Longform: The Holdouts: An Exploration of Vinyl-Only Labels in the Digital Age – @Pitchfork18 de julho, 2016
By trying to keep their music exclusively on wax, are underground electronic music’s vinyl devotees being righteous or elitist?
“It’s still a little damp,” Stefan Mitterer warns as he ushers me inside his cozy Berlin flat. The Norwegian DJ accidentally left the hot water in his bathtub gushing full blast while away for a week only to find the walls dripping with condensation upon his return. That would be stressful enough for anyone. But, for Mitterer, the situation is particularly troublesome: He runs a vinyl record label out of his home, and much of his stock, not to mention his ample collection of rare wax, is right there in his living room. As a physical medium, vinyl is subject to all the strains—heat, force, moisture—that a cruel and indifferent world is wont to impose; flipping through white-label promos, Mitterer points out a few paper sleeves that buckled from the dampness—evidence of his near-miss with total catastrophe.
Sitting in the kitchen, we speak for nearly two hours about his commitment to vinyl. Mostly, I just listen: Mitterer—tall and lean, with long hair, a wry smile, and a sing-songy Norwegian accent—is a born talker. And records are an enormous part of his life. As a DJ, he plays them in clubs. He also puts them out; along with his brother, Peter Anatol, he runs a network of labels under the Sex Tags Mania banner. He moonlights as an assistant mastering engineer, helping friends get the best sound possible. And as a distributor, he wholesales underground dance music and experimental electronic music all over the world, all on vinyl. In fact, the only way to experience the music Mitterer is involved with is on wax. He doesn’t sell digital downloads. He doesn’t license his labels’ music to streaming services.
I’ve come to meet up with Mitterer and other wax devotees like him because I want to know what it means to put out records on vinyl—and vinyl alone—at a moment when the conventional wisdom assumes that digital music is simply the sea in which we all swim. What does it mean to resist that pull? Is it an ideological choice? A practical one? A calculated decision—or just exclusivity for exclusivity’s sake?
Underground electronic music’s vinyl-only boom represents the opposite of commercial dance music’s insatiable drive for success and exposure: It is the secret handshake to EDM’s fist-bump.
Walk into a dance music record shop like Berlin’s Hard Wax, Los Angeles’ Mount Analog, London’s Phonica, or Brooklyn’s Halcyon, and you’ll be confronted with a similar sight: racks and racks full of records that look like they haven’t made it out of the factory fully dressed. They boast white paper sleeves instead of proper covers, and smeared rubber stamps in place of actual center stickers; a disconcerting number of them may have no identifying information whatsoever. You’ll also find the opposite: elaborate gatefold packages, embossed lettering, and sumptuous covers lovingly silk-screened on richly textured cardstock that practically begs to be touched. A sizable proportion of all these titles, many of them pressed in editions of 1,000 or 500 or even just 300, are unavailable in any other format.
To outsiders, these limited, mysterious items may seem like an aberration or an affectation, but to fans of underground electronic music in 2016, they’re the lifeblood of the scene: a kind of shadow economy invisible to most people and eclipsed in mainstream culture by a cloud-based music marketplace. Culturally, the vinyl-only boom represents the opposite of commercial electronic dance music’s insatiable drive for success and exposure: It is the secret handshake to EDM’s fist-bump.
The phenomenon has gone largely unnoticed despite vinyl’s widely heralded revival. Even though worldwide vinyl sales increased 28 percent last year, to 32 million units, it’s currently impossible to say what kind of volume vinyl-only releases represent. “We don’t have any information or data on vinyl-only releases,” Adrian Strain, Director of Communications at IFPI, an international recording-industry advocacy organization, tells me. In fact, given the small scale of many of these labels, it seems likely that they’re not reporting to official bodies like the RIAA.
It may be just a statistical blip in the grand scheme, but in the underground, vinyl-only labels account for a not-insignificant amount of sales. Dan Hill, of the UK’s Above Board Distribution, estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the distributor’s 300-odd labels are vinyl-only. At Phonica, a shop in London’s SOHO neighborhood whose walls are lined with racks of LPs and 12″s, manager Simon Rigg estimates that perhaps 30 percent of the store’s stock—some 150 new titles a week—is vinyl-only. The same percentage stands at Rotterdam’s Clone Records and Barcelona’s Discos Paradiso, while Los Angeles’ Mount Analog offers 25 percent as a ballpark figure. Altogether, it amounts to a wide, steady stream of releases—unlicensed disco edits, Romanian minimal techno, Norwegian lo-fi house, retro acid from London, new-school boogie from Washington, D.C.—all flying under the official industry radar.
Stefan and Peter Mitterer never set out to be musicians, much less entrepreneurs, until they came across an advertisement for a pressing plant in a graffiti magazine in the late 1990s. Back then, the teenage brothers lived in Moss, Norway, a nothing town, to hear them tell it, where they sprayed graffiti, listened to hip-hop and dance music on the radio, and collected records. The pressing plant was just over the border in Sweden, and it represented the kind of possibility that didn’t come easy in Moss. After all, says Stefan, boiling a pot of stovetop coffee, “It’s quite cool to make a record.” After saving up for a few years, that’s precisely what they did.
They put out their first couple of records in 2002, on a label they called Sex Tags, in tribute to their graffiti adventures. Their output began as a trickle: one record in 2004, two the following year, four the year after that. Today, the discography of their various labels and sub-labels is around 70 releases deep, ranging from semi-obscure Norwegian dance music veterans, experimental lifers from across Europe, and previously-unknown figures like Don Papa, a reggae producer from Moss.
