"It was really lame."
So Brown went into PR.
And then he tried again.
"It was one of those pipe dreams... but once you start working in the industry, digital distribution is fairly simple. I had to learn the process of dealing with audio and mastering but besides that, the cost is really low, and I felt like I already had an understanding from promoting it."
His second try, the burgeoning Friends of Friends imprint, has been far more successful. Begun as an outlet for the former Terrorbird PR agent to have a stronger relationship with his artists than just the "press guy" ("why not put my money where my mouth is," he says) Friends of Friends takes advantage of Brown's nose for what makes a good story and his location in one of electronic's current hotspots.
"I was really adamant that if I was going to do something, I really want it to be something different."
Given three stunning tracks from Daedelus—a close client at the time—Brown felt he had to release them somehow. But how? "I didn't want it to be just a CD or vinyl label to start with. I knew there was a million people doing the same things and if I was to really make an impact I had to come from a different angle." Wanting to give a potential customer base something they could appreciate and maybe even use, Brown thought of t-shirts—something that helps to establish the brand, works as (literally) walking promotion and crucially, something desirable. "It wasn't cheaper at all [than CDs], man, it wasn't. I did it in a way that ended up being more expensive because I wanted it to be something unique. We went all organic, got them all hand printed... but to this day, people tell me that they're their favourite shirts. It was a really meaningful product," Brown reflects.
Fond of forming relationships and partnerships, Brown had to make the music itself just as interesting and collaborative as the presentation, and had the idea for a series of split EPs: "essentially we would invite a close friend to create a release, they would invite someone to do the b-side and also invite a designer to do a T-shirt design. The only physical material available would be this organic cotton shirt with a download card that is biodegradable—you could plant it and it grew into an actual plant," Brown says. Thus Friends of Friends was born, with a six-track EP of fluorescent and orchestral-tinged hip-hop split between Daedelus and his chosen duo Jogger, released as a download card with a t-shirt. Not exactly a typical 001.
Its experimental model, however, didn't quite pan out—"in all honesty, sales were not so good... the timing wasn't right for someone like myself who was trying to get things off the ground, it takes some time to build before you can really start launching new ideas like that," Brown admits. Thankfully, it was an adaptable model: "the idea of Friends of Friends wasn't just about the t-shirt idea. That's why I stopped doing the t-shirt albums as that's not what I wanted to be known for. Literally within three months of the first t-shirt album, Downtown basically ripped off the idea and had the Mos Def album out on a t-shirt! Am I going to sit there and fight with someone like Downtown who has all this money and say 'we're the t-shirt label, we came up with this idea?' Or do we just keep coming up with interesting ideas and be like 'yeah, we did that once'? I'd rather just move on and do something else interesting."
The label quickly found new life with a more traditional yet no less ambitious project. The debut solo album from Ernest Gonzales, AKA Mexicans With Guns, came complete with conceptual website, full-colour artbook and an entire remix album with contributions from some of Gonzales' best friends (of friends). "It was pretty ambitious frankly... it took over a year to make that happen, but it needed to be the whole package, just an extension of [the album] being really special, that's the bottom line," Brown says, defending his decision. While the record, Been Meaning to Tell You, easily stands on its own musical merits, the extramusical product is something important to both label head and artist: "Digital music has made our art disposable in a sense, so the vinyl and artbook were our attempt at creating something that listeners could really dive into… an overall experience," explains Gonzales.
The other notable thing about Been Meaning to Tell You is that it has almost nothing in common with what was happening in the city at the time—a gorgeous and thoughtful blend of guitars, synthesizers and drum machines, it was more often playful or introspective than it was boomy or crashing. "I learned how big of an enthusiast [Leeor] was for contemporary house, techno and all things dance… I knew the sound of the label was just getting started and he wanted a span beyond just the LA Sound," explains Salva, another one of those Friends who has released on the label.
