Michael Donaldson is a sage. As a writer, impresario, promoter and producer (as Q-Burns Abstract Message), Donaldson been a constant fixture on the scene since the mid-1990s. 8D is not new brand either. It has been at different times and under slightly different monikers an artist collective, a label (as “Eighth Dimension Records“), a vehicle to experiment in promotion, management, publishing and licensing.
In 2018, 8D evolved again into something called “8D Industries,” a new label helmed by Donaldson which released some of the most intriguing electronic records I’ve heard this year. 8D’s first release (in this new guise, at least) was Monta At Odds’ Argentum Dreams LP. It was followed by Everything Impossible Is Far Away by More Ghost Than Man aka Terry Grant – one of my favorite artists, and one of a small handful of visionaries in the scene who is truly making something new under the sun.
For the fifth installment of our new label profile series im/print, I talked to Donaldson about 8D’s latest (re)incarnation, about art, artists and the lost art of promotion and how one should measure “success” in ragged times and a fractured industry.
8D has a long history as a brand. Maybe you can give me a thumbnail of its manifestations over the years leading up to the new label?
The 8D empire arose from Eighth Dimension, which started in 1994 as an artist collective here in Orlando, Florida. There were six of us pooling resources and helping each other out, with the idea that the success of one would bring up the rest. The name came from a random record from the shelf, literally. I remember we just randomly pulled out a record from my collection of thrift store LPs with the challenge of finding a name from that. The record was an old Command stereo demonstration record titled Sound In The Eighth Dimension. Cheekily, we “borrowed” our logo from the cover, as well.
Later on, we started claiming that the name came from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. I even created a side project called John Bigbooty to further this story. But, I digress.
The collective transformed into the record label, Eighth Dimension Records, which saw some success with excellent releases by Pimp Daddy Nash, DJ BMF, Atmosphere (not the hip-hop one), Beef Wellington, and, later on, Gavin Hardkiss. From there, and as I began releasing my music through Astralwerks, we dabbled in event promotion, artist management, and music publishing and licensing. Eighth Dimension was my record industry university.
I know the current climate seems more like a prison to many — Facebook likes! Spotify playlists! Instagram reviews! Decimal point streaming royalty! — but the reality is that, for the first time, we can do whatever the hell we want.
As other members of the collective moved on, I became the sole manager of Eighth Dimension and branched off into a short-lived deep house label named EIGHT-TRACKS in collaboration with fellow Orlando denizen Atnarko. The economy faltered in the late 2000s which shifted my priority to survival in this business. I suspended the labels and took advantage of everything I had learned, launching the publicity/promo company 8DPromo and the music licensing agency 8DSync. Both are still active today.
A few years ago I began a consultancy for other record labels, working with the likes of DJ Three’s Hallucienda and the Arthur’s Landing affiliated label Buddhist Army. After a while, a funny thing happened: I started getting the itch to dive back into the label hustle myself. Around this time, an 8DSync client, Kansas City band Monta At Odds, approached me with a fantastic album they had recorded. They expressed frustration with self-releasing and asked if I could help them find a label. After a week of consideration and challenging friends to change my mind, I decided I should put out the album myself.
I was tempted to simply restart Eighth Dimension Records and continue the story from here. But, as we all change over time, so have my tastes, ideas, and attitudes. This would be a different label, something new, but, like all the other 8D companies, an homage to the original collective that launched my career. Thus, 8D Industries was born. No one can spell “eighth” anyway.
You did record promo for a long time and with all due respect to the others, I think you were one of the best. Have you left the field? It’s rare in 2018 to see people actually exiting PR for the creative arts rather than vice-versa.
Music promo is tough. I appreciate the compliment, and one of the reasons you may have enjoyed 8DPromo was because I aimed to keep it curated, following a loose sonic template. I turned down a lot of labels, a lot of releases, and a lot of easy paychecks. I did 8DPromo for about eight years (that number!) and recently handed it off into the capable hands of Jon Lemmon of Viva Recordings and formerly of Beatport’s Baseware Distribution. I’m still somewhat involved (I can be found furiously writing one sheet text on occasion), and Jon is running 8DPromo seamlessly as an extension of my vision for it. He still gets emails all the time for “Michael” as many don’t realize 8DPromo has changed over, which is to Jon’s great credit.
