Experimental, electronic, techno, ambient and drone collective.
What made you start a label?
Steve: I’ve been posting regularly on the Drowned in Sound forums for a few years now. Over that time I’d heard loads of great music which was barely visible outside of our nice little community – albums which were ranking really high in my AOTY lists but virtually no one was hearing. I also moved from London to Leeds recently and the change of location reignited my own musical project which had lain dormant for about 7 years.
Kris Ilic (aka Lowering) took a chance on the first thing I put out and liked it, so we got chatting over the Bandcamp app. While we were messaging and formulating this idea of a community-driven label, I was listening to his first album of shimmering drone. One composition, ‘New Racist Overlords’, just completely stopped me in my tracks for its 15-minute duration and that was the real spark. It was one of the most transcendent pieces of music I’d heard in a long time and it was plain wrong that so few people would share that experience.
Kris: Like many a music obsessive, I’d idly dreamed of setting up a record label since I was a teenager. I’d always had it in the back of my head that if I ever came into significant cash – the likelihood of which becomes ever smaller by the year – I’d set something up. The realization that it doesn’t take a shedload of cash and instead is simply dependent on doing it only really started getting through to my idiot-brain when Steve and I started chatting, first about the music we were both making, and then about all the incredible music being made by people on the Drowned in Sound forums.
Like he says, there was so much fantastic music, and most of it languishing unloved beyond that forum. It was Steve’s suggestion that we do something about it, and it just suddenly clicked; of course we could set up a label! The only thing stopping it from happening would be us. Luckily, we’ve had a hugely supportive response, not just from the artists on the label, but the wider DiS community, and that’s really helped drive things forward.
Steve: The more philosophical ‘why’ is that as a collective our voice is much louder and our collaboration much stronger. We believe passionately in the music the folks on the label are creating, and the connections each of us brings have the capacity to amplify our individual voices in a saturated space. Then there’s the collaborative element, which has been incredible and hugely rewarding. Bouncing ideas off one another, coming up with a shared vision for the artwork, getting feedback on tracks – it’s all much easier as a formal group.
Kris: That’s definitely been one of the most rewarding things – so many people sharing their skills and time. Although we’re ostensibly the label “heads”, everyone on the label is treated equally and valued for what they bring. The visual aesthetic is probably the best example – we arrived at something I’m very proud of through a genuinely collaborative process of people sharing, building, and voting on each other’s ideas. There’s no way any one of us would have created that on our own. It’s a sense of shared ownership. If you’re on the label, you’re part of the label.
Steve: Everyone’s learning from each other – each artist has a different perspective, background, and level of experience and that’s a fertile environment for each of us; expanding our creative horizons and honing our craft. For example, I listen to Kris’s techno and I’m in awe of how he has so much going on but manages to keep it all coherent, and I’m studying that and thinking about how to apply it to my own music. And when I said that to him it turns out he’s looking at my work and likes how much space there is in the mixes. I don’t think we would have that kind of input as a set of disconnected artists.
What are some of the challenges you see as a label owner?
Steve: Being heard and diversity are probably the big two. I’ve always considered myself to be deep in the ‘experimental’ electronic scene but starting the label has thrown me even deeper into the world of tiny labels producing wonderful music. Everyone is fighting for review space and podcast airtime. But I’ve found it more richly rewarding more than anything – one of the nicest things about the whole endeavour has been the interactions with folks like yourselves. But yeah, the promotional game is a tiring and difficult one.
In terms of diversity, we have 12 artists on Disintegration State and all of them are male. Everyone who has sent me demos has been male. Most folks listening to our music on Spotify or purchasing it on Bandcamp are male. We’ve had some open discussion on the forum about this and I know it’s our issue and duty to address. But right now, it’s one I’m really struggling with – we don’t have a plan yet but it’s important to be open about it and it’s something both Kris and I really want to change.
Kris: I’d agree with both of those things. I’m terrible at using social media to promote anything creative I do at the best of times, but again, we share roles out and that certainly helps. Well, it helps me anyway! The diversity thing is a much more complex problem to overcome.
Our initial thinking was: Are they part of the Drowned in Sound community? Are they making music we like in the electronic/ambient/experimental vein? If the answer to both of those was “yes” then they were welcome. However, as Steve’s said, everyone who’s put themselves forward is male, and – I think – largely white, too. And that’s not entirely reflective of the population of people making the kind of music that Disintegration State exists to promote. We don’t have a solution, but we recognize it’s an issue and are trying to figure out a way to address it.
