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12k: Label Profile

img  Tobias Fischer

Few labels have an equally clearly defined philosophy as New York's 12k. And so it is hard to believe today that the imprint was initially started in 1997 mainly as the byproduct of a failed record deal. In the end, that regrettable episode would turn out to be a godsend for founding father Taylor Deupree, who had long felt uncomfortably cornered by his association with the dance community. Over the next years, the development of 12k into the probably leading platform for experimental sound art and warm electro-acoustic textures would go hand in hand with his own development as an artist. Discreet four-to-the-floor kickdrums still pounded underneath the arrangements of his 1998 release Comma,. On top of them, meanwhile, Deupree was already weaving the delicate sonic strands that would come to define his later oeuvre. With releases by befriended artists like Frank Bretschneider Christopher Willits and Tetsu Inoue as well as high-profile sublabels like LINE (curated by Richard Chartier and focusing on a minimal, microsound-oriented sound), Happy (dabbling its feet in the waters of Japanese pop) as well as term. (founded to research the possibilities of creative commons licenses), the new millennium saw 12k quickly moving to the forefront of a new generation of labels. And yet, Deupree never succumbed to trends or outside interpretations of his work. Always thinking long-term, evolving slowly but surely and gradually building a tightly-knit family of artists, he has managed to stay on top of his game during times of great confusion. The label may today be slightly less visible in the media than at the time of the microsound boom. And yet in a world of constant shifts and turns, the recognisable core values of 12k make it seem like a much needed beacon for quality, integrity and breathtakingly beautiful music.

Today, your name is so closely associated with 12k that it's hard to believe you actually had several releases to your credit before starting the label. Can you tell me a bit about where you saw yourself, career-wise, in 1997?
1997 was a confusing time for me, musically. I was stuck between a techno past that I was eager to leave behind and developing my own voice in a more serious and individual way. The electronic music scene in New York at the time was, and probably still is, quite fractured. It’s a big city and contained a lot of small scenes within scenes and there wasn’t a lot of connection between these cliques and groups of people. Each had their own audience and there was little in the way of support from group to group. I didn’t feel too much a part of the New York scene, wasn’t getting too much support from the important institutions like Other Music (the record store) who would stock releases but never more attention beyond that, despite 12k being from New York. I suppose this made me turn my eyes and ears to other parts of the world and not be concerned with being “from New York.” It was around this time I met Olaf, Carsten, and Frank from Raster.Noton and began to exchange ideas with them. I felt an immediate connection sonically and graphically to these guys yet was determined to develop things my own way. I think I wanted to explore sounds outside of New York pretty early on and to not be so concerned with borders, or a particular scene.

You didn't do any promotion for 12k in its first year. I've always loved this part of the label history, but I could never really imagine it. What was this first year like? Does the idea of not bothering with the PR aspects at all seem alluring again today in a way?
I started the label because I was frustrated with label experiences. The bad record deal that lead to the idea to do it myself and another record deal that took a lawyer to get out of. I was tired of the way the music industry was run and wanted to put my career in my own hands and run it on my own terms. I wanted to make a label that was run by an artist and for artists. PR today is so different with social media and digital album deliveries. On one hand its easier to get the music to writers but on the other hand its much harder to get heard through all of the noise. I would love to turn all that back and run an even quieter label with little to no worry about reviews, sales or anything like that, however, I have a responsibility if I’m going to work with other artists and other people’s music. I have a responsibility to get them heard.

You've spoken a lot about the beginnings of the label. I'm more curious, however, about what happened after your first year in action. How did 12k go from a one-off 'anti-project' to a 'real' label? And: What is the pleasure in releasing other people's music rather than just your own?
Like I said before, the idea from the very beginning was not to be too traditional and to really treat it like a personal experiment. I had enough of a following going into it that I was confident I could sell enough CDs to pay for the production and I had local friends who I could collaborate with and make releases. The turning point came when I realized that it could actually work, that I could actually develop it into something more and that culminated with the “.aiff” compilation. Here I reached out to the artists I knew who were working in a similar sound as me and this release became, in a way, the true start of 12k as people know it today. It was the start of the graphic language and the very beginnings of a more delicate, melodic sound being introduced alongside the very precise electronic textures. This came courtesy of Shuttle358 who many consider to be the most classic 12k artist.

I think most labels are run the way 12k is run these days. I mean, most small labels, that are run by one person. The whole “anti-label” thing is quite normal for labels now thus making the “anti” part sort of obsolete. Sure, we don’t operate like bigger labels, but there are plenty out there running on the fringes with little advertising.

