Label Owner Interview with Zac Keiller of Dreamland Recordings
Label: Dreamland Recordings
City: Melbourne, Australia
Artists Roster: zac keiller, mitre, fm3, dead letters spell out dead words, aidan baker, pablo reche, daruin, rgv, stellarscope, silvercord, undecisive god, liquid sphere, ellende, siren, gydja, wilt, screwtape, if thousands, violet, todd merrell, roman olegov, shiny around the edges, chris rainier, tim catlin, fathmount, barnaby oliver, ian wadley, mwvm, jona byron, bird traps, remora, a lily, lakes of Russia, sleeprobot, pd wilder, Jerusalem, thisquietarmy, northatlantic audio, seaworthy, shoeb ahmad, scott cortez, seth rees, thoughts on air, the corrupting sea, jp shilo, true colour of blood, aspidistra fly, brian grainger, chris smith, pteranodon, infinite decimals
QRD – When & why did you start your label?
Zac – The idea for Dreamland Recordings started in 2002 to release strictly ambient, drone, experimental oriented music. After many years & that ethos becoming too constricting, the focus of the label has evolved to encompass whatever I am interested in doing. Nowadays if there is an artist or a work that expresses a certain point of view then I would like to release it regardless of a specific genre, but I do still tend to favour works that have a deeply atmospheric or cinematic quality about them. Although the initial idea began with my own mini-CDR release, the second official release did not arrive until 2003. I envisaged a concept of a series, tackling various aspects, moods of ambient or drone music. So the “ambient series” term was born & it seemed to really take off.
QRD – Where did you get the money to finance your first few releases?
Zac – Money earned from my day job.
QRD – How many releases have you put out?
Zac – Twenty-two physical releases & over thirty online releases.
QRD – How many releases would you like to do a year?
Zac – More than I am now, which is none. But if I could get it going again properly with a better approach I would most likely release one or two works per year & they would have to be things that I’m really invested in.
QRD – How many hours a week do you work on the label & how many would you like to?
Zac – Ideally with enough time & money I would do it full time, but that’s not going to happen.
QRD – What are the fun &/or rewarding parts about running a label?
Zac – There are many, but the most fun I’ve had is in finding a certain artist or a certain demo & the excitement of this is great & I have to do everything I can to make other people hear it. A close second is the artwork design. One of the greatest things was finding my staple artist in mitre aka Scott Richardson. We were like the Scorcese/DeNiro collaborations. DR002 - Sympathy for Agamemnon was our Mean Streets, the two online EPs were our Taxi Driver & the final two physical releases DR016 - Fold Your Wings & DR017 - In the middle of the night were our Goodfellas. Scott was basically the first person I approached once I started looking & I really love his music! Maybe the fact we’re both Cancers has something to do with it? I have fond memories of the first Dreamland event Defenders of the Axe. Not only was it the first show I’d ever hosted (running around stressing like a headless chicken) it was a concept night of guitar-oriented performers featuring Ben Frost headlining, during a brief trip from Iceland performing material from his Theory of Machines album. It was a free show in the middle of summer with people coming & going through the venue. It had a special vibe that night, something I’ve been trying to recreate with every show.
QRD – How have your motivations for having a label changed?
Zac – I have been doing a lot of thinking about & observation of other labels, the question of whether or not it is still worth doing. Do people want to buy releases on physical formats? Should it become entirely mp3 operated? These ideas alone occupied so much mental energy that I’ve just kept putting off moving ahead with the label until earlier this year. After establishing another small local project (focused on events) with a friend & watching the reaction that it received from up & coming bands & the fact that it came to have some kind of positive influence, I realised that operations like these are important for small musical communities. Once I got to thinking about that I felt compelled to start making steps to resurrect the label, starting small with a Facebook page & tracks of previous releases, to take stock of the brilliant artists that came before & now two new releases are being planned for 2011 along with a drastic & simple website redesign. With what I’ve learned in the last couple of years hosting shows, the focus of the label as an events initiative has started picking up momentum & as well as having the fortune to continue working with the huge talent pool of musicians in Melbourne, I am interested in making performance opportunities available for overseas artists. I would like Dreamland to represent a beacon of support, as I’m aware of some musicians that would like to make the trip, but are handicapped due to lack of local contacts & knowledge of cities. This is a gap that I would like to bridge in some way. If I can make the experience of travelling & performing here as welcoming & enjoyable as possible I will have succeeded. Whether or not anyone makes the trip? Only time & more talk will tell. But the short & skinny story is that I am trying to streamline the operation & have more to offer.
