City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Money Will Ruin Everything

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(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?

Rune Grammofon: Money Will Ruin Everything []


5 responses to “Money Will Ruin Everything”

  1. Jack Avatar

    Well said. Another good example is Dust to Digital‘s Goodbye, Babylon project – six CDs of religous music, beautifully packaged in a cedarwood box packed with raw cotton, accompanied by an almost overly-exhaustive booklet packed with essays and notes. It’s not just a listening experience, it’s, well, a package. The thing even smells lovely, for goodness sake.
    I do wonder, though, whether this is a generational thing – do the little kids now happily downloading away have the same view of music as something that comes bound up with attendant artifacts? I don’t know any to ask, but if they aren’t being raised in homes where vinyl records with their cover art and liner notes are things to be treasured as well as listened to (as folk over, say, 20-something were) I can’t imagine where they’d get the idea that music is to be consumed in the way we understand it, with wider context provided by the packaging.


  2. Submit Response Avatar

    Music Is A Package

    In his review of the recent Rune Grammofon release, Money Will Ruin Everything, Dan Hill attempts to counter the idea…


  3. DD Avatar

    As far as American labels go, i find the tiny label Crouton to be very eye appealing.
    I would single out their series “Folktales” particularly, both for its graphic design and for the quality of music contained therein. Also these are limited editions, which make collecting them even more enjoyable.
    BTW, I never found Tzadik to be in the same exceptional league (graphic design wise) as Rune Gramophone, Touch, HatHut, and the original, ECM and (of course) Blue Note.


  4. DD Avatar

    Also I would single out the Italian label Ponderosa (not always the best artists, but nice design)
    I have Sainkho’s Stepmother City which has a very seductive and sheen-like gatefold sleeve, and also Rokia Traore’s new album as good examples.
    Re: Revenant, Harry Smith, Institute du Monde Arabe, Locus Solus -> Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes. I own Locus Solus: the music sounds a bit dated imho, but the design of the fold out booklet – 360 degrees – is neat.


  5. Dan Avatar

    Trackbacks sent to this post at the time (before I turned trackbacks off due to spam):

    » Music Is A Package from Submit Response
    In his review of the recent Rune Grammofon release, Money Will Ruin Everything, Dan Hill attempts to counter the idea… [Read More]


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