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Sonic Pieces: Label Profile

img  Tobias Fischer

The Wu Tang Clan's PR stunt to revitalise the physical format by issuing an album in a print run of one copy recently made worldwide headlines. But if there's one label that can truly lay claim to the notion of packaging as an art and a craft, it must be Berlin's Sonic Pieces. Founded, curated and run by Monique Recknagel, its aesthetic offer a maximum of individual expression within a recognisable space spanned up by just a handful of parameters: Each Sonic Pieces release comes in a unique color-coded linen-on-heavy-cardboard-cover and is personally hand-made by Recknagel. It is a labor-intensive and time-consuming production process, even despite the strictly limited nature of her editions, but it is one which has made the imprint stand out from the fold, created an entire world of its own and earned it a reputation for excellence: Over the course of twenty full-lengths, Sonic Pieces has been instrumental in launching the recording  career of Nils Frahm, published works by luminaries like Hauschka and managed to carve out a distinct niche in the often overly conformist neoclassical community. About time to visit Monique at her Berlin studio to speak about the history and current challenges of Sonic Pieces – and drink far too much black coffee.

How much time does producing the albums take up?
Running the label is more than a full-time job. We actually hired our first assistant recently because it was too much work for one person. Before that, I took care of everything myself. I didn't have a single weekend to myself any more, especially when a new release was due. I was just so busy with getting orders ready. Which is great, in itself, but I simply couldn't enjoy it any more, because there were so many coming in within such a short amount of time. It wasn't doable any more. It's not just that you have to package the parcels, you also have to crunch numbers all the time and do the bookkeeping. I do like that aspect of the trade. I actually come from a background in economics and had a regular office job doing wage accounting before starting the label. It's funny when people ask me whether I studied bookbinding or colour design. They're pretty amazed when I tell them that I actually studied economics. Probably, with everything I learnt in class, I shouldn't have set up a label (laughs). Ultimately, it's something which I greatly enjoy and which is fulfilling. So I don't mind working long hours, because you're doing it for the artists and investing time in something I can really get behind.

How did Sonic Pieces get started?
While still doing that office job in Berlin, I worked on the side at one of the city's community radios, running a program called Schall und Raum (Noise and Space). It got me in touch with artists and label managers.  Actually, one of the first interviews I did was with Thomas from Morr Music. Personal connections like this are a great help, of course.

I first started producing CD covers. Originally, the idea was to create a nice gift, so I could hand the artists a recording of their interview  after the show. I realised, there wasn't anything out there which I thought was good enough. So I had to create something myself. The very first packaging I came up with is actually very close to what we're using now at Sonic Pieces. It wasn't embossed yet, but I did already use linen for material and it had a banderole which you could wrap around it to close it. The feedback I got for it was incredible. People would keep asking me where I got these … They couldn't believe I made them by hand. In fact, they'd ask me if I could perhaps create 1,000 of them (laughs).
The radio program ran for three to four years. Before that, I had already done different programs with other people for the same channel. Those were rather improvised, however, whereas Schall und Raum was pretty well conceptualised. So I pre-recorded the interviews and created a feature, using music and interview excerpts.

What kind of music were you listening to before starting the label?
A lot of very different stuff. I was never really focused on just one genre. I'd listen to pop, even some hip hop, house … It's hard to find a single common denominator. A band that deeply influenced me and which I still like listening to is Moloko.

Did you consciously notice the beginning of what is generally referred to as the neoclassical movement while still working at the station?
I did play material coming from that direction. But not exclusively. I would also play electronica and IDM on the show. Some of the stuff I really liked was the music from the Morr music catalogue, from labels like Staubgold, City Centre Offices … I've always found it hard to find the right term to describe the music. Especially if the music is moving in between chairs. I also leave writing the press releases for Sonic Pieces to others.