QRD – What do you feel is the biggest waste of your time running the label?
Zac – I’m not sure. It depends on one’s outlook; anyone trying to do something like this is bound to have days where the whole endeavour feels like a waste of time. Sending out promos & press kits to writers that have specifically requested them only to not see any reviews has been very disheartening on occasion. I know how other labels feel as I’ve let that happen writing reviews myself, when I’ve not found the time to write about someone else’s release.
QRD – What are some labels you admire or feel a kinship to?
Zac – Thisquietarmy Records, from the point of view & style/design aspects, & importantly because he has still kept going where I have slowed down. Iceage Productions for his work ethic, knowledge of obscure music, belief in what he’s releasing & assistance to a lot of us in Melbourne. Last but not least is Vacant Valley, a recent Melbourne label that has been releasing across formats: CD, vinyl, & cassette. I dig his tireless work ethic, enthusiasm, & his support of overlooked music in Melbourne. In particular the 2nd two as they really literally put everything they have into it.
QRD – What other work experiences prepared you to have a label?
Zac – I can’t say that anything “prepared” me for it, but prior to founding the label I had been corresponding with overseas artists for many years, many of whom I met via working with Japanese power electronics artists during my teens. From learning about the vast network that they established it gave me a sense of the direction I wanted to go & having this small contact base right away provided a group of people I wanted to collaborate with.
QRD – What makes your label special & unique?
Zac – Initially it was that the first eight releases were all mini-CDRs. That set it apart a little, although once I got started I became aware that a lot of other micro labels were releasing mini-CDRs at the time; Taalem records were a good example, but the difference was I had a set number of releases within that format. The other speciality is that the label didn’t get bogged down sticking with the one style, as soon as I’d finished with the ambient series I moved on to something different in the form of DR010 - Stellarscope Wasted Time EP. I dig Tommy’s enthusiasm, he’s been like the Energizer Bunny all of these years.
QRD – How has your physical location affected your label?
Zac – There are less office supply outlets where I live now to purchase blank media & inks for my printer & there are no duplication companies around here, which is another factor in less label activity. If I had everything I required at my fingertips I probably would have released more material.
QRD – Do you enjoy music as much now as you used to & how has running a label effected how you listen to/hear music?
Zac – I love music more the older I get. I don’t really think about it most of the time, but recently I realised that I listen to music nearly every part of the day. I listen all day long at my day job, we’ll listen on the journey to & from work, & then I’ll get home & if I’m not recording my own music I will be online listening to or tracking down new artists. In terms of the actual “listening” (as with all of us) I found that once I left high school & spent more time on my own I started absorbing a lot more material from different genres; but there were still certain things I wasn’t ready for in my early twenties that I’ve accepted now, but these days I’m becoming less bound by genres & if I get a direct emotional response to something then I’ll keep listening to it.
QRD – What’s your demos policy?
Zac – I’m not accepting anything anymore, at least not until I figure out the label’s future. Nowadays it’s the reverse, in that I’m the one contacting the artist if I want to work with them.
QRD – How do you find out about new artists for your label?
Zac – By just keeping my eyes & ears open, recommendations from friends etc. I occasionally write for Foxy Digitalis, which is a great avenue of exposure.
QRD – How do most fans find out about your label?
Zac – Initially it was the label’s website & then once I set up the MySpace, a lot of traffic came through there. This year I set up a Facebook page with a track from every previous release & a lot of people have been paying attention to that.
QRD – What’s been your biggest selling release & why do you think it was?
