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Black Label

Electronic-music connoisseurs depend on small independent record companies for the hard stuff.

By Marc Weidenbaum

A friend returns from a Scotch-tasting tour of Scotland. He is singing brand names with the self-pleased fluidity of the recently enlightened: “Cragganmore, Auchentoshan, Laphroaig, Lagavulin.” Apparently knowledge intoxicates as effectively as liquor. “Initially, the variety intimidated me,” he says. “Then, halfway through our vacation, my girlfriend and I recognized that there are only about 100 brands of single-malt whiskey in the world.” A bounded, knowable quantity. They’d broken the code, and by the time the two returned home to New York City they were fluent in Scotch.

If only listeners intrigued by the new electronic pop music, another heady ether originating in (though not exclusive to) the United Kingdom, had it so easy. Scottish distilleries have nothing on the self-consciously cryptic names of electronic-music record companies: Rephlex, Mille Plateaux, Dorobo and Asphodel, for example. And the labels’ count is impossible to estimate, their legion metastasizing faster than a Windows 95 virus. The wide array of sounds testifies to the movement’s energy: the heart-thrumming beat of techno, the sonic bathysphere of ambient, the numbing ethnic plasticity of trance, the elastic percussion of jungle, the all-out experiments of drum’n’bass and so-called “abstract” hip-hop. The proliferation of indie record labels specializing in electronica (as the music is increasingly known) is perhaps the most exciting development in the ’90s music biz.

Among the labels are (hold your breath) Astralwerks, Blue Angel, City of Tribes, Cleopatra, DC (Depth Charge), Deviant, Extreme, Fathom, Fax, Gyroscope, Instinct, Liquid Sky, L.O., Metalheadz, Moonshine, Ninja Tune, Planet Dog, R&S, Reflective, Rising High, Shadow, Silent, Sm:)e, Source, Volume (whose heavily annotated Trance Europe Express compilations will orientate electronic-music newbies), Wall of Sound, Warp and Waveform. These and dozens of others often employ sublabels, much as electronic musicians tend to fancy pseudonyms–further confusing census-takers. San Francisco-based Silent Records has its Furnace, Flask and Sulfur lines. Aphex Twin, the best known ambient musician after the genre’s founder, Brian Eno, also goes by Polygon Window, AFX, Caustic Window and even the name his parents gave him, Richard D. James. One wonders where it will end?

Or, more importantly, where to begin? Perhaps with an observation: Most genres of music–rock, classical, hip-hop–are marketed by both independent and major labels: that is, by small autonomous upstarts and by behemoth multinational corporations. But there is no global, major-label equivalent to the indie electronic league.

“Techno and especially this kind of new electronic thing is more or less ruled by small independent labels,” says Achim Szepanski from Frankfurt, Germany, where he heads the label Mille Plateaux, home to Oval, Microstoria and Alec Empire, among others. Szepanski reports that a contract between Sony Germany and Mille Plateaux’s mother label, Force Inc. Music Works, evaporated after three releases. No surprise there. Empire’s chaotic techno and Oval’s prickly pointillism would be a hard sell at any major, though Microstoria’s urban environmentalism might make excellent boardroom background music.

Various explanations exist for the indies’ domination of the electronic music scene. The strongest theory, like the music itself, is founded on technology: Electronic music has collapsed the distance between musician and audience. Music created digitally is ready for transferal to compact disc whenever the musicians think their work is complete. This is in contrast with rock, jazz and classical, where one must negotiate the progression from composition to performance to recording to CD production.

“That is one of the reasons,” agrees Mille Plateaux’s Szepanski. “Our label gives the artists the possibility to control the production from the beginning to the end. They go to studios and do the cuts and the mastering and everything. The second reason is that the independent-distribution market is very different from the major-distribution market. And the third is that the bureaucratic structure of majors, this big infusion [of money and publicity], is not the right way to promote this type of music.”

Electronic indies subsist, instead, on a loose international network weaved from club play, sympathetic retailers, word of mouth (and Internet) and, increasingly, an attentive press. They also depend on independent distributors, which work out from under the pressure of chart-topping “priority” releases, and specialize in supplying smaller stores, ones which often work below the SoundScan radar, the accounting system that determines Billboard sales ratings.

Needless to say, many electronic indies were started by musicians. Synthesists Pete Namlook, Jonah Sharp, Sven Vath and Aphex Twin run, respectively, the Fax, Reflective, Eye Q and Rephlex labels. Kim Cascone founded Silent, but recently divested. Darrin Verhagen of Australia creates a gothic blend of ambient and chamber music under the name Shinjuku Thief. He also runs Shinjuku’s label, Dorobo, home as well to Black Lung and Alan Lamb, and a sub-imprint, Iridium.

