test tube

Interview received: May 4, 2017; December 2, 2017.

What is your name?

My name is Pedro Leitão.

Where are you located?

Currently I am based off of Lagos, Algarve, Portugal.

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

Mostly yes. I am a bit of a control freak and a little obsessive with documenting everything I can, so since way back, since I started the first of my labels, I tried to keep everything I could, every demo, CDR, tape, postcard, etc. The material I have is mostly unorganized now, as I moved houses a bit over the last 10 years or so.

This is amazing, do you have any plans to migrate any of the old media to new formats to make sure you can still access the information?

Sure, I have been thinking on that issue. Most of the stuff is on CDR and we all know CDs degrade with time, depending on the coating quality, maybe 15/20 years tops. Then, garbage disposal is where they’ll end up. I need to buy an extra external hard drive to put everything, and keep redundancy copies on my server, just in case.

How do you define what is and what is not a netlabel?

Basically, a netlabel should release ‘almost’ exclusively in digital format and all operations should be internet/web based. I think this is the proper, down-to-earth definition. Also, the digital versions should always be free and available online at all times.

How and when did you first learn about netlabels?

I think I learned about them when I started paying some attention to the demoscene back in the 90’s, because at the time I was into software programming and animation. At first I never imagined that netlabels existed but after a while I noticed that some demogroups’ members started putting out some audio based work in the form of single tracks and small Eps. Those were the labels that started it all.

What was the first netlabel you heard of?

Mono211, I think. Or Kahvi. Can’t be sure now.

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

I admire them all, but the first ones I knew about gave me the motivation to start my own. The aesthetics inspiration came mostly from Autoplate.

What made you decide to start your own netlabel?

At the time I was running a physical label, with all the constraints of living on a budget. I had to put aside most of the demo material I got because of that, despite most of them being really good but mostly experimental and not suitable for selling records. I thought that a netlabel would be perfect for outputting that material into the world for free without spending shitloads of money and at the same time giving those artists some taste of the ‘five seconds of fame’ thing, allowing them to reach an audience and grow together.

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

I think the previous answer goes a bit into that theme, but additionally I also feel that just because something is free doesn’t mean that it is necessarily worse in quality, quite the opposite most of the time, as the artist doesn’t feel forced into shaping his art into a ‘sellable’ product, and just does what he feels is right from him.

I wanted (and still want) to release physical editions of some of the releases I had, because I love to feel a good collectable item in my hands, I love the smell of a good vinyl record, and digital is very, very ‘unpersonal’. But it is expensive to make physical records and I don’t have spare money lying around. But I still have plans to do limited runs of some of the back catalogue sometime in the future.

What is the name of your netlabel?

I worked with two: test tube was the first and a one-man-show project, and Impulsive Habitat was a second project ran by me and some friends (all of them artists I knew from working with test tube).

 Why did you choose the name you chose?

I chose ‘test tube’ because the idea of a laboratory kind of label was what came to mind, showcasing experiments in audio manipulating and music aesthetics. Like something you would download and ‘test’ by listening to in your home.

Impulsive Habitat was chosen because it reflected the kind of sound it meant to offer to the public: field recordings based work.

When did you start your netlabel?

2004.

What was the focus of you netlabel?

Experimental and/or exploratory music of all kinds.

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

Yes, sure. I chose CC because I really like the concept and I also think it best defends the artist regarding distribution through all kinds of media, or in the event it should be that he or she decides to sell/offer the rights of the work to a third party like a movie, documentary, etc.

Copyright is usually too restrictive to the artist and most of the time it limits them to do what they choose to do with their works.

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

Some of them became internet friends. Some of them I even got the chance to know in the flesh when they came to Portugal to perform, and with one in particular I even went and founded a new label!

I think in a way I helped some of them to go further on their career. At least I think that I helped in that specific way when someone needs a bit of a push so they would realize that there is somebody other than themselves that believes in their work. That is extremely important for one’s motivation as an artist, as a creative mind. Most of the time that is the only difference between continuing working or giving it up completely. I feel honored to have made part of that process.

How did you decide what artists you wanted 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 was it all luck of the draw?

I think it’s a combination of all of those, and more.

At first, when I started the label project, and since no one knew about the project, I had to search for an initial and solid batch of releases, something that would ‘pave’ what would come after. So I gathered a group of artists I respected and personally liked and invited them to release something new, something exclusive. And that’s how it started. Some responded, some did not, and the rest is history.

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

Well, the submissions needed to keep me interested enough in listening to them till the end. And then had to endure some repetitive listens too. They had to be somewhat bold in their approach to music creation too, in language used, or at least appealing enough overall, with above average production values preferably. There were exceptions, of course, some works were poorly produced or mastered but had so much artistic value that I had to publish them anyway.

What genres have you never released before, that you would love to release on your label or on a future label of yours?

I think test tube covered pretty much everything, or at least the main genres, since there are too many sub-genres and styles. I can’t think of any genre or style that I wanted to put out but never had the chance to.

