Let's play a game of peel the label. Unclutch the sequined handbag of your digital mind and rewind to a far-off vinyl time called 1989. Why? This year marks the 20th anniversary of Warp Records, one of the bedrock juggernauts of this business we call dance, the hyperintelligent folks whose cosmic stable encompasses famed knob-gods Aphex Twin, LFO, and Squarepusher through to latest ankle-twisting darlings Flying Lotus and Gang Gang Dance.
Blame Warp, yes, for creating "electronica" Boards of Canada, anyone? and doing its cash-money best throughout the 1990s to codify dance music artists as traditional album acts rather than fly-by-night bedroom alchemists, the better to ring those ancient corporate-model registers. Believe it or not, the biggest dance floor debate topic of the previous decade was, "How will this music survive without bands?" It is to laugh.
But the genesis of Warp corp is a case history in the power of anti-label hijinks. I'm talking about the anonymous magic of white labels, those unmarked slices of vinyl WTF pressed up on the sly and dropped off at record shops, which used to stare up at you like minus-one-million eyeballs from the "dance" section. Warp's founders, Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell, were Sheffield, U.K., record shop owners so beguiled by a bedroom-produced, bleep-driven white label later discovered to be "Dextrous" by their neighbors Nightmares on Wax (themselves inspired by A Guy Called Gerald's white label classic "Voodoo Ray") that they scraped together 40 quid, printed a bunch more copies, and began delivering them to other record shops and rave DJs via a borrowed car. Thus the humble origins of what grew to be a multinational dance music giant, one of the last of its old-school kind.
Many of the folks behind white label releases definitely hoped for just the kind of big break that the immensely prophetic-sounding "Dextrous" got, changing the course of British house music with its spare yet bouncy beats and even storming the U.K. pop charts until it was delisted due to a lack of industry-approved barcodes on its label. Stick it to the man! But for some, like early Nightmares on Wax, white labels were a personal statement skirting major label hoo-haw gave producers an unfettered chance to brand themselves as underground rebels and escape draconian sampling restrictions while expressing their own regional dance dialects.
"Those were the days," reminisces ubiquitous San Francisco minimal techno DJ and Nightlight Music (www.nightlight-music.com) founder Alland Byallo, on the subject of anonymous releases. "Finding white labels at the shop especially when you visited other cities, and you'd find some strictly local stuff." SF has its share of dance label mammoths, too from relative household names like OM, Six Degrees, and Naked to mad upstarts like Dirtybird and Loöq but the four-year-old Nightlight is representative of the new kind of homemade, personal effort. Launched at the dawn of digital download popularity, it was created to help pump Byallo's own tracks directly from his churning processors to digital dance aggregator sites like Beatport, WhatPeoplePlay, Juno, and recently revamped hometown site Stompy.com.
"I started Nightlight as a sort of fictitious label," Byallo says. "It was just a way to cluster my stuff together." Now that Nightlight's established an online aggregator presence almost like one of those antique teddy bear "stores" on Ebay, if those antique teddy bears had gleaming ProTools fangs and made you lose your shit once the strobes hit it's taken to releasing tracks by others as well. And Byallo has learned that you can't exactly reinvent the steel wheel.