So the first release you self-produced was for Nils Frahm?
Yes. It was a 3inch and there was no intention whatsoever of starting a label. In autumn of 2007, I'd seen Nils perform at the Antje Öklesund audiovisual laboratory in Berlin-Friedrichshain as a support for FS Blumm. I'd never heard of him before and the music just completely blew me away. I went to talk to him after the gig – which is something I rarely do – and asked him for his name and if he'd already recorded something. Later, I then invited him to do a concert with Library Tapes and I had the idea of creating a promo especially for the event. I named it Sonic Pieces 001 without any thoughts of this constituting the first release of a record company. It was just a CD in a plastic sleeve and a printed paper with some information … We also decided to make 50 copies of a live recording of this show, just for the artists and a few to sell online via MySpace … Suddenly people were sending me demos, even though I wasn't even aware I'd set up a label (laughs). It just goes to show there can be a huge difference between how people see you from the outside and what your real intentions are.

The three first CD-Rs were done just for fun and for befriended musicians. The first real release was in the beginning 2009, Nils Frahm's Wintermusik. I'd known the album for a long time, since Nils had given me a copy before, and really liked it. Then, he was about to embark on a tour with Peter Broderick on the occasion of his album The Bells on Kning Disc, which he'd recorded with Peter. He told me he would love there to be a second album to sell on tour and suggested we could make 100 CD-Rs … And I told him: "Nils, this music is too good for that! Let's press up some real CDs." His reaction was that if I really thought we could sell them, I should go ahead. And that's when I started investing more time in the label business, getting in touch with distributors and the press.

The first print run of Wintermusik was 333 copies. In the end, those were gone pretty quickly and we pressed another 500. And it was then that Erased Tapes got in touch and wanted to do more CDs and vinyl. And back then, I simply didn't have the capacities to do that.

In terms of the packaging, did it come to down to learning by doing?
As a kid, I'd always liked doing bricolage, drawing, doing stuff with my hands. And when I started doing the CD covers, I went to a local store called Modulor, which is a store for arts materials, then located at the Gneisenaustrasse ...they now have a pretty big store at the Moritzplatz. They'd have all different sorts of materials and I wandered round, getting inspired. And I just picked some stuff and thought about how to combine them. It was something I really enjoyed, too.
If you intend to press up no more than a few CDs, then creating a digipack just for that is nonsense. It just doesn't make sense, unless you want to print up at least 500. It's the same with booklets, for example. The pricing model  of pressing and printing plants entices you to go for the larger print run, which, in turn, leads to large back stocks, which gradually fill your entire available space. It just didn't seem an option at the time. Plus, Nils really loved the packaging we came up with. Today, of course, the people who still buy music are collectors, who want something special, love limited print runs and are willing to pay for that. It has become hard for me to strike a balance between the demand that's out there and the limited print runs. We made a video of me assembling a copy of  Dictaphone's Poems from a Rooftop and that video takes six and a half minutes. But it's filmed in double speed, so you do the maths how long it takes me in real time to manufacture 450 of those. Only recently, with our last release, I expected there to be quite a lot of demand, since it's a very accessible piece of music. I mean, I could give this to my mother and she'd like it – which is not necessarily the case with other Sonic Pieces material (laughs). So, for these second edition CDs I found a different packaging, with covers still being embossed, but not using the same linen and cardboard instead. These are a lot less work-intensive, because there are far less steps involved in the process. I get the cardboard pre-folded, so there is not that much left to do – at least compared to the initial print run.
And with Otto A Totland's new release, Pinô, there was suddenly an incredible demand for the vinyl. I don't think we ever sold out an LP this quickly – and there are still requests from people asking for a re-press. And I feel slightly overwhelmed by this. It's hard to say what the best move would be. There are actually real Sonic Pieces fans, who will buy everything we put out and whom I've built a personal relationship with. Some even drop by to pick up their copy directly from me. And their verdict, generally speaking, is that they love the fact that there are only 350 copies of these and that it's one of the main reasons why they love the label and buy everything I put out. So I'm in a position where I don't want to disappoint regular customers. But on the other hand, you don't want to disappoint potential new fans either. Of course, I would love to sell everyone a copy of the album … but it goes against the Sonic Pieces concept.

