Last month, I wrote a story for 5mag.net exposing an Italian producer named FLOD (aka Flavio Lodetti) who had built a 10 year music career in dance music on the basis of fraud, deception and outright theft. That last word should be understood quite literally: he downloaded tracks from Beatport, renamed them and sold them to other labels as his own work. The deception was revealed when he accidentally submitted a series of stolen tracks to the producer who had actually made them.
It was appalling, and also quite funny, and it lead people to ask each other how the music industry had gotten to this place.
It also exposed some of us – me in particular – to a world of dance music that most people reading this are aware of but perhaps avoid as scrupulously as I do: the staggering proliferation of what I’ve come to call “shitmusic” and the labels that release it.
It’s not all tech house… but most of it is, in fact, tech house.
Let’s call them “shitlabels” for short. Shitlabels are labels that specialize in shitmusic. They release hundreds of specimens of shitmusic per year – an endless conveyor belt of nearly identical, mediocre mid-set filler tracks punctuated by the occasional outrageously brash rip-off of a popular hit.
It’s not all tech house (jackin’ house and robotic, sterilized deep house and techno make up a lot of it too), but most of it is, in fact, tech house. But there is a banal quality to shitmusic that transcends genre.
In keeping with the faceless aesthetic of the music, shitlabels usually have names that appear to be two random nouns glued together – names like “Table Soul Records” or “Torn Tissue Recordings” or “Moon Fork Music.” Also meaningless is the artwork, which ranges from repeated iterations of a homemade logo to pictures of triangles overlaid on pictures from freestockart.com. The goal appears to be to strip away anything of meaning, any bit of individuality or even notability. Everything is sacrificed for efficiency, removing anything that might bog down a relentless release schedule that fires out tracks like rounds from a machine gun.
Listen to 100 tracks of shitmusic and you can’t remember any of it, what you listened to, who made it or even your own name.
If we dig down into a typical shitlabel track we might find the bleeding essence of shitmusic. The name itself is something of a misnomer – it’s not bad or offensive to the ear. What stands out most is shitmusic’s utter inoffensiveness, its total lack of notability. You listen to a hundred tracks of shitmusic and you can’t remember anything, what you listened to, who made it or even your own name. Production is perfect to the point of sterility: shitmusic passes through your brain and body and central nervous system like radio waves – passing through and departing without leaving a trace.
We live in an age of branding, but branding doesn’t stick to shitmusic. Almost any shitlabel could swap its entire catalog with almost any other shitlabel and few would notice.
I was midway through writing the original story on FLOD’s crime spree when I realized the genius of what the guy had done. I mean, he’s no master criminal – a master thief wouldn’t try to sell stolen goods back to the guy he stole them from. But in his own way, FLOD seems to have recognized the total facelessness of shitmusic and the shitlabels that release it. Rather than searching for hidden gems, he frequently (though not always) lifted tracks that were completely generic and perfect specimens of shitmusic. He wagered that he could recycle these type of tracks among these type of labels and nobody would ever notice, because they’re all the same. By and large, he mostly got away with it for the last 10 years.
Despite how much we ignore it, the copious output of shitlabels represents the vast majority of new dance music records released each day.
The Age Of Peak Shit.
Two other examples I came across in connection with FLOD really hammered home for me the reality of the industry in the era of peak shit.
I was researching some of the labels that inadvertently released FLOD’s stolen music and zeroed in on one of them. You don’t know the owner and if you’ve ever heard of his label it’s probably by accident. Yet I couldn’t look away from a post he made about a playlist of his label’s total output on Spotify. The playlist, he boasted, consisted of “more than 5,000 deep house tracks.”
I listen to more music than the average person and if you’re reading this, you probably do too. Did you or I or any of us listen to 5,000 tracks in the last year? It’s doubtful. Let’s do the math: at six minutes per track, his playlist is probably around 30,000 minutes long, which is 500 hours, which would require you to listen to entirely different records from beginning to end with no duplicates for more than an hour every day for a year.
I don’t know if I can come up with a perfect criteria to identify a shitlabel, but this guy is running the textbook definition of one.
Who are these artists, I wondered? I scanned through and while all of their names sounded vaguely familiar, I couldn’t place any of them, except one. A few years ago, an artist in Eastern Europe sent me an email pitching himself to be interviewed by 5 Mag. He looked like he was only in his early 30s, but bragged that he had released more than 500 records on Traxsource.
