Taylor Deupree 12k label head talks 20 years of modern ambient and experimental electronic music

Photo: Tina Chan

Since its inception in 1997, experimental music label 12k has been winning over listeners with its distinctive brand of quiet minimalism, employing a radically pared-down musical and visual language to present novel amalgams of the digital and the organic. With seminal releases by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Christopher Willits, Stephan Mathieu, Stephen Vitiello, and Shuttle358 over its 20-year lifespan, 12k has established itself as one of the most recognizable outposts for modern ambient and experimental electronic music today.

Label head and musician Taylor Deupree — who has himself contributed some of the label’s most stunning releases under his own name — initially conceived of the label more as philosophical than commercial project. (12k’s website still cites twelve principles upon which 12k was founded, which include such maxims as, “Treat your audience as they are: intelligent, passionate lovers of art and sound,” and “Stay quiet, stay small.”) As the label’s stature grew, Deupree says that he felt a responsibility to 12k artists to make the venture financially sustainable, all the while holding fast to the label’s core principles — a high-wire act that continues to this day.

Deupree has managed the label’s roster, release schedule, package design, publicity, social media, shipping, and often audio mastering by himself since the beginning, working out of his home studio in rural upstate New York. I visited him there to discuss the initial inspiration, day-to-day operation, and future outlook for a small art label such as 12k, as it collides with current trends in music discovery, promotion, streaming, and social media.

What’s the primary function that you see a small label such as 12k serving today?

I think the label still serves an important curatorial and communal function. Often, reviews of individual records on 12k will talk about the label as a whole, not just the album in question. I owe a lot to the listeners and writers who understand that context, and have been strengthening that idea of the curatorial aspect of this community, which is one of the few things that we have le­ft. You have bigger labels that can offer tour support, all this stuff, which I can’t do. But the history of the label, and the followers, and the people who say, “Oh, it’s on 12k so I’ll probably like it” ― that means a lot. You can offer a new artist a sense of community, as well as a digital network and a press network.

I do feel a responsibility to the artists to at least sell something. People know they’re not making a lot of money on the label, but hopefully they’re at least getting some kind of “street cred” that’ll help them get a gig or help them get to a bigger label. I don’t keep my artists on any type of exclusive basis. I’m a tiny label. If they can go from here to something bigger, that’s great. They all deserve it. I know what my limits are.

What do you look for in other artists as the label’s curator? To what degree do you favor a resonance with the label’s existing aesthetic versus a singular artistic point of view?

I look for both. I always look back at the history of 12k and there are kinds of clumps of styles, trends. And it’s all based around what I’m into at that moment. It’s always evolving, but I tend to get people who fit whatever I’m currently into. But I really like it when I get a demo that’s a shot out of left field and I can see how it would work on the label. The most recent example of that is Gareth Dickson. He’s one of my favorite 12k artists, but he’s a singer-songwriter. He just does these beautiful, melancholic songs with acoustic guitar and voice. If you played me that 15 years ago and said, “This is what you’re going to be releasing,” I’d be like, “Get out of here, there’s no way I’m putting a guitarist and a vocalist on 12k.” But things change. I was so excited to put it out. And people might listen to it and say, “Wait, this is on 12k?” But then maybe they’ll see how it makes sense. It’s quiet, it’s mellow, it’s minimalist and honest, there’s a lot of reverb. It might not have worked back when I started when the label, when everything was really synthetic. I never even thought I’d release an album that didn’t have any synths on it. But once you do that kind of thing, you’ve opened up a new avenue. And yet I’d like to think that there’s something that binds it all together.

How do you manage to find time to run the label amongst you other professional roles as mastering engineer and musician?

Doing it by myself for 20 years, I’ve definitely got a routine down. I know how to do it. There are all these little things to get a release ready that I can squeeze in between other projects: working on the art, getting the mastering done, writing the press release. Or at night, sitting on the couch, I can populate the website or get promotional mailings out. Those kind of things I can do any hour of the night. Then once something’s out, it’s running to the post office to ship orders and stuff like that. It’s a lot of small, little jobs. You can do one thing here and one thing there. As opposed to mastering, where you need a big chunk of time to do the album, or writing music, where you really want to take a few hours and get lost in it. The label’s a little more business-y. Maybe the danger there is that you might get too comfortable. You’ve been doing it so long, you fall into these habits, for better or for worse. So I’ll always try to bounce ideas off of label-mates. “No, that kind of packaging is not that good. Let’s try something like this.” It’s good to have those outside ideas and feedback.

A lot of times I’ve actually thought, “Should I get more people? Should I make it a bigger company and get an office somewhere?” I’ve always not done that ― which is probably a good thing because it may have tanked by now. For the benefit of the artists, 12k seems much bigger than it is. The aura around the label has grown to be much greater than just me in the basement just packing up orders. And that’s been by design since day one. It’s not like I’m putting anything false out there. I’m just to trying to create this sense of community, or this curatorial sense — this little ecosphere of happening — and hope it gets out there. And it’s been a long time. Half of it must be just how many years it’s been running. But it’s gotten out there and it’s bigger than just one guy running it in his spare time, which is great.

You’re quite active on a variety of social media platforms personally. Do you feel that’s helped build the label’s visibility as well?