Zac – The two biggest sellers were DR005 - Aidan Baker: Cicatrice (sold out) & DR015 - If Thousands: Greystone on Sea. I sent half the run to Aidan when it was released & he quickly sold them out & the remaining copies steadily dwindled down until early this year when the last was sold. Aidan is extremely talented & even in 2002/3 his micro label works did very well. He was one of those artists that delivered consistently brilliant releases so it isn’t a hard stretch that his profile keeps growing because he keeps turning out brilliant results. If Thousands had already established a reputation with a unique sound & selection of instruments, thanks to the support of Silber, which in turn probably attributed to interest in their Dreamland release.
QRD – What release that you’ve done was the most important & special to you personally?
Zac – The two releases I obsessed on were DR012 - Hidden Landscape: Lake Vostok compilation & DR022 - String Theory: an exploration of international guitar sounds compilation. I’ve come to realise that compilations are just my thing & the roots of that lead back to when I used to make mix tapes in my teens & early 20s. I wouldn’t just simply throw the tracks on there, I had to be difficult & sequence them in a particular way based on the moods or emotions. (I related a lot to John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity). If there is one thing I’d fight over, it is my ability to deliver a sequence of different tracks that actually work together & have some sort of narrative structure, almost like a film soundtrack. With String Theory, I worked on that for nearly two years, obsessively, on the sequence, on picking what guitarists were involved, on the artwork….. I’d say that is the most definitive statement from the label that most reflects my own point of view. String Theory was about scouring the globe & representing as many guitarists & styles I could find, maybe not technically different players, but different in their tools & geographic locations. At the end I came 80% close to achieving that goal. Hidden Landscape was special in that it was such a strong concept that finding the right artists was simply like slotting pieces into a puzzle.
QRD – What are some things that make you want to work with a band?
Zac – Going back to what I mentioned, the gut emotional reaction to music.
QRD – What are some things that would make you stop working with a band?
Zac – If they’re a-holes, if we couldn’t communicate each others’ ideas or needs effectively. The fact that many musicians & creative types are an unreliable bunch can be a hassle, but the good fortune I’ve had thus far also extends to the people I’ve worked with who have been extremely enthusiastic, driven & easy to get along with.
QRD – What is the thing all releases on your label have in common?
Zac – I guess they’re all reflective of my own tastes & if you were to listen to them all in one sitting you would get a sense that although they are quite different, they can still occupy the same space.
QRD – How involved are you with a band for acting as a producer as far as hearing demo ideas or selecting tracks to be on a release or mixing & mastering?
Zac – Not that involved. The bands I’ve worked with have had no trouble with their direction. I would only ever step in if the audio quality was seriously bad or if the artwork was atrocious or had nothing to do with the music. Luckily none of that has ever come up. Outside of Dreamland Recordings I work under the name Deserted Audio Services & master music for bands. It is very enjoyable & I’ve worked on a few albums thus far, the fact I have no qualifications other than trial & error is an asset in that I’m continually trying to find ways to not over-master music to retain its original spirit. It is a great challenge but an enjoyable one.
QRD – How involved do you like to be in the artwork design for a release?
Zac – Usually the band has already worked that out. If they have not worked it out then I jump at the chance. I love designing artwork. Going back to the gut reaction, when I first heard the tracks for DR015 - If Thousands: Greystone on Sea I immediately had a vision of the artwork & designed three covers for it & used every one for different orders.
QRD – How long is it from when an artist delivers an album to you until release date & why?
Zac – This is a grey area now as I do have an album I was supposed to release four years ago. I feel terrible about it as it is an album that I really love & the artist by now I think has released the tracks in other formats, but it is my worst regret about the label, not delivering that album I am still hoping to do it (sorry J). When the label was operating properly it was a few months between first contact with the artist & release of their work.
QRD – If a band breaks up between the recording of a release & the release date, how does that effect what you do?
Zac – It does not affect anything. If the music is good, it is good. In fact the breakup is probably a positive thing in terms of gaining more interest in the release. I think more bands should break up these days to help their careers. Big Black calling it quits after Songs About Fucking is a good case in point. Hell, I’d break up with myself if I thought it would shift a few more CDs.
QRD – If you really like a band, but aren’t sure you could sell many copies of their record; what do you do?