Obscurity is part and parcel of their approach: Of Sex Tags Mania’s 27 releases, three of them are credited only to “Unknown Artist.” And while this music can be defiantly uncommercial—one record, called “Bass Drum,” is credited to a TR-909 and comprises a single locked groove of a Roland TR-909 kick drum—the Mitterers have built up a strong cult following whose ferocity can be measured by the prices that out-of-print Sex Tags releases fetch on online marketplace Discogs. Dozens of the label’s releases routinely sell for $30, $40, $50, or more, and some have even sold for well over $100.
In part, Sex Tags Mania’s success reflects the growth of a global audience hungry for quirky, experimental, downright odd dance music. “Before, shops were like, ‘That record is a bit weird, we can’t sell it,’” says Stefan. “Now, they’re like, ‘Wow, that record is really fucking weird! Give me 40 copies!’”
“We sell an OK amount of records to be an underground label, so why should we jump on the digital wagon now? I’m quite satisfied with where I am. Growth isn’t the only way of developing.”
STEFAN MITTERER, CO-FOUNDER OF VINYL-ONLY LABEL SEX TAGS MANIA
It took a while for them to get to this point, though. In the early years, says Stefan, “We pressed shitloads of records, but we didn’t sell a lot.” For a time, they sold their vinyl piecemeal—walking into record stores and wholesaling over the counter—as well as on their own now-shuttered web shop, the colorfully named Shit Fuck You. (“Favouring the possible over the feasible,” read a slogan on their homepage.)
Business was not brisk. As the brothers learned their trade, Stefan was lucky to sell 30 copies of a given release through the website, while the rest of their stock sat in boxes in their apartments. They tried going through a distributor but eventually got fed up with the paltry numbers that it was moving. The breaking point came when the distributor only managed to sell 120 copies of a reggae 7″ by Kambo Super Sound and Don Papa. “It was like, Fuck—that’s really not a lot.” He had the distributor ship the remaining stock to him—at his expense—and, with a bit of help from a friend with links to London’s reggae scene, he eventually sold 600 copies. From there on, Stefan became his own distributor.
Today, in addition to the Sex Tags projects, he also distributes a handful of his friends’ labels, all of them small, slightly difficult, and resolutely DIY operations. “It’s cool when you make a structure that you can help other people with,” he says.
Unlike many labels that press wax and also offer downloads, Sex Tags has no intention of entering the digital market. In part, it’s a question of self-preservation. “We always imagined that if we made digital as well, we would sell less records,” says Stefan. “Because people are a bit cheap, a bit lazy.” But the decision is as much philosophical as it is practical. “In the beginning we didn’t sell digital because it wasn’t a format we thought was very interesting. Everybody thought it was the new shit, which it was—but it was maybe also a bit shit. We sell an OK amount of records to be an underground label, so why should we jump on the digital wagon now? I’m quite satisfied with where I am. Growth isn’t the only way of developing.”
The reasons he prefers vinyl are legion. Part of it is an issue of craft. Or, as he says, “It’s a nice process. You learn a lot—you don’t learn nearly as much when you make an MP3.” The day we meet, he has been at Dubplates and Mastering, the iconic Berlin mastering plant, helping cut plates for a handful of records—a jazz reissue from Finland, an electronic jam sessions from Jordan, a remix project by a pair of Italian producers. “They’re all very different, and there are a lot of things you need to do in order to get them onto vinyl records,” Stefan says. “Even after eight years doing mastering, there’s still stuff you learn.”
And while some people believe that digital offers an environmentally friendly alternative to the resource-intensive process of pressing vinyl, Stefan remains skeptical. Norway is a major supplier of iron ore, which is an essential component in manufacturing hard drives. “I’ve seen the ships leaving Norway for China, and they’re so big you can’t even imagine,” he says. “And the servers that store our information in deserts in the U.S. are not immaterial—they’re massive, and they take a lot of energy. Just because it’s immaterial to you doesn’t mean it’s immaterial for the world. With vinyl records, it’s more straightforward.”
With 500 12″s, he knows how much he paid to manufacture them, how much he can sell them for, and how to divide up any proceeds between the artists involved. The digital world, in contrast, is a black hole. What’s to keep a download store from selling a thousand MP3s but only telling you they’ve sold a hundred? And if that sounds paranoid, the way the streaming economy has decimated independent labels’ bottom lines while enriching tech executives’ doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the fairness of the system.
In any case, says Stefan, “I like buying records. It has to do with where I’m from and how I grew up. When you’re a kid, it’s fucking cool to see a DJ scratch records. And if you grew up in the hip-hop community, well, you can’t blame me for trying to be one of those guys.”
Unlike the many DJs who have swapped the back-breaking weight of a full record crate for an inch-long USB stick, Stefan even finds cause to celebrate vinyl’s physical dimensions. “I know how heavy 500 records is to carry. I know how much work it is to re-box them and ship them,” he says. “It is a way of calculating your labor.” And the fact that almost no one can master every task in vinyl’s supply chain leads to a self-contained ecosystem made up of mastering studios, pressing plants, and record shops that all rely on each other. “The customers get it cheap, and I still make money on the sales,” says Stefan. “It’s a fair balance.”
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