Enemies List: Home-Recording and Having a Nice Life
Enemies List record label founder Dan Barrett speaks with PopMatters on his band, Have a Nice Life, and his experience with home-recording, the resurgence vinyl records, and all-out war on the recording industry.
Since punk’s bricolage in the `70s, the anti-consumerist DIY ethic of self-reliance, self-production, and streetwise distribution has been an integral part of underground music, unchecked within the various “scenes” that have come to us as sub-genres and subtle variations on the themes that all that is indie has given us. This ideology, applicable now to everything from education to the Green Movement’s digs at urban gardening and organic lifestyle, seems most resolute, by way of sheer technology and perhaps owing to its genesis, in the realm of music production and recording.
And while the breadth of this aesthetic is perhaps immeasurable, it seems that DIY is something that Dan Barrett’s Enemies List record label, specializing in home-recorded music, is doing right and very well, releasing shoegaze, black metal, drone-y noise pop, some of it like the infant works of the Jesus And Mary Chain and M83 further wrought through a beautiful pedalboard. It’s a wonder someone from the Deftones hasn’t contacted them for work.
Enemies List, in its own words, is not a traditional label. By using flexible manufacturing methods, word-of-mouth promotion, pressing short-runs of high quality CDs and vinyl, and releasing home-recorded artists, they’ve managed, by their account, not only to be profitable but in full support of unorthodox, original musicians—all while retaining artist payout rates almost 1000% higher than major record labels. Bristling at the notion that music must be recorded with Miley Cyrus’s production caliber (and budget), and bucking at the converse belief that home-recorded music usually ends up sounding like the dregs of YouTube’s cover videos, Enemies List has, since 2003, and with only the efforts of two friends, entered into so-called “all out economic war with the music industry”. They pool money to pay for each other's releases, invest profits in owning their means of production, and keep everything in-house, including mail order and distribution operations.
The following text is an interview with Enemies List founder, Dan Barrett:
PopMatters: The Enemies List manifesto states boldly that “the Internet revolution is bullshit” and that “we [as a society] wasted it”. Again as a society, we know that the Internet affords technologically established countries a fluid method of showcasing art, may it be music or writing or otherwise, through its own cherished channels: YouTube, Facebook, the iTunes Store, et cetera. Our ethos is that of globally disseminated information done simply, and speaking to culture-conscious Generation Y, beyond a reaction to conformity. What was it, specifically, that gave impetus to your personal embrace of the DIY aesthetic and the subsequent creation of Enemies List?
Dan: At a logistical level, we needed to record music and had no money. Over time we cobbled together whatever we could use. After years of recording however we could, we wanted to distribute that music. There was, then, no outlet for people like us: we wanted to make physical copies of our stuff, but labels didn't, and still don’t, invest in home-recorded artists—especially ones they've never heard of and who have never played out. It's a situation that this new era of computer-based and home-recorders sees all the time: we didn't fit, in any way, into the economic model of recording on advances, pressing thousands of records, and then trying to sell those records during tours to recoup.
When I founded the label, simply to release our own stuff, I started getting submissions almost immediately. We kept it as a purely personal channel for a while, and at the beginning of this year, opened it up to a wider array of artists. There's really a desperate need for a label like us; more and more artists find themselves outside the system as it collapses from its own weight. They need somewhere to go, and we need, on some kind of visceral level, to support the music we love.
PM: Having been met with the faults of home-recording, what, since Enemies List’s inception, has the Internet done for Enemies List?
Dan: It's safe to say that our model couldn't exist without it. We do all our sales over the web; we don’t distribute to brick-and-mortar stores (although we may strike up limited distribution deals with sustainable local shops in the future). We do all of our promotion over the web: people find out about us almost solely through blogs, MP3 sites, online reviews, and music recommendation engines like Last.fm. Our artists collaborate over the Internet. The vast majority of demos are sent to us in digital formats, and I've heard every band we've signed because of their Internet presence, even if that meant they just sent me an email. I'm in constant contact with the people who support us. We update blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, Last.fm groups, and so on--nearly every day. I find low-cost manufacturers for our CDs and vinyl records over the internet, finding the cheapest producer allows us to keep our costs and prices low.
Most importantly, it allows us to connect to large groups of people who like every kind of music, no matter how off-the-beaten-track that music is. If we were limited to our immediate surroundings, I don't even know if I could find 50 people who like shoegaze-influenced blackened industrial drone. On the Internet, I could find you a couple thousand. It’s the great leveler, and an eliminator of the restriction of common aesthetic sense.
PM: As a participant in a war on music, who does Enemies List see as viable targets? Where should Enemies List last strike to end the industry?
Dan: The music industry is collapsing. It's already happening -- when the single biggest cost of producing music, recording, essentially drops to the cost of a computer, a mic, and a copy of a recording program, then you simply do not require the massive, bloated industry that has sprung up around providing that capital.
Record labels essentially provide funds and services. Because those funds and services were, and often are, difficult to provide and thus hard to obtain. Before home-recording, bands were willing to be subjected to horrendous, exploitative contracts that sacrificed the vast amount of the value produced by the band's art. Now, however, recording equipment is extremely cheap. The quality differential between home-recording gear and professional gear is disappearing, especially when you consider that MP3s are a lossy, relatively low audio-quality means of transmission. Simultaneously, the Internet made all of those services labels used to provide--graphic design, manufacturing, promotion, networking, mail-order sales, finding distributors, communicating with fans--very low-cost and simple to perform.
