Jul 8, 2015
‘We’re Just Putting Out Music We Like’: The Founders of the Styles Upon Styles Record Label Share the Future of the Business
Styles Upon Styles is a Brooklyn-based record label from the minds of Phil Tortoroli and Cam Curran. Refusing to be constricted by the confines of any single genre, they’ve released music that ranges from techno and electronic to dub-step, hip hop, experimental and psych. They take a very hands-on approach in running the label, collaborating with their artists to develop sonic concepts and working to create unique album artwork to bring a physical dimension to the music.
The Styles Upon Styles umbrella includes a series sub-label imprints like Bangers and Ash and Memory Foam that allow it the flexibility to take on a variety of projects that stray from the more traditional label model. I caught up with Tortoroli and Curran to talk about the difficulties associated with running a DIY label in Brooklyn and some of the releases they have planned for the coming months.
When did you guys start Styles Upon Styles?
Cam: We became a company in March 2012. Our first release was in October 2012.
Phil: And that was for a Dutch producer named Tom Laan. We were running a website blog called The Kort for three years when we were both in college together at St. Andrews. When Cam and I moved back to New York we wanted to keep it going. We were getting a lot of submissions and had some really good interviews with artists.
At that time we were part of this percussion lab dub-step based music scene in New York and there were a lot of artists who we were friends with that had a lot of good music and just weren’t releasing anything with labels.
Cam: They just didn’t know where to go.
Phil: So at the same time, while running The Kort both Cam and I started collecting vinyl and when we moved back to New York we started to DJ out vinyl. It was very much a part of our musical interaction. So we decided to start a label because we love records and the idea of a label directing an aesthetic.
So you guys felt like there was a void in the scene as far as artists that you were meeting couldn’t figure out people who would put out there records?
Phil: Yeah, and the people who they were giving it to just weren’t treating it in the same way. There wasn’t a very personal connection for them. I feel like some of the best labels that have stood the test of time have been built off very personal relationships between the label crew and the artists. It’s much more than just a business transaction. It’s about another form of collaboration. You’re working together on the message of the music and how it’s released and how it’s marketed.
Cam: That’s what has kind of happened over the past three years. We have a community. There’s kind of like a SUS crew. It’s fun. Guys collaborating back and forth and meeting other artists and getting to be really good friends with them, it’s nice.
Phil: We definitely saw this community building but there wasn’t a way for them to put out music that was concentrated and focused. We just decided to be those people and do it. It’s since grown to be this community of people who feel like they’re part of the Styles family. The new acts that we’re signing are predominately some extension of this crew. It’s just been a very natural development of this crew.
Is the name Styles Upon Styles a nod to A Tribe Called Quest?
Cam: Yeah. I got into hip-hop in high school. I just became obsessed, digging through Wikipedia pages, that kind of shit. When Phil and I met we got really into dubstep, techno, electronic and dance music. Those worlds were really defined by record labels. You followed certain labels and you could really see somebody’s taste.
So the record label in that instance is more of a curator than someone who is just trying to make money off of the records they put out.
Cam: Yeah it was definitely like I’m going to pick up the new Hessle Audio or the new Hemlock because I trust their taste. And then I don’t know at some point we were listening to “Buggin’ Out” and I was like “Oh shit,” because damn, it’s a good name.
Phil: Some people think that we’re a techno label but if you look at our catalog it’s obviously not the case. We don’t operate like a techno label we’re not about servicing tons of DJs and being DJs ourselves, it’s more than that. We like so many different kinds of music that we’re never going to be a techno label, a rock label or a hip hop label… I mean, New York isn’t any of those things either. We’re just putting out music that we like.
Can you tell me about the Bangers and Ash series?
Phil: We had a lot of unreleased music that we thought was really dope and so we had the idea to put out a 12” where one side is all chill stuff and the other side is all dance oriented stuff for DJs to play out. And we called it Bangers and Ash because of our UK meeting.
