In the days when Drake rules music landscape/Spotify we would like to turn our attention elsewhere – namely, smaller/indie record labels. Recently, we asked Community Radio Tapes (Colorado), WarHen Records (Virginia) and Blue Tapes (UK) to talk to us about challenges they face, their views on streaming services and more.
Community Radio Tapes
We’re a small cassette label focusing on minimalist rock and gloomy folk music.
Recent releases: Sea Grapes – Deadbeat Dad | Heart Eyes – Whatever It Is, Whenever You Feel Like It
Independent DIY Record Label in Charlottesville VA.
I release whatever I want.
Future-proofing music by making it plastic.
What made you start a label?
CRT – I’ve always been inspired by DIY artists and was following a few labels already. I had been trying to get my own music released on a small label for a while, but didn’t have a whole lot of luck. But I had been supporting my friend’s’ music endeavors from Florida. Then it hit me, on my birthday at an Arcade Fire show in Denver: I should just start my own label, and support artists while giving a future platform for my own music as well. That’s basically how CRT was born. Just a sweet passion project from a revelation.
WH – Mostly to have the opportunity & platform to do something fun & artistic & creative & meaningful with & for my friends. But it has snowballed into this wonderful thing that has lead me to work with some incredible people. I’ve also forged some of the strongest relationships/friendships of my life because of it. What started as something that resembled a hobby more than anything has become one of the most important and colorful and inspiring aspects of my life.
BT – I think being quite obsessive-compulsive was a main driver. I never really saw Blue Tapes as a label in a traditional sense. Labels are essentially music industry banks – they put up big loans for musicians to record, manufacture, promote and distribute their music, at what is basically a high interest rate. Everything we’ve released has lost money, so, financially, we don’t compute as a label, and the only resource I can offer artists is my time – whatever that’s worth.
I just wanted to curate a collectable series of releases, matching up music that I liked with visual art that I’d made, and presenting them as a combined product. That’s why the releases were all identified by a number rather than a title – it was the idea that you were subscribing to a series where each month or so you’d receive a piece of audio and a piece of visual art juxtaposed in a tactile format that feels good in your hand and looks good on your shelf.
Beyond that, I always wanted the label to become a sort of hub for collaboration among people from different backgrounds but with similar thinking. The thing of “we’re not a label, we’re more like a collective” has become a bit of a cliche, but more recently our focus has changed from just releasing tapes and records to finding novel ways for our roster to work together artistically – there are a bunch of these projects in the pipeline and it’ll be fun to see how they turn out.
What are some of the challenges you see as a label owner?
CRT – One of the biggest challenges for a small label is balancing finances with ambition (and also time). I would say most small label owners like us have to keep up a day job to support themselves, so while I would love to release a new artist’s LP every other week, tapes cost money and sometimes we don’t sell enough to profit. Especially just starting out, it’s really straining.
WH – For WarHen personally it’s tough because I rely solely on word of mouth for exposure. So just getting the word out there in a grassroots style can be a challenge. It has been a steady climb since the start, which has been fun to watch and be a part of. I’ve noticed a spike in traffic/interest in the past eight months or so – very exciting. I like to think of WarHen has the Slow Burn of record labels.
BT – Bluntly, it’s the inability to recoup. The label has become unsustainable because no one is buying anything anymore. In its earlier days, we could sell 200 tapes or LPs of a release, but now even selling 50 – the minimum order for a pro-dubbed tape – is a struggle. One release from last year has only sold 1 copy. There are a lot more tape and small labels around now, so the tape fan has many more choices to distribute their cash around and they’re probably less likely to remain loyal to a few core imprints. Also, maybe the novelty of short-run physical format has run thin a bit – I know among my friendship group that people who jumped back on the vinyl train during the so-called “vinyl revival” have now stopped buying records again, because they feel it represents just another kind of unnecessary consumerism. It’s difficult to argue against that, but I prefer physical formats for music I really love to digital versions, which don’t tend to last long on my devices, or streaming, because I only end up ever listening to 2-3 song chunks of albums at a time.
