Underpolen

Interview received: November 22, 23, 2016 and January 22, 2017.

What is your name?

Jan Strach.

Where are you located?

Poznań, Poland.

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

I hardly throw away anything, all digital files are in various places around my computer and external drive. I also keep all cassette tapes onto which many our releases were originally recorded, and some cds as well.

How and when did you first learn about netlabels?

It was in fact after I created my netlabel. Although back then (2008) I did not call it that. It was just supposed to be a single name under which I collected all my musical projects and bands. Somewhere on the way I came across the name “netlabel” and it dawned on me: that’s what I have!

What was the first netlabel you heard of?

For the love of everything I can’t recall a single name, sorry. Fracaso comes to mind as one of the first, something with an elephant in it, from Poland the first I knew was Weakie Discs.

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

None, I am pretty much on my own in the vast netlabel world. I admire Weakie Discs for an absolutely true DIY spirit and total independence.

What made you decide to start your own netlabel?

Well making the type of music that I make there was no place online back then (and still there’s none) that would release it. So I said screw it, I’m doing my own thing. And Underpolen was sort of umbrella place where all these weird creations of mine (and soon, of other peoples) could find home.

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

My only wish is for people to listen to my music. It would be wonderful if I got paid, so I always leave that option on. But some people have no money and still love music and I would hate for them to get left out. I just want people to hear it, that’s the objective number 1, not making money. Physical albums are an option, I am making some plans, but no money and no way to distribute them and frankly – no demand in the market (lol) make me postpone this decision indefinitely.

What is the name of your netlabel?

Underpolen.

Why did you choose the name you chose?

With many of the names I come up with I rely on my subconscious – I have it honed very precisely and train it regularly so that I can always rely on the first belch out of the depths of my mind when I am lost for words. And such was the case with this one. Plus, you know, it combines “Under” which stands for underground and “Polen” which stands for Poland of course, where we are located.

When did you start your netlabel?

I count 2008 as the start of my netlabel.

What is the focus of you netlabel?

Homemade, experimental, primarily rock- and melody-oriented sounds, but not limited to any particular genre. Usually Polish, lofi, pertaining to the DIY esthetic and philosophy. Cassette tapes, murmurs, hisses, clanks, unobvious sonic solutions.

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

Creative Commons, the closest I have to the illusion that any of my virtual rights are somehow protected.

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?

Most of the releases are mine, but not all. With others I try to remain online friends, but nothing is forced. Once they stop replying to my emails – okay, choice is yours, god bless. And one of my artists, curiously, one day just plain disappeared.

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?

It is usually the first impression that has the most weight. Is it “Underpolen” or not? I ask myself. Are they ready to release it for free? Is it free-spirited, unconstrained, even a tad amateurish? These are my tastes. I have turned down some submissions due to that hunch. Once in a while some online talent impresses me to such an extent that I do indeed approach them myself.

How many albums have you released?

72 at the moment I am writing this. Above 60 of them involving me as musician.

Who are some of your most notable artists?

My albums that have resulted in some online ruckus are albums by Secrets Of The 45, my band Projekt Luty, poj.wlkp, and my solo albums as Jan Strach. From other artists, Nava Spatiala, a noise unit from Romania, are also quite popular.

Which are some of your most significant releases?

Each one is significant in my eyes, people seem to have a fondness for the lonesome lo-fi atmospheric folk-rock of poj.wlkp and for some reason Czas Jest has been downloaded most times from Archive.org, also the piano album by poj.wlkp Pokój w Deszczu has met with unexpected admiration.

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

I do release all my music on my netlabel. Without this practice countless musicians would be invisible. It is good to have a company-like entity around your creation. Gives you that professional air.

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

I get to play CEO, designer, social media specialist, marketer, like I have my own special company which at the same time costs nothing to run and takes nothing but time and dedication. And my product is the music I love most in the world!

