Interview with Webbed Hand

We recently talked with Chris McDill, curator of Webbed Hand Records to get some insight on their label and how they operate.

Lyndsey Cockwell – DWP

Who are the people behind Webbed Hand Records? What do they do for a living? How did they get involved with music?
I have been at the helm of Webbed Hand since its founding, and presently I am assisted by Aria Nadii, who designed the website and handles some administrative functions outside my skill set. Her input into this label has been of great value. When I first started the label my brother helped, as he was starting a label of his own, so we shared resources and ideas.

For a living we do, to borrow a classic quote, “a little of this and that.” Our involvement in music began as listeners and slowly evolved into being creators. I had sporadic experiments in tape-based sound art dating back to the late 80s, but didn’t get serious until mere months before I founded Webbed Hand.

What was the motive for starting Webbed Hand in 2003? Is it still valid today?
In the beginning, it was not a netlabel, but a CDr label which I started for the purpose of selling my own recordings. At that time I was also giving away mp3s hosted on my website. It was costing me more than I was making and the situation was not sustainable, so I had to seek an alternative.

In 2004, I learned from a friend about Creative Commons licensing and about the new section at the Internet Archive for netlabel hosting, and that inspired me to change Webbed Hand to a CC-licensed netlabel, not just for my own work, but open to other artists who make work that shares my musical aesthetic.

So I’d say the motive that is still valid today started in 2004, and it was a different motive prior to that.

Has your promotional release process changed through the years? Can you share with us your usual steps when dealing with promoting a new release?
By and large, I expect artists to take up most of the burden of promoting their work. I make announcements on Twitter and in relevant forums including Facebook, which does draw some listeners, but the biggest “hits” on Webbed Hand have come from artists themselves passionately spreading the word about their music. This is how it’s always been with Webbed Hand, and I think listeners appreciate that I’m not aggressive about pushing the music.

There seem to be more ambient / drone netlabels then there used to be physical labels. Do you agree? Do you think this is due to the internet allowing people to discover and share niche genres more easily?
Yes, and yes. Ambient and drone music didn’t have a lot of commercial potential, so the big labels weren’t exactly sending out A&R men to sign up ambient acts. Indie labels did release ambient, but only the biggest names sold well. The largest and most overlooked presence in the days before the internet was the myriad cassette labels, sharing experimental, drone, noise and other marginal genres. Highly collectible, some of that stuff. A few of those tape labels even turned into netlabels eventually.

The current prevalence of ambient/drone netlabels can be attributed to a combination of factors. Home recording has become affordable and of a better quality than ever before. Music production software, such as softsynths makes it possible to inexpensively get sounds that once would have required an investment of many thousands of dollars. Broadband internet access and the presence of sites that will host your music for you. It is no wonder there’s been such an explosion of talent, and the ability to share it, bypassing the old music industry gatekeepers.

Have you done or considered printing limited physical editions? Why or Why not?
That is how Webbed Hand started out, but I have not done it since 2004. Since then I have adopted for Webbed Hand the philosophy of 100% free digital-only music sharing.

I do have a plan for selling some of my own music on cassettes, but they will not be under the Webbed Hand imprint. I’ll have to start a new label for work of that kind.

You have a lot of releases out on Webbed Hand. How do you deal with quality control and the quantity of demos submitted?
One of the main ideas behind Webbed Hand is that it’s a label that releases things that are to my taste. If I like something, and it fits within the genres to which the label is oriented, I’ll release it. I’m not looking for the best of these genres, just whatever appeals to me. I have accepted work that from a production standpoint is sub par, but had a good feeling to it.

In the kind of work I release on Webbed Hand, quality is a very subjective thing. Even an untrained ear can distinguish a virtuoso of piano or guitar, but what identifies a virtuoso of drone music? In experimental work the criteria are much hazier. It generally comes down to evocativeness and production quality, and the powers of evocation trump everything else.

The quantity of submissions I manage by revising the submission page on the Webbed Hand site when I get too busy. For example, presently I am not taking work from artists new to the label, except for contributions to our “Rain” series of long-form ambient albums.

I tend not to think of submissions as demos, which to my understanding are rough edits of works in progress. I ask artists to give me release-ready material in the format and bitrate they want it shared at. I try to have a very fast turnaround time between getting the submission, accepting it, and releasing it. I have heard of some netlabels that take months.

Do you (or your artists) have any contact with local promoters to organize local events?
I wouldn’t know about the artists, as they don’t inform me of their personal activities. I share some of their albums, and that’s just about all. Webbed Hand has no local connections. As far as I know, not even any artists or friends within hundreds of miles.

How do you feel about twitter and youtube as a way to promote your work? Does it really reach strangers?
I use both, and they seem to reach some people, about proportional to the effort I have put into them, which is not much. Probably Facebook has a better reach because I’ve built a better network there and am a member of a lot of ambient-related groups. Youtube is mostly a playground for me to make music videos for my own recordings.

Any particular releases you are most proud of?
It’s hard to play favorites, so I’ll take the easy way out and say I’m proudest of the compilations. Some of them were a great success and it was fascinating to see the diverse ways that artists interpreted the themes of each. One of the earliest compilations, Far Afield, is approaching 75,000 downloads. In 2008 I released a compilation of ambient made with string instruments, and there are some terrific pieces on there. Highly recommended.

Thanks for your time! Any last words for our readers?
Sure. A bit about netlabel etiquette for artists who are seeking to get an album released.

In this day and age, there are many places to share your work beside netlabels, and you might even be able to make money by self-releasing, for example on Bandcamp. The primary value of a netlabel right now is if you have work of a specific style or subgenre, a netlabel will introduce your work to fans of that subgenre, and bring you into that community.

So if you say, yes, that’s what I want, then you need to find a label that exactly fits your style. Don’t just e-mail every netlabel you find on Google. Locate a few that closely match your genre, then listen to as much of their catalogs as you can, and really ask yourself which of those do you find the closest affinity with. First approach them. Submit to only one label at a time.

If your work is too different from the typical work on a label, they are more likely to reject it no matter how good it is, because they have an audience established for a certain sound, and they may not be part of other genre communities, so it’s harder to promote what lies outside their area of interest. Many netlabel owners are swamped by submissions that are completely inappropriate, because submitters didn’t do a little research first. Somewhere out there is a perfect netlabel for you that will take your work, and you’re not going to find it by spamming. If you really want to be part of a scene, get to know it. If you want to be heard, start by being a good listener.

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