Absence of Wax

Interview received: November 18, 2016; April 30, 2017.

What is your name?

Devin Sarno.

Where are you located?

Los Angeles, CA.

Did you save any materials – digital files, emails, physical materials – related to your netlabel?

The entire label (music and art) is archived on a hard drive.

Are you interested in organizing or archiving them?

I made a point of uploading all of our releases to the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/absenceofwax) so everything is available there. The main Absence of Wax website was inadvertently corrupted when I updated my personal website a bit ago, so Internet Archive is now the sole place where everything resides, which I suppose is fitting anyway. There is a also a brief recap of the AoW on my website:
http://www.devinsarno.com/absenceofwax/

How and when did you first learn about netlabels?

I’ve known about them for a while, but it perhaps wasn’t until a friend of mine, Will Long (of Celer) released something on a net label that I really started to investigate them more closely. A light bulb went off and shortly thereafter I impulsively started my own. Which is really the beauty of net labels – there is a very low barrier of entry.

What was the first netlabel you heard of?

I think the one that really planted the initial seed for me was Basic Sounds out of Canada:

http://basicsounds.ca

What are some netlabels that inspired or influenced you? Or that you admire?

The curation at Pan Y Rosas Discos is quite interesting to me.

http://www.panyrosasdiscos.net

What made you decide to start your own netlabel?

I took a bit of a break for a few years from playing live and recording. I needed a re-set and some distance. But, I definitely wanted to remain active, so it occurred to me that rather than focus on my own music I could start a platform to showcase other musicians and still remain involved and inspired that way.

What were the reasons you had to choose releasing music for free? And why did you choose to not release physical albums?

I ran an independent label for about 10 years (W.I.N. Records).

https://www.discogs.com/label/41052-Win-Records

We released a number of physical CD’s and all formats of vinyl (12”, 10”, 7”.) I love working with and supporting artists, but running that type of operation again, at least on that level, is not something I have an interest in repeating. A free download, Creative Commons netlabel is just a million times easier, more immediate and liberating to me. I did release a couple of physical/hand made pieces thru Absence of Wax but they were strictly limited to 10 or so copies. (Whatever revenue I made from the sales was donated to Creative Commons.) The artwork associated with those physical releases is archived on the AoW Tumblr page:

http://absenceofwax.tumblr.com

What was the name of your netlabel?

Absence of Wax.

Why did you choose the name you chose?

It was meant as a tongue and cheek reference to the lack of physical product. Our logo image was a shattered LP. (One of the first physical releases we offered contained pieces of broken vinyl in small poly bags.)

When did you start your netlabel?

Jan 1, 2001.

What was the focus of you netlabel?

The focus of AoW was ambient & experimental music in a myriad of permutations.

Were your albums released under creative commons, copyleft or copyright? Why did you choose the method you chose?

I chose to release everything under Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivis).

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

There was a mutual understanding between myself & the Composers that all of the AoW releases would be made available for free download, but I didn’t necessarily want to allow for commercial usage as I just feel that’s an area that should be directly negotiated with the artist. I didn’t want to be in the middle of that sort of thing.

What was your relationship to the artists that you release? Do you maintain any contact once you’ve released their work? Do you help promote them outside of their release itself?

I’ve kept in touch with a few and certainly keep tabs on their work online and some were already friends of mine. The promotion, however, was pretty much limited to what I did for them thru Absence of Wax.

How did you decide what artists you want to release? did you approach them? Did they approach you? Did you have any specific guidelines that you follow? Did you act as a curator or is it all luck of the draw?

Besides asking some friends, I curated almost exclusively off of Soundcloud. I would spend hours searching and listening and when I came upon artists that were of interest, would approach them. I really applaud Soundcloud for being a wonderful resource in that way. In the early days of AoW, as I started to examine the landscape of netlabels in general, it occurred to me that female Composers were not as widely featured as they should be. As a result, it became a very conscious decision on my part to keep AoW releases as balanced as possible between male & female artists.

What were your criteria for the music you curate and release?

There wasn’t a specific, hard and fast criteria other than I personally gravitated toward experimental, improvised and often times ambient leaning artists. However, there are so many permutations of all that, so I hope the end result was a series of releases that were all quite varied.

