pan y rosas discos

Interview received: November 2016 – February 2017; March 7, 2018.

What is your name?

Keith Helt

Where are you located?

Chicago, IL, USA.

Do you save any materials – digital files, emails, physical materials – related to your netlabel? Are you interested in organizing or archiving them?

Yes. I save all audio files, art, and text info created during the album release process. This includes, mp3s, wavs when available, album art and a photo or image of the artist. If I am the one who made the art, I also keep the photoshop or gimp files for the final artwork as well. I also save relevant emails as pdfs – Once a year I go through my emails and convert the emails that document the process and activities of the label.

How and when did you first learn about netlabels?

I think I stumbled across record labels that made albums available for free downloads maybe around 2006. I had no idea that they were called netlabels.

What was the first netlabel you heard of?

Nene Records in Monterrey, Mexico.

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

Nene Records for their music as well as planting the seed of the netlabel idea in my head. Amor Loco, Absence of Wax, Audition Records, Audiotalaia, Doministiku, La bèl,

What made you decide to start your own netlabel?

I was looking for a way to distribute the music of the band I was playing in at the time. We were all frustrated with the amount of money and labor that went into putting out a physical album so we decided to just put up the mp3 files of the album on our website. Very quickly I began to do the same with some friends’ albums and then I decided to put everything under one label.

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

The idea of releasing an album for free appealed to us as a band because we could afford the music making and recording process but releasing a physical album was prohibitive both financially and time-wise. We also liked the idea of reaching more listeners who might not have ever heard us otherwise. Once I began to formally run the label this attitude carried over. I felt that reaching listeners across economic and geo-political boundaries was important.

What is the name of your netlabel?

Pan y Rosas Discos.

Why did you choose the name you chose?

I wanted something that reflected my lefty sensibilities. Something that tied into labor organizing and art and feminism. I also wanted something that would look good as a catalog number and abbreviation. Like Kill Rock Stars has KRS, I thought PYR looked good.

When did you start your netlabel?


What is the focus of you netlabel?

The catch phrase reduction is experimental, noise, improvisation and weirdo rock. This basically translates to – do I like it, do I think it’s interesting? But yeah, it’s really experimental contemporary classical, electroacoustic, noise, free jazz, free improvisation, drone, with occasional rockish things that are on the noisier, psychish, collageish end of the spectrum.

A few years ago I also made a very conscious decision to focus on the work of women musicians/artists because there is such a heavy discrepancy in what is promoted by record labels. Going through the catalogs of netlabels and traditional labels I found release after release by men and occasional releases by women or featuring women and it drove me nuts. It was incredibly frustrating because I knew there were women working in more experimental music, but I rarely saw releases by them. I wanted to use the platform I had to do what I could to help rectify that situation.

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

They are released under creative commons and one was released with an anti-copyright. My default is an attribution / noncommercial / no derivatives. But I go with whatever the artist decides is best for their release.

What is 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 maintain contact with the artists by sending out a monthly newsletter to them sharing what all the artists have been up to for that month. Recent videos they’ve made, new tracks, papers they’ve published, extracurricular activities that others might be interested in. One of the goals with the label is to create a sense of community. I want the artists to at least be aware of each other and if I can help foster some collaboration or cross pollination then I feel like I’ve helped out. I also share this info on the label website and Facebook and Twitter.

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

My very basic guidelines are that I have to like it, whatever the genre, or whoever makes it, I have to think it’s good. I have to want to listen to it. After that the rules are if people contact me and I like it I will release it. I will actively investigate and seek out artists who identify as women. I will also actively investigate and seek out artists who are local in Chicago or the general Chicago area regardless of if their gender. I feel like even though the netlabel exists in this global virtual space, I am still anchored to and identify with the Chicago community so I want to help promote that if I can. So yes, I do act as a curator. I think this method isn’t perfect for getting to gender parity, but it’s the best I can do with the resources I have.

What genres have you never released before, that you would love to release on your label?

At this point I can’t think of any other genres that I would want to release, that I haven’t already. I mean, there’s probably something that will be created in the future or that I don’t know exists yet. But if I’m interested I will seek it out and try to release it.

