For better or worse, every record label paints a portrait of a social time and place. The history of music is littered with one story: Things are happening, and then they aren’t. Genre trends die, friendships splinter, scene-glue people matriculate into grad school, relationships, or self-destruction. Eras change, and a lot of great music tends to get buried or forgotten in that lurch.
It might seem kitschy to make the case for small, homespun labels in 2019, but they still provide what no amount of algorithmic juking can: a way to find lost or underreported bands that exist beyond streaming platforms, and also a sense of the historical context that spawned them. Thousands of hyperlocal or internet-based outposts exist for the reason of putting out their friends’ music. Intentionally or otherwise, they do the unsexy work of preserving ephemeral corners of music history, which is critical in our current flattened, contextless Spotify age.
Thanks in large part to a small group of reverent heads in Chapel Hill, a rich history of skull-crushing, forward-thinking outsider labels has quietly run for decades alongside the stranger pockets of local music. For leftfield electronic music, a currently vital scene in N.C., it helps to look back to the constellation of mid-2000s area dance labels, like J.T. Stewart’s (aka $tinkworx) electro label, Down Low. And there’s FrequeNC, the Clone-distributed freeform vinyl label founded by Jon Terrell and Charlie Hearon. The latter is a mainstay of the area’s weird-music ecosystem who now presides (with Ethan Clauset) over the eclectic Rosemary Street venue Nightlight.
FrequeNC bottled some of the more bizarro aughties dance stuff happening in the Carolinas and beyond. It was an era where vinyl was prohibitively expensive, and soulful techno and prankster-ish electronic music were less popular to dabble in. Before the gleeful chiptune of a band like Anamanaguchi, there was the pop-culture-poisoned “arcade glitch” of noise band Extreme Animals, which released I Gotta B Me in 2005 on the label. Hearon now runs the label Tone Log in partnership with All Day Records (which he also runs with Clauset), continuing to slide out essential leftfield releases like multi-instrumentalist Patrick Gallagher’s decomposing synth/guitar masterclass, Eye Teeth.
On a similar wavelength, but further into the beat-less and outré, Ryan Martin is best known as the operator behind Nightlight’s annual experimental festival Savage Weekend. He’s also a deft label curator in his own right. Hot Releases, his personal label, has showcased his worldview and insight into the sprawling national noise underground for more than a decade. Last month, he released Out of Mind, the latest transmission from underground pop linchpin Russian Tsarlag. Chilly, tape-warped dream pop is the name of the game, and Tsarlag is an expert painter at his easel. His wearied yawp suggests Galaxie 500 through a haze of broken analog gear and sleep deprivation. It is far more soothing and less terrifying than that sounds.
Not everything happens in UNC’s backyard, though. Raleigh’s inventive New Body Tapes has done an admirable job of upholding a singular no-trends aesthetic. Its austerity and extreme level of technical consistency in every aspect, from artwork to release curation, rivals any boutique label in America. No-NRG, by Raleigh duo Bodykit, poured The Fall, hardcore, the kitchen-sink din of Black Dice, and its own weird inclinations into a truly compelling brutalizer—one of the finest N.C. records of the last decade. Recent NBT release Peace Sign, by Oakland producer SPF, is equally smothering—a gorgeous, pounding collection of razor-wire industrial pop that sounds wholly distinctive, an impossible feat for the genre in 2019.
“Outsider” labels serve another important function, proving to budding fringe musicians proof that their off-trend, anti-narrative idiosyncrasies aren’t evil or unacceptable; in fact, they have a rich and instructive lineage. And for fans, it’s a word to explore beyond the margins of Spotify.
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