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?

Oh yes, several. Once I had a special release conceptualized, and had several names lined up to invite, to release original pieces or to remix originals from the catalogue. Can’t remember the names now, but I have that backed up somewhere, I would have to go look 🙂

How many albums have you released?

In the course of 10 years, test tube published 275 releases, 3 DVD compilations and a couple of mixes. Most of the releases were albums, some were EPs and some were ‘singles’, kind of. Among those some were single tracks with over an hour of music. Does that qualify as a single or as an album?

In a way, I think electronic-based, digital releases helped to redefine the definition of ‘album’ for the 21st century. For the first time you could have a release with several hours of music or sound because you didn’t have the limitations of a physical medium like vinyl or CD.

Who were some of your most notable artists?

Difficult question. In a way I loved them all. When I curated, I tried very hard to distance myself, my personal tastes and preferences, and evaluate the quality, the boldness of the submissions, in the most unbiased way possible, but there were several times when that was completely impossible, when the sheer quality of the works touched me in a way – personally – that it was very difficult to separate the curator from the listener.

To name a few that come to mind: Spirit Elevating Brains, Lezrod/ David Veléz, Aitänna77, Darren McClure, Dave Zeal, Daniel Maze, Norman Fairbanks, Entia Non, Long Desert Cowboy, Christopher McFall, Michael Trommer, Gordon Tebo, A Sankip Hummad, TrianguliZona, and many more.

Which were some of your most significant releases?

Another difficult question. I cannot pinpoint one in particular, but picking up on the previous question, the live capture of the TrianuliZona release was particularly awesome.

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

I never had the chance. I’m keeping my work for myself, until I decide if the world is worthy of it (kidding).

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

I enjoy helping artists, real people, that otherwise would not have the opportunity to showcase their work, much less through a commercial label.

What do I get? Well, good karma, maybe, or at the very least an unbelievable amount of demos to archive.

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

The most difficult thing (and I know this from experience!) is to keep your life and your day job going, and keep doing it for the sake of doing it. But there will come a time when you will have to choose. Either you keep the crazy work of the label (because it doesn’t pay your bills), and forget about a normal life, or, you choose normal life and the label goes to the background and ends up stalled, eventually.

The challenge – and some people accomplished it – is to keep the label and somehow turn it into a profit, or at least into something that will pay for itself and demands minimum work. That is the real challenge and objective. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it.

Has anything about it been disappointing or frustrating?

Disappointing? No. Never!

Frustrating? Well, yes, because in the end I just wish I could have the chance to do so much more regarding releases and events. I had many ideas but was short of time and means to do them and put them into practice. Sometimes I glance into the past and think that, if only I had a partner or a couple of partners back then, that shared the dream, man, I could have done so much more.

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

Well, the feeling that somehow this was bigger than me and that many people trusted it for exposure of their works, that kept me going when I got frustrated and thought about giving up, but then life got in the way, I started a family, had kids later and time availability started dwindling. I had to make a choice.

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

Back then, when I was putting 4 releases a month, it was insane. I spent most of my free time during the week listening to submissions, choosing one for the next release, working the details, choosing and working the artwork, working the mastering if needed, and putting all of that into a release. Sometimes I worked all night on week days just to have at least 3 or 4 releases lined up in advance, so if something happened, like me getting sick or whatever, I would have some releases ready to upload.

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

Like I said, when I was running the label, I had to do everything: go through the submissions and evaluate, curate them, work all the technical details, production, and mastering if needed, think about the artwork, work the artwork, compile the release, write the liner notes or find someone to do it, upload the release to the server and finally promote it through the usual channels (which were very few and pretty much underworld).

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

test tube always released in mp3 only. I tried a couple releases in ogg but it was too much time consuming to render different formats and then upload them every time. Back then the upload speeds were not at all like today and it took hours to put a release up. Bitrate started at 192kbps at first but then decided to go for Variable Bitrate with 320kbps maximum.

Why did you choose that format?

Compatibility of course. mp3 was and still is the most popular format, every player, every pc, every ipod-like device processed mp3 so why go elsewhere?

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

I always did both, so people would have a choice. It meant more work and more time uploading files but it didn’t bother me.

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

Yes of course. Artwork was very important, and sometimes artists had texts written that complemented the release so pdfs were included in several released.

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 used dreamweaver + text editor for the website, winamp for editing metadata, filezilla or some other open source ftp client and photoshop for the artwork and for encoding dbpoweramp or audition.

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

For a time I used both Internet Archive and my own server space, yes, but the process to upload releases to the free archive was very cumbersome and messy at the time, very time consuming and involved having the release rendered in several different bitrates. After a while I decided that it wasn’t worth the effort and time spent doing it and chose to have the release available only on our own server.

What did you do to promote your label?

There weren’t many channels available to promote netlabel releases at the time (early 2000’s), so I had to diversify and started spreading the stuff to local specialized media, like music newspapers, fanzines, stuff like that. Some brought nice results, some not, but there were a handful of surprises. We even ended up showcasing our work in a couple of music festivals, local and international.

