System Focus: Inside 1080p, Zoom Lens & the New Digital DIY Labels

Adam Harper speaks with 1080p, Zoom Lens, Illuminated Paths and more to find out what it means to be a DIY label in the digital age.

June 04, 2014

Adam Harper discovers a new form of DIY musical culture that is as sociable as ever

In his monthly column System Focus, The FADER's favorite underground music critic Adam Harper stares deep into the internet's gloom to unearth emerging musical forms.

Are we beginning to see a new phase in DIY music production? Could be. The DIY age began in earnest in the 1970s, when home-taping made recording studios and manufacturing plants unnecessary—although some sonic and logistical disadvantages remained. But now the DIY underground is rapidly going digital. Often using no more special equipment than the laptop they use to check email or do school work, artists can produce and upload their music and be only a URL away from anyone with an internet connection. You might have expected this state of affairs to make labels—whose role it usually is to organise the discovery, representation, manufacturing and distribution of their artists' music—redundant in the modern era. And as a result, you might have expected music producers and their listeners alike to be reduced to an atomised population of lone computer-clickers. But curiously, labels are flourishing, and they form key nodes in a new form of DIY musical culture that is as sociable as ever. How did these online labels form and who's behind them? How do they work, and what drives them?

When I started turning to Bandcamp and Soundcloud for new music, I was surprised to find so many labels out there. It soon became clear that a good label is still a good place to find good music, and a specific label a good place to find a specific sound. I now have a list of nearly 100 labels that I try and check in on every once in a while (some of my favourites not otherwise included here are AVNL, Beer on the Rug, Business Casual 87, Carpi Records, Crystal Magic, Feelings, Fluorescent Records, Fortune 500, Hoko Sounds, Orchid Tapes, PIR▲.MD, Purr Tapes, White Colours, and Zoology Records). But with physical releases and often even requests for cash taken out of the equation, the role of these labels had been boiled down to little more than their curatorial and centralising function. It's all the more surprising, then, to find that that the tastes these labels exhibit are typically so stylistically broad. Plus, these labels are frequently interconnected as part of a vast online network, sharing artists, cooperating on releases, exploring similar sounds, and following each other. With such labels often presenting a relatively opaque web facade, I was curious to know about the world behind them, its people and processes. Normally it's the artists themselves who get interviewed, but this emerging scene is just as much about the efforts and passions of those who form its connective tissue by running labels. I interviewed six of them, and invited them to send in pictures of their worlds. They very warmly obliged.

One of the things that kick-started my curiosity about this new class of labels was when I received a box from Florida. It had been packed by Josh Rogers, the current manager of the Illuminated Paths label. As well as several cassettes (including a reissue of LATE NIGHT DELIGHT by Luxury Elite and Saint Pepsi, one of the key vaporwave albums), it contained a map of Historic Downtown Melbourne, FL, a State Farm Insurance keychain, a Lucky Charms straw, a section of a t-shirt from the Bluewater Network, a newspaper called Pet Gazette (featuring the cover line "Your Valentine Pet is Right Before Your Eyes-LOOK Inside!"), a couple of off-brand Pogs (remember them?), a toy cow you can clip together, all kinds of flyers, and, best of all, an expansive bib for a restaurant called Captain Quackenbush: The Seafood Specialist, featuring an ecstatic cartoon lobster (who is, in turn, wearing a Quackenbush bib). Not the sort of thing you find in England, where I'm based. Rogers often mails off cassettes with, as he puts it, "local and abroad ephemera from my travels and otherwise" included. It was a strikingly personal touch, suggesting a store of memories from a lifetime, and was all the more intriguing given the label's relatively unforthcoming Bandcamp presence.

