Who needs a record label these days? We’ve got everything we ever needed on tap, right? Playlists, algorithmic recommendations, the entirety of human musical endeavours available to our ears with just a few keyboard taps. Really, what’s the point of a record label?
We caught up with Ryan Griffin, who runs ambient and electronic music label A Strangely Isolated Place, to find out what makes the owner of a record label tick, why they do it, how they do it and why record labels are more important than ever.
Currently based in Los Angeles, Ryan grew up in the South of England and has steadily built a significant following and fan base through, first, a blog which then grew into a record label outputting high quality vinyl releases for artists such as Merrin Karras, 36, Bvdub, Olga Wojciechowska and Wanderwelle.
Alongside this Ryan also developed online radio station 9128.live which, in our current lockdown situation, has hosted a number of huge life affirming weekend takeovers from labels Astral Industries and Mysteries of the Deep including live and DJ sets from the likes of Brendon Moeller, Anthony Linnell, Christina Chatfield and Wolfgang Voigt.
Interview by Andy Gillham
"I want people to buy into the curation aspect and have trust in A Strangely Isolated Place to present something they will like"
What was the starting point for your interest in music, in particular ambient music?
I think it came from a few avenues. When I was growing up I listened to a lot of house, UK garage, rave and drum and bass, that kind of stuff. I used to go to Ibiza every summer, for seven years from age 15. Each summer would be different – sometimes we’d go to Playa d’en Bossa, then clubs when I was just about 18, then seeing the hippy, chill out side of the island and then eventually playing my own sets at bars in Playa d’en Bossa. I think that opened me up more to the chill out side of things that ultimately got me in to ambient. I had no idea who Brian Eno was when I was 18 years old! I’ve definitely worked my way backwards through modern music.
I also used to travel into London to Turnmills for Roger Sanchez and Eric Morillo. We were massive house heads in the early 2000s! We used to go to Homelands, Zabiela’s boat parties in Southampton… there were so many avenues really. I’m not quite sure how A Strangely Isolated Place ended up an ambient label as it could’ve gone in any direction. It could have been a trance label as I fucking love trance! Or a UK garage label! But ambient is the genre I love to explore the most and spend time digging in to. It’s through purely wanting to listen, wanting to dig, wanting to explore more that I’ve gone further down the ambient rabbit hole.
You started with a blog called A Strangely Isolated Place (named after an Ulrich Schnauss album) – what got you started on that?
The blog honestly started as place for me to document what I was finding. I didn’t intend it to be for other people. It was a diary – a blog is just that – but the notions of a blog these days are a bit different in that perhaps you do it to be famous and get loads of hits.
Back then I was getting 7 hits a day and they were probably by accident! I was posting crap and keeping it as a way to revisit and find music that I liked. Back then you didn’t have Apple Music, Spotify or Bandcamp. You needed to bookmark things like YouTube videos at best or own the physical release.
It was a way for me to collect music. When I started doing the mix series more people started coming to the site. Ulrich Schnauss did the first mix. God knows why or how! He probably felt obliged given the name ha ha ha! That continued and has been the driving force to get people to come and explore the site.
How did you move into releasing vinyl?
First off a lot of artists started reaching out to me for coverage on the blog so I got to know and speak to a lot of artists looking for exposure. From that I did the digital Places series. Then I thought…”I love vinyl and have collected it since I was 16″, so let’s try and put a record out. I wanted to do something exclusive so I got the Places artists to remix each other and we did a crowd funder. We hit the £7k target in a few days…100% of that went on the record which sold out.
Then I pressed more records with that money and that’s been the way ever since. That money hasn’t gone elsewhere – I don’t pay myself. It either goes back to the artist or funds the next thing. That’s a privilege for me as I have a job elsewhere but it’s very time consuming. Most people who reach out to me think there’s a team of five here when they get in touch asking about order status and such like – ha ha!
What led you to set up 9128.live?
Curation is where the 9128 thing came from really, just having a bit more boundary, information and a place where you know there is some trusted curation going on, kind of like radio through and through. It’s not unique and new but there was an opportunity to bring all these people together and do a bit more with it.
The 9128 takeovers were all amazing and so refreshing to see grow, as 9128 just started as small idea one weekend. A Strangely Isolated Place, Astral Industries and then Mysteries Of The Deep have held takeovers so far. Everyone who tunes in and joins in the chat is just a lovely die-hard music fan there for the discovery and the moment, so it’s all I can ask for with it really.
They are however a lot of work on my end (and everyone’s end) so I’m not sure how many I will do or how often going forward. But of course, I’m in talks with more people already. I think I’ll be taking a bit of a break as it takes up my whole weekend, plus at least two days prep. It’s a mini-festival! But, it’s something I want others to be able to enjoy too as we don’t really have a space like that evidently, and it all started even before this COVID-business, so I think people have a space for that in their lives whether cooped up inside or not. I just need to find a sustainable way to keep it going.
Can you explain a bit about how you source your music for ASIP – what are you looking for in demos sent to you for example and how do you decide to take a punt on something?
It’s a mix. Primarily now, given the artist roster is quite big, I want to keep focusing on artists who are already a part of A Strangely Isolated Place. But, I always have a new angle or approach to accompany the familiar. I just can’t help present new artists and music.
Overall, I’m looking to present a spectrum of different styles of ambient and electronica, and not be pigeon-holed to something specific. That’s why ASIP started, as a way to explore and present new and different angles of this particular spectrum, so now I’m just carrying that through into the label and hoping to open up more people to new approaches and sounds.