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

No, not by traditional ways. I never sent a physical copy to newspapers or magazines. Everything that ended up being reviewed was because the reviewer decided to go look and download from our website and listen to the stuff, which in a way, is an amazing feat to the netlabel scene, I think!

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

Following the previous answer, I can’t complain about it, we’ve had many nice reviews, some even from international magazines and online media, so in truth I have no regrets.

Now, do I think we should have had more coverage from many other media? Hell yes! Our work (and the work of many other netlabels, of course) was solid, still is, and writers and critics everywhere needed to stop being freaking lazy and try to find something on their own, but that was never the case, unfortunately.

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

To some extent, yes. But this project or idea was never meant to be mainstream, of course.

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

There was a time when I paid attention to those, the information is still on the news pages from test tube somewhere, online, and the numbers were nice, very respectful considering the niche/underground place where netlabels thrived. The numbers would fluctuate somehow, there were times they were high and kept growing, but that would depend on the reviews we got and the web coverage from review sites and the like. After a while I got bored and stopped going through the server stats.

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

They were kind of important once you knew about them, but stopped being after you got bored, eheh.

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?

It would sure have helped the scene to have some sort of medium outlet capacity. Vinyl would be great, netlabels would reach a much bigger audience, but money was always a problem in getting things done, unless you were rich to start with.

I still have a dream to go back to the catalog, contact the artists and remaster and re-release in vinyl some of the best releases from each year. That’s a curator’s wet dream, I know, but maybe, just maybe.

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?

Maybe a couple of them made somewhat a deal about it, big questions and doubts and such, but the big majority knew what they were getting into, so no, not a problem, generally speaking.

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

Yes, we did some events and participate in some others. It was really nice to be appreciated and the artists had a blast every time they were live and present in those events.

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

My own funds, 99%. Other people and businesses whose websites I host on my personal server, 1%.

What do you think label’s legacy might be?

The same as so many other netlabels that started up and went dark after a while or are still in activity. The legacy is the catalogue produced, the number of works, the assets, from so many people that otherwise would go unnoticed through life, maybe even stopped composing entirely if no one paid attention to them and gave them a chance. This is the legacy, I think, the most important thing of this work.

Do you feel that you were filling a niche that other labels were not?

Yes, at the time I was pretty sure no other label was releasing the kind of works test tube was releasing. The other labels were either too dance-floor oriented, too noise-like oriented, or were releasing exclusively experimental ambient works. I wanted to go everywhere, as long as the works were ‘out of the box’ – creatively speaking – enough, out of the comfort zone, you know? I think there was nothing like that at the time.

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

I think they have come to fill a gap in the industry. It’s good that they exist.

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

Yes, it is possible to sustain a netlabel, but you have to work hard to build a solid fan base from scratch, gather some spare money and publish a few physical releases, and then hope it all works together. It’s not easy to accomplish but some have been able to do it.

I don’t know what the future is, the market is always changing, evolving. Who would have known that vinyl would have such a comeback, huh? CD is pretty much dead, but just check out the vinyl! Amazing. So, who knows?!

Do you know any label who has made their netlabel self-sustaining and requiring a minimum of work?

Yes. Serein started just a netlabel and now they produce physical releases. Also Filippo Aldovini (from Zymogen netlabel) teamed up with Simon from 21rec (another well established netlabel) and founded Error Broadcast which released CD and vinyl releases and I think they are still active. And there are more but I can’t remember right now.

Are there too many netlabels?

I really don’t know. Some go dark, but then new ones come. It’s like life, I think.

Will netlabels be obsolete before 2025?

As long as there’s internet like we know it, meaning, everyone can have access to it for little money, as long as there are people making music and in need to put it out there, netlabels will exist. I like to believe in this. I know that there’s bandcamp and soundcloud and stuff like that, but years ago there was myspace and other platforms and then they died and netlabels kept coming and going, so… yeah, netlabels are forever! 🙂

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

No, Not at all. I’m a very politically aware person, yes, I’m mainly left-wing on most subjects and a bit convservative on others. Not exactly middle but some tad to the left.

I know that there’s been some struggle from CC activists who are mainly leftists and are pushing with politically sensitive issues but I’m not into that actually, I have much on my hands and cannot commit to those beliefs, at least for now I cannot.

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 think not. I have been a bit off the scene as of recent years, but so far as I understand, I think that there’s no overlap. What has been happening is that vinyl is having an amazing comeback, really amazing (every back catalogue release, even from major labels, is having a vinyl reissue), as well as some cassette releases in some places, some off-the-book labels, so in short ‘analogue is returning’, at least for now. And it is great.

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

No, I’m afraid I’m not aware of that. But if it exists, I hope the relevant labels are on it. The ones that started it all.

Is there anything else you would like to write about that wasn’t included here?

I can’t think of anything right now.

What questions would you ask other people who run netlabels?

What do they think is: The future of netlabels.

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