DIY Micro-Labels Have Surged In 2020

Clash picks out a few key imprints...

The traumas of 2020 have made life exceptionally difficult for musicians.

Songwriters, artists, producers, and DJs have all had their incomes slashed, with some struggling to stay afloat amid these treacherous waters.

Yet alongside this has come a surge in energy from the DIY underground, with a host of micro-labels pushing back against the negativity.

Nick Roseblade counts down a few micro-labels who made a difference…

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Austerity Records

Austerity Records have had a great year releasing EPs from Winter Gardens, Hanya, RADIDAS and Daisy Coburn. Each one of these acts is a name to set up a Google Alert for over the next 12 months.

Winter Gardens were the label's first release last year and its great to see them coming on leaps and bounds. Austerity’s C60 cassette club was on first form this year with releases from RADIDAS, Coburn and Hanya, the latter being the jewel in the labels crown.

Hanya are an ideal mix of shoegaze, Riot Grrrrl and killer melodies. Their ‘Sea Shoes’ EP featured some frank confessional lyrics interspersed with stream of consciousness realism. Frontperson, and main songwriter, Heather Sheret is the owner of one of the best voices in music today. She has the ability for go from guttural roars to the clearest whisper imaginable. To call it impressive is an understatement.

Next year Austerity plan C60 releases from Cambridges 'Tape Runs Out with the 'Ghost Fruit' EP and Foundlings and in the Spring the release of SNAYX’s album.

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Ceremonial Laptop

Brighton’s Ceremonial Laptop hasn’t had the busiest year, but they have released some incredible album. February saw them released Codex Serafini’s debut mini album ‘Serpents Of Enceladus’. This quartet are a mixture of psych, prog-noise, good old-fashioned rock, and Polyphonic Spree attire. This was followed up by the remix album ‘Twisting The Serpents of Enceladus’. Slugabed, Sonaura and EONE, to name a few, all turned in the kind of remixes that have enough of the original so that you recognise them, but they go off on their own twisty turning tangents.

In March Pale World’s ‘Disease Is Love’ was released. Despite only consisting of three tracks, this 48 minute album was filled with delicate drones filled with longing and compassion. Pale World shows that drone doesn’t have to be aggressive. It can be meandering and graceful.

Electro art-pop star Alison Selby showed that the label was just as capable of releasing future-pop bangers as it was psych drone with her ‘Virtua Goddess 616’ album.

Ceremonial Laptop finished the year with a release that hints at the shame of things to come with a single by Cederick Knox. ‘Back in the Box’ was inspired by YouTube drummer Spack in the Box, who also features on the album along with Louis and Arthur from Squid, Josh Franklin, John Sands and Raphaela Hazael of Rochelle Rochelle and Pelican Man fame.

It’s been another strong third year for Ceremonial Laptop, but it looks like their best is yet to come.

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Curl

Since 2016 Curl have been releasing forward thinking electronic music. In 2018 they put out four exquisite featuring tracks by Raisa K, Ben Vince, Kwake Bass, Klein, TONE, Brother May, and Coby Sey. Now, tow years later. Now the label has released three releases featuring a supergroup featuring Brother May, Sey, TONE, Alpha Maid, George Finlay Ramsay, Roxanne Tatei, Akinola Davies Jr., and Mica Levi. These releases are a mixture of classical, ambient, meditation and soundscapes based around the idea of memories.

On top of this Sey has released two full albums. The first was a soundtrack to the film ‘MASS’ and the second ‘River’ was conceived as a response to the early reports of COVID and all the tensions and worries this caused. ‘River’ is incredibly reflective and soothing. It’s melodies gently meander creating hazy reveries. Given the strength of these five releases it seems hard they Curl have released something that surpasses it. But they have.

Mica Levi has released a PDF for a composition that she wrote. ‘Thoughts Are Born’ is a piece of music for seven players. The PDF gives instructions on how to play the piece. Given that this is the first interactive release that Curl have put out is inspiring. It shows that they aren’t settling with people to passively listen to their music, they want them to engage with their releases and get in volved with them too.

Whether this is will be a one off will remain to the seen, but what it does show is that Curl are still an incredibly forward-thinking label even in socially constrictive times.

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Distant Duos

Distant Duos could only be a product of lockdown. The idea is simple. Two musicians, who don’t really know each other, are paired up. They both record about five minutes of music then send it back to the label. They then mix it all together and when they have six releases put them out as a batch. What could go wrong right? Weirdly not much.

The duos were made up of the best of the American experimental underground. These bundles have seen Carrie Ford paired with Total Mom, Kristina Warren and Ross Wightman, Lexie Mountain and Angela Sawyer and Janet and Street Rat, to name a few.

The final batch has now sadly been released featuring Elisa Ambrogio and Chris Corsano, Felix Kubin and MC Schmidt, Geologist and Robert Millis, Pat Klassen and Adrian Rew, Robert Beatty, and Michael Mykola Haleta and Thurston Moore and Phil Todd.

Sadly, the label/project has come to an end. They music they put out was some of the challenging and inspirational things heard all year.

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Hidden Bay

The French cassette label Hidden Bay has come a long way from those initial releases in 2016. Since then, they have had a knack of finding the best new band and packaging them in gloriously looking cassettes. 2020 built on the previous years releases and raised the stakes, and quality, with releases by Big Baby, The Worms, Sustains, Be Afraid, Camille Bénâtre and Docks. 

The standout release was from Radical Kitten. This Toulouse’s outfit tore 2020 a new one with their debut album ‘Silence is Violence’. Mixing elements from punk, no wave, noise, Riot Grrrrl and post-punk they created a visceral feminist queer-punk explosion. This is definitely one to watch going forward. This was an album that not only showed the strength of the label, but the underground French scene.

Rumour has it that 2021 will see them release the new album from The Death Of Pop as well as continuing to be a home for the best unsigned, and under-appreciated, bands going.

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Miracle Pond

When you look at South Yorkshire’s Miracle Pond’s back catalogue it’s hard to believe this is only their second year in existence. They they managed to release nine incredible tapes and one glorious 7” single, each beautifully packaged. M

usically these releases combine elements of electronica, prog, drone, psychedelic, ambient, noise, space pop, surreal poetry, and the avant-garde to create something that sounds retro yet totally contemporary.

They also launched their Subconscious Sounds Series. This will allow the label to go off into hither to uncharted regions, blurring ambient, electronic and self-improvement tapes. The release that typified their year was Luke Sanger’s ‘World Of Inherent Noise’. This was 40-minutes of soothing ambient sounds underpinned by wonderfully wonky electronics.

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Popnihill

So far Popnihill have released eight tapes this year. Each one is different, but they are all filled with the kind of motifs that bring to mind Joy Division, Killing Joke, Interpol and ESG at their best.

Utopia Brigade’s ‘Letters of Affection’ and Live for You ‘Sometimes if Feels Like Chains’ are two of the most romantic albums I’ve heard this year. ‘Letter Of Affection’ feels find a hidden stash of love letters. The songs are breathy and filled with longing, but ultimately caring. ‘Sometimes if Feels Like Chains’ is all about loss. Not just the loss of a relationship, but the loss of a companion and soul mate. Both were made in isolation of each other but played back-to-back you get to see how a relationship starts and ends.

Woven In ‘Profess’ is a post-punk disco album that tries to explain what it’s like to be a PoC in America in 2020. Despite the subject matter it’s a fun, catching album that just gets better with every listen.

The label has saved the best for last. Orlando underground techno-punk Bacon Grease returns with her second album. It’s claustrophobic, broody but filled with hope. It feels like a perfect summation of 2020.

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Words: Nick Roseblade

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