Are there any artists that you have yet to release that you would like to work with? Or that you always wished you had been able to work with?

Tough to say. There have been a few people who have said no to the invitation to release work on pan y rosas, or people who have never responded. I would’ve liked to work with them. Back in the day I daydreamed about releasing an album by Thurston Moore or Ana-Maria Avram.

How many albums have you released?

200 as of November 2016.

Who are some of your most notable artists

That’s an incredibly difficult question because, how do you define notable? I thought I’d be able to answer this from an academic perspective or from the perspective of a future historian looking back at the catalog in the future. But I can’t.

Which are some of your most significant releases

This falls under the same category as above. But I will attempt a brief answer based on personal milestones. Black Math #1 because it was the first album not by my band or by someone in my band. recordings by summerTales because they were the first to contact me out of the blue. Wavund by Cooloola Monster because they were the first people from Spain to contact me and kind of opened up a world of artists to me there. <La Continuidad by Ada Rave Cuarteto because they were the first to get radio airplay and they also opened the door to a massive scene in Argentina. String Theory by Sarah J. Ritch for getting the first review in a print magazine. Less Than Human by Caroline Park for being the first review in The Wire. That is certainly not comprehensive.

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

I do. I feel guilty about it actually. I know many people who run netlabels do it, but every time I do it I feel like I’m abusing my position of power or something. Like I’m privileging my own work over others. To combat this I do not promote my own work. I post it on the site, but I do no promotional work for it. It’s probably ridiculous, but it’s how I feel. I have no problem with it when others do it.

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

I enjoy helping artists get heard. I like making connections and introducing people and artists. I love it when an artist’s album gets reviews or played on the radio or gets attention in general. As I’ve gotten older and have had more life things happen – getting a 9-5 career job, having a child, approaching 40 years old – I’ve gotten out of the habit of physically going to shows and being physically involved with music in a social sense. Running the netlabel keeps me connected to a music scene and musicians and artists that I find interesting and exciting. It also gives me a reason to keep exploring new music and discovering new artists. I would probably do that to some extent without the label, but with the label, it becomes a priority.

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

There hasn’t been anything too difficult about running the label. I think one of the main challenges is trying to find new ways to reach listeners. I am always looking for ways to help the artists’ albums find new ears.

Has anything about it been disappointing or frustrating?

I think the most frustrating part of it is the stigma against net audio from the websites, blogs, media and radio who privilege physical formats over freely available digital formats.

What keeps or kept you motivated to continue running the netlabel when you are or were feeling frustrated?

Sometimes inertia. Sometimes just the fact that I imagine people expect it to keep going. Most of the time because I enjoy it so much. I find it fun and rewarding.

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

I would say I spend about an hour a day working on some aspect of the label. Some days a little longer when I am preparing a release.

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

Listening to new music. Going out and discovering musicians through Soundcloud streams, Bandcamp, Facebook timeline, Twitter feeds, etc. I’m always looking, keeping my eyes open for someone that makes music I like and that fits within the framework of pan y rosas. Contacting potential artists. Maintaining the release schedule. Answering emails. Keeping up with pyr artists’ activities so that I can help them promote any relevant work.

For releases: Making sure that I have all the files and information that I need from the artist to make their release official. Making the album page and artist page on the website. At this point the site runs on WordPress. I used to hand code an html version of the site for the first two or three years, but I wanted something a little more flexible. Converting the audio files as necessary. Adding the metadata. Creating the zip package. Uploading the audio to the website.

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

I release all of the albums as mp3s at 320kbps. Some of them I also release as flacs and a few as wavs. This is up to the artist. The artist can choose any format they prefer, but I also always make sure it’s also released as an mp3. When I first began the label the mp3s were released at 192kbps and I continued that for the first couple of years.

Why did you choose that format?

Mp3s are the most accessible format. They are the default at this point. Anyone with a computer or smartphone can play an mp3. They also require less bandwidth so people with slower or unreliable internet connections can get them more easily. I realize they are a proprietary format and I dabbled with ogg format for philosophical reasons, but in the end mp3s are more stable because of their diffusion. I also realize mp3s are not audiophile quality and they are lossy and compressed. I like the flac format for this reason, but it is still not as universally accepted. Wav and flac are both much larger files too which can make them less accessible.

