End of a Netlabel

Brad Mitchell reflects on the decision to close his long-running netlabel, Kikapu.

A funny thing happened on the way to downloading the most recent release from the netlabel known as Kikapu. Run by musician Brad Mitchell (aka Pocka), Kikapu has been posting for free download original electronic music since 2001. The latest release popped up late last month as a headline in my RSS reader, with links to archive.org, the Internet Archive, where Mitchell and many other netlabel administrators house their media files.

But when I visited to the Kikapu website, kikapu.com, for additional information there was no mention of the release, a nine-tack set titled VXVII by Mikronesia. Given the punctuality and professionalism that have been Kikapu’s standard for nearly eight years, the lack of information at kikapu.com seemed odd.

The next day, a visit to the website explained everything: Mitchell was closing down the label, after 109 of its virtual albums and EPs, with a suddenness that defines un-ceremonial — little more than an “R.I.P.” tagline (“2001 to 2008”) and some poetry by Walt Whitman:

The Past! the dark, unfathom’d retrospect! The teeming gulf! the sleepers and the shadows! The past! the infinite greatness of the past! For what is the present, after all, but a growth out of the past?

While neither the first netlabel nor the most prolific, Kikapu has been, since its debut, one of the most substantive and consistent. It was a stable entity in the vast, growing and often chaotic field of freely, legally downloadable music. Kikapu didn’t contain Whitman’s multitudes so much as it hinted at them.

I’d first interviewed Mitchell almost exactly four years ago (disquiet.com). He explained then that he’d discovered netlabels, such as Monotonik (mono211.com), while looking for music to play on his college radio show. In time, he set up his own, releasing work by Raemus, Karl Zeiss, Veem and others, including Leonard J. Paul’s soundtrack to the documentary film The Corporation — an appropriate partnership, given the inherently anti-corporate nature inherent in any netlabel venture. Many of those releases have been reviewed as part of this site’s ongoing Disquiet Downstream section.

With Kikapu now shut down, I corresponded with Mitchell via email, and he agreed to answer some questions about the end of his much-loved netlabel.

Marc Weidenbaum: How did you come to the realization that you wanted to close down the Kikapu netlabel?

Brad Mitchell: The thought had actually crossed my mind a time or two over the years, but the final decision came about six months ago. The past few years, the amount of time and energy I’ve been able to put into the label has decreased significantly. When I started it I was still at university and had a lot of free time, and I really enjoyed it. But now that I work full time I don’t have nearly as much free time to devote to it, and this caused me to lose interest in it, to be honest.

I feel that the artists involved are giving 100 percent of themselves to their releases, and when I’m not able to match their dedication I feel that I’m cheating them of something. Running a label requires a lot of work, way more than I ever expected. Once I started spending less time on the label, promotion slowed, and I think some of the releases didn’t garner nearly as much attention as they deserved. And I mainly blame myself for this. Hence, I decided to stop doing any more new releases, so hopefully the artists can find homes at new labels that are able to put in all of the necessary work to get their music heard.

Weidenbaum: If any three tracks or releases best summarize what you were trying to get at with Kikapu, what would those be?

Mitchell: The release that I’m most proud of is definitely the Wein, Weib und Gesang compilation we did a few years back. I think that collection best summarizes the direction and sound the label strived for. Plus it was such a massive release, and the styles of the artists vary enough within the confines of being an ambient compilation that it is still very interesting to listen to, for me at least, after more than three years. Two more releases that really define what I think of as the “Kikapu sound” would be KOSIK’s Removable Pieces album, and Aidan Baker and Ben Fleury-Steiner’s Second Week of the Second Month release. Both are somewhat ambient in style, but use actual, live instrumentation to achieve some of the best music I’ve ever heard. And I also want to throw out there how incredible it was being able to release the soundtrack to the film The Corporation, by Leonard J. Paul. I think it helped to really legitimize netlabels in a way, and I’m really proud of that.

Weidenbaum: Will you continue to make music — whether as Pocka, or under your own name?

Mitchell: Absolutely, I’m still recording music all the time.. I’ve got a full-length album that will be released through Gears of Sand later this year, and another full-length album that will be released on the Test Tube netlabel fairly soon I think. The Test Tube album is droning ambient, and the Gears of Sand release is live guitar-based tracks that sound like a mix of dark ambient and doom metal. I’m really excited for people to hear that album, since it’s quite a change in style for me personally.

Weidenbaum: Where do you live and what are you up to professionally?

Mitchell: Right now I’m living back in my hometown in southern Missouri. I’ve spent the past few years bouncing all over the place, from Vancouver to Seattle to New York to Switzerland, but now I’m back home in the midwest. I’ve started my own audio production company here, and I spend most every waking moment doing some form of audio production or engineering. My work mainly focuses on post-production sound, and I do a lot of dialog editing, with a bit of music production sprinkled in here and there.

Weidenbaum: How has the idea of a netlabel evolved since 2001?

Mitchell: I think the big differences between netlabels when I started Kikapu and netlabels at present are 1) there are an incredible number of netlabels out there now, and 2) some of them are starting to turn away from the original DIY aesthetic and becoming, for lack of a better word, more professional. When I started Kikapu I could rattle off most of the netlabels online just from my head. Now there has to be hundreds, if not more. It’s way too much to keep track of really. But my second point is what is really important. What started out as a very small scene has expanded to a much larger audience, though it’s still a niche market. But I think that a lot of that is due to some labels really stepping up the game and in effect becoming a mirror of larger, more traditional music labels. I’m not a huge fan of this idea though, since for me the whole idea of giving away free music and avoiding any kind of sponsorships or linking up with larger profit-minded labels is what turned me on to the netlabel scene in the first place. I tried to do that to the best of my abilities with Kikapu. I did a handful of cd releases, but the whole goal of those was to help pay my server and hosting fees. And it was never enough. I just love the idea of being completely DIY. But if all netlabels continued down that road, the amount of listeners wouldn’t increase substantially. It’s a slippery slope, deciding how far to go either way. I appreciate people putting lots of money and work into their netlabels, but it also seems to be going against the true idea of what a netlabel is.

Weidenbaum: What new netlabels are you following?

Mitchell: To be honest I’m not that familiar with many new netlabels; I don’t follow the netlabel world nearly as closely as I used to. But a few of my favorite netlabels that really stand out are 12rec.net (12rec.net), Test Tube (monocromatica.com/netlabel), Resting Bell (restingbell.net), and con-v (con-v.org). All of these labels have a clearly defined sound and style that is all their own, and their releases all tend to be prolific. I also like that all of these labels tend to release different genres of music, and the kinds of music I like are all represented in just these four labels. Everything they release is top-notch work, and I usually download just about everything they offer.

Weidenbaum: What tips do you have for individuals thinking of initiating a netlabel?

Mitchell: Make sure you have the resources to maintain the label. Be selfless. And be picky.

Related links: A January 2004 interview with Brad Mitchell (disquiet.com). The Kikapu website, kikapu.com. Kikapu's catalog at archive.org.

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