Micro-labels: more than just records

It’s above all in terms of structure and methods that the labels discussed here are considered – and often proudly define themselves – as “small.”

At the juncture of the 60s and the 70s, a group of cineastes (and then of theorists) advocated against the usual modus operandi of cinematic projection (a projector in its booth, the audience seated, facing the same screen) in favor of an “anything goes” aesthetic called “expanded cinema” (for example: several projectors, perhaps even in the room, the public encouraged to get up, move around, even to leave the theater, etc.). Starting at the end of the 70s/early 80s (with the DIY post-punk scene and the world-wide advent of cassette labels) then from the middle of the 90s, a series of musicians and music activists began to question the modes of production and distribution then dominant in the music industry. Except here the revolution would be implosive rather than explosive, reductionist rather than expansive, and would result – because of political or esthetical choices or unchosen economic reasons – in a series of trimming operations that would get rid of some of the mechanisms observed in the usual methods of producing an album.

Ordinarily (to oversimplify), an artist or group is discovered when the A&R rep for a record company hears their demo or sees them play live; after signing a contract (often for many years and several releases), the group goes into the studio to record and mix their record; a release date is set, before which a certain number of promo records are sent out to the press as well as a single delivered to radio by the PR team; a distributor makes sure the release is stocked by the record stores, etc. In the case of micro-labels, which are often micro-structures of one or two people (often the musicians themselves, releasing their own music as well as that of friends and associates[1]), the demo can become the actual release, perhaps recorded at home (saving money on studio time by serving as their own engineer), even pressed and duplicated at home (cassettes et CD-R[2] don’t usually require the services of a factory), etc. The “press” and “distribution” aspects by which the music monopoly usually operates can be willfully ignored (given that the music thus offered will likely be too disconcerting or strange to find a place or a champion there).

Technology and finance / As is often the case in the history of artistic expression – and of music, in particular – the emergence of new forms or ways of doing recordings, even noisy, that don’t cheat are better than ordinary, too tidy and asepticized recordingsthings is linked to the appearance of new technologies (instruments, equipment or means of recording and distribution, etc.). And, of course, these technological elements do not exist in isolation in a perfect world, free from concrete contingencies. Every technology comes at a cost against which its performances must be measured. Around 1993-1995, the price of 4-track machines (for recording) and CDs burners (a key tool for CD-R labels) became significantly lower. The former allowed you to record at home, track by track, on cassette tapes. The natural compression of the cassette tape produced a much noisier result than the 2″ tape used by most major recording studios. But a group of musicians under the banner of the lo-fi (low-fidelity) movement embraced the hissy allure of 4-track recording, seeing in the format an authenticity absent from glossy studio productions (recordings, even noisy, that don’t cheat are better than ordinary, too tidy and asepticized recordings). In Belgium from 1995-2000, these musicians appeared on labels like Toothpick, Studio Muscle, LéBo, Ubik, etc. Soon after, at the end of the 90s, easier (cheaper) access to personal computers and interesting recording and sound-processing software opened new doors for other musicians. From then on, it has become possible for the price formerly paid to record in a studio a demo in order to seek a possible contract with a major label, to record any number of DIY songs, and to duplicate and distribute them (on vinyl, CD, or cassettes) through a micro-label, directly to the public.

Musical styles / In 1980, Andy Partridge from XTC recorded for Miniatures, a compilation of songs under a minute’s duration, a piece called “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll”: a resume in 20 seconds of 40 years of rock music, via an archetypal sound or instrument for each decade. For the 80s, which had barely begun, Partridge chose the synthesizer. Today, even retrospectively, one wonders what sound would have been chosen for the 90s? That decade was marked variously by the electric guitars of grunge, the acoustic guitars of certain singer-songwriters, and by the bleeps and bloops of electronica, etc. In Belgium, the Flemish label (k-raa-k) – which is still an independent label, albeit a rather large one, subsidized for a while by the Flemish authorities but born from the micro-label Toothpick/Toothache and which has always continued to help its much smaller friends and associates – is exemplary of the musical diversity of the 90s. Both through the signings to its label and through the curation of its legendary spring festival, the Flemish label brought together disparate genres like rock, noise, electronica, pop, acoustic music, post-jazz, etc. A musician like Jürgen De Blonde, active in the electronic music field (Köhn), as well as in chanson (Ed Nolbed), as a solo artist and in a group (De Portables), is himself a good example of the eclecticism and bringing together styles of fundamentally different styles of music. Thus it’s not a question of the type of music or sound that defines a micro-label but its way of doing things.

Beyond vinyl (aesthetics and identity) / In a larger context where, since the early 2000s, record sales have plunged drastically thanks to the advent of downloading, the micro-labels often make the choice to position themselves (at their level, small by definition, in limited runs of 500, 100, even 50) through strongly associating their releases by their format and aesthetic. Lexi Disques only puts out 45s, Minijack from 2003-2004 only 3.5 inch diskettes with a single song (a kind of declaration of intent, assuming an air of ambiguity and paradox, to go from music released on a physical format to dematerialized music) … Okraïna entrusts all its cover artwork to Gwénola Carrère, while Dennis Tyfus creates himself the covers of all the releases from his label Ultra Eczema. In 2003, for its first record, a 45 from the American group Trumans Water, the Antwerp-based designer made 300 different covers by hand; a process that was taken up in 2009 by Nico Uské for the 200 covers of his album Palpelpin on the Sonig label. The graphic art of the Hôtel rustique label (cassettes and CD-R) by McCloud Zicmuse and Anne Brugni testifies to their immoderate love of the color orange and the Gutenberg printing presses (a passionate interest for manual typographic presses that we also find in the beautiful and inventive creations of Dimitri Runkkari for the electronic label Vlek).

An unverified but often heard double sentiment: “we’ve never sold so few records” – “but there have never been so many record labels, nor so many releases.” In any case, in the context of a music industry still in the throes of a paralyzing crisis, micro-labels offer a beneficial constellation of daring artwork, appealing musical styles and singular releases.


Philippe Delvosalle

[1] For example Dominique A and Françoise Breut’s label Bilbo Product , Laurent and Nicolas Baudoux’s Résidence Baudoux (Scratch Pet land, Fan Club Orchestra, etc.), Martiensgohome’s Kalinka Vichy, Stefaan Quix’s Cheloniamydas/Snapshots, Timo van Luijck’s La Scie dorée, etc.

[2] Toothpick, Studio Muscle, Sloow tapes, Tanuki records are essentially cassette labels. Imvated and Young Girls use both formats.