Do you also produce the vinyl packaging by hand?
Yes. It's a sort of patchwork of the cardboard cover with the linen of the CD. I use plain cardboard, which has already been die-cut. The linen I use is essentially the same used for the CDs and it has the same size. I'll simply paste the linen onto the cardboard and then fold and glue it together. The booklet will usually use a photo or an illustration and I'll ask the artist for ideas. With regards to the typography, I work together with Torsten from Feld. Since Wintermusik, he's done every single cover design. The continuity of this collaboration is an important part of what the label is about.

So you couldn't imagine ever releasing something using different materials on Sonic Pieces?
Actually, I will start a new series this year (laughs). The original series will continue, but I will start a new one in sync with a different packaging, which is no longer handmade and simpler, but still fits the concept of the label. The vinyl will come with the same inner cover, but on the outer cover, there will be cut-out made with a laser. Each release will have a different cut-out and a different pantone-color on the in- and outside. So the colour-coding still continues through into the new concept. A lot of journalists have interpreted the wildest things into these colors … Sometimes these ideas make complete sense, even though we never thought of them! And it's been one of the defining factors of the label. So I felt it important that each release still has a different, demonstrative colour. There will be both CDs and vinyl, with the CD being a small version of the LP. Musically, it will be similar to what you've come to expect from Sonic Pieces – our first release will be a Deaf Center mini-album, comprising of two long pieces, perfectly suitable for vinyl. The idea came while reflecting on our label tour of Japan in April. The idea was to do a tour-CD, and Erik had these tracks lying around, but we weren't quite sure how to present them. The music was perfect for vinyl, but CDs are a lot easier to sell in Japan. Plus, it would be hard on other people who couldn't be there. It would have been impossible to fit the release into the regular Sonic Pieces schedule, however. My life is fully planned, I have releases scheduled for 2015 (laughs)! Sometimes, it can be slightly off-putting that you're so limited through your processes. So it's great having this series which allows you to be more flexible.

How is distribution organised?
Morr Music are distributing Sonic Pieces mainly in Europe except for the UK, where I'm working directly with Norman Records and Boomkat. In Japan, we're working with P*dis. In the States, it's hard, since our pricing structure doesn't really work there. Forced Exposure will distribute our cardboard edition, but they'll buy directly from Morr Music. In the beginning, I worked with people more directly, but I no longer want to deal with this. If I get a request from a record store, I'll pass it on to Morr Music – it just gets too much, especially if you're talking only about a handful of albums.

Will the first print run sell out immediately?
It depends on the release. Some releases will take a little longer to sell, others are gone almost instantly. It's hard to tell. Even if I think I know exactly how well an album will do, it's hard to get the same estimate by distributors.

How does contact with the artists come about?
The first artists I released were all friends, most of them living in Berlin. In general Berlin is kind of a melting pot when it comes to making new contacts. For example, I met someone like Rutger Zuydervelt of Machinefabriek  while he was visiting the city  and then we mailed and he sent me his album with Gareth … As for Hauschka, I think he discovered Sonic Pieces through Vorleben by Dustin O'Hallaran. He played with Dustin a lot and really liked the cover, I believe. And at some point, he contacted me about this recording with Hildur and and asked if I would be interested in listening to it. I naturally was and loved it instantly. He's a really nice guy and it was also the first vinyl we did, which was really important to him. It took me some time until I figured out a way of translating the CD design into vinyl. If I'd do a 1:1 translation, I'd probably have to sell it around 50-60 Euros and it'd be far too much work. I did that once for an experimedia project, where he gave away one copy for one lucky person (laughs) … It was good fun, but even producing 100 of those would be unimaginable!