What is your take on Spotify and streaming services?
Steve: It’s a double-edged sword… I love how accessible it is to put out music digitally and I honestly think our label would be worse off in a world without streaming. It’s such low effort for someone to take a chance on an unknown artist or label.
Kris: Absolutely! It’s so much easier to take a punt on a new artist. Our streaming numbers are still in the tens or low hundreds for the most part, but we already have listeners stretching across the globe. That would have been impossible for a label as small and as new as ours even just a few years ago.
Steve: Of course the payment side is pretty poor as we all know. The focus on playlists and how self-reinforcing they are as a mechanism is frustrating. I think as ‘experimental’ electronic musicians we’re perhaps less impacted by the shift away from albums to playlists as a way of consuming music. I’d guess that folks who into what we’re doing are going to still be into the narrative of an album and appreciate the thought we all put in to how the songs flow.
Maybe I’d feel differently as someone trying to break into the mainstream. By the same token I’ve discovered so much incredible music (particularly via http://last.fm ) through various implementations of personalized radio. And I have found myself listening to significantly more new artists since I started using Spotify because the barrier to entry is so low.
Kris: It’s an odd one because when the curation algorithms work well they can throw up some wonderful surprises and tiny artists suddenly find themselves sitting alongside giants of their genre, which is beautiful. However it does seem like Spotify is moving more and more towards promotion of their own playlists rather than allowing the algorithm to do its thing.
Plus, the fractions-of-fractions payments aren’t brilliant. I suppose Spotify and other streaming services act as a shop window for the small percentage of people still willing to buy music.
Steve: Speaking of which, I do make sure I buy things I really love – that feels important to me. Ultimately, we want to take the label to a point where we have a steady enough fan-base to be able to produce limited runs of physical products without it being a financial risk each time. That permanence and tangibility still feels important in the world of streaming.
Is there a specific focus as far as genres or local/regional aspect of music you’re releasing?
Steve: In terms of genre, we’re looking to stay broadly in the ambient / techno / IDM / ‘experimental’ space. We don’t want to be overly narrow – labels like Sacred Bones and Kranky have succeeded in building a cohesion in attitude as much as in genre and we want that kind of feel. If you take Jacob Nico and Colin Mawson’s recent albums, they’re both exploring similar themes – reacting to the current social situation – and landing in quite different places stylistically. But there’s still a cohesion there. Or at least there is for me!
The other connection is the Drowned in Sound forum. I think for now we want that feeling of community to remain a core component. For example, I run a fortnightly listening club there for electronic music and lots of folks on the label are active in that thread. I like that there’s a connection beyond just putting out music under a label name. That may end up being at odds with the diversity issues mentioned above in the longer run – I guess we’ll see…
Do you believe that music could bring about social change?
Steve: No doubt. Art has always had that capacity through multiple channels. It can be empowering, communicative, and a window to experiences outside of your own – look at hip-hop for example. I’m not qualified to talk about it properly but if I look at my own experience it’s changed how I engage with that culture. I grew up in rural Lincolnshire in a town with negligible diversity and no one actively broadening my horizons in that respect. Rap did that. Poring over lyrics, reading up on NWA, Tupac, his mum’s role in the Black Panthers. It’s transformative.
I’m a straight white cis male and I’m fortunate enough to not be struggling with the impact of the de-industrialisation of the western world. That aspect of music as social change is for everyone other than me. But we have a platform through our music, however small, and we can be allies and do our little bit to help.
Kris: I hope that even the way in which we’ve approached the label reflects this. We’re running it as a non-profit, with exposure for music we love as the goal. The artists all have an equal investment, and any label-profit is going to be put back into further promotion for the benefit of everyone. It’s a kind of micro-scale socialism. And although much of the music we’re putting out is instrumental, it still comes as a response to what we’re seeing in society right now. Pushing back against regressive views and celebrating the progressive.
Steve: We’re proud that the earliest album on the label by Lowering is explicitly a reaction to Brexit and all the alt-right stuff that was emerging and ‘fake news’. We’re proud that Jacob Nico is confronting individualism in his lyrics. We’re proud to support women’s right to choose via Twitter. Of course, our impact is small, but I think we have a duty to be vocal on these things.
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