Read The Label #1: In Context Music “In nature, a sound only happens once, then is gone.”

It was predicted record labels would become a thing of the past, but they’ve arguably become more important than ever to the dissemination of audio. Read The Label aims to uncover and document the circumstances of these prime movers, big and small.

I had a lot of entities in mind for Read The Label #1, and I obsessed over which to choose. Everyone knows the first edition (of a record, in particular) is the most desirable run; everything that follows is but a recreation of that initial, pure moment. I’m hoping that won’t be the case with this column, of course, but there’s still that purity of being the one that popped the proverbial cherry. I considered going big, I considered going “hype,” I considered going international, but when it comes down to it, what has caught my attention as I’ve gotten deeper into the music game are the so-called “little guys,” because they’re the ones who make this all happen. You don’t get to be a “big guy” without being a “little guy” first, and on top of that, I genuinely believe the best audio emerges from the smallest cracks in the artistic pavement.

In Context Music is the perfect example of the above-idea put into motion. ICM, if anything, goes out of its way to be a subtle presence in the underground, with minimalist packaging, strict adherence (so far) to lathe-cut vinyl, and micro-run releases, most numbering 25 copies, an almost tortuously minuscule figure. Although In Context is a fledgling concern at this point, its output thus far is intimidating (and mostly sold-out), constituting highly specific, avant-garde, experimental, mostly minimalist sounds created by a wide spectrum of musicians, ranging from ex-Raccoo-oo-oon member/current Driphouse head honcho Darren Ho to underground master Che Chen to the minimalist-piano union of Nathan Liow and ICM founder Angus Tarnawsky. There’s something about In Context that burrows into the brain. If this is “small,” I don’t ever want to be “big.”

Tarnawsky dug deep to tell us about his distinctive venture and the many complicated considerations that went into sculpting its still-developing oeuvre.

Your label has a distinct identity in so many ways. First, your records so far have been on clear vinyl. That’s just the start of it but I’ll get to the other details about your releases in a minute. What I want to focus on initially is the specific choices you’ve made in regard to how In Context Music releases are presented visually.

I think that well-considered and properly executed design is important for a label. The end result can be the difference between choosing to listen to a record or not. I’ve taken a lot of chances based purely on that instinctual feeling. Whilst you can’t always judge a release by its cover, good art should engage you and help direct you toward good music. I work closely with my friend JD at Totem Visual to construct the art concepts for each release. We’ve tried to cultivate a visual direction that unifies many different artists’ intentions under one banner. Over time, the label will put out lots of different-sounding material, but our visual aesthetic will remain cohesive and as such, I believe people will be able to focus on the connections between different artists and why their releases are on ICM. My favorite labels definitely have that idea in mind.

Also, no album jackets, a pretty unique thing that, to me, works quite well and I’m not even sure why/how because I’ve always been a big album-jacket guy. How did you arrive at that strategy, if that’s the right word?

So far I’ve only released lathe-cut records. They are made out of transparent polycarbonate rather than black vinyl, and I wanted to showcase the inherit beauty of the discs so having transparent sleeves seemed like a step in the right direction. On a technical level though, it ended up being more difficult than I imagined. Firstly, there’s a certain type of rigidity that I wanted the releases to have. Regular PVC sleeves tend to be a bit flimsy when there’s a circular record inside. The corners get a bit wonky because there’s nothing too much stopping it from collapsing. I worked with a supplier and created a dual sleeve with an outer Mylar layer that helped to alleviate the issue. The current batch of records I’m releasing feature printed PVC sleeves but with custom square 7” discs to reinforce the use of a single jacket.

Have you thought about breaking from the ICM’s so-far ironclad traditions on future releases?

Absolutely. A lot of the concepts I have in mind won’t translate as easily onto 12” records as they have on the 7” and 10” format. So of course, later this year, we’ll be exploring some new directions both visually and sonically as we dive into that format.

I work very closely with every artist and I’ve definitely suggested things outside of what was originally submitted. It has to be like that — there’s no point in just saying, “Anything goes.” A lot of what I have to think about is, “How will this sound on a lathe?” Of course, keep in mind, I work with certain people because I believe in their music. It’s never a case of re-inventing the wheel — more so fine-tuning something already in motion.

What was your initial aim for the label, in the beginning? How have your goals changed since then?

