suggestioni musicali a cura di raffaello russo
After three years of activity, David Sheppard and Glen Johnson of Second Language make a balance of their “particular” experience of running a unique label based on the “revolutionary” ideas of building a sonic aesthetic and keeping records alive.
How did you get the idea of creating a peculiar label as Second Language?
David: It sort of willed itself into existence. Glen wanted to a release a super-limited edition, bespoke Textile Ranch album (“Tombola”) and was looking for the right label, and at about the same time our mutual friend, Martin Holm, was compiling some great tracks for a MySpace avian charity project which we thought would make a great physical album. So we instigated Second Language there and then to release Glen’s record and the “Music & Migration” compilation soon after.
We don’t think of the label as ‘peculiar’, more ‘particular’, perhaps…
Glen: On top of that, there was a general frustration with almost every other label we’d ever worked with for one reason or another. When you are your own label, you only have yourself to blame if things go wrong. And you generally get an answer from the Accounts Department a lot quicker.
Someone could think (and I can say that actually does) that making (mostly) very limited editions is an elitist way to spread the music; what would you reply to such a claim?
D.: ‘Elitism’ implies arrogance and I don’t think any of us could be honestly described that way. We’re simply trying to inject a kind of certain ‘specialness’ back into the world of music – which is why we tend to resist downloads. People have to make a bit of effort to hear and obtain our stuff. It’s similar to an artist making a limited edition print. Is that elitist?
The lovely hand-made packagings are one of Second Language distinctive features: are the artists themselves involved in the physical and graphic conception of the releases?
D.: Very often, yes, but not always. There are differing degrees of involvement. The artist always has final approval of their packaging and artwork.
G.: Generally, the artists have trusted our aesthetic vision and let us get on with it. As David says, they have approval on the last stretch but so far there hasn’t yet been a situation where the artist has said, “What the fuck is that?!?!!?”
How do you choose the stuff for your records? And how many people physically build the packages?
D.: Glen is generally in charge of this area, although we increasingly use outside designers, printers, etc, to help with the larger scale projects. There are still occasions when four or five us are gathered around a big table that’s groaning with piles of paper and miscellaneous objects, reenacting the heyday of the Arts & Crafts movement, fuelled by lots of cups of tea…
G.: My major gripe with Second Language is that we’ve never quite produced packaging of a superior design quality. Conceptually, I’d hope we have had some pretty interesting ideas but until now, we haven’t had a bona fide graphic designer on board – something that’s about to change. From this point on, I think you’ll see both the quality of the design and the packaging of Second Language releases elevating.
Do you believe that now that everyone listens to music from the web there is still some space for the cd-object?
D.: Yes, and for the vinyl object, too. I would argue that the ubiquity of tracks online, and instant access to just about all known recordings at the flick of a mouse, inevitably devalues music to a certain extent. We’re trying to put that value back.
G.: Even so, we’re not harbouring under the delusion that we can “turn” everyone back to the physical product. The future is absolutely digital, of course but we don’t live in the future. We live in the present.
And what about vinyl? Would you ever release some too?
D.: Yes. We’re getting there.
G.: We already released the Mark Fry and Piano Magic albums on vinyl. And there’ll be more vinyl in 2013 for sure. I’d go so far as to say that if money were no object, all our releases would be on vinyl. And Edison wax cylinder. And laser disc.
And, generally speaking, what do you think of the state of today’s music market?
D.: It’s a mess and it’s not working, especially for struggling musicians who are seeing their creations spirited away, for nothing. The record industry is a stumbling giant, still plodding on, deluded that it has a future based on the old models of marketing and dissemination. The end is nigh!
G.: I’m not sure I agree with that entirely. Obviously, the internet has forced record labels to adapt or die but a lot of them have successfully adapted. Digital goes hand-in-hand with physical product and thus, music can still sell in huge amounts – just not as huge as it used to. I work for a big distributor and so I can see how many Adele albums leave the warehouse every day. You wouldn’t think there was any end in sight to how many records she can sell….
How do you choose the music to be released on Second Language?
D.: We happen to be surrounded by a coterie of talented musicians, some of whom have struggled to get heard, sometimes because their networking skills aren’t quite a match for their musical ones. We also get sent lots of things. Second Language is a broad church, but a church with a fairly rigorous quality control department. Basically, if Glen, Martin and I like something enough, we’ll release it.
G.: Our actual criteria is: if we can survive four hours in the pub with you and you make decent music, we’ll probably release your record – if you’re willing to wait two years (our release schedule is full to the hilt until then).
A good amount of the Second Language catalogue is made of compilation: does this depend on a precise choice in order to give spotlight to many artists, including lesser known ones?
D.: There’s a lot of great music out there that doesn’t heard. Our compilations are a means of embracing some of this fertile hinterland. We also think they make great albums in their own right. They’re not just slung together; they’re carefully curated records.
Many of the artists involved in the releases are somehow related to the label’s owners: do you think that in these three years around Second Language has grown some kind of “collective” of artists that share a common style and philosophy?
D.: Yes, to an extent that’s certainly true – and I’m sure we’d rather think of it as a collective than a ‘business’. Second Language has its own momentum, now; people, fans, subscribers and musicians alike come to us because they know the kind of thing we make and the kind of qualities we deal in.
G.: I do think, subconsciously, there’s a sonic aesthetic that threads its way through everything we’ve released though I’d hesitate to put a name to it. Most of this music could sit comfortably side-by-side, which would suggest that we have rather precise criteria when it comes to A&R.
From Pete Astor to Mark Fry, Second Language looks like specializing in comebacks of artists after many years: is there a precise idea about (re)discovering (probably) forgotten musicians?
D.: No, not really. We just liked the music they were making and thought it should have an airing. We’re proud to release music by artists of many ages. Both Mark and Pete are ‘friends of the family’, really. It’s quite an extended family…
G.: We’re not in this to resuscitate careers. We genuinely like these people and their music. Even so, if Linda Perhacs is reading this….
After three years, can you make a balance (both artistic and economic) of Second Language activity and take a look to its close future?
D.: The label makes a modest amount of money, but then we plough it all back into the next bunch of records. That’s how it should be, I think. There is no Second Language executive jet…yet.
G.: We’re rounding off 2012 with a clear vision of what we need to do next – essentially, to put out a lot more records next year and raise the quality of the packaging. The music looks after itself – I can honestly stand by every record we’ve made and say, “I love this record.”
(original version of the interview published on Rockerilla magazine, January 2013 issue – full italian text here)