I think it’s one of the only ways that I can do it. I’m very conscious that no matter what forum I’m posting on, it always comes back to me and, by extension, the label. People have always put my name and the label name in the same sentence. So everything I say, even if it’s on my own personal Twitter feed, is a direct reflection on the label — and, as a result, a direct reflection on the artists on the label. So everything I do, I do under the 12k umbrella — what I’m talking about reflects what the label’s about. Whether it’s about a piece of gear or whatever, hopefully it adds up to all this cool stuff that makes the label what it is.

I could make accounts or post in different places under strictly separate identities and try to keep me separate from the label, but I don’t. I purposely just make it all into one thing and it’s all part of what the label’s about. The label’s about this kind of sound or that kind of sound. Or this synth. Or studio acoustics or photography. It’s just this whole world that I kind of live in — for better or worse. And that probably couldn’t be possible without social media.

For a label whose aesthetics have come to be associated with the quiet, insular, and slow, it’s interesting that you’ve embraced social media, with its seemingly antithetical values.

Twitter and social media are great for getting the word out, but you can’t forget to go outside and turn the computer off, embrace some of these things that the label’s about. It’s like we’re pulling all of what’s out there into the music, using social media to get the word out, and then you can go back out there and enjoy it. One of my favorite Brian Eno Oblique Strategies is: “Go outside and shut the door.” The more these iPhones and social media are running our lives, the more we want to get away from it. Trying to explain that to my teenager is not very easy. But I want to get away from it, especially the screen. My own music has become less and less reliant on the computer lately.

You started 12k in 1997. What would be your advice to someone thinking about starting their own label in 2017? Is there still room for a small experimental label to survive in today’s climate?

If you asked me a year ago, I’d probably have a different answer than I do today. I think if you were going to start a label today, you’d really have to do something different. Releasing a CD and downloads on Bandcamp — I mean, anyone can do it — but with today’s flooded landscape, I don’t know if that would be enough. Years ago, it was easy. Now, it’s like you have to do something radical. Just in the last year, things have gotten even harder then they were.

What’s happened in the last year?

Well, a few things. First, with streaming taking over, you’re seeing digital sales drop. Less people are buying music from iTunes. I think people are listening just as much — or more than they ever were — but more and more people are streaming and paying less and less for their music.

All of us who ran small labels 10 years ago — when MP3s were just becoming the norm — we were worried about the end of the physical product. In the end, I don’t think digital sales actually hurt CDs sales all that much, although the pirating really hurt, especially for the small labels. Now, it’s the streaming. I have friends considering ending their labels that they’ve been running for a long time because CDs just aren’t selling. Streaming has taken over as a really legal form of piracy.

And then in January 2016, the U.S. Postal Service decided to raise their prices on international shipping. From that day forward, intentional label sales have just spiked down. Back in 2012 or so it used to cost $1.56 to send one CD to a mail-order customer in Europe or Japan. Then in 2013 they announced a price increase, suddenly quadrupling the price to $6.55. Fortunately, no one minded and it didn’t seem to be a big problem. In January 2016 they raised their prices again; it now costs $13 to send a CD. Vinyl records are $22. The cost of shipping is now as much as the cost of the product. That seemed to be the line that people are no longer willing to pay. People look at that and look at a download and say, “I’ll just take the download.”

How do you buy your music personally?

I don’t stream music, but I don’t buy CDs either. I buy almost all my music from iTunes. Here I am making CDs, but I’m part of the problem. The thing is, though, that every artist you talk to would always prefer a physical release. It’s been talked to death, but it’s nice to have that CD — to sell at shows or to show to your friends and family. But it’s getting harder and harder to sell them. I’m getting by, thankfully, from devoted listeners who’ve been following the label for 19 years. You actually have a lot people buying records who just listen to the downloads — they just like having the physical object, and that’s great. Reading the liner notes and holding the record. Putting the needle down, and listening to it. Standing up and flipping it over. Maybe it’s an old way of thinking and old guys like me think it’s a lost joy.

Have you considered any alternate release formats that fulfill this craving for the physical object?

Yeah. One thing I’m doing for my solo album [Somi, 2017], as a guinea pig for upcoming 12k releases, is this small format that’s a 20-page hardcover, color book. It’s a little bigger than CD size, and comes with the CD in it. Really nicely made and p­rinted. In this case, it’s photography of mine that goes with the music. I mean, it’s not groundbreaking [laughs] — a million people have done books and CDs, and it’s­ expensive to make. But if it works, it may just replace regular CDs completely for future releases. Each artist would be responsible for filling 20 pages. Lyrics, writing, photographs, scores — something visual. The label’s always been really visual, so this would be an extension of that.

Through all the ups and downs, do you feel that you’ve achieved what you originally set out to do with 12k?

Oh yeah, it’s exceeded my expectations. But the goal was always to keep it going. The goal will never be finished. Some people tell me I should be proud just to be still doing it now in this environment after so many years. But the main thing it’s given me, in a personal way, is all my friends. All my best friends around the world are people I met through the label — really good friends who I confide in — from demos I received years ago. So it’s just created this sense of family. And to be able to go to Japan with a group of guys and do a little label tour — the audience is really excited and we get to hang out for a week in another country — that’s pretty special.

I trust that my listeners are intelligent and love supporting music and will be there — and they have been. But I’ve also learned in recent years that we have no idea what’s around the corner. As new generations come up who haven’t heard of you, or don’t know what iTunes is, or don’t know what a CD is, then it’s up to me to adapt. Up to this point the adaption has been slow, and at some point it may get extreme. I don’t think the label would ever just stop, though. I’m going to just weather on doing what I do.

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