At first I wanted the label to release custom-made physical objects that would allow the listener to interact with the sounds of a release in a very hands-on way. Each release was planned to only have a digital file for audio — not even a record to accompany whatever the object may have been. Of course, at a certain point it seemed to be maybe too much of a grandiose concept or perhaps even a little gimmicky? I quickly realized that I could explore the same area of expression and conceptual ideas through lathe-cut records. As time has passed, my goals have remained the same except I am now pushing to broaden the kind of sounds that we release and want to explore music on pressed vinyl as well.

Another aspect of the label I wanted to touch upon is the small runs: Twenty-five copies, 50 at most, from what I’ve seen so far. Why the scant editions?

It’s for two reasons. Firstly, ICM focuses on avant-garde music and small runs allow singular ideas to be more effectively distributed without worrying about recouping a large investment of cash required to create hundreds of copies. I run the label out of my own pocket so this is a necessity for the time being. Secondly, when you’re producing time-intensive, hand-made records (each release is cut in realtime rather than pressed as a batch from a master), limited editions make sense.

Do you see yourself slowly ramping up the number of records you produce as time and demand advances?

Yes and no — I think both approaches can work in tandem. Some of the upcoming records will be editions of a few-hundred copies and other releases will remain relatively limited edition. It will always be dictated by the material and the artist’s vision. I like starting small and developing concepts through bigger releases as time goes by.

Let’s talk about lathes a little. I see them pop up every now and again but they’re still not used much. What do you see as the advantages/disadvantages of lathe-cut vinyl recordings?

It’s an interesting process and people are often surprised by how simple it is. To summarize, it’s like a record player but working in reverse — the needle cuts grooves in blank discs rather than reproducing sound from existing grooves. If you’re buying lathe-cut records, they can appear pricey compared to pressed vinyl, but once you realize it’s more like buying a piece of art, it makes sense. That’s part of why the packaging and aesthetic is important in the bigger picture. I own a lathe and cut our releases, but it took me over a year of research and networking to make that happen. It’s kind of like a vintage car: a fantastic experience but with some unique quirks attached. The advantage of the medium is its immediacy. You can create records relatively quickly but of course they are mono rather than stereo and within the spectrum of “lo-fi” vs “hi-fi,” they could be considered “mid-fi.” I find the sonic character to be an endearing charm. Much like people enjoy the sound of tape saturation, I think a lathe cut is the best way to present certain material. DJs, on the other hand, probably won’t want to play any of these tracks as the grooves are shallower and overall volume a little quieter. On a side note, it’s fascinating that every time you play the disc, you are destroying it just a little as the needle of your record player is cutting a very slight additional groove into the disc. I like that idea of degradation as time goes by — it makes the first few plays very special.

But you’re asking listeners (or, customers) to buy a product that degrades… This seems crazy from a business standpoint. Can you explain this?

In nature, a sound only happens once, then is gone. With recording, we’ve managed to immortalize sound for our on-going consumption. The degradation of lathes rather than a pure, endlessly perfect reproduction — such as what a CD or digital file can achieve — is a nice middle ground between these two worlds. I like that the sound is pure at first, then grows older as time goes by. Also, I think that although the music may change over time, the beauty of the releases as physical objects remains in perpetuity.

Can you explain in more detail how you create your lathes? Seems like a lot of listening to the same thing. Do you always listen attentively or do you sort of crank them out during the course of your day?

Generally, it’ll take about 30 minutes to get most content EQ’d just right. Because the machines used to make the records are from the 1940s, lots of newer material has elements that weren’t ever meant to be handled by this kind of equipment. That’s part of what gives lathe cuts a unique sound. Then, it’s a matter of turning on the amplifier, sending to the audio to the machine, and making some test cuts. It might take around another 30 minutes to make sure everything is OK by making some adjustments, but then, basically, you can start cutting over and over. I don’t necessarily listen to what’s happening as I cut but I do have to manually operate the machine both at the start and end of each side so you are always present in the process. After each cut is finished, I check 10 seconds or so for every record to make sure that things are sounding as expected and if not, I’ll go back and find the source of the problem. It can be quite crazy! For example, I often have to take the machine apart after 20 or so cuts to re-calibrate mechanical parts of the lathe which are adding something unwanted to the cut.

Most Read