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Subscription Series: Beyond Porsches and swimming pools

img  Tobias Fischer

Subscription #1: WHITE_LINE Editions

Working around an equally pure and open-minded definition of minimalism, Baz Nichols' WHITE_LINE label has established itself as an equally refined and refreshing oasis on the sound art scene. Nichols who, under the nom de plume of FOURM has built an impressive discography of solo releases himself, has always enjoyed the idea of intimacy in the arts: Already in the past, most of the albums on his imprint catered to a small, but dedicated audience and were designed as coherent multimedial works – from customised CD-sleeves and in-depth essays to the actual music. With the first WHITE_LINE subscription series, which started this March with a full-length release by Belgian micro-noise specialist Pierre Gerard and a bonus-disc by field recorder Simon Whetham for the first twenty five subscribers, he has finally realised a vision which has haunted him for years. First reactions to these spectacularly packaged works certainly suggest it has been worth the wait, while new material by Yann Novak and mise_en_scene, mimosa|moize and, of course, FOURM are already in the pipeline.

When did you first start thinking seriously about working with a subscription model?

The idea for a subscription based model has been on my mind actually for several years, although I hadn’t found an effective way of getting the word out into the wider world, and finding an audience for it. With the relative success of WHITE_LINE as a vehicle for publishing great works, and capitalising on my personal contacts and followers of my Level and FOURM recording projects, there appeared to be a hard core of enthusiasts who have already spiritually as well as financially “bought into” the work and its associated concepts, and they have also been enthusiastic supporters of the sound art/experimental minimal scene in general. I think we managed to build up enough trust with the audience in order to create and sustain a subscription based series, and they know that they will get great work with well designed, and well executed packaging.
Fortunately, the paradigm shift in the way that we now access sound/ music/ whatever, has been radically transformed both by the Internet and the social networking scenes, not to mention the revolution within the digital reproduction industry, both recorded and in print, that allows smaller publishers to release work in smaller runs, but still with an eye towards quality control. It really all taps in to what the futurist philosopher, Alvin Tofler predicted some 20 years back, a complete de-massification of the media, or what he called “the electronic cottage”.

How did you decide on whom to include in the series?
It was really a matter of balance. On the one hand, I have to ensure that there are artists with a sufficient profile to create enough interest in the project, and on the other, I still have a great desire to bring the work of new artists into the public eye, particularly if I think they deserve a wider audience, i.e. if they are doing interesting work that fits into - what appears on the surface - my rather simplistic remit of “ultra-minimalism”. I still think that the language of minimalism has a lot more mileage in it, and there are still some areas left still to explore, particularly with some of the wonders that digital manipulation has to bring with it, and also within some of the territory that I’m personally exploring with the fusion of digital and traditional instrumentation. I get sent more great work than I can possibly publish, so making final decisions is always a tough call, and I’ve had to gently let down artists that I think will still  produce greater works.

The press release mentions there could be more than the three CD-R releases coming up. Will they, then, be part of a new subscription?
That’s an interesting and problematic question. From the outset, I knew that the project wouldn’t provide me with a swimming pool in my back garden, or a Porsche on the terrace. Once I had that in perspective, it was really just a question of working in a way that moves me, and still keeps things interesting and developing and unfolding. I’m still really passionate about the sound art scene, which is still in its infant years compared to most other art forms, so I wanted to have an active role in both creating and publishing fascinating and evolving works, and establishing a rapport with artists and audience alike, and tracking their developments and personal growth. With that in mind, I want to give my audience a great deal in reward for their enthusiasm and of course, their hard earned money! If I can achieve my minimum subscription base, then everyone will get three releases as a MINIMUM. However, if I reach my target of 100 subscribers, that will ensure that we can siphon money into other projects, and make more releases available to all the subscribers this year, so it really depends on how much interest I can get. To me, this is what will make or break the whole project, so I really hope we can generate enough interest, if only for the benefit of the artists.