“The label started off as an outlet for my own material,” Verhagen says, “and fairly quickly turned from servant to master.” In order to manage the dual roles, Verhagen has taken, only half-jokingly, to referencing himself in the third person: “Obviously this is a cause of considerable concern to Verhagen/Shinjuku–but as the label gains more momentum and recognition, it becomes more difficult to slow down. And given that much of the time spent on the label is in chasing outstanding accounts, it’s not something you can really afford to neglect. When composing, the relationship between the two Verhagens is interesting. At the moment, for example, Mr. Dorobo is a little concerned at Mr. Shinjuku’s direction [on the new album]. Whilst it’s more interesting than the previous two albums, from a marketing point of view it’s much more difficult to pigeonhole.”

Discerning pigeonholes is Michael Bull’s job. He is the head buyer of Caroline Distribution, which distributes a lion’s share of today’s electronic labels, including Asphodel, Cleopatra, Liquid Sky and Reflective. “It’s a region that has yet to be exploited by the majors,” he says. “We’ve seen the same thing with punk rock. We were selling it for years, and it was a real underground thing. But since Nirvana, Green Day and the Offspring, it’s been a feeding frenzy. But that stuff’s still rock music, and a lot of the electronic stuff we’re dealing with isn’t catchy much of the time. It’s more intellectual music than feel-good music.”

With or without an electronic Billboard hit, indie hegemony is threatened. Rick Rubin’s American Recordings has first dibs on the Too Pure label from Britain, whose roster includes Mouse on Mars and Laika. Even would-be mogul Aphex Twin records for Elektra, part of the Time Warner family. Caroline is wholly owned by Virgin U.K. (in turn owned by major EMI), and several Caroline success stories, such as the highly popular Macro Dub Infection compilation and the Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust, were licensed from the mother company; Virgin U.K.’s decision to go the indie route with these releases is at once evidence of the indie world’s sovereignty over electronic music, and of the illusory nature of indies’ distance from the majors.

Ownership of independent distributors certainly clouds the issue. Island’s Quango subsidiary licenses excellent electronic music from small labels, as does London’s ffrr, and both, along with Island Independent and Axiom, are distributed by ILS. ILS is, like Caroline, an indie distributor wholly owned by a major label, in this case PolyGram. Similarly, Sony owns RED, which distributes Earache (home to Scorn) and World Domination (which licenses Loop Guru), and Time Warner owns a chunk of the distributor ADA. Instinct and Shadow are distributed through Indi, a truly independent independent distributor, but one which also handles PolyGram-owned Quango releases in some territories.

Meanwhile, indies are forming alliances of their own. TVT bought the WaxTrax! label and imports select Warp titles from England, including Autechre’s. The indie Mammoth licenses Planet Dog, home to ethno-trance band Banco de Gaia. Dorobo came to Caroline Distribution via a relation with the indie Fifth Column (Dorobo is also distributed by Dark Wave). Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label has been issuing Mille Plateaux titles in America. Art often follows business’ lead in the music world, but here there are positive results: Thrill Jockey band Tortoise recently collaborated with Plateaux’s Oval.

Moonshine, which made its name with the Trip-Hop Test and other anthologies, has developed a stable of in-house DJs (Keoki, Doc Martin) and artists (Electric Skychurch, Cleveland Lounge). Inking a growing number of import deals (City of Angels, DMC, Domestic, Hardkiss, Mixmag, Rising High), the label is fast becoming a major force–and Moonshine is 100 percent independently owned. Moonshine is distributed by Navarre, like Indi a true independent distributor.

If all this talk of the business of music gets too confusing, pour a dram of Scotch, pop on an old Brian Eno album and chill out. The world of independent labels is a jumble, but it’s an exquisite jumble. It’s worth noting that Szepanski named Mille Plateaux after a book, translated A Thousand Plateaus, by late philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, which suggested a theory of decentralization, of the kind of chaotic network epitomized by the world of indie electronic music. In this world, materials commonly perceived to be defunct, such as vinyl LPs and out-of-date synthesizers, prosper; musicians thwart popularity with shifting pseudonyms; rampant collaboration further confounds our notions of authorship; and thievery, however artful (in the form of sampling), is the norm. The book’s subtitle: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Originally published in Pulse! magazine, September 1996.

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