Black Lanterns: Life and Death of a netlabel

L-R: Asthmatic Astronaut, Texture, Morphamish, Krowne

It’s a little over 8 years since we founded Black Lantern. It began as a home for a loose collective of Scottish musicians. The original core crew centred around the Chemical Poets, a live hip-hop / noise / spoken word project featuring emcees Tickle, Texture (me) and Harlequinade, and musicians/producers Asthmatic Astronaut, Gung-Who and mo-seph.

The label also incorporated the various collaborations and solo projects that span out of the Chemical Poets — free party legend and production supremo Morphamish incorporated his Audiodacity label into Black Lantern after collaborating with Texture as Double Helix in 2007, while Gung-Who and Harlequinade’s groundbreaking post-rap project Sileni, the focus of their successful ‘Neverzone’ live sessions, also came on board, as did Tickle, releasing EPs with producer Salam Anders as Burning Bright. The label became the home for AA and HQ’s cult ‘doomcrunk’ project CHURCH OF WHEN THE SHIT HITS THE FAN, who (for my money at least) remain one of Scotland’s finest and yet most slept-on and underrated live bands.

What began as a small collective quickly grew, extending tentacles into mainland Europe, and across the ocean to the USA. This brought more core members to the crew, including Twin Cities beatsmith Mild Maynyrd, and Washington State emcees / producers p.WRECKS and K. Clifton (later to collaborate asAll Urban Outfield).

A rare photo of Spokane duo ALL URBAN OUTFIELD aka p.WRECKS and K. Clifton

Back home, our label began to open its arms to the thriving but little-known alternative hip-hop movement in Edinburgh, releasing new work and the back catalogue of seminal 80s/90s crew Eaters, and later Immaculate Emotion Engines (comprised of members of legendary psychedelic hip-hop group Penpushers). Another core producer joined the Black Lantern stable — Northern Ireland-born Krowne (aka Ghost By Nature), adding his measured, funk-propelled electronic beats to the mix.

Before long, we were working with artists from a myriad of different genres, countries and styles — releasing the glacial synthpop of Mr. Morse and the dark beat confections of Zelmershead from Ukraine; the widescreen post-rock electro of Machines In Heaven and the shimmering neo-disco of Nevada Base from Glasgow; the raw dubstep of Edinburgh’s Tactus; and many others.

Harlequinade & Asthmatic Astronaut aka CHURCH OF WHEN THE SHIT HITS THE FAN

There were some who joined us for just one release, like Aberdeen’s Fiona Soe Paing,Washington DC’s Questionmark Embargo (part of the Drop Lockers crew), and BLVCK CEILING (who later became a tour DJ for Limp Bizkit… obscure Black Lantern fact!). Others became regulars, including Edinburgh’s SJ Mellia, whose new work and back catalogue have both featured heavily in the Black Lantern story.

We operated as a ‘netlabel’ — most of our releases were free / pay-what-you-want, and we considered submissions from all over the world. Although always discerning, and never having released anything just for the sake of it, we’ve had an open door policy which has served us well in some ways, less so in others.

The ‘long tail’ model of engagement and recouping investment has definitely opened us up to a wide audience, with artists such as Mark Neil and mo-seph racking up tens of thousands of downloads via our American digital distributor, Free Music Archive. But our sales remained modest, and even our most successful projects struggled to do much more than break even. We never had any funding, outside investors, or much in the way of interest from the industry.

Black Lantern 100, like it’s sister compilation Black Lantern 50, was intended as a sampler for the label’s past, present and future. We planned to relaunch Black Lantern in 2015 with a smaller roster, focusing on our core artists, and trying to get our licensing, distribution and sync deals handled professionally. For a combination of reasons, this never happened — in some ways, the invention of Bandcamp immediately made netlabels sort of irrelevant. We became just one page in a vast network of ‘labels’ and artists, the signal immediately lost among the noise.

While we proved the model for the relaunched label with the crowdfunding campaign, press blitz and launch prepared for Scottish rapper and celebrated ‘cultural errorist’ Loki’s seminal 2014 album Government Issue Music Protest, the will to carry on as a fully-fledged label simply didn’t coalesce, and we all moved on to other projects.

Two years on, these events seem a little less tragic and a little more inevitable. The lessons learned in the projected redesign and relaunch of the site have been applied to the launch of Asthmatic Astronaut’s This Is Not Pop label, Krowne’s recently announced Precog Records, and in projects from Morphamish, myself, Tickle and others such as düst, Ill Papa Giraffe, A Vengeance and others.

Furthermore, we never stopped working together — my forthcoming album ELEVATE features production from Krowne and Asthmatic Astronaut, and verses from Tickle, Harlequinade and others. As a collective, we live on, in a loose way —our Facebook page and group both share news of upcoming projects from the label’s scions, and we are always planning ways to slip the Black Lantern name back into peoples’ consciousness. In many ways, the dissolution of the label has freed us from certain illusions, entitlements and expectations we may have naively held in those early days.

It’s been widely acknowledged that the music industry has been dying for some time. The middle tier of touring and recording artists is collapsing. Only mega-brand / mega-bland stars like Rihanna or Justin Bieber remain truly profitable for the corporate giants.

We believed, perhaps naively, that the netlabel model would replace or supplant the traditional industry. This has failed to happen. The bedroom empires of the netlabel movement have, for the most part, remained just that.

Rapper Tickle (aka Ill Papa Giraffe) in action

Black Lantern, like so many netlabels, struggled to be seen amid a tide of free net releases. Our dedication to alternative and experimental sounds made us something of a tough sell, even on our home turf, even with decent live shows to back us up.

The old tactics for promoting net releases became less effective each year, as the corporate giants continued their push towards dominance of the independent models we used to engage with our fans - from using crowdfunding to fund large-scale releases; to making Facebook pages less scaleable and more expensive to run; to the increasing corporate dominance and likely heat-death of Soundcloud.

None of this phases us or discourages us as artists.

Chemical Poets in 2010 (L-R) Texture, Tickle, Harlequinade

We are part of a generation of musicians and artists who prize artistic fulfilment over financial success. We create because we have to, because we want to, because we are compelled to. None of us see ourselves as potential stars or money-makers for the dying industry paradigm — if we did, we would long ago have made concessions to the dominant trends and styles of what remains of ‘pop’ music. Rather, we stay true to the avant garde, hip-hop, electro, techno and bass music that originally inspired us, and continue to try to innovate as we invent.

These are the challenges that face us, and the generation of artists and curators we came up alongside. What we learned, without a shadow of a doubt, is that there is an audience for our music. It is a global audience, rather than a local one.

We will continue to re-align ourselves to the reality of modern music culture; to re-imagine ourselves with more clarity, more focus. We recognise that in order to survive, we must behave a bit more like the labels of the old-model industry — every artist needs distribution networks, a co-ordinated approach to press and marketing, to branding.

Harlequinade and Texture on the mic for New Jersey’s WFMU in 2009

Over the life of the label we refined our skills as gatekeepers or curators, and also as producers and artists. We have moved on — not in search of profit, but in search of sustainability.

To everyone who followed us along the way, and who remembers the legacy, thanks for supporting us — whether you’re a campaign veteran, or whether this is your first taste of Black Lantern Music.

This is the end. This is just the beginning.

- Bram E. Gieben aka Texture,Glasgow, August 2017 
(adapted from the liner notes to Black Lantern 100, released 2015)