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

It is immensely satisfying when everything works out, but when a release meets with a lower-than-usual response, then you are alone with your soul-crushing disappointment. 😀 You are on your own, responsible for everything, you have to keep professional, post on Facebook regularly, know far ahead of the time when you are going to release what and release singles, videos, teasers in due time. Not keep people waiting endlessly but also not drown them all the time in meaningless filler updates.

Has anything about it been disappointing or frustrating?

Sometimes, especially for a little tiny netlabel like mine, simply for some reason nobody will be listening. And then, guess what – you have to keep doing what you are doing. Because if you start whining and venting and growling then you can be sure that you will scare people off and they will crumble away to gather around a sane person. I always put a lot of heart and trust in all the releases so it can be disappointing if a year’s work then comes down to one thumb up and two listens. Still, you move one to the next big project and often it is a success.

How do you personally deal with it when you put all this work into a release and you don’t get any response from the outside world?

Well I am too emotionally invested to just be able to brush off this sort of lack of love and move on. But also I kinda have no choice. I just shuffle on even if it breaks my heart a little. Because, well, in the end of the day it is still the one thing that gives me a continuous sense of purpose. And I just love the process – preparations, color themes, track titles. Even if it is not much for anybody else but for myself. But it is hard. You put stuff out there and for free, and still, it might go completely unnoticed. I’ll never get used to it completely. Yet I stress again – if you do not care enough to not care that nobody else cares, then you do not care enough!

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

An hour-two every day, more if something big is happening.

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

Music-wise: Composing, writing lyrics, recording, mixing, cataloguing music, editing, preparing tracklists, tagging, converting, making graphics, covers, logos.

Label-wise: Facebooking, emailing, promoting on some sites, posting to reddit, browsing news about our bands on google, coming up with new ideas to become relevant and interesting without being pushy. I also make music videos for some tunes, that takes a lot of time as well.

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

Bandcamp & Archive.org always, Youtube – a big chunk of everything, some on FMA, some even on Spotify and iTunes.

How does the process of getting music on Spotify and iTunes compare to getting it on the Free Music Archive, Internet Archive, etc? How is the response on Spotify and iTunes? Do people listen there?

I have learned my lesson and will not publish anything there anytime soon. I have paid 180 USD altogether via CD Baby to put up 3 of my albums online which are now available in all these streaming services – two Jan Strach albums and one poj.wlkp album – and they have brought me about 60 cents throughout two years as of now. Unless you are super famous and get thousands of plays every day – it will not pay off ever. Such a waste of money.

What do you do to promote your label?

On social media, I do my best to let folks know about my stuff without being too pushy and screamy about it. Having no real marketing talent or promotional skills, I choose to simply behave like a human being on the social media and excitedly inform as my own goofy self all those listening about premieres, new videos, interesting facts on our Facebook wall and on some related Facebook pages. There are bound to be lots of exclamations marks and typos and made up words in most of them. Each release gets posted also to soudshiva.net and clongclongmoo.org. Sometimes on reddit also.

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 can only always count on Yeah I Know It Sucks blog. However those “professional” clean-cut, “indie” blogs never write me back about my releases and I am slowly giving up on sending anything to them.

Do you have any thoughts or ideas about why those more “professional” indie blogs don’t respond to your releases? I’ve never had any success with them either. And I continue to send releases to them but only because they are already in my contacts list. I don’t seek them out anymore.

The most successful “indie” blogs that are concentrated on writing about “unknown,” “promising” musicians, well past some point they become a product, and they also want you to deliver a product – professionally mixed and mastered, commercially friendly, stylistically obvious, crystalline clear, preferably with a bow on top. And the description I just wrote is the opposite of what we do. The things they advertise as “underground,” well you and me we are five miles underneath this underground and then a mile of mud and then some. I almost gave up as well, just like you, on sending stuff to them but still I get my mood swings and sometimes I am so hopeful and sure of my stuff that I just have to give it one more go, I am sure you know what I mean.