Behind its gentle blue homepage, however, Illuminated Paths—founded in 2012—is one of the leading vaporwave labels (alongside Fortune 500 and Business Casual 87). Vaporwave has been one of the most prominent and widespread movements in the online underground recently, involving loops and edits of slick post-'80s styles like adult-contemporary funk or corporate muzak. As well as the classic LATE NIGHT DELIGHT ('We sell out of that one every time we order or create more cassette stock," says Rogers), there's Miami Vice's beachside reverie Palm Haze, 회사AUTO's stuttering hangtime chillout new​.​age∮86, The Editor's dizzying culturejam Editorials and Stereo Component's peppy autorunning diskette Coastal Nostalgia. Other albums, such as DIY▲PYЯΛMID's V O L U M Ξ T R I X X with its heaving, queasy textures, or syrrup's Potion Vapors with its gentle yet cavernous R&B, push the genre's form and content into new areas. But while Rogers is happy that his label has been called "the king of vaporwave," he's not sure what the term should encompass, and many of the label's releases lie beyond even its most widely drawn borders. They include shivering ambient textures of Strange Mountain's Levitation Mist, the alien transmissions of Blob's Mirage and the digital twistings of Treasure Hunt's Hacker. Situated "on the space coast of Florida, a few short minutes from Daytona Beach and Orlando," Illuminated Paths "honors about 25 to 50 cassette orders a week," says Rogers, often using "20 plus year old vintage used cassette stock." Digitally, the label "reaches thousands of people daily," but the firmly pro-lo-fi Rogers tells me that future releases could appear on formats such as vinyl, 3" DVD, VHS and even floppy disk.

Miami Vice's beachside reverie Palm Haze, out on Illuminated Paths

Based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the Ailanthus label has also been instrumental in vaporwave, especially early on, releasing INTERNET CLUB's DREAMS 3D in June 2012, sharing a number of artists and even releases with Illuminated Paths, and recently uploading Metallic Ghosts's latest meta-vaporwave statement SkyTower 2032. Founded in June 2011, the label is named after a rapidly growing invasive tree that takes root in Pennsylvania where forests have been cut down. "I saw this as a beautiful metaphor for punk rock," says Ailanthus's manager Scott Michael. This particular frond grew out of the now-defunct blog Roberto Clemente Rookie Card, which accompanied a college radio show and now leaves a great archive of the rise of the online underground—hypnagogic pop and vaporwave in particular. RCRC became a community nexus that moved onto the archetypical social network around 2011: "Myself and a lot of people that I had been corresponding with through RCRC began finding one another on Facebook and we started really getting to know one another," says Michael. "We made secret, closed and public Facebook groups wherein we actively developed brand new cultural signifiers for our new community. Each and every one of us was doing something completely different from the next and we were all coming from such vastly different backgrounds, cultures, generations, class, etc. Collaboration was key, we all supported one another and that naturally lead to collaborations, cross country meet-ups, labels, websites, web concerts, we started doing whatever we wanted. The community is different for everybody, but it means a lot to everybody." In May 2012, the label switched to digital-only, and as word of vaporwave started to spread, the label's traffic doubled exponentially. But again, Ailanthus's tastes run further than vaporwave. Michael lists them—"drone, rap, folk, pop, punk, prog, collage"—but then decides that the only genres his label really has are "2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014."

Richard MacFarlane's ironically-named cassette-and-digital label 1080p also followed on from a blog, in this case Rose Quartz. Originally from New Zealand, MacFarlane moved to Vancouver two years ago and now studies web development. "I feel guilty doing 1080p work while in class which is usually the case," says MacFarlane. "[It's] kind of a jacked up hobby, really.' Only a year old, 1080p nonetheless has an impressive and diverse collection under what MacFarlane calls "a loose umbrella aesthetic of peripheral electronic music," incorporating "the areas in-between some sort of club and anti-club dichotomy". That includes such highlights as McFerrdog's Club Amniotics (club sounds in a parallel universe), Karmelloz's Source Localization (an uneasy mesh of organic and hi-tech materials) and AT/NU's Psi-Grove (icy ravescapes for Arctic Circle backpackers). 1080p is part-local, releasing Vancouver artists such as LNRDCROY and rapper Young Braised. MacFarlane says the city has "a really amazing scene of after-hours dance parties and live shows" alongside its "perfect size" and the "mountains out my window."