I find it a tough place to be sometimes, though. The responsibility I talked about before, wanting to do the best I can do for my family of artists, yet at the same time trying to remain on the sidelines. I want 12k to get bigger, but I want to do it on my own terms. Unfortunately increasing size and awareness seems to come only with increased spending on advertising and such. I’m not sure I could recoup expenses then.

Many of the early interviews about 12k have focused on your concepts about the future of music. It appears to have been part of the Zeitgeist. What was the general sense of progress in music back then?
I’m not sure I’ve ever claimed to be a part of or know what the future of music is or will be. I’ve always stated that I have no idea, and don’t really care. I try to stay away from classifications, genre labeling, or any type of trend as much as I can. That being said, I think the birth of microsound, or this movement in the 90s that both relied on and abused computer audio was very new at the time. It had to be … it was the beginning of the personal computer being capable of doing what we did with it. Not only pushing the limits but exploring ideas that simply weren’t technically possible before that, which was the complex real time manipulation of audio.

It always seemed to me though to be a stepping stone, a highly exploratory area. We were given a new tool and wanted to see where it could go and how it worked but at the same time trying to integrate it into something deeper. It was like being given a new tool in your tool belt. It didn’t automatically make all of your other tools redundant or obsolete, but it was the most exciting tool of the time. After familiarity set in and we understood how to work with it, we could finally integrate that tool, those ideas, into the rest of our palette. Use it with other tools, and I think that’s what we’ve been seeing for the past few years. Ideas and echoes of those brand new “microsound” times integrated deeply, scattered throughout other forms.

Two of the twelve 12k principles are: 'Stay quiet, stay small' and 'anti-design'. Can you elaborate on them, please?
“Stay quiet” alludes to the quiet nature of 12k’s sound, but really it has to do with not over-hyping yourself, not trying to be the next big thing, not trying to to push yourself into people’s faces. It’s about staying true to who you are and quietly pursuing your passions without the flash and attention-grabbing marketing. I try to avoid the desire to be “better” than anyone or anything else, but simply be the best that I can be as an individual or label. I’m not trying to race to the top or do better than this label or that artist. I just want to take my own path and see where it leads, and appreciate all who follow.

“Anti design” sort of loosely relates to my own design aesthetic which is pretty simple and understated. Sometimes I find it difficult to even call my own graphic work “design” because it can just be so simple: plain typography on white backgrounds, simply placed photography. It’s not adorned, it’s not over-designed. It’s the barest of information needed to get the message out, but also to be beautiful and respect the music. It’s about understatement and shying away from flourish and the dramatic.

From 2000 onwards, 12k was associated with the LINE imprint. How did you meet Richard Chartier and what were some of the considerations for the founding of LINE? What made you separate the two imprints from each other in the end?
I forgot exactly how Richard and I met…. I think he contacted me or we got in touch after a particular early 12k release ... but basically mutual sounds and aesthetics brought us together. He approached me with his CD “Series.” to release on 12k. I really liked it but thought it was so different for 12k and wasn’t sure if I wanted to release it or not. So, we basically decided to start a sub-label with that release and to have Richard curate the label and such. It worked out really well. While there were many similarities between 12k and LINE the bottom line was that 12k was mine and LINE was Richard’s. That was the main difference and the only justification we needed to have the two labels. We bounced many ideas off of each other over the years but as it went on Richard took more and more artistic control over LINE until it was his label by most accounts with me just handling the production and distribution. As 12k took up more and more of my time I wanted Richard to take LINE over completely independently as I just wanted to concentrate on 12k (This is also around when I stopped doing the short-lived Happy label, also for the same reason). At some point he felt he knew enough and was comfortable enough to do things on his own and we made the break and they’ve been completely separate, unrelated labels now for a few years.

Another very interesting aspect of the 12k history is the short, but exciting (at least to me) activity of term. For at least 2-3 years, it was an extremely valuable addition to the 12k releases. How do you look back on the experiment and the reasons for closing it down today?
term. came about when the idea of online, free, downloadable music was really new. Not at all the flood that it is today. I saw it as a great way to explore new ideas, new artists and to very easily get music out there. Today, obviously, music posted online for free download has not only become the norm but, to me, has backfired. It is in some way part of the problem we face today that’s hurting the small, independent labels and artists. Yes, it seems obvious on one hand that the ability to post your music and make it freely downloadable to the world would be a great boon, and it is in some regards, but the sheer amount of free music long ago crossed the tipping point where people now simply expect their music to be free. It has given all music the reputation of being a disposable, cheap commodity, which is completely opposite of the art and passion that so many independent artists put into their craft. I would be very happy if every free download on the internet simply ceased to exist. To get the craft and the hands-on relationship with music back.