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

Ha, very moderate success, and ha, so many frustrations! Mostly the reviews come from some brave beautiful people that have stumbled upon me creations by chance and write about them on their beautiful blogs out of their own free will. But I am also to blame – I love making music but am hopeless at promoting it afterwards.

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

Slowly but steadily my listener base is growing. It decidedly got better after I joined Facebook and figured out how to use it for promotion. But still on the mini-level that my music is made, spread and listened to, it is always a surprise which I often cannot figure out. I always make the same steps when putting out a new release. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, more people listen than usual – makes me celebrate with my pants off. And then with the next release the interest is minimal – makes me cry and wallow in me filth and stuff. But in all seriousness, that makes each premiere doubly exciting. I actually, honestly never know what is going to happen.

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?

No, from my experience people have no focus at all nowadays and also most have no will to pay for anything.

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?

No, we are an internet based entity in the internet era, and that has never bothered anyone as far as I know.

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

I daydream about concerts a lot, does that count? Crippling shyness and anxiety put such shows far, far away from my comfort zone. Also, I do not know how most my songs would be performed live, as I often play all instruments. And to sing and dance to a backing track – the thought of me doing that makes me laugh and cry at the same time. Poor fellow!

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

I used to have a website which I financed every month with my own moneys. But Chinese spambots ate it up and by then it was almost a relief to let it go. Right now, I do not invest money in my netlabel (for I do not have any) but labor, yes, hours and hours of hard work are poured all over musics, graphics, organizing, promotion, writings, blogs, websites, emails, Facebook posts and so on, and so on.

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

I would be nothing without them, literally nobody would know who I am. I am the child of the times of the sites that host music.

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

They can be run for free, so they are sustainable to that extent. Outside of that everything depends on the owner’s creativity, promotional and marketing talent, sharp elbows, keen ear, knowledge of what is “in” and what is not. Or just an adamantium butt that will not fall off after getting kicked countless times.

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

No, never. But it is obvious we endorse freedom of information, free music, free thinking, free choices so we would never support anything that stands in the way of these freedoms.

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 also participate in some fun communities of computer game developers who do what we do in Underpolen with the musics – they make game things extremely enjoyable, often using low-grade equipment without the professional shine and glamour but with a lot of soul and fun gameplay – and then they offer it to the world for free or pay what you want. It is a philosophy that can be applicable to many other areas of arts and entertainment.

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

Nope, not really, sorry, no help from me here. I am barely aware of my own being, most of the time.

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

I wanted to write about magic. The magic of giving. Dear fellow musicians, if you are stuck in a rut and things are not working out and you are waiting and doing all you can and people are not downloading / buying / checking out your stuff. That means this is your turn to give back. Listen to others, do something to others and karma is bound to start its magic doings. For example periodically I volunteer for the Yeah I Know It Sucks blog to review music for them, just in return for all the great review they have published of our stuff throughout the years. And every time I do it, something good happens to my views, listens, popularity.

And just a few days ago I finally had some more money and was feeling a little down and unpopular again. So I said to myself: that means it is time to give again, my beautiful friend. I donated to some sites that have helped me throughout the years. I paid for an album of a band that I admire but have selfishly been listening for free. And BAM! I kid you not, two days after that a generous soul buys my computer game for 6€. And that was the first time anyone has ever bought my game! But first I had to give something to the world, instead of only waiting for people to pay me moneys and attention. So keep that in mind, young creators. The second-best pleasure after getting your work noticed and appreciated, is to give your appreciation and love to someone else that deserves it.

What questions would you ask other people who run netlabels?

Yeah this goes out to successful netlabel folks who do niche stuff. How do you find your niche fans? Yeah, I know the theory, but how did you actually find yours? Do not get me wrong, I have the best fans. But they only ever find me by accident! We are this little uncharted lo-fi island in the internet sea and people just seem to come crashing into it while holding their sea map upside down, I’d love to shine a light out for those actually willing to find us! WE ARE RIGHT HERE!