What does a regular working day look like for you?
I try to make sure I'm neither working on the production aspect for the entire day, nor sit behind the computer all the time. In some cases, it can't be avoided, if there are urgent deadlines, for example. But usually, I'll work on the covers for three to four hours and spend the rest of the day doing computer work. Today, the latter part has become more important – bookkeeping, ordering materials, communicating with artists and distributors, asking for quotes … All of these things don't take up all that much time on their own, but if you add it all up, it does take a lot. I also take care of the production of the miasmah imprint, which releases around four releases per year. Erik is mainly responsible for curating the releases and doing the artwork, but the rest is my responsibility.

When was the moment you could earn your living with the label?
Already when I got started, I did not have any other job on the side. For the first year, I got a subsidy from the job centre. Today, that subsidy has gone down considerably, but in 2008/2009, it was still pretty good. And that really helped – having an entire year to set things up without having to worry about the money to pay the rent or buy food. I also had some savings from my previous job. Strangely, though, I was pretty sceptical all the time. I did think it would be pretty cool to run a label, but never thought it would be possible to live from it. Purely in terms of album sales, it's an extremely hard job and just about pays for the manual work. Thankfully, by means of digital sales, things have gone up considerably and earnings keep coming in even after a few years. On top of that, I started working with two agencies one and a half years ago, which help me license my catalogue to tv and radio. It hasn't made me rich, but from time to time, we do get in a nice surprise, which really helps. There was a deal for a fashion video, which made use of a piece off a Ryan Teague album. A Japanese client made a beautiful video, which was an ad for a company dealing with ecological agriculture. He desperately wanted to use a track from the FS Blumm / Nils Frahm release. It was really sweet and cute and made for a great fit, so I was happy to do it. The last one we licensed was for Insa Donja Kai. I am very happy to have someone who will take care of these things, since a lot of it is legal stuff and it is good to have someone who will know about these things.

So what about these workshops in Japan … is this going to be a regular thing now?
(laughs) It's the first time, actually! Together with Erik and Erin – our assistant, I recently did some tests and it was a lot of fun. I'm really curious about how things will go in Japan. As far as I know, many Japanese are pretty talented in this regard. So I look forward to the feedback and am definitely open to doing it more often. I did do something similar in Berlin some time back, but it was more of a lecture. The organiser did ask me about doing a workshop as well, but it was on a really short notice and I simply didn't have the time to properly prepare it. In Japan, the idea is to create an original Sonic Pieces CD cover, with me showing how to do it step by step and the participants then replicating this. For the occasion, we teamed up with Flau, the label organising the tour, to compile an exclusive sampler. So once participants have finished their cover, they can insert the CD-R. For a long time, I've wanted to go to Japan, it's been a sort of top destination for me. I always thought it was a great country, but never had the money or time. In effect, this will be a blend of touring and a vacation … although there's always one event or another going on every day (laughs). We're there for a total of two weeks and we'll have three days in Kyoto before the tour picks up again. After that, we're fully booked until Tokyo. In Tokyo, there'll be two days to see the city. All of the gigs are pretty early, some of them are in the afternoon … So essentially, you're pretty much booked for the entire day. In Kobe, there'll be a Deaf Center gig and after that, two more days of free time. In any case, it will be an amazing experience and with the touring, it makes you visit some smaller towns you wouldn't otherwise have seen. Plus, we'll get to travel in the Shinkansen, so we should be able to see something from the train (laughs).

You're originally from the countryside?
Yes, I'm from Thuringia originally, from a really small town in the Thüringer Wald … in the middle of nowhere (laughs). It's a beautiful environment, great for hiking or skiing in the Winter. Culturally, though, there's not much on. Younger people are leaving the area, so the average citizen is getting increasingly older. When I was twenty, the nature there didn't really interest me. When I moved to Berlin at the age of 25, it felt great living in a big city. I hardly ever left town. Now, though, I feel a craving for nature again and want to have both.

One of the benefits of living in Berlin ...
Absolutely. You hop onto the train and an hour later, you're in the middle of the forest.

Sonic Pieces label interview with Monique Recknagel by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Sonic Pieces

If you enjoyed this article, why not read our interviews with Nils Frahm or Peter Broderick.