I dug up his name again and found that he’s now eclipsed well over 1,000 tracks in about six years of producing dance music. These tracks span all genres – jackin’ house, tech house, techno, nu disco. He’s almost the physical embodiment of the shitmusic aesthetic, cranking out 200 tracks a year (and that’s just what he’s released, not made), sucking the soul out of every genre like a digital shitmusic vampire. The genres, the tempo, the titles, the shitlabels that release them – none of it matters other than his total devotion to pumping out a constant stream of bland music. There’s no improvement from several years ago when he emailed me – just variation. Endless variation.
These two examples might sound like I’m picking on random guys – statistical outliers that represent the excess of the era of peak shitmusic. But a number of older producers have also adopted the shitmusic aesthetic whole-heartedly. I distinctly remember a New York-based pioneer of deep house telling me that his whole goal with music these days was to get on as many different Beatport charts as possible, which meant cranking out tracks at an industrial pace. The admission was embarrassing to hear – he talked like an out-of-touch dad repeating slang he learned from reading his kids’ texts.
But he’s certainly not alone: many of dance music’s most storied legacy labels have transformed into 21st century shitlabels. They bear all the hallmarks of any other shitlabel – generic sounds, hectic release schedules, stripped down packaging and everything remotely creative or individual removed in the name of filling Spotify playlists with 5,000 tracks. Like that old school producer slinging new bullshit, it appears they believe that embodying the worst aspects of the modern age is the only way to prove they’re not stuck in the past. They’re hip, they’re groovy – Hey fellow kids, we make shitmusic too!
Maybe everyone begins making shitmusic, but the hallmark of a true shitmusic maestro is that they KEEP making shitmusic. They never get better and they never stop.
We’re All Zombies Or Food In The Shitlabel Apocalypse.
I like solutions to problems, not just pointing out the problems themselves. But I don’t see a solution here. Something about the music scene’s slouch toward shitmusic feels inevitable. It was always going to happen. Maybe there’s a grand theory at work here, like a new law of macroeconomics. Something like: “If you take away most of the profit and all of the cost of production, all labels will become shitlabels, and all art will eventually become shit.”
But that’s the thing: it isn’t happening in a uniform way. The disappointments of our elders notwithstanding, not all labels have become shitlabels, and new ones are sprouting every day which seem to have a point, a purpose, a sense of style, a desire to release great music rather than stuff a playlist with samey set fodder that could have been generated by artificial intelligence (and probably would have sounded better if it was).
Over the years, we’ve devoted our attention mainly to these outliers, but this immersion in the shitlabelverse made me realize how completely out-of-touch we are. We’re hunkered down in the basement with a spliff and a stack of records pretending not to hear all the douchebags upstairs pissing all over our rugs. Worse, the neighbors are wandering in every day – especially the young ones who don’t know better – and think this derelict crew scrolling through their thousands of shitmusic tracks are the real scene. And by appearances, they actually are – more representative, I guess, than we are burrowed in our safe cubby hole.
Among political extremists, there is the idea of “accelerationism” – the concept that society holds the seeds of its own destruction and we should not try to stop it but hurry it along. Let it fall, let it collapse, and we should concern ourselves with surviving the fallout and rebuilding on the ashes.
Maybe that’s it. As people that hate this part of the industry, maybe we should hope for this to continue because it’s not sustainable and it’ll bury everyone in shitmusic. Yet as someone that loves the people who are in the industry, though, I want this to stop because, well, it’s not sustainable and it will bury everyone in shitmusic.
When a young producer asks why he should shun the shitlabel route, I think I can actually make a strong case why it should be avoided:
The Math Doesn’t Work. You may do the math in your head and assume that the amount of fans you have compared to the current releases you have will multiply exponentially as you up the tempo of releases on shitlabels (or on a shitlabel of your own).
It won’t. Most shitlabels have nothing in the way of popularity, and they’d have even less if you subtracted the number of “fans” who follow it only because they make their own shitmusic they want to sell them.
To revisit some of the examples mentioned above: That label with 5,000 deep house tracks on Spotify has fewer than 15,000 fans on Facebook. The producer with 1,000 releases in six years? Less than 2,000 fans. Their devolution to the shitmusic and shitlabel aesthetic is unparalleled, but nobody really knows who they are. They are nobody’s idea of a great producer or great label.