Zac – I’ve not had this issue come up as yet. At a certain period I shifted the operation to make on demand, which enabled me to not be in that position in that if I did love a particular release I could still give it a shot without worrying about money or resources, I would simply press copies according to whatever the interest level dictated.
QRD – How is financing of a release split between artists & the label?
Zac – Dreamland has always been a very low profile operation. Due to the fact I’m not business savvy enough to treat like a fully professional operation & the time I can devote to it, that is all it can be, & any money made from a release has gone back into financing the next one. When I pitch the label to an artist it is on the condition that I cannot promise anything, but we can be a springboard to something else & if the work is out there circulating, the fact that it is under a banner of support whether large or small can help the chances of the artist getting to work with other labels.
QRD – How do you split profits from a release between artists & your label?
Zac – Any money made has been so low it has been used on the next release, but bands are mailed copies of their releases to sell via their own channels if they request them with whatever money earned going back to them.
QRD – Do you have written contracts with your bands or handshake deals?
Zac – No written contracts just handshake deals.
QRD – Do you handle promotions in house or hire out & why?
Zac – I would handle promotion myself. If I do have a new release then a strong online presence is the way I do things. Occasionally the label has been granted some reviews in published magazines from generous writers, but I can’t say that any sales were made because of that exposure; usually people find their way to the label via other bands or just browsing the web.
QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?
Zac – When there is a new release I will usually send some mass mailouts. If there are no new releases, every once in a while I do another mass mailout just to refresh peoples memories about the label.
QRD – How big of a staff do you have & how big of one do you need?
Zac – Just me, although it would be nice if I had a team of people that wanted to do it for the same reasons, any interested parties get in touch.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with radio stations?
Zac – Just keep in touch, keep sending them material, & refresh their memories from time to time. I’ve been lucky to have a few local radio DJs continue to support my own work & the Dreamland catalogue.
QRD – Do you sell music that is not on your label?
Zac – Sometimes. I did sell a few copies of the Amplifier Machine/Amo split CD a while ago. If you’re a fan of Amplifier Machine from hearing their 12K release, then track this down as it is very rare.
QRD – How has running a label affected your own artistic career?
Zac – When I was running it all of the time I was not working on my own projects & now I’m working on my own projects & not running the label. It is like the old saying of wearing different hats. The older I get the less drive I have to work on both with the same level of dedication, but my own projects have been slowing down this last year & I now have my Dreamland hat back on, working on some new things.
QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?
Zac – The first Dreamland release DR001 - The Field is mine as is the collaboration with Heath Yonaites DR013 - Damaged Lethal Harmonies, but I chose to keep my own solo activities away from the label a long time ago, whereas nowadays I use the Dreamland moniker for my own events, so my thinking on that is a little grey area these days.
QRD – What have you done to cut costs over the years?
Zac – As mentioned I started making the releases (after the ambient mini series) on demand, but then I had less time to work with assembling them & went back to limited pressings.
QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?
Zac – I don’t think so. I love albums & assembling a good album is an art form that seems to be neglected. Because it is often neglected I keep coming across albums with shitty sequencing that could have been avoided. I believe that some people may not like albums because they’re far too long. I never do anything longer than 45-50 minutes. If it can’t be expressed within that time then don’t bother as it will just bore the listener. I love short albums that get to the point & then finish. Leave the listener wanting more. Windy & Carl understand this perfectly. Their best works are never longer than 45 minutes & each time I feel like listening to more. Maybe people listen to more single tracks these days (myself included); but I think if you’re a music lover, putting on an album & listening from start to finish has yet to die.
QRD – Do you think the return of vinyl & cassettes is a fad?
Zac – If the formats are being offered in a sincere manner with a quality package then who can say for sure? But since MP3s took off, I do feel people miss the physical document of a release, & you could not get a more physical format than cassettes back in the day. Cassettes & vinyl as well as having a particular sound are aesthetically pleasing formats with a sense of nostalgia, so I think they’ll be around for a while longer. There is also a strong group of tape labels releasing limited editions with very considered eye catching packaging; as long as quality is on offer then I think they will survive.
