here was an example of inspiration, theme and process all interlinked. Could the process of the record be captured in the art? Could the physical creation of the album be layered into the recordings? This concept, I only later came to realize, was vital for our records and became the catalyst for inspiration.
The 90’s had only just past us and we were living in a time before indie music, hip-hop, and pop had become horridly homogeneous. Paralleling the DIY punk movement, perhaps best exemplified by the self-released 7″ from the Buzzcocks, “Spiral Scratch”, accessible technology was allowing musicians to become distributors of their own work. Supplanting the mix-tape (for a time), the CDr allowed musicians to release a broader tapestry of creative sound with more immediacy than a label’s release schedule would allow. Musicians like Charalambides, Jeffrey Lewis, Sunburned Hand of Man and Wolf Eyes could print off dozens of copies before (or while) on tour and directly sell them to their audience. In the case of Wolf Eyes, dozens of unofficial/official releases came through this process, sometimes in such limited quantities as a dozen.
Reacting to the wholesale process where the minimum CD production order, in standard plastic tray style, would be in the region of 1000, a hefty price for independent musicians to bear. CDr culture allowed one to produce only as many copies as there were interested parties which in turn put more money in the pockets of the musician. Also, in an environmental plus it reduced the amount of raw material produced where the artwork could be made of recyclable materials.
(Side note: I’ve heard all of the arguments on the supposed environmental benefits of digital and streaming over physical production of CDs or vinyl, have even had disputes with artists over the issue who wanted us to release their music by these means, but I don’t buy it. (Second side note: Not only don’t I buy it, I detest the pride that some have of digital musical consumerism.) A good article to catch up on the eco-debate was recently published in the Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/music-streaming-environment-impact-cd-records-electricity-a8860001.html).
So the means of production was in the artist’s hands but it wasn’t limited to the process of record making. Sound production, mixing and mastering were made accessible though the proliferation of laptops and software, allowing even the Mercury Prize to be won on such means (Dizzee Rascal) and others to release successful records which sold 150,000 copies (M.I.A’s “Arular”). I graduated from sound engineering school around this time and realized that I was learning digital phrenology. The cassette, improbably, would also later make a return and though Wist Rec have yet to use this as a means of release, it has also taken an important place in DIY music due to its low pressing requirements.
This of course was also around the time in which Radiohead took upon themselves to pull away from the mainstream record industry and offer their infamous “pay as you wish’ scheme for ‘In Rainbows’. Even when the album became available in shops, it had the sly sense to send up mainstream music production with a “Build it Yourself” CD tray and liner notes. Beck had a similar concept around this time with ‘The Information” which allowed you to make your own cover artwork on blue graphing paper with included stickers. Perhaps one of the best ‘assemble your own record’ concepts came from the Canadian punk band the Constantines whose debut record required some assembly but also included a single sulfur match in case you were feeling that you should destroy it (or perhaps burn down your house).
The mid 2000’s also started to see a more curated and focused handmade culture, more akin to the craft of bookbinding than that of the music industry. The time demands of this type of creation were such that they had to be limited in number. Attention was paid to paper textures, ink stamps, silk-screening binding methods, and letter-pressing. Only a small number of people would end up owning the artifact but the abundance of labels producing handmade music allowed a larger swath of consumer to take part in what I’ve referred to as the ‘aural tradition’, a take on the ‘oral tradition’ byways of the folk music community.
The handmade scene was/is much wider than what I’ll mention here and I apologies for the many exclusions. Listed below are the pathways I just happen to find myself traveling through:
-The Mort Aux Vaches series by Staalplaat which had an elegance and rarity, using novel materials such as sandpaper, lace and copper.
-the Wholly Other label, subscription based, allowed Tom and Christina Carter of Charalambides (the later an integral member of our label roster) to explore the outer limits of their and other’s work
– Hibernate’s ongoing postcard series. This project was an acute disappointment for me to discover as I’d had the same idea before finding them. It was also a great musical delight.
-labels like Rural Colours, Home Assembly Music, Cathedral Transmissions, Dauw, Shimmering Moods, Unknown Tone Records, Time Released Sound and Fluid Audio all released ambitious and haunting records which in some ways I aimed to avoid due to a mixture of not wanting to be influence by them and also envy. All of them conceived their releases so well.
– Trunk Records, Ghost Box and Home Normal strove to find a middle ground between hand assembly and reproduced records, all lovingly curated and often hosting the same wheel of artists. The profits of each release would go towards funding the next release with the aim of moving from CDR to diecast CD or vinyl when funds allowed.
