U.S. Robotics, Part 1/3

The owner-operators of small American electronic-music labels talk shop. First up, Todd Hyman of Carpark Records, home to Jake Mandell and Marumari.

Electronic music is no more solely the province of Europe than wine, Fascism or competitive bicycling. Certainly, British, German and French labels, such as Warp, Mille Plateaux and Sourcelab, to name but three, have developed substantial catalogs and followings. But electronic music has long since developed global outposts in the form of boutique labels, from Japan, to Russia, to various cities throughout the United States.

At the start of 2002, the heads of three small American electronic music labels agreed to discuss those three adjectives: small, American and electronic. What is it about electronic music that works so perfectly on little boutique companies run out of bedrooms and off kitchen tables? Is there anything distinct to the American way of performing or otherwise contributing to electronic music? Does the thrill that accompanies a first release survive with the tenth release, as mundane responsibilies expand along with a label’s renown?

First up is Todd Hyman, who founded Carpark Records in 1999. The label just issued its 12th release, Arbor, an album of guitar-derived electronic music by Greg Davis. Hyman spoke from New York, where he lives, while preparing a tour that would team Davis with another electronic musician, Keith Fullerton Whitman, who often records under the name Hrvatski.

Hyman, a Louisville native, circulates his label’s releases through traditional distributors and stores, but also takes advantage of the recent innovation of PayPal to sell CDs directly from the label’s website. The label’s catalog includes not just American musicians like Davis, Marumari and Jake Mandell, but also several Japanese musicians, including Takagi Masakatsu and Ogurusu Norihide. He’s also released music by Kid606, Kit Clayton and others.

Hyman discussed his origins in college radio, his role in the development of New York City’s electronic community and the simple pleasures of stuffing envelopes.

Marc Weidenbaum: Describe the process that led up to your first CD release?

Todd Hyman (Carpark Records): The first release was the Placekick EP by Jake Mandell. I planned three releases at the beginning, and that one came out November of 1999. The other two came out in December. I thought I’d start out with a bang.

I’d been heavily involved in music for years. In college I worked in radio, where I was music director. I worked at labels, I got my masters degree in popular-music studies [in Glasgow, Scotland], and always sort of knew I wanted to be involved in music, but never thought I wanted to start a record label. The coolness factor of record labels was always short-lived; it wouldn’t be worth it to run a label for a few years and then have it be lame.

When I moved back to New York, I worked at this record shop, and we had this idea to start a weekly experimental electronic-music night [Invisible Cities, for over a year at the Manhattan East Village club Brownies, and then monthly at the Knitting Factory], and there wasn’t anything like it at the time. We started having live shows with people from around town and around the area. It seemed like an opportune time. I had just moved back here, and I didn’t want to work at a record shop for the rest of my life. Lots of folks here were putting out records on European labels and there was need for an American label.

Weidenbaum: Was there another record label that served as a role model for you?

Hyman: I was always a fan of labels like Thrill Jockey and Matador. Those are labels people always admire. Thrill Jockey doesn’t stick to a sound, which I always thought was a good thing. Record labels end up getting pegged with a sound or ideology, and lose their luster. And that’s one of my goals with Carpark, though those goals are hard to attain, because people have their own images and idea of what labels are. I always imagined Carpark to be loosely electronic. People refer to it as an “IDM” label, but I want to put out different types of records, like Greg Davis’s Arbor, with its acoustic elements. These are records I consider to be different-sounding, though all under the umbrella of electronic. A lot of people think Carpark records are the same. I mean, there is a theme, but they’re different-sounding. But that’s just me.

Weidenbaum: How far ahead have you planned what Carpark will release — six months, a year?

Hyman: From what I’ve heard, when you’re in the higher ups in record-label bureaucracy, you have to plan far in advance. At this point, I have to let people know two months in advance that something’s coming out. And it takes five to six months to get something out, from the point I hear something, through the production, to getting it in stores.

Weidenbaum: You also support your acts when they tour. How many different duties do you juggle?