1080p's Richard MacFarlane

"The label is run entirely via Facebook private messages." Bunny Intonamorous, Aural Sects

Founded in 2011, Aural Sects is one of the most net-savvy labels I spoke to, putting out free digital-only releases at the heart of the online underground community, and its Bandcamp page proudly proclaims "BORN ON THE INTERNET // ALIVE IN SOCIAL MEDIA." The managers of the label are Joe Royster (also known as spf50, based in Northeast Tennessee) and Bunny Intonamorous (who I spoke to, also known as Pe† Ceme†ery, based in the UK's Manchester), with Micah Clark (also known as I AM WATER, based in Washington, DC) working as the label's "main visual guy." Like Ailanthus, it sprang from digital social networks: "Originally we were all just fans of the earlier witch house sound that congregated in certain corners of the internet [such as a Facebook group called Witchbook]," Intonamorous explains. "After a while of creating and sharing music with each other, we had the idea to try to create a more formal space to swap our works-in-progress and try to put some sort of structure together to bring more attention to each others' works. It actually took a while for us to hit on calling it a collective and label." Now the label is run "entirely via Facebook private messages," he continues. "For group discussions we've got just a couple of secret Facebook groups that we operate out of—one for the artists to interact, and one just for the management team, so we can keep the boring logistics stuff out of people's way." Recently, the label has been heading further afield from witch house, and into "what has now become known as the 'post-witch community'," releasing slightly spooky dancier albums by Marie Dior and Old Manual, and curiously seductive, semi-pastiches by Nancy Letitia and Xyloid. "If sounds are predictable," Intonamorous says, "and the music itself is predictable, it has no value as part of the wider scale of musical culture."

The Zoom Lens label goes even further with the net-based ideology than Aural Sects, emblazoning its Bandcamp page with the legend "WE ARE A LABEL AND COLLECTIVE OF MUSICIANS. HUMANITY ACROSS THE DIGITAL DIVIDE. DIGITAL PUNK ROCK SPIRIT. FUCK REAL LIFE." Today, the label has a clear Japanese-influenced aesthetic of sweetness and dreaminess, with joyous 8bit from Yasumiyasumi and Slime Girls, and gentle pop from Yoshino Yoshikawa, Yeule and i-fls, bittersweet like a green tea latte on a rainy Sunday afternoon. But the aesthetic has darker roots, which you can often detect as you listen deeper. The name Zoom Lens is a reference to serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, and its imagery is a conscious attempt at confronting and defamiliarising the visual objectification of women (and its consequences). Co-manager Garrett (who records as Meishi Smile) began in the Orange County experimental music scene as a noise musician before founding Zoom Lens. "The first release was packaged in a clear DVD case limited to about 20 copies, which contained a letter soaked in my own blood," he recalls. Now he runs the label alongside Michal of San Francisco's The Bilinda Butchers, and is broadening definitions of punk—the Japanese connection "has given Zoom Lens its sense of 'punk rock' aesthetics. To enjoy anime in the United States is punk rock. To listen to J-Pop is punk rock."

Zoom Lens stickers

With its Japan-centred aesthetic, Zoom Lens has built a bridge across the Pacific, and as well as signing Japanese artists, Garrett recently performed in Japan. Geography is no barrier to the modern underground label. Illuminated Paths has artists from Poland, Morocco and Indonesia: "Where I'm based really has no bearing on how IP is run," says Rogers. "I could truly be anywhere. Just so long as I am close to a wi-fi connection and a post office. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with being on a drive through the country, the wind through the open car window, and having my phone alert me that yet another IP release has found a good home." Ailanthus has "released material from every continent on Earth except Antarctica." Bandcamp also puts local labels on an international stage. The Dopefish Family label, run by Andrei Mitroshin, almost entirely represents the underground music scene of Omsk, a city in Siberia not far from Kazakhstan that has a population between that of San Jose and Dallas. Yet stylistically, it stands alongside US labels, with its pseudo-corporate vaporwave and post-Dilla beats.

