When music moved from live venues to radios and recordings, artists had to find a way to respond. Now, labels struggle to be heard in the era of Spotify and streaming, always-on, always-overabundant media. We could talk grander themes, but the possibilities of this conflict are most vivid in a microcosm.
Call it post-digital or what you will, but being digital now means something different. For Belgian label, Vlek, that reality takes a number of forms, suggestive of the direction for independent electronic music. And so, in Ssaliva’s release for Vlek, executed by Dimitri Runkkari (part of Brussels’ design studio Stoëmp), the samples of a digital waveform are rendered in letterpress, as paper tradition meets the 21st-century audio file. It’s the perfect illustration of an unseen, virtual music being made material. (See Stoëmp’s portfolio pages on Ssaliva and RZA, for Vlek.)
That’s just one of a number of physical releases from Vlek, surveyed in the images here. But this is the same label that is championing downloads, via Bandcamp. In fact, right now, you can download their complete 2010/2012 catalog for free. (Ironically, you instead pay for singles – the assumption is to exchange free for a whole-hog embrace of the label’s musical output.
And our timing is right: today is the release of VLEK12, from increasingly-acclaimed Squeaky Lobster, on 12″ and digital. (Details on that release below.)
We asked Vlek’s Julien Fournier to explain how a free catalog mixes with physical sales, and how this label preserves the value of its musical identity.
Can you tell us a little bit of the story of the physical releases? How did these collaborations come about?
We’ve always worked with a solid aim to the physical product. We’re very lucky to count David aka Dimitri Runkkari amongst VLEK’s founders, and he’s the one responsible for the whole visual art direction of the label. He’s the kind of guy who can stay hours on end in a workshop adjusting metal pieces, printing, cutting, folding and glueing paper. Whether it’s glow-in the dark inking, using dice to create patterns (on an original idea by Stukenborg), adding just the varnishing touch or re-creating a wave from typography lines (more on this later), or embossing, he just loves to find news ways to make our physical product appealing. (See this guide to sleeves.) The wave you see on the cover is actually the name ‘Ssaliva’ said out loud, recorded, and transposed on paper using only regular typography lines. Here’s what David had to say about it:
“the goal was to continue what was done for the first ssaliva. playing with the word “ssaliva” and using lines in a black and white sleeve. The lines, that come from a letterpress, are used to unn=derline text or make a composition with text. I could have use letters, but i feel more attracted by simple geometric forms, like lines. I had to find a new way to write Ssaliva, and i did a small personnal job using the same idea a few weeks before we started the ssaliva. I showed the team what it could look like, but i knew that for the sleeve, the challenge was bigger as I wanted it to be “quite real”. So, if you record the word “ssaliva” and watch the wave on a screen you’ll get, almost, the same than on the sleeve. luckily, ssaliva is not a too long word, cse i used all the lines and spacers i had. I couldn’t put 2 lines more. Once that the whole pattern was in place, i fixed it and hoped it didn’t move for the next 400 “passages”(. ???) And it didn’t. :)”
Why make digital free at the moment? It seems to starve out a potential revenue stream, but then is the assumption that people will continue to value physical objects, live shows?
We didn’t stop selling MP3, actually. There’s only one (big) thing available for free: the entire 2010/2012 catalogue. Single releases are still at a price, and new ones too. This means that we’re offering the catalogue, but we’re kinda forcing you to get the whole thing, let’s be honest. We believe it’s for everyone’s good though: you get the tracks, we get to make you hear the other stuff we are doing. And we actually made more money through the ‘name your price’ option in Bandcamp in the last two months than the whole time before. This is also another way to reach the people who might, one day, buy one of our physical releases. Because that’s where the love goes
It’s easy, I suppose, to talk about the value of physical. But that does normally require some outlay of cash initially – and risk. Does that risk hinder or help labels? Was it ever a struggle for Vlek to fund these? (It occurs to me that some will turn to crowd funding, but that may not work for everyone.)
Well, it’s of course always a struggle to fund music these days. We’re lucky to have people around us who believe in our project: the Ministry of Culture of the ‘Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles’ (basically representing the French-speaking part of Belgium and Brussels) helps fund the releases, our mastering studio Angtröm is doing sterling work that should be paid a zillion times more, design is made in-house and we can count on word-of-mouth from lots of friends and loyal fans. So yeah, it’s always a risk, but we’ve managed to find a way to work with bits and pieces, come to a ‘physical’ result we love, and still get sleep at night. The promotion around the project is also made with little-to-no cash.
Are these all limited runs, or could you see keeping some physical regularly available?
As an object, they’re limited runs. When/if we do represses (which we did for Cupp Cave’s DICE POOL), we change the cover a little to mark the difference.
Shifting to the actual music: if you were to guide our readers through some of that free catalog, where might they begin? What can they expect to hear?
Very different stuff, actually. The label is about releasing stuff from artists around us and that we love, not pushing specific esthetics. That make for a catalogue where you can find Instumental hip-hop, pure techno, proto-house, collages and atmocore. So it depends on your mood, I guess. We’ve put together a guided tour for those who want to get a piece of everything we do:
What’s next for the label in 2013?
Well, our motto of giving [those] ‘Belgian artists the opportunity to evolve in creative circles beyond our borders’ was fulfilled with each artist to an extent: Cupp released on RAMP, Squeaky is getting proper international booking, Sagat was on Ben Klock’s FABRIC live… We’ll keep on working with them though: this year we aim at finally releasing the 4th part to the AMAI series (with a very exciting counterpart to the belgian artist selected), doing some more SAGAT & Ssaliva, a very different Squeaky Lobster, and we’re discussing with newcomers we can’t reveal yet. All very exciting
Squeaky Lobster’s “Killing Eleven” is out today on 12″, limited to 400 copies, or as a digital download. Listen below.
Vlek’s quirky-good venture into apps: Beatsurfing: At Last, a Controller for iPad That Lets You Draw Layouts Onscreen, “Surf” Controls