Salva's Complex Housing, released earlier this year, was the first in a stunning run of albums in 2011 from Friends of Friends. It's informed as much by classic house music as the hip-hop favoured by Los Angeles' beat scene. "Salva wanted to put out EPs that were focused on genres, one for the Low End Theory beat style, one for juke, one a little more dancey," Brown begins, "but frankly to me what told the story of Salva and would get people to actually care about him as an artist was that he was all of those things." And Complex Housing is all of those things, and a better record for it, and now "there are people genuinely interested in working with him and sending him on tour and bringing him to Europe, and it only happened because we formulated a full idea of a full length, of who he was and how we were going to present him," Brown asserts.
Like Salva, Friends of Friends is a hard label to pin down. In 2011, the gamut has been run from the polyglot funk of Complex Housing to the chiptune opera of Groundislava's eponymous debut to the cinematic, Mexican-flavoured drama of Ernest Gonzales' alternate ego Mexicans With Guns' Ceremony. But the label is gearing up to release possibly its most definitive and powerfully affecting release in Shlohmo's Bad Vibes. Friends of Friends is, or has become, a decidedly album-oriented label, focused on cohesive long-form statements. "If all you do is release an EP it's kind of difficult to build. It's about opening as many windows to the artist as possible and I think albums tend to do that for people... I'd argue that it's harder to put out an EP; you're running into the same problem without the lasting relationship. When you start talking about an album length release you're talking about videos, the visual representation, back to the narrative: it's a whole story whereas an EP is about a moment time. An album can be a full piece of art. In the case of Henry [Shlohmo], he's done all his press photos, cover art, literally even making his own music video right now."
Shlohmo: Burger vibes
Brown admits there's no solid FoF "sound," but variety is what defines the label, rather than predictability: "I like the idea of us being 'grey area,' frankly, just something people look at to get pointed towards good music. Maybe not everything for everyone, but maybe something for everyone," Brown says optimistically. "It's kinda like that old show, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, where there's a bunch of different robots that come together to form the different limbs of a much larger and scarier robot. A lot of labels are all about the fact that all the artists on the label make music that caters to the same niche; FoF is all about having something for everyone," echoes Jasper Patterson, who releases music on the label as Groundislava.
Brown is proud of the variety: "The bottom line is that genres are really not what they used to be... these days, when you ask someone what they listen to, the answer is always 'oh, everything.' What does that mean anymore? It's starting to help me realize that not one identity can encompass somebody. We're an electronic music label that releases electronic music." He's still modest about the success, however, and insists the best is yet to come: "People congratulate us for where we're at and frankly I don't feel like we're anywhere yet. I still know in comparison to these other labels that we look up to, people don't know who we are, so we need to do a lot of work to get to the point where people actually care about our artists. We're still young though." His mission, though, is simple—"to me the most important thing is creating stuff that people genuinely want and not just want right now because it's a hot mp3."
Friends of Friends MixThis month's label showcase is from Salva & Lazy Brow. The duo take you on a ride through the varied sounds of the imprint thus far, with (by our count) more than half of it unreleased or upcoming.
Download: RA Label of the Month 1108 Mix: Friends of Friends
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Filesize: 98.1 MB
01. Mexicans with Guns - El Moreno ft. Helado Negro
02. Burial - Shell of Light (Shlohmo Remix)
03. Kelis - Milkshake (Shlohmo Remix)
04. Robot Koch - Overnight ft. Jahcoozi
05. Salva - Keys Open Doors (Devonwho Remix)
06. Larytta - You Got Nothing
07. Gun Selectah - Villa Ghetto (LOL Boys Remix)
08. Gun Selectah - Villa Ghetto
09. Beans - Blue Movie (Salva Remix)
10. Groundislava - My Unexpected Return to Olympia
11. Asura - Always Be My Baby (Mariah Carey)
12. Groundislava - I Bet I Do (Supa Blanco)
13. Shlohmo - Just Us