It’s amazing to see ambient fans love a proper-techno record from Yagya, or 90’s IDM fans enjoying a big drone record from Rafael and Leandro. I feel like my job as a label is a success when these crossovers happen, and I get lovely messages from people along the lines of “I didn’t know this person but I love it”, or “I didn’t think I’d like this album, but it’s opened me up to so much more”. I want people to buy into the curation aspect and have trust in A Strangely Isolated Place to present something they will like.
"Blogs were needed and relied upon previously as an idea of curation - but now they struggle as people explore through playlists or are following DJs and artists directly which is these days much easier to do"
What would be your advice to anyone sending a demo into ASIP or any label?
I’m going to be very specific, as a) it’s important and b) a bit of a pet peeve now as, now I’m on the receiving end, I think so many people could present their music better now. So apologies you’re now getting my high-horse!
A Strangely Isolated Place has released music that’s come straight from cold emails and webforms, through to music as a result of life-long friendships, so the below advice is really for the former. Otherwise, let’s go for a beer and listen to your music!
The tactics/communication of sending a demo:
- Do your research. If I have seen your name buying or supporting the label before, I will be much more inclined to listen. Make sure this is a label you want to be a part of, and this often means you’re already supporting their music.
- Don’t ask. “Can I send you a demo” or “How’s best to send a demo” it’s one step away from presenting yourself already. Package it up as best as you can and give the label everything they need to listen.
- Personalise. To that point, maybe compare your style of music to others on the label, or even better, say why you think it fits. Have a point of view. Don’t cookie-cutter the email.
- Make it easy. Include a private Soundcloud link, or something easy to stream. Downloads, password-protected stuff or HQ/FLAC can come later.
- Detail if the music is finished, unfinished, or even mastered already. All are fine, but I personally like it when an album is not finished as I like to grow the album together.
- Make sure it’s unreleased. The amount I get sending public work that’s already on Bandcamp! I want to invest in something from the beginning. You can have an idea of artwork, but the A Strangely Isolated Place style is very particular!
- Detail who it has been sent to, if anyone already, if it’s specific to this label, or if other people are already considering it. Just be honest and upfront as it saves a lot of time down the road. I’m much more obliged to listen to a demo that’s made specifically for A Strangely Isolated Place, than someone just looking to get it out there scatter-gun approach.
- Expect a worse-case scenario and long turn-around time. If you’re approaching vinyl labels, your release might be another year down the line from your initial email. Maybe more. Well, for A Strangely Isolated Place anyway!
- Lastly, include something about you. I like to invest in people and relationships just as much as the music.
What’s the hardest part of running a record label?
Finance. I hate that part. But it’s a necessity. I try to think of this as when it becomes a business it’s a burden so I try not to make it a business. I don’t think about profits and losses to a great extent. I do enough to keep me afloat but am not out there to monetise everything I do but I focus on the record and make sure the artist is happy and the presentation, pressing. But when it comes round to paying 24 artists their royalty statements then I’m like…oh crap. But also it’s like ‘yeh!” we made money when I finally check the accounts! And also…ah! we haven’t made money yet…
What’s your view on streaming and how has it treated you?
36 does amazingly well. ‘The Infinity Room‘ has had millions of plays from playlists. It is and it isn’t encouraging. When you get a lucky break like that it’s awesome as it’s really helped me and Dennis. I don’t want to say it’s free money because it’s art and music that should be paid for and it should be paid more based on the amount of streams it’s had. But at the same time it a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise have heard that record.
We get some really random feedback from Instagram models who’ve used it on their videos through to people wanting to license it in sound tracks. It’s a very steep curve to winning at streaming. You’re never winning, you’re never winning..and then you’re on a playlist and suddenly you’re like ah! Streaming’s cool! Streaming helps! But that’s not sustainable for anyone.
There are too many artists, there’s too much behind the scenes around who makes decisions about getting on those playlists. It’s not sustainable. Bandcamp is the sustainable strategy, streaming is the cash grab. It’s going to fall down one way or another. The fake artists thing is crazy for me – they are monetising and manipulating playlists. That carrot that you could be on a playlist one day…. that’s being taken away with these actual fake artists – that’s buffering out real people!
Trusted curation seems to be a theme for A Strangely Isolated Place.
I still believe in the power of curation. In a data driven world people rebel against the automatic playlist. There is a certain listener who wants it easy and doesn’t want to think about it but there are others who want to dig in further.
Blogs were needed and relied upon previously as an idea of curation – but now they struggle as people explore through playlists or are following DJs and artists directly which is these days much easier to do.
Look at Bandcamp Friday – people were tweeting that there was so much music and ‘who do we listen to’! So whilst blogging itself perhaps has less impact, curation does not. Things like the Bandcamp collection pages could be so powerful. It’s literally a collection of things that you’ve put your money against. I’m excited to see what, if anything they do with that.
Finally what’s next for A Strangely Isolated Place?
I thought I’d try and slow down this year! It looks like I could be doing a release a month. We have Wanderwelle available now. There are releases from Gastón Arévalo , veteran techno artist Joel Mull has a release under his Damm alias and music from Quiet Places.
There’s also an album of crazy AI experiments from Gadi Sassoon – a kind of soundtrack ambient album producing sounds that aren’t possible using current human capacity. Exploring things like how a trumpet might sound if you blow it 1000 times harder than a human. Unless you know it’s an album of AI studio experiments it sounds like a crazy album…ha ha ha!
Wanderwelle’s “A State of Decrepitude” is available now – visit A Strangely Isolated Place to order.