Do you zip your files into a package? Or are the albums uploaded as individual files?

Oh yes. I always zip the packages. The files are in a folder inside the zip. I try to organize them as best as I can so that they are easy for the user.

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

I include the album cover and sometimes the artist’s photo, if it was given to me. I always include a txt file that contains the album information: catalog number, release date, any information about the album that the artist provided, track list, any biographical information the artist provided, and links to the artist online.

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

For converting from wav to mp3 I use a program called CDex or Audacity. For converting to flac or mp3 I use Audacity. But I am using Audacity almost exclusively for that these days. But, I believe both use lame for the mp3 encoding. For adding metadata to the files and formatting the file names I use a program called Mp3tag. I use Filezilla for ftp. For cover art and photo editing I used Photoshop when available or I use Gimp. I use 7zip for zipping the albums. When I first started the label, I did the site by hand using html. I eventually switched to WordPress. For administrative and organizing tasks I use Google Docs a lot.

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

I host everything on the site itself. My hosting plan is pretty affordable and offers more than enough storage and bandwidth for my needs. I also upload all the releases to the Free Music Archive. A long time ago I looked into the Internet Archive, but at the time it seemed to be too much work. I keep thinking about backing everything up over there as well. I do also post a few tracks off of each album on Soundcloud. I only have a free account there, so it’s really only for promotional purposes. Once I run out of space I delete the oldest tracks.

What do you do to promote your label?

I send out a press release for every release, except for any project that involves me as a musician. I post the release information on the label’s blog on the site. I post on Tumblr, Facebook – both personal account and label page, and Twitter. I also send the same press release to radio stations – internet and terrestrial. I used to post the release information to SonicSquirrel, Modisti, FOEM, ClongClongMoo and, I think, Netlabelism. But it took so much time, an incredible amount of time to individually post to all those sites that I had to stop for my own well-being. It was overwhelming. I also send out that monthly roundup newsletter of artist activities and new releases to a fan/subscriber mailing list.

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

I absolutely do. I want to do as much as I can to help the artists get heard. I send things to traditional print media, review sites, blogs, anything. I can’t think of any truly non-traditional methods.

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

I have had some success with getting albums reviewed. The two most traditional mainstream media outlets that have reviewed albums were The Wire and Timeout Chicago. There are a few websites that have reviewed albums fairly regularly. Not all the time, but enough to count as regularly over the course of the past eight years. The biggest radio station that has played pyr music is WFMU. Some hybrid podcast/radio shows that play pyr music regularly are Towards the Margins and No Pigeonholes EXP. There are other internet radio and podcasts that have played pyr music over the years as well. I am always super excited when this happens.

Have you had success in getting people in general to listen to your releases?

I think so. It’s hard to tell who’s actually listening. But the download numbers are pretty high, I think. The Free Music Archive helps a lot with this. But I also keep track of the monthly download numbers from the pyr website. I used to actually make monthly reports for all of the albums on pyr, but as the number of releases grew, this became unsustainable. Now I just keep a copy of the auto-generated report from my hosting company and if an artist is curious, I can figure out their specific numbers.

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

Yes, I keep track of the download numbers and I feel like they have gone up over the years. I mean, of course they have, because the albums are always there, so they can only increase over time. But I do feel like the base number a release gets has gone up over the years. I used to think that 200 downloads was a lot and now I don’t feel that way until it’s in the thousands.

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

I used to keep an ongoing monthly report to track the numbers for every single release. I had a spreadsheet with formulas to keep track of monthly totals and gross totals. But as the number of releases increased, this became untenable. It required too much time every month. At this point I save the auto generated statistics reports that my web host provides. And then, if an artist is interested, I can compile the numbers for that one artist.

I used to really worry about the number of listeners and think about ways to increase that number. At this point, I think there’s enough inertia that I don’t have to do as much publicity and worrying about it.

