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Uncovered: The Independents of Our Music Scene: Whitelabrecs

Each of us has a part to play in keeping our beloved musicians and labels afloat. As listeners, we instigate the natural chain reaction between artists, labels, distributors and stores.

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With the majority of us spending more time listening to music during this unsettling time, I want to dig deeper to see if this sense of solidarity that we're seeing online and through active listening is being reflected in physical and digital sales from independent outlets.

In this series, we'll be speaking with a number of independent record labels and stores across the UK to see how they're coping during the pandemic. We'll take a look at how the virus is affecting music publishing, the effect on online sales, and the changes in livelihood of each business.

First up is Harry Towell, founder of the solo-ran experimental label, Whitelabrecs who specialise in Ambient and Modern Classical. From his small town of Bourne in South Lincolnshire, Harry discusses with us his new pandemic-inspired series, Home Diaries, and the effect the virus has had on his business.

When did Whitelabrecs begin and what did you do before?

Whitelabrecs launched in January 2016. From 2002 to 2008 I was DJing across the Midlands. From 2008, I furthered my years of music production experiments by creating ambient music from dictaphone field recordings, pitched-down sound library samples and cheap acoustic instruments.

Your new Home Diaries was the main inspiration for this series of articles. It had me thinking, 'What are other people doing to make light of this situation?' Can you explain the concept?

I fell across the concept of Home Diaries when I began working from home during the pandemic. My wife and I both juggled our work with caring for our daughter Isla, who'll be two in September. When it was my turn or I was on a break, I'd hang out with her while she played in her conservatory playroom. She too likes music, so I'd bring down a guitar, ukulele or other instrument and she'd be chatting away to herself. Over a few days I found myself recording these sketches.

They became a sort of diary or journal of our days, and that's where I fell on the idea of Home Diaries. I'm more driven by concepts and documenting my experiences so that I can reflect back on them in years to come. Music can promote nostalgia, so for me to have some sounds or moments that I actually created, it really heightens these feelings when I listen back years later.

You've recently released Home Diaries 005. What sort of response have you had so far?

I find that with each Home Diaries the response is slow at first, but momentum is building as more and more as people check it out and word spreads. 005 has had some nice feedback and Pruski, the artist, is set to do a couple of live video performances that I've helped arrange. I'm looking to release at a rate of two records per week, which takes us to mid-June by my calculations. [I'm going to] try and keep it as a collection of around 25 to 30.

How has coronavirus been affecting your business, and do you see any destabilisation?

I think it's taken a hit of course without a doubt, due to us not being able to ship CD sales. It's fair to say that a combination of Home Diaries and no CD production costs means that we'll be able to ride this storm out and I don't see any serious risk at all based on these last few weeks. I think Home Diaries has really helped us as we intended, so it's bridged the gap nicely.

Have sales benefited from the encouragement Bandcamp have given to listeners to buy music in support of artists?

Bandcamp dropped their charges for 24 hours and I, like many labels, noticed a surge of orders. Bandcamp has also been very supportive of our label, picking us up in a few of their monthly ambient music articles where they list some recommendations from the genre.


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One of our artists, Glåsbird, has been picked up in this feature three times. I was bowled over to see the album listed as 'genre defining / essential', and the sales from this have given us a real boost. I think the emergence of Bandcamp has really helped prop up the industry for independents at a time when piracy and streaming have had a big surge in popularity. It's that bit more ethical and fair and I believe everyone involved recognises it too.

We see an increase in listeners supporting artists by buying music from platforms like Bandcamp. Do you think the pandemic will bring about a positive or negative change for the music industry? Do you think the commitment to buying music instead of just streaming it will remain post-virus?

I'd say in terms of hard data I have it's really difficult for me to draw anything from it.

Previously I sold CDs and now we've had to launch digital releases as a reaction - these are going pretty well. I do know that when Bandcamp launched that 24-hour period, sales went so mad that their site strained under the pressure. This is just my experience, from someone who runs a very small label with no events or gigs. I imagine that the experience for others is not so positive. For bigger artists who perform live, the effect will be negative as they're unable to tour.

Are there any alternative ways that organisations or individuals could demonstrate support?

I think one of the big problems we still have, which has been here for a while, is piracy. There are quite a few sites that seem to operate with a forum of people writing to say, 'I want this album for free', then someone grabs it somehow and posts it online.

I tend to react positively through most things and find myself a coping mechanism

Other than this, I find that there's often less of a focus on new or emerging talent out there. I guess that the music press, record stores and labels are so overwhelmed with submissions it's just too time consuming to dig deeper in the hope of stumbling across something amazing. Some kind of platform to manage this could be a game changer for many scenes.

What's your method for keeping yourself sane during lockdown?

I tend to react positively through most things and find myself a coping mechanism. I must admit, I was particularly anxious about the virus when it first emerged as I watched the events unfold. It was most unlike me!

Making my own Home Diaries album, and having the time to really focus on it, fine tuning every detail, was brilliant as I've not had time to make much music since I launched Whitelabrecs. Then the Home Diaries series has given me an energy as I organise each release.

Is there a genre that you're enjoying while at home?

I find that ambient music keeps me calm and connects me to the world. It's very grounding and forces you to accept things due to its slow and thought-provoking nature. Time in lockdown conditions can be very slow and ambient music for me, strangely, doesn't make this feel like a bad thing.

Harry's recommendations for people to check out whilst at home:

The Humble Bee and Offthesky - We Were The Hum Of Dreams

Spheruleus - Home Diaries: Canvas Homes

Michael Grigoni and Stephen Vitiello - Slow Machines

Check out Harry's entire collection, including the 'Home Diaries' series.

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