There are some events that you just can’t see past. They loom on the horizon, impassable, immovable and as dubiously perilous as Don Quixote’s windmill giants. The Debt Records fifth anniversary (“Five Years In Debt”) was one of those.
I spend a lot of my time booking shows, mostly for myself, sometimes for acts on the label as part of their promo schedules for new releases. Every time a promoter has been in touch over the last few weeks asking for a tech spec or a biog I’ve looked at the email and thought “but… how can anyone seriously comprehend a time AFTER the Debt Records fifth anniversary? How can anything be planned? How do we know what will exist in such an uncertain future?” as if our birthday showcase were the musical equivalent of the fall of capitalism or an imagined Second Coming.
But that’s the funny thing about context. Everyone has their own. And each personal context tends to envelop us like a snug cocoon – there’s an entire universe embroidered on the inside blocking out a world of forgotten indifference beyond the slimmest of walls.
And now it’s over. Done. Past tense.
It was a wonderful event. Actually I’m amazed there were no breakdowns – mental or technical. We managed to cram representatives from every one of our current acts into about three and a half hours; with full-band sets from Honeyfeet, Felix Hagan & The Family, Snowapple, Walk and T. E. Yates interspersed with stripped down appearances from Ivan Campo, Alabaster dePlume, Becca Williams, Richard Barry and me. Time was short and expectations were high. The stage crew worked miracles.
Inevitably it was a relatively nostalgic affair. The venue was papered with old event posters and we had monitors in strategic positions looping all the music videos from the past five years. But then looking back has never been more fashionable. People reminisce about experiences while they’re still having them. Social media is full of dreamily filtered images of would-be memories from five minutes ago. We seem to be living in a temporal future imperfect where no verb is ever satisfactorily conjugated.
Of course there is always more back than forward at a birthday celebration, no matter how hopeful and future-conscious. In fact we kind of designed this gig with that in mind – our party took place in the same venue as our first showcase back in 2009 and I even wore the same suit and stetson (though the waistband was a little tighter this time round!).
This retrospective impulse seems apt for a record label. Notions of the past, present and future are staple themes of popular music. Indeed, the recording process itself is dependent on capturing a moment with the intention of creating some kind of immortal past striding into an unsuspecting future. Even the spontaneity is studied.
Little labels like ours are very much like bands. They depend on the enthusiasm of the contributors far more than financial common sense or a stable infrastructure. Once the passion goes, everything goes. Occasionally I look back and marvel we’ve lasted five years, but mostly I’m amazed that it’s only been five years. It now feels like something I’ve always been a part of.
Like most labels we were very naive at the start. But I think the enduring exuberance of Debt Records is a consequence of that naivete rather than in spite of it. In my short introductory speech I mentioned how we still have no idea what we’re doing. It got a laugh but I wasn’t joking. The music industries have been changing drastically ever since we started – they were changing then and they still haven’t settled on a “new way” that we can all agree on – indeed, there’s still no hint that this business is going to settle down any time soon. Some people still swear by CDs, for others it’s vinyl or nothing, many have abandoned all physical formats in favour of the mp3. And those are just the people who want to purchase music – that’s the easy stuff! More than the delivery mechanism, the very idea of ownership is changing with the proliferation of streaming services. Every time I go to a music conference I chat to label directors who don’t know how they’re going to weather all these changes without either suffering huge financial losses or enduring unpleasant compromises.
If you ever meet anyone at a label who confidently informs you they know what they’re doing, that they’ve got this business figured, well… consider yourself warned: you’ve either met a villain or an idiot.
So I’m optimistic because we still don’t know what’s going on. We’re still innocents. The records being released this year (whatever their chosen format or promotional angle) are of the highest caliber of creativity I’ve encountered. Everyone is pushing forward. Everyone is doing their best and most ambitious work. I have no idea if this stuff will appear on compact disc, wax cylinder, piano roll or download. But it will exist. And that’s good enough for me.
Here’s to many more years of being in Debt.
Photos © Andrew Ab 2014