Dopefish Family's Andrei Mitroshin

If anyone in the world can instantly tune in, then, what do these labels know of their audiences? "We know almost nothing," says Dopefish Family's Mitroshin. Ailanthus's Michael has a bit more of a picture: "I notice a lot of European listeners, lots from Russia, a lot from the US, lots from Brazil and France. People always seem to be as stoked as I am about new releases." Some of Aural Sects' audience "are ostensibly witchkids, old and new," while "some are very much the generation of net-natives who are always looking for the bleeding edge of strange new sounds," posits Intonamorous. Listeners regularly write messages of support, says 1080p's MacFarlane: "People often send a note with their Bandcamp purchases which is real nice." But the space these labels offer their audiences is more than just one of enjoyment. "There are a lot of people out there that are conflicted due to their specific niches hobbies and interests and it's difficult for them to find a place or network to feel confident in," say Garrett. "Zoom Lens' aesthetic and feeling was made to help people looking for a place to fit in. My perception of Zoom Lens' audience has been people such as myself—losers, in the best sense possible. I've known of some people who enjoy Zoom Lens who are in high school right now and are afraid to openly seek out their interests in fear of being called strange, yet they've referenced Zoom Lens as a motivation for being more like themselves." Zoom Lens' Michal agrees: "Fans see our imagery and aesthetic and immediately feel a sense of comfort because they know that there are people out there that are part of a larger network that feel and see the world the same way they do."

Most of these labels seem to find their artists from a social pool that precedes the founding of the label. But how does the label, and in turn its community, grow? "As I make friends throughout the web, I wanna work with them," says Ailanthus's Michael. "I also dig around a lot, mostly on Bandcamp and Facebook these days. I download tons of stuff, all the time, I listen to a strong majority of it and when an artist starts standing out consistently, I wanna learn more about their ideas, concepts, techniques and plans." Intonamorous of Aural Sects has a similar process: "We have a submission email account that gets flooded fairly often with artists getting in contact with us, but it's only very rarely we get a gem by that means. More often, I tend to find new artists through either social network contacts or through the tagging, repost and recommending systems of Soundcloud and Bandcamp. I've been known to go on a deep dive into the[se] musical backwaters every couple of months for a few days in search of something that sounds new—not even necessarily for the label, just because I'm an avid listener and curious as to what's going on in the creative underbellies. Typically, if I find something I like, I post it in the Aural Sects management group on Facebook and take others' opinions on it, but me and Joe get the final say as to whether we make contact.'

"I always wonder where these files will be in decades, like what if kids go to thrift stores and rummage old external hard drives for rare internet music." Scott Michael, Ailanthus

Intonamorous sees the role of the label as not just aesthetically curatorial, but giving a leg-up to new artists: "Artists can self-publish, and self-promote, and all the other things that labels used to do, so the only utility in having a label is having something that's—at least initially—going to get an artist's music to a much wider audience. We had to reach out to artists and audiences outside of our immediate social sphere in order to grow as a label for the benefit of our artists." Whether they encounter each other locally or online, 1080p's MacFarlane "finds the sort of connection you form from putting together a release together is similar to putting on shows for people—kind of brief but very real."