– Some labels, like Richard Skelton’s hermetic Sustain-Release and Corbel Stone Press moved in both directions over time: at first starting with handmade CDr releases with various editions containing land collected artifacts like twigs and leaves. These expanded or folded into larger boxsets, slowly moving toward a publishing imprint which put poetry and nature books on level with album releases.
-More recent labels who I feel have continued the spirit of small release/handmade music include Analogue Chat, East Wall Recordings, and the sublime Eilean Rec. who also curate a soil sample from the location of every release.
–Brian Records released 3’cdrs, cassettes but more significantly very limited lathe records, with lower quality audio akin to the shellac 78’s which enmeshing the record in a scratchy atmosphere.
-a band who we’ve worked with several times, formerly Lost Trail and currently Nonconnah racked up dozens of self released albums, a proper monolith of haze and recall.
In my opinion however, the pinnacle of this DIY work was that which involved Craig Tattersall with on his Moteer and Mobeer labels with Andrew Johnson but chiefly for me, from his Cotton Goods series. This lovingly handcrafted series of 35 releases seemed like they belonged on the shelves of the British Museum. Together they gave off some sort of loony archival project vibe with various types of editions within the label named ‘Withdrawn from Circulation’, ‘Folio File’ and ‘Reference Library’. A new one seemingly appearing every few months and one was left with a sense of confusion when a new series began. ‘Wait… is Folio File finished then? I don’t understand.”
The special edition of Radiohead’s ‘Amnesiac’ and Icelandic band múm’s two records “Summer Make Good’ and ‘Finally We Are No One’ resembled library books or ancient tomes, however this was a label making records from actual books. Reader’s Digest which produced edited down versions of classic literature seemed to be the raw goods for early releases but equally of use were old mathematics text books.
The music was a mixture of drone, classical, field recording and… the indescribable. Memory? A lot of music at this time (all of the time really) dealt with memory but this felt like the actual recordings of ones jumbled thoughts. These half remembered tonal poem became such a companion to me that I listened to them incessantly while writing my thesis, a document which credits Craig Tattersall alongside predominant botanists and educators.
The feeling of an egalitarian world, imagined by the 1920’s art elite and exemplified best by the work and society revolving world around Leon Theremin and Clara Rockmore, of a future which never came, now seemed to have arrived.
The series of releases which recalls for me the same feeling that I had from that Godspeed album is the ‘Lending Library’. This was a series of releases which included the purchaser’s home address on the outer sleeve of album. The sleeves themselves each acquired artifacts from the scuffing and bumping one would expect when a package moves through the postal service, making them unique. The postal stamp in the UK changed around this time so the series documents this in its form, increasing its character. My name and address (sometimes incorrect) made these albums absolutely mine. As I understand it, the main distributor Boomkat needed to put a disclaimer on their website for this series as some people were requesting that their names be left off the cover and asked that it to be packaged better so that it arrived in mint condition. Boomkat told the public that this was the manner in which the label was asking the release to be made available and no exceptions would be made. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these requests were likely so these rare releases might be resold at a higher price on Discogs (a further discussion of this issue will be dealt with in a future essay).
In the November 2008 issue of the Wire Magazine David Keenan wrote a piece which perhaps had the most influence on me about this time, the last piece of the puzzle to spur me on to creating a record label. Speaking on the state of DIY music, he wrote ‘As downloads operate to destroy music as physical artifact altogether, to give primacy instead to the platform through which it is received and its associated (endless) technological “breakthroughs”, cassettes and (who would have thought it?) CD-R’s keep music physical, tactile, a baton passed from hand to hand. Most of all, it keeps music social.’
My hope was that this was going to be a flashpoint in which musicians, famous or not, would control their means of distribution and produce interesting handiwork for musical consumption. I would have hoped that Keenan or another writer for the Wire would have taken on this concept and championed it further, particularly during a time in which handmade music had reached a new zenith with the aforementioned projects. Instead, and this is just my musical prejudices coming out, the next few years of journalism in the magazine tended to fetishize a nauseating tasteless nostalgic through hypnagogic music and domesticated glam capitalism in vaporwave. Again, it might just be my cranky disdain on those genres…but I think those are concise and apt descriptions. The main journalistic support for this music came from the proliferation of music blogs around this time, some ethical, supporting new and independent music whilst others pushed the digital agenda and shared unavailable or sold out music without permission.
There is more to our story however which involves a mid-2000’s Record Club and the manner in which Manfred and I came together. Next time.