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06 April 2018

In the first of a video series on cool people doing cool things I spoke to Julie Dunn who runs trace/untrace, a local micro-independent record label to get the lowdown on the sort of operation she’s running.

Just under a year ago Julie Dunn and Richard Ley-Hamilton decided to start a record label.

Their main kaupapa was to support DIY and grassroots efforts within Dunedin. Rather than aspiring towards the hulking money-grabbing monstrosities of yesteryear, they strove to be a “micro-independent” label. They also decided to make cassettes, and they called this project trace/untrace.

“I guess what it actually is is my arts and crafts project” Julie laughs.

I met with Julie in The Attic, also the site of their label launch party back in April 2017, to see how things are going for trace/untrace one year on and figure out the tricky question of what a record label needs to be in the age of bedroom-producers and Bandcamp.

“I see my role in kind of facilitating people to make their music and get it out into the world a bit easier” she explains.

I ask how it works as a business, whether there are any contracts or a business model.

“It’s always very informal, I kind of have a meeting with them at the start to say like this is what I can do, this is what I can help you with… And we kind of work it out that way rather than me being like ‘this is what we’re going to do’”

“I’m definitely not making any money whatsoever and I don’t want to, but I do want my bands to be successful, so I guess that’s the business model.”

So far this process has resulted in five cassette releases. The first was The Rothmans debut EP, followed by Richard Ley Hamilton’s solo project Asta Rangu and two Koizilla EP’s. Late last year they released the fantastic “Yield” EP by bedroom-producer Bediquette, a refreshing departure from the typical “guitar band” sound which dominates the live music scene. Julie also promises a number of exciting release in the near future.

“I’m happy to release anything if I like it.”

Releasing music on cassettes isn’t abnormal for the DIY scene but the resurgence of cassettes is perpetually confusing to members of the older generations who view them as those annoying hissy things which broke all the time before CDs came along.

Ironically those are exactly the reasons why people like cassettes today. When digital perfection is so easily attainable people crave things which are flawed. And vinyl is too expensive, so cassettes are the perfect analog medium for independent musicians. Julie buys blank cassettes online and dubs them in her kitchen. She also prints out the labels and J-cards. The final product feels high-quality and worth the $5 or so she charges for them.

“I think when people are buying music like a physical object these days it’s more of an artifact, like people can listen to Koizilla at home on spotify, so it is kind of about the aesthetic for tapes as well as supporting the band.”

“I also really like the lo-fi aspect of cassettes, like it’s pretty hard to get something to sound amazing on cassette but I think the sound that it lends is actually pretty cool, I personally like it.”

“And also I think they look cool. So I really love tapes and I’m happy that’s what ended up happening.”

Apart from continuing to release tapes, Julie wants to eventually move trace/untrace into other creative realms such as book publishing and 7-inch vinyl releases. But her ambitions for the label are wider than that. She wants to affect change in the community as a whole.

“I’ve had a lot of I guess pipedream-esque ideas about like, less to do with actual shows and music and more like working on the health of our scene.”

“I think in Dunedin especially you see a lot of dialogue around issues in terms of women and people of colour, marginalized communities who may find it harder to come into the spaces that exist currently, or create their own new spaces where they feel safe and able to be active creatively, so I’d really like to do some work around opening up constructive discussion that leads to actual action in those areas.”

Especially interesting to me is the niche labels occupy now. Cheap recording equipment and free distribution platforms have well and truly demolished the old industry, and music is better off for it.

It seems like Julie’s direction for trace/untrace finds a space for a label which successfully supports the way people make music today, but it’s also a great personal commitment. I get the feeling that in order for something like trace/untrace to work it would have to come from a place of genuine care for and belief in the community.

“Obviously the band can record stuff pretty well for pretty cheaply now on their own terms a lot of the time, and release it on Bandcamp for free or money” she admits.

“And in some senses that takes out the job of the record label, especially on the smaller scale because obviously a larger record label has a lot to offer the band in terms of cold hard cash. So I guess that I, the space I’m trying to occupy is more of a facilitative role, or a helping hand I guess.”

“But that’s again, like I couldn’t see, it’s not a money making plan. So if you’re thinking in terms of record labels making money and finding a space in the current way that things run then I don’t really know what that would look like, but I definitely think that where I want to be situated is kind of just helping bands to do things they might not have the time or energy to do on their own terms because I believe in them basically.”

I ask what her thoughts are on the Dunedin music community in general.

“I dunno, I feel like people talk about this all the time and I’ve heard so many different opinions about it, some people say the Dunedin music scene is dead, there’s nothing interesting here anymore, some people I’ve heard say we’re about to have a second coming and it’ll be like the ‘good old days’ and of course recently we had all that dialogue about the Coyote drama…”

“I think the music scene is pretty healthy now. It went through a pretty dark patch after Chicks closed because I think people came to rely on Chicks as like the one and only really good venue that we had here.

“But I think we’re starting to get over that now and we’re getting more venues popping up over last year and this year. And I think the music that’s being made here is definitely top notch, like I can’t imagine a small music community that would have a higher level or higher quality of music than we have”

“I think there’s definitely the fans there to go to gigs, and that’s another really positive thing”

“But yeah, there’s definitely a lot of I guess a lot of like… There’s not a lot of women around, which is kind of a big source of angst for me because I really want to actively release music and music I love, but I’m incredibly conscious that there’s no women in my label at the moment”

“I think that’s incredibly sad and that’s why I want to do a lot of work in that space in terms of not just releasing women because I don’t think it’s right to release music that I don’t fully personally engage with”

“I would say that it’s incredibly healthy but we’ve got some kinks to iron out before I could say that we’re flourishing.”

In my opinions it’s projects like trace/untrace which are the exact sort of thing the Dunedin music scene in order to flourish, not just because it helps musicians to do what they do, but because it’s yet another pillar to strengthen the great community we’ve got here.

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