I highly recommend this interview from back in 2008 that Ian Svenonius conducts with Calvin Johnson of K Records, Beat Happening, Halo Benders, and Dub Narcotic Sound System and more. The discussion starts with Johnson talking about how the work he has done with independent labels was inspired by E.F. Schumacher‘s book Small is Beautiful which posits the idea of Appropriate Technology:
…it is generally recognized as encompassing technological choice and application that is small-scale,decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled.
K Records was made possible in part by the viability of the cassette tape as a cheaper, more intimate technology in the early 80s, an approach Johnson traces to this idea of appropriate technology. Trying to produce and record an album of a bunch of friends making music that maybe 30 or 40 other people was next to impossible with vinyl. To make an album, Johnson explains, you needed to press at least 1000 records for the production process to make economical sense. But that also assumes you could sell 1000 records—it becomes to assume mass. But cassettes make recording for just a handful of people not only possible, but extremely affordable. What’s more, it becomes a much more localized, independent, and decentralized process. He then goes on to suggest that K Records was also inspired by Smithsonian’s Folk Ways Records label. Rather than focusing on public relations and promotion, they focused on documenting and sharing the creative process—a deliberate choice that belies an ethos and an aesthetic.
When asked if he sees himself as the leader of the International Pop Underground, he answers there is no leader, rather it’s a decentralized, amorphous, amoeba-like entity. Then moves on to an inspired riff (9:21) about drawing from one of the most “radical and forward-thinking” artist of the 20th century: Charles Schulz. He cites the world of Peanuts as a true underground that’s lived in and created by the kids, a world that adults have no place or authority. But goes on to add a true underground is still within the real world and can’t escape its problems. And this is why, he continues, it must always re-invent itself to deal with those issues. Ending the whole bit with, “the best thing about creative work is that there is no hierarchy.” Amen.
Towards the very end of the interview (26:10) Svenonious wonders, given how arduous the production process is for capturing music,”Why don’t people just sing to one another?” A off-handed remark that Johnson turns into a brilliant moment in which he posits: “That’s what the internet is.” By sidestepping the whole production process they’re singing directly to one another while making it available instantly all around the world. A technological development that he sees as “the most basic form of the punk rock revolution.”
What an awesome interview, and damn Calvin Johnson is smart. So much to think about.