What’s your take on Spotify?
CRT – I think it definitely helps get new music discovered, but it hurts the artists because the money isn’t directly going to them. It’s soft exploitation.
WH – I dunno. I don’t subscribe to Spotify or Apple or whatever. Never have. I can see the merits with the music supposedly reaching a greater audience, and it being convenient and whatnot, but without really knowing a ton of details, aren’t streaming services totally ripping off the bands? Seems like a two faced system. Not sure I’m quite ready to get on board yet.
BT – I’m a total Spotify addict so it would be hypocritical of me to join the chorus of people from small labels and music websites who claim that “Spotify is ruining music.” The music industry hasn’t continued in the trajectory established during 1960s to the 1990s and some people find it hard to let go of that, but given the disruptive influence of internet piracy in the early 2000s, streaming is really the lesser of two evils.
The mainstream pop culture consumer doesn’t want the inconvenience of buying/renting individual DVDs and CDs – they want to pay a flat fee every month and have everything out there available at the touch of a button. It’s difficult to say whether that’s unfair or not – it’s just the way things are now, and no amount of King Cnutism is going to turn the tides back on this.
I think for people whose interests in culture are more in the margins, they’re still spending as much money on their interests as they ever have. They’re buying limited editions, going to gigs, doing all the things that the mainstream pop culture fan might view as anachronistic. I do think that they are being exploited in a different way, though – modern vinyl is often insanely overpriced, with the price of deluxe boxsets now nearing the £1000 mark, and the cost of single LPs in bricks-and-mortar record stores coming in at £30-40.
Given that being a physical format fan is now so luxurious and purse-crippling, isn’t it inevitable that people would rather just section off a small portion of their monthly income and pay that, like an electricity bill, to ensure a steady stream of on-tap culture? After all, wages – in this country at least – are not going up, and rent is, exponentially. Tapes have re-entered this ecosystem because they’re a nice compromise. You get something cool and physical and collectable, but at reasonable, uninflated prices.
Is there a specific focus to your label as far as genres or local/regional aspect of music?
CRT – We started out wanted gloomy folk artists from anywhere. And we stayed true to that for our first two releases but now we’re branching out into blues rock, alternative and even hip-hop at some point. We just want to be inclusive and diverse.
WH – Not really. Too many great bands out there making incredible, different types of music. If it moves me, then let’s ride.
BT – I used to joke that we release music “From Japan, Canada, Estonia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, Norway, Italy and Poland,” like it was something specific, but it’s always been my intention to be very international. We are all global citizens now and I think it’s more important to boost the ideas that resonate the hardest with you – no matter where they come from – than to just spotlight your parochial scene, which can perhaps unintentionally come off as isolationist. I think there is still a huge amount of xenophobia-by-omission in the way music is transmitted and received – by labels, by music media, by consumers.
In terms of genre, it’s difficult to describe – we’re often portrayed as ‘hyper-eclectic’ but for me the releases do all share the same spirit, if not always the same sound. It’s not random at all and a lot of thought goes into every aspect of the curation but I have to accept that I might be the only person who recognizes this!
Do you believe that music could bring social change?
CRT – I think music definitely has the ability to break down barriers socially. In the past, you had events like Woodstock that sort of defined the anti-war movements. And today, you see prominent artists of color as the new rock stars and everybody listens to them from all walks of life. Music has the capacity to show us individually what we can relate to, even if the song as a whole is about something else entirely.
WH – 100%. Hasn’t it already?
BT – Music, for me, is like food or medicine. It is something small and necessary and everyday. These are things that sustain us, but they don’t change the world, and they shouldn’t have to. I think social media is the the current biggest determinant in social change right now and it is important that that is scrutinised, tested, talked about and held to account where necessary.