Sound and vision
Flingco Sound System rethinks how a modern record label should work.
By Antonia Simigis
LESS IS MORE Adams says FSS will limit its album releases to four a year.
Photo: Mandy Kaylin
Bruce Adams is no stranger to record labels. In the late ’80s and early ’90s he cut his teeth at Touch and Go before moving on to cofound Kranky, spending the next 13 years crafting the Chicago imprint’s reputation as a purveyor of experimental rock and electronic music.
After 20 years in the business, Adams decided to shift his focus to something different. Late last year he and his wife, Annie, launched Flingco, a design company that sells witty, artist-designed T-shirts, pins and other merchandise. Still, music remained an essential part of his life. “After I sold my share in Kranky, every two months, my wife would say, ‘You could start a record label, it would be okay,’ ” he says. “It turns out she knew me better than I knew myself.”
The result is Flingco Sound System, a new imprint with a new philosophy—one that forgoes CDs entirely in favor of digital downloads and vinyl. “Digital distribution presents record labels with a situation they’ve always wanted,” he says of the decision. “When you put your records in the hands of distributors, you hope that your records go to the 200 ma-and-pa stores where they’ll actually sell. But there’s always the fear that they will go sit on a shelf at Best Buy and never go anywhere. If you had the power to do it, why wouldn’t you directly put your music in the hands of the consumers themselves?”
In this era of tanking CD sales and pick-your-price Radiohead business models, going digital-only is a natural step that many independent labels are taking to stay afloat. But small niche labels like FSS, which focuses on long-form, discordant music, also face another challenge: When your audience is made up of serious audiophiles and collectors, MP3s just can’t compare to the warm, rich sounds of vinyl. And the vinyl can’t just sound good. It has to look good, too. “Working with Flingco, I began to see a lot of potential with a record label to spend a lot of time on unique and interesting physical packaging to go along with the music,” Adams says, adding that FSS artists will be heavily involved in their album designs, which will range from limited-edition silk screens to letter pressing.
Naturally, Adams has cultivated a roster that shares his passion for aesthetics, including Wrnlrd, a black-metal artist who has designed original packaging for every copy of his five self-released albums, and Cristal, which creates digital soundscapes and includes a member of one of Kranky’s prominent early signees, Labradford. Adam Sonderberg, a member of the Chicago-based textured-noise trio Haptic, shares a similar viewpoint. Prior to signing to FSS, Haptic released two seven-inch records that came in vacuum-sealed packages. “There are people who don’t even want to open their records once they buy them and ask for MP3s of the tracks,” he explains. “It’s weird. It becomes more of an artist multiple than just a record.” While such vinyl fetishists fall on the extreme end of the spectrum, Sonderberg still feels presentation should be a priority. “It’s your first line of contact, whether it’s a JPEG on a screen and you’re figuring out if you want to download it, or you’re at the record store and looking on the shelf. I’ve been drawn to records where I didn’t know the artist, but it was stunning design. The visuals need to be arresting.”
The FSS roster is purposely limited—only one album will be released every three months when it launches in January, with the Haptic album slated for 2009—and also will be available by subscription, with a year’s worth of releases for a flat fee. It’s an interesting shift in focus from artist to label loyalty, and it allows FSS to reward subscribers with surprise bonuses both online and in the mail. The first 100 copies of the Haptic album, for example, will be bundled with a silent DVD of visuals meant to be played simultaneously. “I have fond memories of mail-ordering punk-rock records when I was in my teens and twenties and getting buttons and stickers,” Adams says.
“In 2007, record labels are asking a lot of people,” he continues. “They’re saying, ‘We want you to buy our records even though technically you don’t have to. We want you to go support the bands and see them play. And we want you to trust us, even though for the past 20 years we’ve sold you 70-minute CDs packed with 20 minutes full of filler.’ I don’t believe in that. I think it behooves record labels to give back.”
FSS hosts a label-launch show with Haptic, Wrnlrd and Cristal at Empty Bottle December 13.