QRD – Is it important to have physical releases over digital ones or does it not matter?
Zac – This is the question I have been returning to in the last few years. If you’re a musician considering releasing something, it can be a source of both futility & excitement, so I am confronting it in 2011 with a new free online compilation release titled Around featuring a mix of bands & artists from around the world. With the help of renowned photographer Christy Romanick’s colourful snaps, we’re designing a digital package that will somehow stand out, whether we nail the design will be up to the individual, but we’re giving it a good shot & the Dreamland web site is getting re-designed as well to coincide with this. In a way this is a response to many smaller online labels releasing compilations through file hosting sites like Mediafire, having to use passwords to access the urls or wait 50 seconds for the link to become available… whilst I can understand this being the only option from a smaller label standpoint & being financially limited, it is all very cold in the execution. There are some great online labels delivering quality, Archaic Horizon springs to mind, brilliant artwork & web design, as well as sounds & a lot of labels could learn something from them. What I’m aiming for with this release is to draw someone in to downloading it because they like the look of it or the content, rather than, “It’s free, I’ll download that.” Having said that, I am very excited to be releasing the new album by Infinite Decimals. They’re an experimental Melbourne act that create long improvised soundscapes with guitar, piano, & bass. Since their inception they have kept a unique visual aesthetic using paintings by Aussie artist Miriam White in their designs. It will be a CDR release in a colourful package, so I’m still interested in working within both areas as long as there is some thoughtful design involved.
QRD – What do you think of ultra-limited runs of releases (less than 100 discs)?
Zac – Hey that’s all I’ve been doing. It works. It all comes down to the band/artist & the content of the music & in the case of experimental, sound art, noise, or drone you need to be realistic. Right off the bat there is a limited level of interest, so that should help in making an informed decision on how many copies to press. I still have boxes full of releases from 2003 onwards, having hundreds of discs sitting around does no good for anyone, let alone the environment, so from experience I believe smaller runs are the way to go, & if they happen to sell out, repress!
QRD – What do you think of “print on demand” discs?
Zac – See above. They keep costs low & reduce waste.
QRD – How much content do you feel should be available free to fans?
Zac – It is reasonable to have a paid release, & then follow it up with possibly a free EP or something along those lines. If you do have a free release it is also important that the material isn’t throw away & equally as good as a paid one which goes toward removing the perception that if is offered for free then it is inferior. Partly why I set up the online series of releases as a way to have material freely available, but also as a means to gain an awareness for the artists I couldn’t quite release physically. That whole online channel took on a life of its own & by hosting the files on the archive.org site it was a great way to gauge the response to the music with the reviews & star ratings. Generally every online release was well favoured by the listeners. My opinions can change though, as in 2008 I put my entire solo catalogue on my web site for free download, until this year each release only had about 30 hits. After a while I went back & re-evaluated the recordings & I’ve taken most of them down to be re-mastered & released physically in a small box set (fingers crossed). Other people sharing your released music is beyond your control in some ways, but giving it away yourself cheapens it & the material I removed I’m quite attached to.
QRD – What do you do about people distributing your music without financial compensation (piracy & file trading)?
Zac – Nothing. To give you an example of how bad it is. Aidan Baker, Jorge Castro, & I recorded a collaborative album in 2002 that was never finished. About one or two years ago, a cheap branded CDR of said album was sold on ebay for over $20 USD. I’ve never even had a copy of the complete files, yet there it was for sale. The seller had it touted as “Aidan Baker of Nadja” & two other guys. My advice is to be prepared for your work to go viral as soon as it is released, or even just before. It has happened; it keeps happening & as long as humans are sitting on computers & remain too lazy & indifferent to research or track anything down legitimately it will continue to do so. It is the age we live in & now it is our future. There is nothing we can do beyond having the peace of mind to release the best possible physical document of a work & hope that more people will buy it through official channels.
QRD – What would you suggest to someone starting a label today?