Tom Laan had sent us a mix with songs that fit on both sides. So we bit the bullet, started the company, started the 12” series and then Tom, who is an excellent visual artist in his own right, told us he wanted to do this marble painting for the covers. It’s a process with oil-based paint that you swirl around then you put paper on top of it then it captures this swirly paint. So he played the tracks underneath this vat of oil paint and that made it move in a certain way. We pressed 200 to start with and he put each one of the covers onto this oil basin and each one of the covers was different and unique.
It was a crazy expense at the time but it also inspired a third facet of the Bangers and Ash series which was to have each of the covers of the record designed in some way by the artist who’s music we’re pressing. For every Bangers and Ash record each cover is totally unique.
Where do you see the series going? Is it something you’re going to keep doing?
Phil: We’re going to do 10 releases in total. Since the first five that we did were from newer artists, the second five will focus on veteran artists in New York. When we started the Bangers and Ash series it was our only focus with the label so we were putting out a lot more a lot faster, but now we’ll probably just do one a year keep it a lot slower and more focused.
The plan is that the 10th Bangers and Ash will be Cam and I (Fossil). That will be the finale for the series. Once that’s done we’re probably think of another interesting sub-label series.
You have the Memory Foam imprint as well. Can you tell me what that’s all about?
Cam: I’d gotten to be a fan of some of these cassette labels like Vocal Tapes and Astro:Dynamics. They’re definitely a little less accessible than vinyl but there’s so much good music and I wanted to get some of this other music out. It was a way to put out some of these younger artists who we know.
The concept is to have the artist think of something from the past; it could be a person, an experience, it could be a very specific memory that they have and just build a release around that, to make some music about that.
Zach Cooper loved the idea and sent us a record that was culled from all high school recordings that he’d made with his friend who had died in a very tragic accident a couple years ago. He was really shaken up by that, so as a tribute he went back and took all these high school recordings and kind of spliced them together and we released that.
Phil: The fun thing about doing these concept series is that it’s a challenge for the artist if they want to participate. We ask the artists to make Banger tunes and make Ash tunes. Don’t just send us tunes. Having that kind of concept and challenge that we present and nurture is why both of us got into sub-labels like Memory Foam and Bangers and Ash.
Cam: We’ve found that the artists really like it too. They’re really into creating music and slotting it in with some idea because a lot of times it comes out different with your interpretation.
Do you prefer to work with artists who are based locally?
Phil: Most of the stuff coming out this year and next year is all local. All people we’ve met from other artists we’ve worked with or just from going out and seeing. It feels good to hang with the artists on a personal artist and build a friendship. Because honestly anybody can put out a record, but we’re lucky enough to be in this community so we should support it and be a part of it.
Has being based in Brooklyn has made certain things possible, or is it an essential part of the label? Could this label happen somewhere else?
Cam: That’s really hard to imagine. The community is great. Zach from Archie Pelago lives down the street, Dan lives just over there. There are just a ton of artists in this area. Walking distance kind of thing. It makes it very easy.
Phil: A lot of our initial success came from record stores in New York supporting us and giving us bin space and passing out records. There are so many other cities out there that just don’t have a lot of record stores. When you start out as a vinyl-focused label you need to have that brick and mortar supporting you. And Brooklyn has some of the best record stores. A1 was crucial in the city for our success.
Do you find it hard to balance projects like this with the cost of living in a place that’s so expensive?
Phil: Definitely at first when we kept reinvesting in the label. It was hard. It was really hard. Thankfully now it’s self-sustaining so things are a bit easier.
Cam: Financially now it’s easier. Now time is the big currency. Phil works with a couple of different record labels for his day job and I work with a couple of different music magazines for mine.
Phil: Which I think is very much a New York-centric thing, there’s this hustle in New York that you just have to be a part of. We couldn’t just quit our day jobs and run Styles. It’s not at that level now. Whereas in maybe, like, North Carolina where rent is a lot cheaper, we could work part-time jobs and spend the other half of the day just focusing on Styles. But with that we would lose the record stores and this constant influx of talent and show opportunities and meeting people.