The downward pressure on record label influence has been steady. The deals they offer are less and less attractive to bands. With a different business model, labels could evolve, cut costs, and take lower percentages of profit... but the record industry can't evolve, because it's bloated beyond all reason. There are so many people whose jobs are predicated on an exploitative, label-friendly musical labor market that, to adapt to changing conditions, would mean burning 75% of the industry to the ground. They can't do that. They're trapped by their own inertia. Hence the litigation campaigns by the RIAA, and so on. The industry is in panic-mode, but they can't do anything about it. They're too big and too slow. They're not even going to see it coming.
PM: In recent years, publications like Time, Rolling Stone, and Wired have begun to tout vinyl records as a once-again appreciated music-listening medium, unsurprisingly riding popular culture's wave of assimilative appreciations for things from past milieus: skinny jeans, harmonized guitar solos, tea kettles, and fixed-gear bikes. The recording industry’s half-hug embrace of vinyl has been exacerbated not only by its hipness but in response to dismal CD sales. The general neo-nerd’s collection constitution seems to be this: vinyl is of an analog source, and analog sources provide warmth; warmth opposes the coldness given off by the recording industry and the `90s in flux of CDs, themselves killed off by the even less cool MP3. Warmth is sometimes integral to art; when vinyl isn’t meant to convey warmth, it conveys engineered accuracy; accuracy is essential to the artist; over-engineered CDs are not the work of the artists, but a competitive product--the persistence of warmth and accuracy thus brings one closer to the artist.
Enemies List maintains the warmth or accuracy of its artists through the myriad formats in which it releases albums: FLAC (a form of lossless digital audio superior to MP3s) and short-run CD and vinyl. The label recently surveyed readers of its website on the regular inclusion of short-run CD and vinyl duplication for other bands. Responding to vinyl records in particular, what is it about that medium that makes it viable?
Dan: I think the vinyl resurgence has a couple different causes; one is that it's simply a nicer package, the size and layout is more suitable to producing something that's visually appealing. Many prefer the audio quality on vinyl--I've read different things about whether or not it's really that noticeable, but I personally find that vinyl has a warm quality you don't find on digital-audio formats.
I think there's also an element of rebellion against the steady disembodiment of music. Music has no physical existence anymore--I have hundreds and hundreds of records on an external hard-drive somewhere, but they're only just barely real. They don't take up space, I don't have any particular relationship or connection with them; they're just bits and bytes. Vinyl records provide a tactile connection to music that a certain kind of hardcore music lover really appreciates.
I think the resurgence of vinyl is one of the best things to happen to music in recent years. Giant record labels haven't even touched it, though, because they're too busy marketing to people who don't actually like music.
PM: Vinyl seems to be appreciated by the North American black metal scene. Without any effort, I’ve come across many a reference to LPs of the newly venerable eco-weepers, Wolves in the Throne Room. Your own band Have a Nice Life, on its 2008 album, Deathconsciousness, has a song called “Waiting for Black Metal Records to Come in the Mail”. Californian home-recorder Xasthur regularly releases vinyl EPs and LPs and will be doing so on your own label. While this technique makes sense for the electronic music scene and its DJs, is there something about black metal or similar underground sub-genres that make vinyl a preferable medium?
Dan: There's a collector-ish aspect to it that crosses over, surely. I think those genres and scenes jumped onto the trend before most other people were even aware of it. There's also some tradition at work. After all, hardcore and punk bands have been putting out 7-inch EPs since the very beginning of the underground scene, mostly because it was cheap. I don't think it will stay that way, however. I hope not. If you don't really care about music, though, and you're one of those people that's fine with listening to whatever's on the radio, then I don't think vinyl will ever be your thing. It's not easy, which is precisely why some people like it.
PM: Having gained considerable praise from bloggers, one could argue that Have a Nice Life's Deathconsciousness is the label's focal achievement. What have the album and the band--of which you are a founding member--brought to the label?
Dan: The label was only born because we needed to put out Deathconsciousness, and because of that, the two have been linked very intimately. Probably the majority of people who follow the label found us through Have a Nice Life... but all the bands we release have similar philosophies, similar approaches, and I think that people who like one band usually find that they like the others.
We don't limit ourselves by genre; we limit ourselves by approach. People see that Have a Nice Life is a deeply personal vehicle, but also an expression of some larger trends that they also feel a part of. That's one of the reasons that Enemies List has managed to gather around itself such an amazing, deeply dedicated community. They come because they like one band or other, and stay because they believe in what we're trying to do. That's intensely gratifying, and moving, especially since I, and so many other home-recorders and general misfits, feel so alone most of the time. We're isolated by our interests.
PM: One has to wonder: why hasn't indie-darling Pitchfork Music reviewed Deathconsciousness?
Dan: It's very possible that they just don't review CDRs or packages from bands and labels with no history or track record whatsoever, which was the case when we sent them a copy. It's also possible they just don't like it. That's fine with me. If everyone loved our band, it wouldn't be our band.