Could you describe, perhaps, the situation you are working with right now – releasing small, limited quantities – and the possible problems tied to it?
I think I said in previous interviews that the whole WHITE_LINE ethos was designed to create alternative models and new approaches to what had previously been referred to as “The Record Industry”. Having been allied to that industry in a past life, it became obvious to me that this was not a route that satisfied me on any level. I never intended WHITE_LINE to be a “record label”, and took as my inspiration the early output of TOUCH, who were doing really exciting and creative projects across a range of media, but for whatever reason gradually mutated into a straightforward “record label”. That’s fine if what you are presenting is music. But I always wanted to adopt a slightly wider step, and present sound art in a form and format that was obviously NOT just a record of music, and therefore could not be perceived as merely a “CD” that fitted neatly into the racks of the local HMV or Virgin record store. Even ten years ago, that was tantamount to commercial suicide, and most of the independent and creative packagers succumbed to market forces in order to survive. So what you ended up with was a kind of “grey goo” of labels that really didn’t present themselves creatively, and nearly everyone ended up packaging CDs into jewel cases or digipacks in order to gain “commercial acceptance”. Not only was that a bad move on the part of the labels, but it also leads to sound artists and installation artists being widely misrepresented, misunderstood - and largely ignored - by the general public and the record industry alike, as they didn’t easily fit into the convenient categories and pigeonholes that the record industry thrives upon. As I mentioned above, the recent paradigm shift in the whole industry has seen many record stores and small suppliers going by the wayside as more and more people become slaves to the mp3- and download culture. I accept that with trepidation, a fact of life, and what would spuriously be referred to as “progress”. But I think we are on the brink of a backlash, and I for one, intend to be a small part of that backlash, by publishing works that are unique, collectible and non-repeatable.

In which way do you feel subscription models could generally be a way forward for artists and labels?
I can’t speak for other labels, but within my realm of experience, the subscription model allows me to tap directly into my audience, without the need of a “middle man” distribution company, who I have found in general to be difficult and at times grossly unreliable to deal with, which was why I only dealt with two distributors I knew and trusted. Not having to deal with distributors in turn gives me an opportunity to have direct contact with enthusiasts, AND provide them with something that has an intrinsic artistic and creative value at an affordable price. Someone once said that great design shouldn’t cost any more than poor design. I agree with that, and also extend it by saying that great art shouldn’t cost any more than poor art. The whole series will include hand made objects, some as yet undetermined so what collectors will have is access to an art multiple if you like, rather than just a CD in some anonymous looking printed packaging. This really harks back to my involvement in the Mail Art and Cassette culture, that in the early 1980’s was a vibrant and uniquely creative, alternative form of distribution and exchange. The subscription model, by it’s very nature, will also enable the audience to buy in to the development of artists that they like, and by transferring hard cash to the series, will hopefully contribute to the growth and ambition of the projects – none of that cash ends up in my pocket, that’s for sure: I have a day job that provides me with enough to survive on.

In which way do you feel you could benefit from the more personal and direct contact with those people who really want to support your music?
Those people are constantly surprising, not only with their undying enthusiasm and passion for “difficult” works, but also in the feedback and encouragement they give. I think that within the wider record music industry, the target audience is in general an uncritical, and passive consumerist monster. In the sound art scene, there is not enough room for any kind of surplus, as the audience is small and specialised, and will let you know in no uncertain terms if something doesn’t quite come up to the mark. I accept all previous criticisms as a learning and evolving process, and I sincerely hope that what we offer this year will potentially be the culmination of my dreams … dreams that have been in my head for many years. Only the subscribers will be able to tell you if that has been a success.

Homepage: WHITE_LINE Editions

Subscription #2: Nicholas Szczepanik

While many record companies are regarding subscription models foremost as a financially attractive possibility of binding customers on a long-term basis, it is easy to see that „Ante Algo Azul“ by Chicago-based Nicholas Szczepanik is all about artistic challenges and the pure joy of creation. On the strength of his solo albums The Chiasmus and Dear Dad, Nicholas Szczepanik has risen to the top of the scene and built an audience of listeners keen to support his equally wilful and charming perspective on „the drone“. „Ante Algo Alzul“ is now taking this already highly personal relationship to a higher level: Each month of 2011, Szczepanik will release a new volume in the series, containing both music and various keepsakes – from poetry to photographs  and various as yet unspecified surprises - thereby effectively sharing an entire year in his life with his listeners. On a special blog page, he is also recording each single step of the journey and informing followers about upcoming releases – those with a penchant for the little wonders in life will find it hard to escape the allure of this exquisite sonic documentary.

