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. Some of that ancient A&R and promo machinery still creaks, despite the virtual pipeline. "I used to just promote my releases mostly on social network sites like Friendster, MySpace, message boards, e-mail lists. I'm still focusing mostly on online marketing in the same fashion, but I'll even be doing some print ads soon, probably for my album [the forthcoming Brick by Brick] and singles off of it."
All right, so there's the meatspace platter dynamics and the dead-tree marketing campaign. Would Byallo ever gasp release a digital white label of his own, just to fuck stuff up? "I'm actually working on a couple bits right now that I'll release under a pseudonym quite soon. I'm not going to say what the tracks are bootleg remixes of, but it's pretty classic stuff reinterpreted."
Pseudonymy: the new anonymity. "We've received some anonymous stuff but we usually won't post it because we don't know where it came from," says Rchrd Oh?!, cofounder of Big Stereo (this.bigstereo.net ), one of Blogland's biggest and best indie-dance-release hype sites. "We've received some songs, though, that certain people want us to post up and not get credit for under their name, in which case we'll do it. I think not branding yourself can be good sometimes. Not being branded lets you do anything you want with no expectations."
Big Stereo is a perfect example of the new dance label distribution mechanism. Longtime fellow track fiends Oh?! a local club DJ whose name has become synonymous with the underground electro and mutant disco scene and partner Travis Bigstereo, based in Portland, Maine, find their inboxes stuffed every morning with digital tracks from tiny to well-known labels eager for Big Stereo exposure. The site posts several choice cuts a day with very little critical commentary, focusing instead on bringing primo acts like Little Boots, The Golden Filter, and Fan Death to a wider audience. It also tends to treat the labels as personalities on par with the musicmakers themselves an appropriate response, seeing how contemporary dance labels, stripped of all the musty mechanics, are more a brand of esoteric mood and abstract graphic design (yes, I'm talking to you, Valerie and Ed Banger) than impersonal star-generators. A label is a blog with battling unicorns.
"It's funny because everyone keeps talking about the demise of labels and records," Oh?! says. "I think it's positive and negative. It's almost like the demise of paper to me. In one way it's good because we become less wasteful people, and we can filter the bullshit. It's also good because haven't artists been complaining about the control record labels have on them for years?
"On the other hand," he continues "it's bad because full length albums are less enjoyed and appreciated, and artists come and go so fast these days. But 'record label' means nothing to me it's like branding on clothes. I either like it or I don't."
Does that artistic license and freedom of choice extend to the definition of dance music itself? "Look," says Oh?!, "all kinds of labels come and go. We are here forever. We love this planet, and we love music. Big Stereo will keep pushing anything we like. One day you're punk, one day you're electro, one day you are disco. Hey, that would be a great song."
As for dance music's eternal and profitable return to the wellspring of obscurity, here's an inspiring digital-era white label corollary. Earlier this year, an anonymous bootleg dubstep mix of "Blinded by the Lights" by the Streets, a.k.a. grime hero Mike Skinner who is himself currently flipping the bird to corporate scallywags by releasing his latest tracks on Twitter took the underground Web by storm. The veil has just been lifted: the remix is by London duo Nero, who've vaulted from MySpace murk to U.K. rock star status and a European tour. Ah, sweet mystery of dance.