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

Fuck yes. People want their physical object. Whether it’s listeners or reviewers or radio. It is incredibly frustrating. The artists work so hard on their albums and I spend so much time working to release it that inevitably, if someone says sorry we only accept physical formats, I get mad. I run into this with review sites all the time. I think it’s especially frustrating working within the experimental, improvised music, free jazz, noise end of the spectrum because there are only so many people covering this type of music anyways. And to then be limited because we choose to release this music digitally for free, yeah, it’s frustrating. I look at it as being their loss though. They are the ones who are willfully ignoring all this amazing music that’s happening around them. But because they are stuck on this object fetish, they lose out.

Has the lack of a physical object been a problem for any of the artists that you have worked with? If it has how have you responded?

There have been a few instances where an artist has been initially interested, but then once they learn there’s no record or tape or cd, they decide against it. It’s been a rare thing. When I contact an artist I include an faq that explains the basics of what I do and what net audio is. That has helped a lot to clear things up before getting to far in the process.

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

I organized a show for some of the local artists on the label a few years ago, in 2012. It was at the Hideout. Nobody came to watch it, but it was a good show. Sky Thing, Sarah J. Ritch, Julia A. Miller, Last King of Poland and Sound Collision Alliance played. The next year Julia asked if I wanted to co-curate her series – Articular Facet. So in 2013 we had a series of shows at the Empty Bottle. She really did all the work for that though. Almost all of those performances are now available as pyr albums. I’m also organizing a series of shows at a neighborhood library branch in Chicago, we’ll see how that goes. I always offer to help organize shows for any artist who is touring or visiting, but so far no one has taken me up on that.

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

I work full time as an archivist and I fund the label out of my own pocket. The main financial cost is the annual hosting cost, but that’s not much. The labor cost is the biggest thing. That’s free. There’s no compensation for that whatsoever. But that’s okay with me. I’m able to work on emails and stuff while on lunch and in down time at home.

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

I think Bandcamp is pretty awesome in general. And if it had existed when my band, the Rories, was actively playing and recording, we probably would’ve just done that and we would’ve been happy. But then pan y rosas never would’ve started.

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

I do think netlabels are sustainable for the time being, especially those that have a specific focus and are well curated. I think those things allow them to act as guides for their listeners. Bandcamp is awesome, but it’s up to the artist to find you and that can be a challenge.

I think there should be more netlabels, especially considering how easy it is for one to disappear. They come and they go and there should always be more to make up for those that burn out, get tired, run out of steam, etc. Also, the more there are the more opportunities there are for diverse voices to be heard.

Are there too many netlabels

No. It would be awesome if someone conducted a census/survey of netlabels to see how many are currently in existence. Anecdotally it seems like so many start up and disappear, they come and go, that maybe there’s just kind of an average number that hasn’t really fluctuated. But who knows.

Will netlabels be obsolete before 2025?

A lot can happen in a few years, but, that’s only seven years from now, as I write this. I doubt they will be. I do wonder how the status of net neutrality will affect them. And free culture, and capitalist culture as well. Culture in general. I don’t think netlabels will be obsolete though. Either they are a response and alternative to capitalism or they are the status quo. Even if every single artist started releasing their music for free, it still helps to have some sort of curator to kind of guide the listener and make the information more accessible.

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

Not anything specific – no particular party or dogma or anything. But pan y rosas is feminist, it will always align with the oppressed over the oppressor, it will always be free and support free culture. The very act of releasing music for free and in an organized way is resistance to capitalism. Netlabels in general and pan y rosas specifically provide a means for art to exist outside of capitalist systems.

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?

I have been reading about how netlabels developed out of cassette trading, the bbs and demo scenes in the 1990’s. But this is all new information for me. When I started pan y rosas my frame of reference was zines, mini comics, and punk rock, diy culture. So I viewed it as similar to that, especially zines. People gave away their zines all the time or traded. Zines never cost much, never more than three dollars. It wasn’t about making your money back, it was about sharing your zine and your story; meeting new people; building networks of likeminded people. That sort of thing. So yeah, I see a lot of overlap with any sort of diy culture, even if the things it overlaps with are things I’m not aware of yet.

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

I’m learning now.