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Powerful potential

img  Tobias Fischer

By any sensible standards, Home Normal is an astounding success story. Since its inception in 2009, the Tokyo-- and London-based label has released more than fifty albums, all of which have not only been praised by the critics, but also found an audience appreciatively following the imprint's wild stylistic twists and turns. Despite its comparatively high print runs, many of its releases quickly sell out at the source, sometimes as early as during pre-ordering phase. Even otherwise modest label head Ian Hawgood admits that things are going "very well" despite him "not promoting the hell out of it". Amidst a music industry still publicly bemoaning its decline, Home Normal should be a coveted and in-demand outfit.

And yet, as Hawgood reports, he is still faced with plenty of old prejudices: "In terms of sales, labels like Home Normal - plus our sister imprints Nomadic Kids Republic and Tokyo Droning of course - Hibernate, Sonic Pieces and Low Point always do really well. In many ways, such labels are the current bread and butter for distributors and yet some of them have a real issue with 'drone' work or even minimal works which they always term as 'nice'. It is frustrating that the scene isn’t given more support just because it perhaps isn’t considered fashionable right now." His assessment doesn't just apply to drone music, however, but is shared by many artists of the experimental music community in general, all struggling to gather the interest of distributors. Two decades into the digital revolution which changed the music industry, underground music is still treated as a charming obscurity at best. And yet, left to its own devices, it has learned to stand on its own feet, build alternative networks and express its commercial potential. Some have described this phenomenon with the catchphrase of the underground being "the new mainstream". But if it manages to fully realises its potential, it could well be a lot more than just that.

Lost meaning?
This news may come as a surprise to many. After all, the general trend over the past few years was to conversely predict the end of the underground. In his widely discussed essay for newspaper The Guardian "Notes on the noughties: The changing sound of the underground", music critic and -historian Simon Reynolds voiced the sentiment that in an age of instant accessibility, the idea of a true underground had lost its meaning: "The overexposing light of the web means that that anything that has online presence simply doesn't feel underground in the way its precursors did in the age of the underground press and fanzines, tape trading networks and DIY labels. Even the coolest online music retailer selling the most esoteric, out-there music doesn't have the same vibe as an independent record store that is physically located, that you have to seek out and journey to. (…) There is the possibility that a true musical underground, in the archaic sense, could only really exist if it was offline. But that seems utterly beyond imagining, doesn't it?"

Despite new experimental labels and webzines being founded almost daily, in fact, the financial pressure on everyone in the industry has led to a pervasive play-it-safe-strategy, which has pushed non-mainstream acts to the sideline. When Lara Corey and I spoke to Mike Weis of Chicago threepiece Zelienople for 15 Questions, he expressed his concern that there were less and less opportunities to come into contact with new and explorative music: "I’m seeing less of an effort to bridge the genre divides with regards to concert bills and collaboration these days. Somewhere along the way I think promoters, artists, club owners, etc., decided it draws less of a crowd to mix up the billing. I think this is a missed opportunity of presenting a type of music to people that wouldn’t normally seek it out or might not even be aware that it exists. I think there's a tendency to find a comfort zone of like-mindedness to secure a “built in” audience." With many important doors closing on them, underground artists had to come up with new strategies to create these opportunities for themselves.

For Hawgood, that has meant operating a dual strategy. On the one hand, he insists on complete artistic freedom for his labels, releasing instantly accessible material next to extremely challenging work and occasionally – as on the recent Procrastination vinyl by Fabio Orsi and Pimmon – producing breathtaking, yet expensive artwork. On the other, he is cross-financing this independence by working two jobs and offering services as a freelance lecturer, sound engineer , composer and designer to keep the imprints afloat. This has this bought him time to allow the label to grow organically and at its own pace and steer clear of the aggressive marketing strategies frequently considered mandatory these days. A similar approach has landed UK experimental composer Ben Chatwin, whose intricate, slow-simmering guitar dronescapes under the Talvihorros moniker are hardly the kind of stuff marketing executives typically go wild over, a slot in a Calvin Klein fashion ad. Patience and consistent work has also allowed Jeremy Bible to let go of his job in the print industry and follow his dream of running Experimedia, his own mailorder for experimental sound art, for a living. Last time I asked, despite the occasional and unpreventable ups and downs, things were going well for him.

Unfolding its potential
The most triumphant sign of the underground gradually unfolding its full potential, however, was an online benefit compilation released by the Headphone Commute webzine in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Titled ... and darkness came, the sampler features a staggering 87 contributions from figureheads of the ambient-, sound art and neoclassical community, including aforementioned Talvihorros and Hawgood. Soon after its release, news about this gargantuan support effort spread like a wildfire on the social networks, eventually leading to an outpouring of support far beyond what anyone could have imagined: As of today, the compilation, priced at an affordable $10, has sold over 2,700 copies and generated more than $30,000 in income. Also, in a rare feat of longevity in otherwise short-lived times, it has continued to sell well into 2013, with the mag intending to donate another $10,000 later in the year. To Headphone Commute, it is clear that it was precisely this tangible sensation that buyers could really have an impact and that the project was about the victims, not the creator's ego, which drove sales: "I believe that every project should have a clearly defined objective. And it is this 'purpose' that may inevitably drive the outcome of the project. If such intent is purely monetary, then one should approach the task strictly from a financial perspective and treat it as any other business. There are plenty of examples on how to do this well. This, of course, is not how I think of music. Having an objective in mind that could be benefitial to all involved parties is the primary goal behind some of my work. This is precisely why I think the benefit compilation worked out so well..."

These statements reveal a lot about the mindset of the new underground and what Reynolds called the "ethos of participation" in his Guardian essay. Far more than mainstream culture, which understands networking as a method to reach as many potential customers as possible, the underground regards it as a subtle way of spreading its ideals of social improvements, beauty and making a difference on a local level. In an article for The Journal of Music, Stephen Graham agreed that Reyonold's old concept of the underground had become obsolete: "The underground is not simply about access, nor is it a mere description of the physical context of the music. The underground is essentially a practice, a cultural philosophy (...)." Reynolds regards this as an effort to be elitist, but that no longer holds true. The inclusion of experimental music in publications like Resident Advisor, Pitchfork, The Quietus or Drowned in Sound speaks books about how much mainstream culture increasingly needs this philosophy to prevent itself from growing stale. More and more experimental music labels, magazines and artists, too, are perfectly happy to cross borders whenever they can if it helps further their cause. Contrary to the 70s, politics are no longer allowed to get in the way. As ... and darkness came as well as a similar compilation by Hawgood – Slow Films in Low Lights to support The Archway Foundation, a charity that focused on helping those affected by loneliness – demonstrate, this hands-on approach can yield some astounding results and real, tangible help. Labels and artists may feel meaningless on their own. But on a higher level, their combined spheres of influence add up to a significant force for change.

As Headphone Commute points out, even established acts are coming to understand this powerful potential: "I met many of the involved artists after the compilation was released, and even 'superstars' like Max Richter, Johann Johannsson and Nils Frahm thanked me for exposing them to a wider audience, as well as introducing them to a few new names." Experimental sound art still has a long way to go, before more people find out about this potential. And yet, at least for a short moment, it should realise how far it has come - and what's in store if it really starts putting this powerful potential to use more frequently.

By Tobias Fischer

… and darkness came and  Slow Films in Low Lights are still available. Consider buying them to support their causes.

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