As you can imagine, one of the perks — and one of the pains, if I'm to be one hundred percent honest about it — of writing about music for a site like Blogcritics, is all of the free music you get.
I get so much of it these days that I am now in fact on a first name basis with my UPS man.
But again, in the spirit of that same aforementioned honesty that I mentioned above, I have to tell you that about 99% of it goes into that netherhole that I like to refer to as "the pile."
I'm equally sure I'm not alone there either.
As a guy who did some years as a (part time, at least) A&R guy for a few record labels — in addition to being a music journalist — I am in fact quite confident that there are similar "piles" in record company offices and writer's desks across the land. They are filled with hopeful, but nameless CDs by bands with names by artists like "The John Roberts Band" and "Mudcrutch" (oh wait, Tom Petty used to be in that one, didn't he?).
My point here being — and here is a word to the wise for all you developing bands out there — if you want to get noticed, then do something to get, well noticed.
The flip side to all of the nameless, faceless music we journalists, A&R guys, and the like get in our mailbox every day, is that every now and then something comes along that really grabs our attention.
Such was the case earlier today when I received this huge box in the mail from a label called Beta-lactam Ring Records.
Wading my way through this rather immense box of music from the label — and even after listening to a fair amount of it tonight — I'm still not sure that I can offer an informed opinion of what these guys are all about.
But what I can tell you is that it damn sure got my attention. And at least so far, I like it.
The best I can tell from listening to the box of CDs I got from this label tonight is that these guys seem to specialize in progressive avant ambient noise. Reading through the bio material, it also becomes clear that there is some sort of a connection to the Legendary Pink Dots.
I have never heard of any of the artists here — they have names like Ariel Kalma, The Silverman, and what appears to be their flagship artist, Nurse With Wound (who warrants this beautiful boxed set with a book of incredible photographs).
I don't understand all of it. But at least so far, I like it.
But who gives a shit so far anyway, right?
Except, that the way these albums were sent to me completely speaks otherwise. Each CD comes in a beautifully packaged, environmentally correct cardboard case that opens out to reveal gorgeous artwork that simply demands you take the music contained within seriously. As for the CDs themselves? They are each wrapped in a cellophane covering that harkens back to the seventies sort of thing you found with "serious music" labels like ECM.
Like I said, this got my attention.
The thing is that this label's releases all share a sort of packaged uniformity that absolutely screams that this is something important. And the boxed set by Nurse With Wound was something else entirely. This shit was so damned beautiful, there was no way it was going into the pile next to the Dogshit Blues Band from Podunk, Arkansas.
What can I say here?
Like most guys, I'm an admittedly visual animal. I guess I like my music — at least that which I haven't actually heard yet — much like I like my women. I want them all to look beautiful. Which probably explains why at fifty-something years of age I am still single. But that's fodder for another entire article.
The point is, this is obviously a boutique sort of label in an age where such labels have all but disappeared. They have the right idea about how to get the attention of writers, A&R guys at a label and the like, who could make a difference too. You just don't see this type of stuff anymore from artists and bands.
But it used to be somewhat commonplace. In the seventies I can remember several record labels who used to instantly communicate what they were all about when I saw their albums in the record shop before I ever heard a single note.
I think I already mentioned ECM. That label's releases were always characterized by their stark, usually white, album jackets baring an equally stark image. In the case of Pat Metheny or Terje Rypdal it might have been a nature scene. In the case of pianist Keith Jarrett it may have been something as basic as the keys on a piano.
And then there was Virgin (and it's sister label Caroline). Before this label became the multi-national conglomerate it is today, it was characterized first by it's logo — a semi naked hippie chick lying crosslegged — and then by it's glossy fold-out album jackets featuring ambient synthesizer music by artists like Tangerine Dream.
The whole package here simply screamed out it's importance. Walking into a record shop, you simply couldn't ignore it.
Later on, punk labels also picked up on this.
Stiff Records in particular had this down to a science. They already had some great, marketable artists like Nick Lowe and Ian Dury. But when they put together the whole Live Stiffs concept, they made you at least curious enough to check out somebody like Wreckless Eric.
More importantly, they made the record consuming public — or at least that small, but taste-making segment of it — buy into the idea that the label itself might be as important as the artists themselves.
When grunge came along in Seattle, SubPop Records was another label that figured this out. Pick any random SubPop release from the early nineties — be it from Soundgarden, Nirvana, or Mudhoney — and you will likely find that black and white photograph on the cover of a chaotic live club scene with the lead singer's hair flailing about wildly. It totally communicates what lies within — and again it does so before you have heard a note, sending a message that this is some important shit. A secret you could be let in on, simply by buying one of these records.
So I've got a way to go with what I hear so far from Beta-lactam Ring Records. But I will tell you this. I like what I hear so far. And they have definitely got my attention.