Do you see the label ever growing into your day jobs?
Cam: I think so; I would like it to be. At some point if we keep growing we’ll have to.
Phil: But there’s also something to be said for running a label that’s not necessarily for profit to the point where you’re paying yourself. That definitely affects every decision you make. We’re trying to pay for our rent and it’s like maybe we don’t put out that Zach Nelson record, maybe we just put out the next Gabriel record or a really easy techno record that DJ’s will love. If we always are working jobs that can help support us we don’t have to put that pressure on Styles then. Styles will always be a fun natural thing for us.
Cam: You don’t want to have to compromise the ability to take risks, and take chances on stuff that is amazing. Like, “Oh this is so good, but will it sell?” That obviously comes into the equation, but whether we think the music is really good or if the vibe is there, is more driving to whether we’re going to release something than if it’s going to be profitable.
Would you ever consider doing a digital-only release?
Cam: We’ve talked about doing a digital-only release but I’m pretty sure Phil shot it down.
Phil: We do a free compilation album every winter through Bandcamp. And that’s just a way to be like, “Thanks for supporting us this year,” and giving new artists and our current roster to just share some B-sides or whatever. But I feel like only in very special cases does a digital-only release make sense. I just think that there should be a physical component in some capacity or some component that brings it outside of the virtual world.
Do you think that’s what record labels are trending towards? Do you think in the future it’s going to be digital-only releases or do you think labels will keep a physical component to their releases?
Phil: I think the physical component will always be there. I think there’s a certain type of person that loves artifacts and I think that music will always cater to that kind of mindset. It just feels very substantive, like you own something. It gives music both a physical and metaphorical weight that streaming just doesn’t. But on a larger scale, on the mainstream scale I think it’s trending just towards streaming and a lack of possession. Digital is down, CD sales are down, Spotify is way up. Vinyl stales are up too. If you present a really interesting package and the music is good, people will buy that.
Is the DIY aspect of the label is something that will always be a part of it? Or do you feel like you’ll try to outsource certain parts because it just too time consuming?
Cam: We’ve started to kind of do that. We have a design team now and we trusted the direction of the design of a lot of the artwork to them. As things have grown and gotten bigger we’ve started to enlist some help. It’s kind of hard letting go sometimes, to like delegate. Because you know how you want something to look and to sound and to be – mostly in the physical form – and you know how you want it to look. It’s kind of hard to trust people with that. There are certain people you learn to trust with that but if you do it yourself the only person you can blame for it not coming out the way you wanted it to is yourself.
Phil: I don’t understand people who run a label and aren’t involved with anything but sending emails. There’s much more opportunity to be involved and have fun and be creative than just talking to talking to artists and directing everything.
What does Styles have coming up in the future?
Phil: Zach Nelson is our first proper LP, like a full-length album that we’ve done. We’re putting out Oliver Chapoy’s (Certain Creatures) solo debut as a double-LP in the middle of October this year. Parts of it sound like Nine Inch Nails, parts of it are very heavy dark techno. After that we’re launching the Quincy Vidal project on our label. It’s a hip-hop duo that is very much in line with the A Tribe Called Quest kind of vibe.
I think our focus when we first started was putting out records, putting out a lot of records. Now I think it’s shifting towards us putting out more monumental records and us spending a lot of energy to build those records and those artists more than just like give us some tracks we’re do a 12-inch.
So you’re concentrating more on the individual projects.
Phil: Yeah, like artist development. More than just like records out, give it to shops, give to press and then three months later move onto the next thing. Oliver has been a year-long project and it’ll be another six months after the records getting him into festivals and shit. With Quincy Vidal, we want to develop that too. We’re going to start with a single and hoodie that’s designed for that release, then an EP and then an album. And then we’ll work with them on tours. We’re trying to really hone in on artists that we love and developing them as much as we can.
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