Were there any artists that you would have liked to work with?

I would have loved to release work from Anna Rose Carter, Noveller, Nels Cline, Tom Recchion, Christina Vantzou, Joseph Hammer and so many others. The list is probably unending!

How many albums did you release?

I only released single tracks from artists as opposed to albums and in total there were 65. I felt limiting things to one track (as long or as short as the artists chose them to be) was an easier proposition for everyone involved.

Who were some of your most notable artists?

Randy Randall (of No Age), fine artist Tim Biskup (of Big Butter), Bobb Bruno (of Best Coast), Jason Kahn, Will Long (of Celer).

Which were some of your most significant releases?

I’m not trying to be diplomatic in my answer here, but honestly each release was an exciting and significant one to me. I was floored by the level of artistry and originality. That I could present these pieces to the world thru this humble platform meant the world to me. I did not take the honor lightly.

Did you release your own work on your netlabel? What do you think of that practice?

I did release a few pieces of my own including the very first AoW offering, but my own work was not the focus or intent of AoW. That said, at times the process of doing the label definitely inspired me to create some pieces as well. And if for any reason I fell short in finding a release during a given month, I would offer one of my own just to keep the momentum moving forward.

What did you enjoy about running your netlabel? What did you get out of it?

What I enjoyed the most was ultimately how easy it was to start the label and get things off the ground (in comparison to a “traditional” label.) Not to mention the fact that the entire thing could be executed so easily from a laptop. At the end of the day, AoW featured artists that spanned the globe: from the United States, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Peru, France, Germany, Italy, Bahrain, Slovenia, Argentina, Spain, Russia and Ukraine. The power of the internet still blows my mind and just how easily it can link us to the rest of the World.

What were some difficult things about running the label? Or what were some challenges?

I made a point of structuring things so that there was definite regularity (one release every month) and that time table tended to be very achievable for me. In many ways, AoW was a form of creative therapy, so I made sure that it wasn’t overly difficult or time consuming…just tried to keep it loose and fun. I can’t say there was anything specific that caused me great difficulty.

Was anything about it been disappointing or frustrating?

Honestly, it was a hugely gratifying experience for me.

How much time did you put into running the label? Approximate hours per day, week or month?

I devoted a few (3-4) of hours per week. Sometimes more if I was on a search for new artists/releases.

Can you describe all the work that you did on a regular basis in order to run your label?

I would try to keep several months ahead on releases so there wasn’t a last minute rush or panic. I would also lay out the web pages ahead of time in draft mode so they were ready to go. This ultimately saved me a lot of time and kept things manageable. I tried to keep a release schedule plotted out for the year. Once a release came out on the first of each month I would mass email my promo list. Having things worked out ahead of time like this also gave me some extra breathing room to conceptualize the physical releases we did as well as allow me time to surf the web seeking out new talent.

In what audio format and bitrate did you release your albums? 

Primarily AIFF files (44 sample rate, 16 bit) along with an mp3.

Why did you choose that format? 

No particular reason other than it’s what seemed to be the norm with other netlabels that I followed.

Did you zip your files into a package? Or were the albums uploaded as individual files? 

They were uploaded as individual files.

Aside from the audio files, did you include any other types of files or information with the album? 

We included a “cover” image (at 547×492 pixels) and a “thumbnail” version  (at 192×173 pixels) to go along with each release, which were supplied to me by the artists.

What software programs did you use to run your netlabel? For converting and encoding audio, for metadata, for ftp, for making cover art, etc. 

I primarily used iTunes for converting, encoding & metadata, Fetch for FTP and Photoshop for any art related files.

Where did you share your releases? On your website? Free Music Archive? Internet Archive? Et al? A combination of these things?

It was a combination of my own website and Internet Archive.

What did you do to promote your label?

Beyond sending to blogs & magazines, I relied on Social Media (Facebook, Twitter) to help get the word out.

Did you send releases out for review? If yes, was it traditional media – review sites, magazines, blogs, etc. Or were there non-traditional methods?