The main constraints that you should be worried about are the ones you impose on yourself. Fixations on social media numbers, coverage in the hippest blogs, and getting that A-list DJ to play your record are distractions, especially when you’re just starting.
I’ve always tip-toed back and forth between the business and creative sides. After all, I started in my career by owning a small record store with my recording studio hidden above it. And I know of some other labels formed by people previously working in the management, PR, or retail arms of music. With that experience, I think they end up with a clearer idea of what it takes to run a label realistically and what to expect.
After being “all business” for a while, I now find it easier to separate the business from the creative side, to not get so emotionally invested. I think my artists appreciate this. I’ve had my own experiences with labels, good and bad, so I intimately understand an artist’s concerns. Whenever I plan something with 8D Industries, whether it’s setting up release strategy, approving artwork, or drafting a contract, I always ask myself, “Is this something I would be happy with as an artist?”
Well on that note: is there anything that your intimate perspective of watching artists self-sabotage and fuck up convinced you not to do when starting up a new label?
My takeaway is that it’s important to understand the freedoms offered by the moment in history we now live in as music people. I know the current climate seems more like a prison to many — Facebook likes! Spotify playlists! Instagram reviews! Decimal point streaming royalty! — but the reality is that, for the first time, we can do whatever the hell we want.
When I was a bedroom punk rock kid growing up in Central Louisiana, I dreamed of having a record label. But it seemed so out of reach. I mean, I was trapped in Central Louisiana. And making records costs money … where would I find a plant anyway? Distribution? How would I manage that? It was daunting, and I put that dream on hold. Fast forward to the present, and it’s that punk rock dream come true.
When I hear people complaining about the state of the industry, I often sense an opportunity. Just the other day a friend was dismayed by how labels no longer cultivate local scenes because modern A&R are instead too busy looking for new artists within Soundcloud metrics. To me, that’s an opportunity for a small label to explore a scene, and discover amazing new bands before they break 1000 Soundcloud plays. That’s an advantage over big labels, not a disadvantage. Technology and the democratization of distribution can make us nimble, as long as we don’t fall for the constraints we’re told to follow. Always be suspicious of supposed gatekeepers.
The main constraints that you should be worried about are the ones you impose on yourself. Fixations on social media numbers, coverage in the hippest blogs, and getting that A-list DJ to play your record are distractions that hold you back, especially when you’re just starting.
As music artists (or creative artists in general) we have to understand the long game. And we have to be into it, and I mean really into it, otherwise the long game becomes unbearable. Once you understand the long game you’re playing, and the patience required, and accept the freedom that now exists to do whatever you like creatively, the pressure’s off, and the fun begins.
You’ve had a couple of interesting releases so far. What would you describe as the sound of 8D or at least what you’re trying to push forward? What is the aesthetic of the label?
I’ve always been drawn to artists and labels that know something I don’t. Bands like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire seemed to have this secret knowledge, as did labels with strong identities like Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD and Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. It made me curious, seeking out the influences, recommendations, and familial connections of these fascinating artistic outfits.
There’s a lot of talk about curation, and that playlist curation is the future of music discovery, or that the curators are the new gatekeepers. However, these artists and labels I mentioned were also curators, some of the original curators. A good label is a curator, sprouting from the vision and taste of its founder. And that’s what I’d like 8D Industries to be: a solid curator, one its listeners can trust and follow. One that might know something you don’t.
As for the sound, it’s not a DJ label, but DJs are welcome to play its music. It’s mostly electronic, and mostly groovy, but not exclusively either. Ideally, music for closed eyes, late night headphone sessions, as well as high volume mind expansion. I also hope there will be at least a few songs you’ll uncontrollably sing inside your head for weeks on end.
The second release is from Terry Grant as More Ghost Than Man, who is I think the best kept secret genius in America right now. How do you know him? How would you describe him & his music and is the label almost tailor-made for records like the ones he makes?