What prompted the idea of releasing a subscription series?

Realistically, ever since I finished my album The Chiasmus in mid 2009, I have been thinking about what I should work on next as a project. From the creative aspect, I really love working with the 3" disc format because I am limited to approximately twenty minutes and I also very much enjoy composing singular pieces. I wanted to challenge myself to recording a new piece each month, for a whole year, but didn't feel confident or motivated enough with this ambitious concept until now. I decided I needed to dive in head-first and I'm very excited to share my progress with the eagerly waiting listeners.

Is there an idea behind the title of the work, „Ante Algo Azul“?
The title translates to "Before Something Blue", which I thought worked well because a lot of times I think in color when composing pieces. On a more subtle level, each of the three words is four letters long which gives a total of twelve characters for the twelve pieces. I like adding intentional or unintentional hidden messages behind titles, but normally I prefer to let the listener discover those meanings alone.

So is there a coherent, overarching concept behind it all?

I wouldn't say "Ante Algo Azul" is one piece in twelve movements or anything of that sort. Each piece will be unique in its own way, both physically with the packaging, and with the composition itself. Each piece will have its own title and its own character, but hopefully a natural transition will manifest from one piece to the next.

How much of the material is already finished right now and how much will have to be realised in the moment, possibly with limited time?
Part of the reason I finally decided to move forward with this project was for the challenging aspect of making twelve new pieces, and if one considers my normal creation time, this is definitely a massive undertaking. None of the pieces that are part of "Ante Algo Azul" are old, early, unreleased pieces. Working creatively with a deadline helps streamline the entire process and helps me to not keep going back to a piece that I'm considering altering - or trashing! The only one totally finished is the first piece in the series, "Not Knowing (For Eliane Radigue)", which can be streamed fully at the blog page ( There are a few others I've been working on, but I'd say half of these pieces I haven't even started yet. I'm very much intrigued with the idea of conditional creativity; the idea of an unintentional influence by my environment and situation be a major factor of what I compose, so the challenge of recording twelve pieces in twelve months could also be considered a personal study.

In which way do you feel subscription models could be a way forward for artists and labels?
As far as a self-released subscription model, it's already been a big learning experience for me. Having to handle and be totally responsible for every aspect alone, or in my case, with a close friend, helps you learn to appreciate all the work involved in such a massive project. While I don't think it's necessarily the only way forward, for the labels and artists who have garnered some type of reputation, it's a nice way of making things a major convenience for those wanting everything by an artist or label anyway.

Do you feel you could benefit from the more personal and direct contact with those people who really want to support your music?
First and foremost, I wanted to make "Ante Algo Azul" an intricately personal and intimate project. Being able to directly interact with my supporters is very special to me and I want them to feel involved as possible. I have a blog page up where I will share text, photos, and audio with everyone as progress is made. This level of directness with my listeners is something I haven't truly experienced when working with labels because they are almost entirely responsible for the release, which is not to say it's a bad thing; I just wanted to try something different both for me as a creator and for those kind enough to take the time to listen to the sound art. Ultimately, "Ante Algo Azul" is a massive thank you to everyone who has helped me, watched me grow and change as an artist, and continues to support me no matter if it's clear or not where exactly I'm heading.

Homepage: Nicholas Szczepanik
Homepage: Ante Algo Azul Blog

Subscription #3: Rural Colours

Jonathan Lees's Hibernate has become a synonym for lovingly designed packaging, deep atmospheres as well as a community of hot-blooded followers which he has managed to build around a music otherwise mainly considered as quiet and dreamy. While Hibernate has expanded beyond the borders of his hometown Hebden Bridge into an international quality seal, long surpassing the „micro-label“-status of its beginnings, Lees's second imprint Rural Colours is by its very nature a more private affair. Releases are bundled into highly limited subscription packs, each bringing together three EPs from the realms of ambient, drones and delicate sound art, and then carefully sewn into colourful bags of cloth. Each month, subscribers are offered not just three new sonic trips, but also the most direct relationship with a label one could possibly imagine. Today, Rural Colours is no longer just the little brother of Hibernate, but an intriguing label in its own right – no wonder it is quickly approaching the limits of practicability.

