My name's Keith, I co-run Orange Milk with my partner Seth. I thought I would use this space to share some thoughts on demos.
First of all, the label began like any other small business in America, I'm assuming — with self preservation and self promotion in mind, with a bit of vision, a simple idea, some actual hard work, but also with a “wouldn't this be fun?” attitude. And in the last few years it has started to evolve like other businesses; all of those original attitudes have remained to a degree, but a lot of other stuff has crept up in our peripheries.
On a very small scale, we now offer something that some people want. That is, some people want to hear music on cassette tape, and some musicians want what little attention comes with being on Orange Milk Records. So we obviously receive a lot more orders than we used to, and we also get a lot more demos. It's the demo part that I wasn't quite prepared for. I love receiving and listening to them, and there's a small joy in being able to offer a service to someone, and having someone seek out what you can offer. I have sent plenty of demos to labels, because I wanted a piece of what they had going. To be accepted is to be legitimized, in a way, even if we know that attitude can be dangerous. And to be rejected hurts on some level, because your art is usually so tied up in who you are, it's a personal thing, and sending that bit of yourself out for a stranger's rapid evaluation can be brutal.
Running a label, you are quickly faced with how to handle submitted work. It instantly outlines your personal aesthetics, your taste, what you hold stock in, because every demo makes you ask yourself “Do I want to invest in this person's artistic values?” I view a release not just as a specific artist's showcase, but as a reflection of the label's own art and vision as well. So a lot of self assessment goes on in the process, trying to pinpoint your own musical values so they can be transposed onto something else. (Other concerns come into play too, like “will this sell — will anyone be interested?” but we've come to mostly ignore those questions unless we're sinking an unusual amount of money into the release.)
I'm not sure if I could sit here and describe in plain English what I value in music and art. I could try, but it would be jumbled and incoherent — I guess I still need to work on being able to verbalize it? I do think there's a core reaction, almost instinct that kicks in when you hear something that aligns with your values. We have our genetics, and our experiences working in the shadows — every piece of music we've listened to and absorbed, every song that arbitrarily stuck with a particular mood or disposition at a particular age, that went on to shape our perception of what's good and what's bad. Every time we hear a combination of notes or a particular timbre, our entire human experience comes into play, and our current state of valuation is almost instantly transposed onto someone else's.
We've received demos from a lot of friends and musical comrades, which is a fairly unique situation, because it asks you to define your values beyond pure sound and into community and interpersonal relationships. It's politics, basically. In the past we've put out things that didn't exactly align with our personal aesthetics because we valued… well, I guess maintaining a relationship's status quo? Because part of having a friend or kindred spirit might be the unspoken aligning of values, and without that something seems to break down. A demo from a friend that doesn't align with your aesthetics is almost a stark admission that “we are not the same,” even if that's a silly conceit.
Ok really, we might be overly sensitive, but if anything I have come to appreciate the forced honing of aesthetics. It's made me carefully evaluate and accept what art experiences have shaped me, and what it might take to consciously alter a stilted set of values. It has also made me realize the importance of being firm with how those values are displayed in public, because what's the point of spending countless hours operating a label if it isn't a representation of what you stand for and love? As I write this it dawns on me that a lot of people probably start out with such curatorial laser focus. I'm a slow learner.
The idea of having a vision for has never made sense to me; I did not start out with a specific vision. I definitely had specific ideas, but I was not sure of the direction. Instead, I had ideas on how I didn’t want Orange Milk to go. As Keith and I began to understand the politics of running a label, our vision became clear. Keith mentioned he wanted to be ‘objective.’ For us, this meant releasing art we valued. We really wanted to promote these artists and not chase them, which we have nearly succeeded in doing, but not totally. We have done releases that deviated from our specific goal of ‘being objective’, this is not to say we didn’t like the art, but some releases we believed in more strongly than others.
I am learning that small cassette world is sometimes not as concerned with quality or expression as it is with promotion. There's a strange beast building in this niche music world Orange Milk dabbles in where a concern for promotion trumps a concern for editing and quality within the artwork. Because of the notion of promotion exists, Keith and I don't always gravitate towards the Who’s Who in tape culture. In a recent conversation on future curation, we’ve both decided that we’re interested in releasing music that is full of life and has no concern for the tape scene. As of right now, we seek out curation down the internet rabbit holes of SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and the like. Running the label has really forced me to evaluate why I like what I like, and has pushed me to appreciate art made by younger generations. I've specifically become a fan of vaporwave, a genre I consider to be very important in our culture. Though, to be honest, was skeptical early on when I caught wind of vaporwave.
The first vaporwave artists I heard were Macintosh Plus and James Ferraro. I enjoyed both quite a bit. I started to dig around for others. I realized there were variations and differences — some people re-contextualized, as in took an obscure track and placed it unaltered into their own record, and some manipulated found tracks to various degrees. I didn’t know how to feel about that. I went through different phases of opinion. In an essay by John Oswald called ‘Bettered by the Borrower: The Ethics of Musical Debt,’ he discusses his own work of re-contextualizing, manipulating and collaging pop songs in his record “Plunderphonics.” He was sued by CBS (specifically Michael Jackson) and he was forced to destroy his handmade self-released record. I realized on a simple level that found art/re-contextualizing needs to happen on a major and new level in music. This encouraged me to re-think vaporwave without any cynicism. In doing so, vaporwave came to mean something really special to me. It questions our sentimentality of originality in art. When critics ask the question, “Is this original?” they assume that is the ultimate value in art. This is a very misguided approach. We are all original; the question should be, “How do we articulate our originality?”
As I realized this through different phases, it occurred to me that vaporwave is serving as the new punk rock, in that it has no focus on technical skill, upsets just about everyone, and represents our current young generation. There was a recent essay in Tiny Mix Tapes called ‘The Trouble with Contemporary Music Critcism’ by James Parker and Nicholas Croggon that addressed methods of criticism and the value of originality. It had the most elegant defense of vaporwave by stating:
“Vaporwave is a particularly “weak” genre, in other words, because “by dramatically foregrounding the act of appropriation, precisely by refusing to be ‘original,’” what vaporwave does is make “the listening experience all about that original; maybe even about the discourse of originality itself.”
This is how I came full circle with vaporwave. This realization also has helped me be more specific in what I would like to curate, which is anything that is both organically subversive and that is concerned with mining the self for efficient articulation. This idea is what Orange Milk represents.
The latest release from Orange Milk, Once Lost Unkown/Serious Shart split CS and Chitokyo mixtape, are streaming in full below and available for purchase at Orange Milk's Bandcamp.