(Review of Rune Grammofon’s new book/double CD. First published at BBCi Music.)
So, Forrester consultants believe that the CD will be "all but obsolete" within 5 years due to digital downloads. And Tony Wilson suggests that the iPod has "made music packaging sexy again".
Poppycock. While the iPod itself may be kinda coquettish, the idea that digital downloads are the only way forward ignores the important work of several small labels who produce packaging which truly adds to the experience of listening to music; who realise that if you’re going to make something to accompany the music, you do it with the same care and loving attention to detail as the musicians themselves; labels that truly make a physical artifact worthwhile (and incidentally offer a way out for the music industry.)
As ever the innovation is at the edges. The Norwegian label Rune Grammofon is five years old, and for each one of those five years, every Rune Grammofon release has felt like part of some overarching and quite beautiful strategy. Likewise, the incredibly varied music across this label also feels part of some coherent whole. And as a summary of those first five years, RG have produced a 96-page hardback book containing two CDs of largely unreleased material by the label’s key artists. Or is it that, as it says inside, "this book is a record cover"? Either way, it’s exquisitely realised by their superb designer, Kim Hiorthøy (whose music for the label is also featured here).
Inside that book/record cover, label boss Rune Kristofferson talks about 4AD, ECM, Tzadik and Factory as influences. It’s clear he values the ethos and identity of the label, as much as the happenstance of recording a bunch of good musicians in a particular place and time. With RG’s distributors ECM in particular, there is excellence across every aspect of its operation – a label which has consistently engendered the kind of brand values and astonishingly committed fanbase which corporations can only dream of. In a fraction of ECM’s 30+ year history, Rune Grammofon seems to be already at that stage.
That’s despite the music across the label – and on show here – being even more varied than ECM, traversing electronica, chamber jazz, northern european folk, improv, contemporary composition, ambient, post-rock, everything. It requires "hearing different", suggests The Wire’s editor Rob Young in a fine essay inside the book. Further, designer Adrian Shaughnessy writes beautifully about Hiorthøy’s sleeve designs – and the importance of sleeve design in general – alongside lush, near forensic reproductions. For the third component of the book Hiorthøy interviews Kristoffersen at length. This tells the story of RG but also offers an extremely pragmatic view of what it means to run a small successful label (with a weather eye on the title of this release). It’s as instructive a label startup guide as you’ll find anywhere!
To describe the music as sounding distinctly Norwegian would surely lead to a path strewn with tired cliches. And yet it’s true. It’s still an odd thing to feel: there are surely as many Norways as there are Norwegians (4.5m at the last count). But just as the label identity is fluid and consistent, there is a perceptible but indescribable connection between these hugely varied musics and musicians: the fiery jazz (for want of a better word) of Supersilent and Scorch Trio (or "if Hendrix had led Miles’s mid-60s quartet"); the spare beauty of Nils Økland and Arve Henrikson; the challenging abstraction of Lasse Marhaug and Andreas Meland or even the gentle songs of Susanna and the Magic Orchestra. Personal favourites Alog supply a stunning opener, and you’ll find Maja Ratkye, Deathprod, Jaga Jazzist, Food, Biosphere, Monolight, Phonophani, and many more.
Last word to Kristofferson: "I see this release as a signpost. A small glimpse backwards, but really mostly forwards. It’s meant as a modest reminder that it’s good to invest a lot of soul in the things you make." Hear that, Forrester?
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