To put it more simply I’ve kept term. offline because I feel there is too much free music out there. It has become so over-saturated that it’s hard to take seriously anymore. I’ve thought about launching it again one day with a pay-what-you-wish model that goes directly to the artists, so people can express their support. That could happen, but it’s way down on my list and it also still feeds into the idea of music being disposable, virtual and otherwise nothing more than a soulless file lost on a hard drive. More interesting to me is to go the opposite direction releasing very elaborate objects.

One of the most notable developments of the 00's was the development and, eventually, demise of the scene for 'lower case' music and 'micro-sound'. How did you experience the evolution of the music and the scene? What was your own take on this concept of very quiet sounds and in which way did you see 12k as being part of this movement? What are some of the things, do you feel, that have survived into the present and are still relevant?
Well, as I talked about before, I think that time was very exploratory and that many of those ideas live on today, morphed and integrated with other forms and instrumentation. I’m still very much interested in quiet sounds. This, to me, is the most important thing I took away from that scene. But my interested has grown not from just physically “quiet” but to conceptually quiet… “fragile” is the term I use a lot to describe much of what I do and 12k’s music.

I suppose 12k was pretty integral to the start of that movement, but I don’t feel like I can write my own history or make any claims. I”m not here to say “I did this” or “I helped start that…” I’ll leave the history up to the historians and writers.

I can say, however, that 12k had its own sound very early on, and I truly felt like it was part of a small group exploring something really new. Looking back on it, It was a really new time. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Like how amazing it must have been to be an electronic musician in the early 80s … to be a part of the proto-new wave/industrial era. I mean, this was a time when an entirely new family of instruments was born to make music with. The synthesizer, while out of reach for a couple of decades, was finally in the hands of everyday musicians. Incredible. I can’t imagine a situation like that ever happening again. And i’m not sure the artists back then *really* grasped the history they were making, nor did they probably think about it too much. Looking back, however, it’s quite clear.

Maybe history will be kind to us in that way, these early microsound experiments … the personal-computer-as-musical-instrument. But only time will tell that, and writers, and memories.

In 2003, 12k released its first physical edition of works by Kenneth Kirschner. Since then, he has featured again and again in your catalogue. How do you remember the first time you met and what role does he play within the 12k roster, from your point of view?
Ken and I both remember precisely when we first met which was walking out of a class on music appreciation or some sort at NYU in our first year of college together. He can tell the story much better than I but basically two industrial/punk looking kids spotted each other, both looking disappointed by a teacher who didn’t think anything except pre-20th century classical music classified as “music.” We grunted at each other or something and somehow told each other we were both into electronic music and owned the same sampler. The rest was history and we’ve been best of friends ever since. This was back in 1989 or 90. When 12k started I constantly hounded Ken for a release but he was adamant about his music only being free and never controlled by any label or establishment. At some point, maybe after he was convinced that 12k wasn’t big enough to threaten his sense of hacker-lifestyle, he broke down and let me release something, and listeners have been fortunate at this point to have a bunch of his works available on a number of labels.

Ken’s role at 12k is pretty unique I think. He comes at music from a very different point of view than I do; heavily influenced by philosophy and other types of music. It’s hard for me to put the differences of his music into words, but many see it as a sort of contemporary/neo-classical approach, influenced by the likes of Feldman and Cage. Once he reads this, of course, I’ll get an email telling me how wrong I am!

He also plays a pivotal role at the label as the voice of how humorous the 12k family is. We really poke fun at ourselves and Ken and I in particular have a long history of jabbing at each other. We take our music very seriously, but as people we have to learn how to make fun of ourselves and make sure no one is left unscathed. Ken is the comedic backbone of the label, for sure.

Over the course of the first decade of the new millennium, your own music started changing and so did the output of 12k. Some of the reasons for this, if I understood correctly, relate to your move to the countryside. I am wondering, though, how much the label as a community of artists you respect and interact with also influenced your own artistic decisions and directions? How much two-way interaction is there between your music making and running the label?
Oh, this is a great question because it completely hits upon a super-important point. 12k, to me, is a family … and there is an incredible amount of two-way interaction, learning, collaborating, and brainstorming. The core group of us are constantly talking techniques and gear and ideas, getting each other into new things and teaching and exploring and developing new directions together. I’ll also very often run 12k business or conceptual ideas off of my artists. It’s like everyone involved is part of the label on many levels. I’ll ask people’s advice about packaging or designs or new series ideas or promotion ideas. It’s my way of running the label, physically, by myself, but having a pool of much more creative people than me to work with! I wish the 12k family all lived in one place, in a modernist compound out in the country somewhere, dreaming up and producing amazing things, but we try our best to share ideas day to day in any way we can.