But for other labels, switches between URL and IRL are rarer. Says Intonamorous, "I've known Joe and Micah, who have had most hand in [Aural Sects], for over 3 years and never heard either of their voices." While this might sound sad or somehow unnatural compared with more traditional musical cultures, there's no denying that there's something quite remarkable about how the internet has allowed such different people to come together and work on building something new. That said, sometimes online connections spark in the material world, too: Ailanthus's Michael says that Shisa, a producer of professional-quality club and post-club sounds and a highly active node in the online underground community, "ended up being from Pittsburgh, which is only like two hours from here. We've become IRL friends." It was over an IRL coffee with another online friend that Michael realized "I had never actually talked about the community or different artists and labels and stuff in real life, like a real informed discussion, never. Some of the names of projects actually sounded strange to say out loud.' Zoom Lens' IRL epiphany was revealed when Garrett travelled to Japan: "It was a unique experience because it was my first time travelling to Japan, yet we were able to coordinate a line-up of many of Zoom Lens' international artists and amass an impressive amount of people both in person and online. It was sort of an affirmation of Zoom Lens' presence both physically and digitally."

Many of these labels manifest IRL by releasing on physical formats, of course. For most online labels, that means mail. "Oh man, so much mail," says 1080p's MacFarlane. "These days I'll go once or twice a week down to the post office in Chinatown on my way to school, where I'm on very good terms with the ladies who work there." But it doesn't work everywhere: "Russian post is bloody hell," says Mitroshin of Dopefish Family. "So all physical stuff we make (or will make) goes only with our friends or people that can reach us here." MacFarlane is fond of cassettes, though: "The physical practicality of them, they are nice and small to post, cheaper and lower risk to manufacture than vinyl and I've always had cars with tape decks." They're also "like a more casual place to experiment than vinyl that can be released reasonably quickly." Zoom Lens are keen to point out that their digital approach shouldn't delegitimize their work. "'People see computers and producers in one dimension. A lot of people see that as cheating but it's just the way our music culture is now," Michal tells me. "Being of mostly digital age I'm sick and tired of nostalgists over-sentimentalizing analogue formats. And to be clear I love vinyl and cassette and using analogue equipment but I don't feel a strong connection. People like Garrett and I are computer kids and we want to embrace that aspect of our lives into more than just our daily tasks but our music, art, and aesthetics in our own personal lives, as well as our label."

Dopefish Family headquarters

Garrett hopes the label can "move into the direction of digitally tangible releases or limited art pieces. I feel like the existence of physical items is important in preserving our own attached memories to such listening experiences, yet sometimes I feel like it's impractical in an ecological sense and is slowly growing less acceptable for the shifting musical listening trends." Then, elegantly and poignantly echoing Zoom Lens's sonic and visual aesthetic: "We are in constant conflict in losing the physical things that bring us a sense of connection, yet we enjoy the ease of instant gratification." Ailanthus's Michael confesses, "I always wonder where these files will be in decades, like what if kids go to thrift stores and rummage old external hard drives for rare internet music." And Aural Sects releases digitally for free, because "we firmly stick to the idea that artists' music should be heard by the greatest number of people possible, and a paywall between the music and the audience runs entirely counter to that."

I was surprised to learn that in nearly every case, the artwork for these label's releases was chosen or provided by the musicians themselves. 'With the way technology is these days, they can have a decent album cover ready within a day," says Illuminated Paths's Rogers. It reflects the way that in general, it seems that the artists have a greater aesthetic power and autonomy in these labels than they might do even for a conventional indie label. When I ask about the guiding philosophies behind what they release, the answer is always the same: they keep an open minded and simply release what sounds good to them. As Ailanthus's Michael puts it, "To be able to work with some of my real favorite artists? What a blessing, what a great gift. It's like the thing is alive. It is. Every time a new release comes out it turns Ailanthus into an entirely new project, all of a sudden there's this fresh new perspective, another reason to pay attention to what we're doing, another chapter in someone's story, a new sound, a discovery, a celebration."

DIY musical communities have not been killed off by the internet. They thrive in new and surprising ways as part of a growing international network that is hungry for finding and sharing new sounds, and redefining what it means to be punk in the process. What's more DIY music-making on this level has never been easier. So, why not start a label of your own?

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System Focus
System Focus: Inside 1080p, Zoom Lens & the New Digital DIY Labels