Zac – To have a strong visual sense of what you’re doing as well as a strong design/packaging sense. Of course the sound & content is the most important, but there are so many micro labels & labels in general that to stand out from the crowd your releases have to entice people. Room40 are one of the leaders of this pack. The paper, design, artwork, music, sounds, & CDs must look & sound good enough to eat! & I’ve eaten a few.
QRD – Where do you think money is currently most available to labels/musicians & where in the future?
Zac – I put this question to a couple of more established artists I know, & it seems that if there is any money then it lays within licensing & distribution. One of them does not sell that many CDs but their music is played on local television dramas with earnings that have enabled them to press their next release. More importantly I believe that creating a strong live set or presence & touring it works too. Present a performance that engages on some level for the audience & it will work. I think any musician, be it a band, solo artist or bedroom artist, should really attempt to create a performance of their music, even something as simple as a carefully constructed set list will probably lead to more interest in their recordings. Making an impression during the set will often lead to people buying recordings right there. I was recently lucky to host the first performance by a young guitar drone artist Sam Filmer. A great young kid, who even though it was a first performance, still had a unique intent, gear setup, sound & visuals, & after the show I heard a lot of positive comments about his set because people had engaged with it.
QRD – Why do you think labels are still important to artists?
Zac – For the importance of having a banner under which to present an artist’s music. In many ways a label, especially a respected one is a stamp of approval; it also shows to the public that someone took a chance on the product & is behind the artist’s work. It’s the same principle as married men being hit on by single women because of their wedding band, which in this case is the label.
QRD – Music has had different hotspots on the internet over the years (newsgroups, MP3.com, MySpace, LastFM), but with MySpace’s decline, what do you see as the place where “normal” people go to find out about & get excited by new music?
Zac – It seems that Facebook is on the up for discovering new music. Since setting up the Dreamland Recordings page it receives a lot of traffic. The number of fans increases by the week without me having done that much to promote it. I especially like the new BandPage profiles by Root Music, those have decent usability & the tie in with storing the tracks on a Soundcloud account is a good step. The best thing MySpace could do at this point is restore to its original state & aim the marketing on its simple functionality which was the reason it became popular with musicians in the first place. Simplicity & usability always win: “This is the band, here is their bio, & here are four songs”. That was all anyone needed to make an informed judgement about a band. MySpace was always, at best, a music driven platform; so Tom should either put it to sleep or if he’s not too busy counting his cash, come to his senses & restore it. I like where Facebook is going with its music profiles, but they’re still not quite good enough. I like Bandcamp & have just setup an account for my solo recordings, at this stage it’s more of an experiment to see if anything happens with it.
QRD – In 20 years what do you think/hope your label will be known/remembered for?
Zac – I never think that far ahead, but if I did it would be a small hope. A hope that the label was able to make a difference in a musician’s life, that encouraged them to continue their project, or lead onto something bigger for whatever they’re doing, which is what I’ve always pitched it as. I know the limitations that I can work within, but that doesn’t mean that the label cannot be useful in some way to someone. What I do within the label is the same as what I do in every day life; if I listen to a project, if I really connect with what they’re doing then I’ll go well out of my way to keep encouraging them & helping, because there is not enough of that. Due to our insecurities & hang-ups I don’t think musicians are really talking to each other about their work, let alone encouraging & nurturing it; I don’t know, maybe it isn’t cool to be nice or to appreciate what someone else is doing or people prefer to have a quiet respect? The fact that music tends to be scene oriented is a major setback for a lot of musicians I know. I find the whole notion of scenes nauseating & limiting to creativity or a project’s musical identity. Some of the worst offenders of this behaviour claim to be opposed to scenes yet keep perpetuating the problem. A musical community is a different ideal that I fully support & have been striving for. It does exist to a certain degree, but could be better once scenes are battered into submission & then shot to eliminate any signs of life. I don’t consider Dreamland to be part of any scene; I work with friends & total strangers alike, based on their music alone. If anyone out there listens to the existing catalogue I’d like to think they’d take that away. Looking to the future, there will be more events featuring overlooked musicians, more exposure of largely unknown projects & hopefully a more regular release schedule, but we’ll have to wait & see.
QRD – Anything else?
Zac – Readers: I instruct you to visit the following pages.
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