Shared Triumphs: YUKU Are Building A Community

Exploring the ethos and aesthetic of the Prague label...

So much negativity has already been said about today’s listening habits. As streaming services like Spotify grip their vice ever tighter on our diminishing attention spans – while also laying off their staff despite economic growth, and paying out just three pounds per one thousand streams – it’s easy to start pointing fingers, but what if I was to tell you that it’s not the tools that we should be blaming, but how we use them?

This is the opinion of Jeff, co-founder (alongside Kumquat Tang) of Prague-based YUKU, a multi-faceted art platform reclaiming the art of listening through a countercultural approach. With incredible attention to detail for each release – from coloured vinyl to clean-cut abstract art and printed inner sleeves – YUKU exists both in defiance of and in shared existence with the decline in attention the art of patient listening, encouraging listeners to appreciate music and art through dedicated micro-communities of ethical, music-loving individuals.

A quick glance through YUKU’s Bandcamp page quickly tells you that the only thing you should expect from the platform is to be surprised. Prayer’s recently released drum & bass and jungle LP ‘Now I Know Paradise’ and Griffit Vigo’s Gqom record ‘EGM’ are nestled beside the experimental electronics of Hassan Abou Alam, Henry Greenleaf and UK grime from TRAKA & Killa P. Its roots are firmly planted in the multi-genre space.

“For me, everything started in London; one of the first people I met when there was Djrum,” says Jeff. “We became very close and started a club night called Yardcore in the mid-00s; in a way it had a very similar vibe to YUKU. We had two rooms – the main room would start very slow with dub techno moving into dubstep, drum & bass, jungle and finishing on breakcore, and the other room would go in the other direction – the full spectrum between. The flyer had a list of about 30 genres on the front”.

“When I came to London, I was already listening to a wide range of stuff, from psychedelic rock to astral jazz to IDM and rave music, but meeting Felix (Djrum) had a massive impact on my life. He had been collecting records for a while when we met and was already very skilled. We were about twenty and I wasn’t DJing then, but we’d go to parties and often go back to his after, and he would journey through his collection. It was very inspiring and eventually I started wanting to put my hands on vinyl as well, so I started building my own collection. Then Yardcore happened, and that pretty much sparked everything that’s happened in my creative life since.”

This foundation and love of vinyl eventually fed into Jeff and his partner Ilda setting up YUKU following a relocation to Prague many years later. With such a strong multi-genre background, it was immediately clear that that was the direction the concept was going to take, with the only consistency being the quality and individualism of each release.

“Some people do say that there is a connected arc somehow, even though the releases are so multi-genre,” says Jeff. If that’s invisible to us but visible to others, I guess it means that we’re following our instincts and that’s what’s connecting the dots. For us, it’s really about releasing music of all kinds that resonates with us or excites us.”

“I’ve been very inspired by labels like Planet Mu, where it’s multi-genre, but there is a certain flavour to it. That’s the power of what a label can still do – tie threads together to create something new. There’s a lot of conversation at the minute around whether labels still service a purpose, and I think they can if done right. It’s an amazing feeling putting out a record from a new artist or someone that’s been struggling to get a foothold and then seeing their tracks being played all over the world and getting booked. That’s the power of a label – a new artist is immediately going to the ears of that community. It might not seem like big numbers to a big label, but that’s a solid start for an independent artist. Plus, these people are actually listening.”

The people actually listening are the YUKRU – a community of subscribers who receive all the forthcoming projects on YUKU ahead of their release date – as well as their growing Bandcamp subscriber community.

“Our interest isn’t to make the label huge; it’s to create a community of listeners in a more low-key way. I don’t blame the decline of positive listening behaviours exclusively on the streaming tools – you shouldn’t be surprised when a corporation acts in the way that corporations always do; you can’t expect them to behave ethically when money is always the ultimate motivation of any board with shareholders, so demanding them to change is unlikely to accomplish much. What you can do is affect people’s behaviour, and that tools to change that are in how you value and connect with the music.”

So much of the modern day argument on independent music and streaming focuses on an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ accusatory stance, but does it need to be that way? Jeff believes that both can co-exist, just as slow-food culture shares reality with fast-food chains. 

“I use streaming platforms to find new artists,” admits Jeff, “maybe you’ll come across a public playlist created by a stranger filled with stuff you’ve never heard before, including very niche artists who may even be their friends. You can find new artists there, and sometimes those playlists are the only place you have a chance to find those artists, as they’re not being written about, and perhaps only a couple of people have bought their tunes because they are so off the radar. The most important step after finding something special is actually buying the music you love on Bandcamp, as this is the only way to truly support artists and platforms in the current environment.”

“A lot of people lack ethical standards when it comes to interacting with artistic output. Not because they’re necessarily bad people; they just don’t think about what they are doing and the impact it has. This includes numerous local djs who are paid to perform yet pirate the music they play. In terms of how to respond to this, you can put it in the context of the policing system: do you want overly strong law enforcement where no one can put a foot out of line and which borders on fascism, or do you want to foster a community of socially responsible people who are educated, empathetic and aware enough to do the right thing. I think that’s what’s often missing with music. When the community doesn’t set an example, then people can feel no social responsibility, and that’s when music is treated as disposable. People should be reminded about the connection between the music and the artist, and how their actions can positively affect the creators they admire. It’s important for communities to take the lead and prevent corporations from having an exclusive say about how the future looks, or rather how they perhaps want it to look.”

YUKU poses a very important question in the modern music industry – what does success look like and what different forms can it take? For streaming services and corporations success lies within its profits, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and success comes in all shapes and sizes. Does it lie within millions of streams, or a few hundred dedicated listeners? The YUKU model is one of shared triumph – for the label, the artist and the listener – sowing the seeds of hope by aiming to positively affect modern-day listening habits.

Words: Andrew Moore // @agmxxre

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