Yes, I would send each release to a mailing list of targeted online blogs & magazines that I had compiled.

How much success did you have in getting people to review your releases in magazines, blogs or websites? Any frustrations regarding this?

This was maybe one of the hardest aspects. Thankfully there were a couple of blogs that were early (and continual) supporters, but I found it a bit difficult to grow that network. I had always hoped that over the course of doing the label and doing it so regularly (essentially the 1st of every month) word might grow organically that I was taking the endeavor seriously. It did in some respects, but maybe not as widely as I would have hoped.

Did you have success in getting people in general to listen to your releases?

Again, I think this is always the challenge no matter how small or large the label. To compound things, I was dealing with fringe music that has a smaller audience in general. However, I was pleased overall with the scope and reach of what we did with AoW. Considering it was all done from a laptop in my home office and that I could ultimately release 65 pieces of music from artists across the World makes me very happy indeed.

Did you keep track of your download numbers and, if yes, how did they changed over the years? 

I would keep a very general eye on download numbers thru Internet Archive. However, because AoW was really a labor of love for me, that was not something that I obsessed over. More than anything, it was just interesting to see which releases might have had more traction that others, but I wouldn’t say that information informed any choices about the direction I took with the label.

How important were download numbers and number of listeners to you?

Personally speaking, I suppose you always hope your efforts are appreciated by others or that there is a trajectory over time reaching more people. But again, AoW was ultimately a passion project, so I tried not to get too hung up on numbers and mainly just followed my heart.

Do you feel that the lack of a physical object – vinyl, cassette, eight track, etc. – was a hindrance to building an audience? To getting any media to pay attention? If yes, why do you think that is the case?

I guess it depends what your end goal is. If you are looking for coverage in larger, more established publications they are less likely to focus on digital-only/net label releases. So at that point you are focusing on smaller blogs with an equally limited audience. I suspect it’s all an exercise in patience, persistence and managing expectations.

Was the lack of a physical object a problem for any of the artists that you have worked with? If it was, how have you responded?

None whatsoever. In fact, I feel it’s overall much easier just dealing with one-off digital tracks in the way that I did with AoW. It’s more spontaneous and unencumbered.

In addition to promotion, publicity and releasing albums did you organize live performances or festivals for your artists?

The idea of that is something I toyed with a few times but it never came to pass.

How did you finance your netlabel, including the labor you put into it?

AoW was all self-financed. However, I found there to be very little expense involved at the end of the day. Other than web hosting fees and a hard drive, I wasn’t looking at much outlay.

Do you feel that you filled a niche that other labels did not?

I like to think that Absence of Wax carved its own little niche in the netlabel landscape. I suppose that’s for others to ultimately determine, all I know is that I tried very hard to curate a piece of the internet that was under-represented (in my opinion) and from artists over a wide range of areas.

What do you think about Bandcamp and any similar music hosting sites?

I am a big fan of Bandcamp specifically. It’s a great way (personally) to offer my catalog to the public and it’s also a wonderful resource in finding new music.

https://devin-sarno.bandcamp.com

Do you think netlabels are sustainable? If yes, what do you think the future is for them? Should there be more?

100%. To me it’s an incredibly current and sustainable model. Frankly, there’s no reason to me why there shouldn’t be more.

Are there too many netlabels?

It’s an interesting question. I guess I never particularly thought of it in that way since I tend to pick & choose or seek out very specific net labels of interest so I don’t necessarily get bogged down in the glut of things, assuming there is one.

Will netlabels be obsolete before 2025?

I guess anything is possible in these quickly changing times, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any reason for netlabel obsolescence.

Did your netlabel align with any political or philosophical positions or thoughts? Did you get involved with politics at all as a netlabel?

AoW didn’t have any political alignment, that just simply wasn’t my objective with it.

How do you feel that netlabels as a phenomenon overlap with any other artist practices – cassette trading, mail art, etc? Is there any overlap with podcasts, podfiction/netfiction, or any other art that is distributed for free?

The DIY aspect of net labels certainly reminds me of zine and cassette culture, all of which I find very inspiring.

Are you aware of a chronological history of netlabels? If yes, what is it?

No.

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