empreintes DIGITALes: Label Profile

Tobias Fischer, Tokafi, January 22, 2010

Labels come and go. But even within this fast-changing world, where everyone with internet access can set up a record company and start releasing music, some outfits have proved more valid, relevant and meaningful than others. On January 31st, Canadian imprint empreintes DIGITALes will celebrate its 20th anniversary as one of the world’s leading label for electroacoustics and true to its title, it has certainly left some fascinating fingerprints.

As artistic director Jean-François Denis recounts, the world was a different one when he published the first four albums all the way back in 1990 and the notion of devoting a label entirely to a music so far away from mainstream sensibilities and obvious medial tangents must have appeared wildly optimistic. And yet, Denis’ brainchild got off to a remarkable start and quickly started extending beyond its homebase of Montréal into an international platform for ambitious Composers and Sound Artists.

Over the years, empreintes DIGITALes has not only developed a recognisable musical style, but also been at the forefront of technological development, switching to the multichannel possibilities of DVD-Audio in 2005. Its visual taste has been of an equally tasteful quality and today expresses itself in elegant cardboard boxes with extendable trays. By Spring of 2009, its catalogue had grown to include over 450 works by more than 90 composers from over 20 countries, on almost 100 releases. As easy as it may be to set up your own record company in the digital age, today’s record companies have a long road ahead of them to match that.

The past twenty years in a nutshell

We started in 1989 in a bid of making the music available for a first release in January 1990. Our plan was to begin with 4 discs; we did not want to be another 1-disc label. We selected the compact disc for its better sound quality and longer duration as the only medium for our releases. At that time many people were suggesting that we also release on cassettes! In 20 years we saw different audio formats come. and go almost completely.

In 1990, there was basically no independent record label specializing in electroacoustics. The first years proved to be a greater success than expected, probably because we simply did not have any real idea about the “commercial” or medial potential for such discs; the novelty dimension, the great quality and variety of local, national and international composers, the sound quality of the discs, the bilingual, French — English liner notes, the packaging, for which we used the conventional jewel case until 1996, then our first deluxe carboard box until 2000 and since then our current cardboard box… all of this contributed to the excitement.

By the late 1990s, the situation had stabilized. Many more labels were founded around the Western world; compact disc production was simpler and more affordable — and the supply was thus bigger.

In 2000 we changed some of our production methods and invested more energy into our web site, which was started in 1995, by refocusing it and automating it. The Internet was growing and “net labels” started to appear, meaning the supply was even bigger. In 2005, we selected a better-sounding disc format, the DVD-Audio, as our main format.

Since 2000 an important shift towards digital compressed audio format happened in the popular music industry, namely in 2001-03 with the iPod and later, the iTunes Music Store. While this change of access to music and “attitude” towards the disc had a great impact on the whole, “specialized” music remained somewhat protected, at least for a while. We only started to feel a change, a decrease in impact, in sales, over the past 3-4 years.

About serving the download market

I do not surf the Internet looking for “mp3” of works available on empreintes DIGITALes, nor any other audio files for that matter. So I do not know for sure. My guess is that someone somewhere most certainly has “ripped” works from our discs, converted them in lower or medium grade mp3 and has placed those in peer-to-peer networks.

We are now living in a time where the music on empreintes DIGITALes has to also become available as digital files, authorized so far composers may get some fruits out of this activity. For the last 3 years we are seeking methods to make high-definition (HD) audio files available. Unfortunately we have not yet found an aggregator — as digital wholesalers are now called — that does.

About the process of getting press coverage, radio play and concert opportunities

The advantage of being a “niche” is that people in a niche tend to build networks, groups, magazines, events. In 1990 we had to learn everything, and we naturally discovered networks. In 2009 I’d say the same thing. Some networks have came and gone, newer ones, newer platforms were created.

There is less and less (conventional) radio airplay time for experimental- and contemporary music; most larger national broadcasters are pulling back from curious, avantgarde, exploratory music.

Generally in concerts electroacoustics tend to have a wider reach. More and more soloists and small ensembles tour with some mixed and/or live works, including those in programmes with instrumental repertoire. Concerts with acousmatics are slightly different. But in the very recent past I have witnessed sizable crowds attending concerts of acousmatics within the context of festivals of live electroacousitcs or even electronic music (the term understood under its current usage).

About artistic changes and constants

As an artistic director, the notion of a “living room listening experience” has always been important to me. The refocusing within electroacoustics to acousmatics was made in order to improve the listening dimension. (Acousmatics on disc is the work “itself”; while mixed and live — or other “recorded” — music is a “documentation” of the work.)

But your question refers to the aesthetic level and in that respect I cannot say that within the last 20 years the genre has been substantially “revolutionized.” The means of production / composition have change greatly to extremes, from hard-to-access studios in institutions to domestic laptop computers, but thinking has evolved just as naturally. Listening to Portrait d’un visiteur by Christian Calon is just as great as a musical experience today as it was when first presented in public 25 years ago.

About the relationship between the label and its homebase of Montréal as well as its composers

Our relationship with the city is symbiotic. Because of my role with the label and, until recently, my role with a concert organization in Montréal, one could feed the other, and vice versa. But in my view the label has never been a Montréal.label, it was simply based in that city. Within only 4 years the offer quickly became international with discs by composers from France, UK and Belgium.

A personal relationship with composers is very important. Trust and sharing of visions; understanding and acting upon our interacting roles. Working on the long term with, where/when possible, several releases in mind. As to my reasons for releasing something or not, I often say that I need to grasp/feel the integrity of the composer process, but there are of course several other factors, including timing, economical and legal ones.

About the future of the label and acousmatics

The goal was foremost to make the music available. With today’s possibilities empreintes DIGITALes is far from the only means for such a goal. But however easy it is to get one’s music on the Internet via one’s own website or even via well-organized outlets (such as CDBaby, for instance), the role of channeling, organizing, presenting of a specialized “label” will be required with or without physical discs.

Younger generations of composers are exploring the genre, naturally evolving it. So there is a future. There is a future for creation, invention, daring propositions…

There is a future for creation, invention, daring propositions…