Hyman: I don’t consider myself a manager. I’m sort of this jack of all trades: running this label, trying to do what’s best for the artist and the label. Between me, Greg and Keith, we know enough people so we can set up shows in these different cities, and they can come out ahead financially, and it’ll help the label to have them out on tour. I’m not trying to hover over them or take fees out of them. From my experience so far, unless it’s beneficial, I prefer to keep things as DIY as possible. Last summer, for the Marumari tour, I pretty much organized that whole tour myself. Before that, we were seeing if he could tour with a bigger band, and I dealt with a couple of booking agents, and they were a pain to deal with. I knew plenty of people who cared about the music, and so I just contacted them directly instead.

Weidenbaum: How about running your website, or designing the packaging of your CDs?

Hyman: I did the design for the Kid606 record and Placekick. Otherwise, the musician takes care of it. Takahashi is a graphic designer, so he designs his artwork. Marumari has a whole package, too; he takes care of everything, including the video and the sleeve. For Jake’s Love Songs, he had a friend in Germany who did the art for that. It’s fortunate to work with talented designers who have similar ideas to how I envision the label.

Weidenbaum: What did it feel like, for you as a fledgling label operator, when you released that first record, the Placekick EP.

Hyman: I was pretty excited, yeah. I was gonna make a big impression, turn heads, that sort of thing — excited to get things going.

Weidenbaum: How does it feel today, when you’ve released your dozen-th CD?

Hyman: It’s still — I still enjoy very much doing it. For the most part, all the artists I deal with are nice and cool, so I don’t have any difficulties dealing with the artists. The more mundane stuff, like stuffing envelopes, has gotten more intense, because I have to mail stuff for more people. But if that’s the worst thing that happens, that’s not so bad. To put a record out into the public consciousness. … I still love reading reviews and seeing what people think of records, and learning how to make a record more successful, how to try and make a record, through press, and through having better distribution. It’s almost like a mathematical game, the tour, trying to map cities, and have enough time to get between them, especially a five-week North American tour.

Weidenbaum: Is a compilation album from the label coming.

Hyman: I was thinking about that last week. Every label has its compilation. I haven’t really come up with any ideas, but I’m starting to think, what would our Clicks and Cuts [compilation from the Mille Plateaux label] or Put the Morr Back in Morrisey [compilation from the Morr Music label] be.

Weidenbaum: Are there other small labels you consider colleagues.

Hyman: When I began with the idea of running a label, I met people in New York and around the East Coast, who were making similar music. Met guys from Lucky Kitchen label, and others, and we had nights with them. There are labels like Lucky Kitchen, Toshoklabs, Brooklyn Beats. I met Kit Clayton when he played Invisible Cities; it was the summer of ’99 and I didn’t really know who he was, and he would get in touch with me when people from San Francisco were coming to town, and I eventually built up a relationship with a bunch of those people, like Miguel [Depedro, aka Kid606] and Cex, so there was a group of people in New York, San Francisco — a first-generation underground American electronic … a spread-out community.

Weidenbaum: Would this community, as you perceive it, have been achievable without the Internet available?

Hyman: It would have been fairly unattainable without the web. It would have been a lot of phone calls. But being in New York and working at a record shop, a lot of people come to you.

Weidenbaum: Are there specific benefits to being a small label.

Hyman: With distributors going under, shop chains closing — I took part in CMJ panel this year, with fairly bigger-up guys, like the president of Caroline, and I knew him when I was doing college radio, and he was saying the days of labels like Astralwerks may be numbered, and he thought small, one-person-size labels may be more successful, selling fewer copies, than a label with a full set of employees and expectations.

Weidenbaum: Do you foresee, say, having an employee?

Hyman: I’m hoping every year the label increases. This year just started and I have already more albums planned as had I put out in 2001. If I can do it all by myself, great, but if I need to have another person and can afford to — it’s not like something I feel the need to do.

Weidenbaum: Do you still work at the record shop?

Hyman: I stopped this summer. Started getting too busy.