How and when did the idea of releasing music as part of subscription pack suggest itself?
I decided to quit making 3” EPs on hibernate as they took a fair amount of work to produce. Not long after that Harry from Audio Gourmet requested some of my photos to use as covers for a few releases on his new net label. Using Resting Bell as inspiration I designed Harry some covers where if people wanted to they could print them out and fit them into the sleeves that sometimes come with 3” CD-Rs. At the time I was still getting quite a few demos for 3”s for a possible hibernate release and I figured the music was too good to pass up. So I came up with the idea to create a sister label for hibernate where I could use my photography for the covers and I would make a small amount of physical EPs as I really like this format and I could give some copies to each artist for keepsakes and promotion use. The first EP for Beginnings I made just twenty five copies, I sold ten which covered my costs and gave the other fifteen to the artist. We also agreed on releasing music digitally as a free download to try and give Beginnings as much exposure as possible to the scene. What came as a surprise was that the ten EPs I had for sale sold in just two hours and I had quite a few requests after that for it. So as I didn't want anymore stress of making lots of copies I just came up with the idea of the subscriptions which would guarantee that the collectors who wanted a copy would get one and I would know exactly how many to make each month. I don't really know why I decided on releasing them in packs of three other than I figured £10 inc postage per month for 3 EPs was a good price and it would allow me to cover my costs and save a little each month to put towards hibernate releases. My wife then had this brilliant idea to make the pockets to keep the CDs in for each pack which she creates by hand each month.

How do the netlabel releases relate to the subscriptions?
Rural Colours is a hybrid netlabel where in addition to the physical CD, each EP is released digitally either for free download via where they are licenced under Creative Commons or a paid download via Bandcamp where the copyright and funds remains with the artist. There have been two EPs released outside of the subscriptions, Hidden Bek, who are my stepsons, and Johnny Powell a musician from Hebden Bridge, my hometown.

Each collection of 3'' CDs is simply called “subscription pack“. Do you nonetheless try to give a particular theme to each one?
Musically not so, however I do try to group artists in a thoughtful manner and each month I try to release an EP from an established artist alongside a lesser known artist to try to give them as much exposure to the scene as possible. In addition we try to match the colours of the pocket with nature's colours around at the time and every subscriber gets a personalized photograph that again reflects the colours at that time of the year.

What's the response from artists to them been like so far?

Well I've never had any complaints and in some cases artists have asked if they could put another release out on the label. Every month's pack is a real labour of love and I think that the artists see that and are happy with the end result. They are unique and very beautiful.

One could theoretically take out a Rural Colours subscriptions just for a single month. Are there people, though, who have kept their subscription running from day one?

The subscriptions have grown from eighteen to fifty two and only one person has cancelled their subscription so far. There is already a waiting list to get on to the series and I wish I could make more. But as everything is hand made and sewn it's really just not physically possible.

In a way, subscription series could make it more easy to finance ambitious projects. Could you describe, perhaps, the situation for a more “traditional“ label like hibernate and the possible problems attached to it?
The only problem with Rural Colours is that every month I have to make enough CDs for each pack and there's no break! Also, as I don't sell to shops or distributors I have to post fifty two packages every month and that can be quite a challenge. To get around this I try to schedule the posting as far away as possible from new hibernate releases. Any money I make from Rural Colours is used to help finance Hibernate releases.

In which way do you feel subscription models could be a way forward for labels?
Perhaps subscriptions are a good way for small labels to finance production costs in advance but the most important thing is you know exactly how many copies to make each round and don't end up with excess stock. Also from a Rural Colours perspective there's no third party distributor or shop involved and we only sell direct to the collector which simplifies the process.

Homepage: Rural Colours Recordings
Homepage: Hibernate Recordings

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