(And while Facebook fandom is an imperfect marker of popularity, it’s pretty much the same across all of their socials and that’s good enough to prove that getting famous through shitmusic and shitlabels is a rotten idea.)
As far as sales: if shitlabels were doing that well, they’d brag about it, like they dickwave the size of their Spotify playlists or pagecount of their Beatport discography. I strongly suspect they’re selling the 20 to 100 copies per release you would guess, and probably closer to 20 on most of them.
Joining the shitlabels for money or fame seems like a true boner move. The trade off is terrible. What’s the point of releasing 1,000 tracks as a producer or 5,000 as a label – and still not being able to get booked outside of your hometown?
So You Make Shitmusic… You may fear that you are a shitmusic maker. You might be right. It might be so that everyone begins making shitmusic, but the hallmark of a true shitmusic maestro is that they keep making shitmusic. They never get better.
Every artist’s goal should be to get better. I covered this before in an article called “Why Your Friends Don’t Buy Your Records“: artist development is a dying art, but you will never get better if you live in a bubble where your philosophy of music making comes down to the phrase “spray and pray” – as in, spray them out fast and pray someone notices. “4/4 will play” from DJ Jagoff is not actionable fucking feedback. The breakneck shitlabel process is anathema to the sort of useful give-and-take, incremental improvement and learning that is absolutely necessary to developing talent. That guy who’s made 1,000 records hasn’t learned a thing from it, except how to drive a concept into the ground. He’s no better today than he was six years ago when this tantrum of shitmusic began. Like an undisciplined child that grows into an adult baby, the shitlabel ecosystem has held him in a perpetual state of shit.
Shitlabels Become Your Destiny. Many good labels won’t work with shitlabel alumni. As unfair as it is, some artists will be turned down not because of the quality of their music (or lack thereof) but because they’ve released on so many generic shitlabels. The epitome of your fame will be appearing as a fixture in the Beatport charts of other shitmusic aficionados. That is nothing to look forward to.
A few years back, a friend of mine told me he sent some music to a certain fashionable (and very good) label. In their feedback (and in their ignorance of the terms used in this article), they told him that he had released too much music on too many “small” labels. What they really meant was he’d released too much shitmusic on shitlabels – in his case, filtered disco tracks galore released on anonymous jackin’ house labels, all of which seemed to be named after food.
That was unfair, but they were being honest and telling him things that any novice marketing book would have told him if he read it: his name and sound was identified with a lot of shit, and they didn’t want to be identified with shit.
You Already Have a Hole To Climb Out Of. Thankfully, that friend has a career going now, including a record on that same label that turned him down for his shitlabel sins. It took him changing his name and sound (in other words, releasing “tracks” rather than “loops” and learning about music theory). This has also happened with a couple of notable career reinventions in the last few years that most industry observers could name. So it is possible to climb out of the hole of shitmusic, though not totally unscathed.
It’s hard enough for young artists to get noticed, and it’s not really an advantage to have a bunch of labels listed in your bio that no one has ever heard of. Or worse: they have. Like Henry Hill, I think everyone has to take a beating sometimes – you just have to pick carefully what you’re willing to get punched in the mouth over. “I’ve never heard of you” doesn’t sting nearly as bad as “You’ve released 100 tracks this year and they all sound the same.”
To Not Shit In An Ocean Of Shit.
If you poke around on discogs a lot, you’ll notice there are many old records that sell for $4.99 or less. These records have so little value that you can actually buy them for less on vinyl than you can as mp3s.
This is a clear indication of a fundamental truth, identified by pioneering shitculture critic Theodore Sturgeon. “90% of everything,” he observed all the way back in 1958, “is crap.”
There has always been shitmusic, and to some extent shitlabels, but the loopholes of digital music have left us absolutely swimming in an ocean of shit. Today, 90% would be a marked improvement.
According to CEO Daniel Ek, Spotify adds about 25,000 tracks to their library every single day. Some of them are old, a lot of them are new, most of them are shit. They’re not old classics waiting to be rediscovered. They’re shitmusic from 2011 ADE techno samplers. The world would get on fine without another one, or another thousand, or another five thousand.
I think just about any means of releasing music is better than giving in to the tsunami of shitlabels. If you fear you may be making shitmusic, why not give it away for free until more than 10 people are interested in buying it? Bandcamp is your friend on this. I’m a strong believer in paying for art, but you weren’t going to get much money from this anyway. It’s easier to private a track on SoundCloud than to change your name because it’s become synonymous with shit.