Terry is tall. I’ve known him for years, but every time we meet, I’m struck by how tall he is. This is good because his music is bold and commanding so I can imagine it coming from this tall guy in Nashville. We both were part of the ’90s/’00s deep house DJ scene, and he’s got an impressive discography, recording for the likes of Bedrock and Baroque. I’ve always paid attention to Terry because we share conversations about inscrutable black-and-white art films without reservation.
In 2016 Terry surprised me with More Ghost Than Man, his new project, and a brilliant self-titled album. I’m convinced that even if I didn’t know Terry, I’d consider that album my favorite of its release year. I represented the album for music licensing and pitched it as “if Nick Cave sang for Burial,” which is meant to be attention-grabbing but isn’t too far off. Once I decided to start 8D Industries, Terry was the first artist I contacted after Monta At Odds.
Terry surprised me again with Everything Impossible Is Far Away. Nick Cave or Burial is nowhere to be found, replaced by ominous instrumentals built upon sound design and occasional splashes of unexpected rhythm. At first, I didn’t want to put it out – scared, maybe? – but I kept listening, I couldn’t stop, and eventually, I knew I had no choice but to release this music. Also, Terry, a man of many talents, is creating short films to accompany the sounds of his album. So, it turns out Everything Impossible Is Far Away is a strange soundtrack in search of a movie, rather than the other way around. The first short film features shadow puppet robots battling a shadow puppet dragon and seriously that’s all I’m comfortable saying about it right now.
What is “success” for a new label in 2018? How are you measuring that? Or how would you?
Breaking even would be swell. But, ultimately, I want to have fun and use the label as a vehicle for living a creative life.
My measure of success is entirely different than before. The realization outlined above about freedom and the long game has allowed me to chill, to not care about others’ expectations or judgments. I’m doing this by my rules, and at my own pace (which, by choice, is a speedy, steady pace). Right now, I only answer to my artists. As long as they’re happy, satisfied, and feel like I’m doing a great job representing them, then I’m successful.
I’ve always been struck by the visual design of your records. How important is the visual presentation of 8D records and releases?
I’m not a designer, but I’m obsessed with design. I have a distinct memory of curiously thumbing through the “import bin” of a record shop in Melbourne, Florida when I was about 12 years old. I was struck by the covers of these new albums by a band I’d never heard of, New Order: Movement, Ceremony, and Everything’s Gone Green. I didn’t buy them (I would’ve been a much hipper 12 year old if I had!) but those covers stayed with me. They didn’t look like anything I had seen before, and I knew the music had to be remarkable and perhaps subversive. Tony Wilson transmitted a feeling and a context across the ocean to this 12-year-old kid, solely using visual art, and I got it. How amazing is that?
If you want your music or label to have a context, to act as a beacon to its tribe, then the entire package deserves to be intentional and connected. The design flavors the music as much as anything. I’m telling a story with 8D Industries, and all the pieces – not just the music – act as characters. Even if no one understands the “plotline,” the design is a connective tissue that keeps the label on path and our listeners engaged.
Would you feel better that DJs played your records or that people listened to them? It often feels like we have to choose between the two. Why do you think that is?
DJ Three and I once discussed a classic old song. I asked him if he’d play it in his set if someone did a “re-edit.” He said, “I don’t think a DJ should need a re-edit. The DJ plays the record – and can play the record – because it’s a great record.”
I love that. Just focus on making a great record. A great record transcends being intentionally for DJs or home listening – it will be both, even if you don’t realize it at first. How many times have you heard a DJ magically drop a completely unexpected “not for DJs” song and it’s perfect in that club, on that system, for that dance floor? How does that happen?
I have a short list of Dogme 95-like rules for 8D Industries. It’s a private list – for my eyes only – of guidelines that I’m going to try to stick to for the life of the label. OK, twist my arm, I’ll reveal one of the rules: No remixes. I’m not interested in releasing remixes of our tracks, of creating DJ-intended versions.
I realize this is curious as I was known as a prolific remixer, but now I want the originals to shine. To stand on their own, living their own lives. And to get unexpectedly dropped in a DJ’s set, at that perfect moment, for that perfect dance floor.
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