This is why I love face-to-face collaborations so much. They are learning opportunities. I’ll work with someone who will take an instrument of mine and immediately use it in a completely different way than I ever thought of. It’s so easy for artists to fall into patterns and habits with our tools, which is all fine and good, and helps establish a voice. But it’s so refreshing to see someone else approach an instrument that you’ve had around forever in a fresh way. It opens up a lot of new inspirations.

The artists on the label have immensely influenced the direction of the label. So many release ideas and directions are thought up by a group and more than not I don’t proceed with a new idea without bouncing it off a few people first.

12k is no longer accepting unsolicited demos. What does the process of releasing an album look like today?
The fact that I don’t really accept unsolicited demos anymore is both practical and sad in ways. On a practical level, I have a large enough group of friends and artists that I call 12k family that it’s hard to make room for more releases, for new names. Not that It hasn’t been done lately. As recently as Janek Schaefer, who is new to the 12k roster, or Marsen Jules. Basically, I have to be more choosy, more deliberate on the who and when. Less carefree about releasing random artists.

But on another level I see this as sad and and end of something I enjoyed very much about running the label which was the discovery of an unknown artist, an opportunity to give them a small chance or a little bit more recognition. Nearly every 12k artist today came from a demo years ago, and those were very special discoveries.

Part of this decision, however, had to come simply because the music business these days makes it very very difficult to take a chance on a more unknown artist. The saturation of free music, the bombardment of labels and Bandcamp pages makes buyers and listeners jaded and fatigued. Basically, as a label, I’ve had to tighten up, become more deliberate and focused, building walls and trying to push out and create a little bit of space and breathing room amidst the crowd and flood of content that’s out there. More singular, perhaps, less open. There are advantages of this though in the strengthening of relationships and more continual, focused support.

We’re in such turbulent times, musically, that I feel like I’m just being swept down a river that I don’t really want to be on and trying to make the best of things at every bend and wave that tries to pull me under. There are few rules so you just have to make up your own as you go, sometimes on a day by day basis.

Releases on 12k are mastered by you and feature your photography and design. How do you strike the balance between something that is personal for you and the label and something that is personal for the artist?
There’s no doubt that 12k is absolutely a reflection of my own tastes and aesthetics and the visual language of the label is quite important. From the very beginning I wanted to make it focused and intentional. Dealing with other artists has never been problematic on this front. Not every album is mastered by me. Maybe half of them lately, but often the artists will already have their album ready to go and we don’t need to deal with mastering on any level. I do, however, have a nice mastering studio with some beautiful equipment so I will always offer (but not demand) mastering if an artist needs it. Many are happy to have me do the work.

As for the images on the album covers, that’s always a conversation I have with the artists. They all known, coming in, what 12k’s aesthetic is, and because we’re all quite on the same mental plane we usually come to a quick agreement on the imagery. There are a lot of 12k covers where the artist has their own image they want to use … In fact, about half of the recent releases have had artwork supplied by the artist. It’s always a two-way conversation for sure. If they want to use their own images they have to be something I feel works with the music and within 12k’s aesthetic, and If I’m using one of my photographs they have to like it as well and feel it represents their music appropriately.

You're packaging your CDs as ecologically friendly as possible and trying to create something with integrity, outside of the usual boxes that people think of. How much do you see your work as being something that extends beyond the borders of music?   
12k has always been about creating something larger in in concept, as a whole, a story, something worth following. I do this by, as discussed before, moving quietly and slowly, letting the story naturally unfold over years, and having the label grow organically not trying to force it too much. I think there are so many other labels doing beautiful packaging, so many nicer than 12k, I can’t really claim to be groundbreaking or anywhere near the best or most interesting. But what I can do, all that I can do, is just be myself, stay true to my passions, remain open-minded, constantly exploring and just let all of that carry the look and sound of 12k, into the future, however it unfolds.

12k label interview by Tobias Fischer
Taylor Deupree color image by Marcus Fisher
Taylor Deupree b/w image by Cory Fuller

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