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Oaken Palace Records describe themselves as ‘The Green Record Label’. This independent label’s philosophy is to release records and donate the profits they make to various charities who look after endangered species. As I am a Biologist and a record collector fanatic this is something I cannot support enough, and I have followed the label’s releases with great interest for a while now. As I wanted to find out more behind the label’s ideas and their philosophy, I asked Sven Lohrey and Owen Coggins, who run Oaken Palace Records, some questions.
(((o))): Can you give me a brief background on the label? Who started the label and how did it start?
Sven: I first had the idea of starting a record label back in 2012. Being an avid record collector and drone fan myself, I was always interested in contributing to the scene through more than just buying records – at the same time, I didn’t want to start just another small independent label, and tried to integrate the idea with other important areas of my life that give me a strong sense of meaning. The first one is a passion for nature and animals. I started donating to environmental organisations when I was about 16, but could never afford to donate any substantial amounts – and trying to motivate my friends and family turned out to be more difficult than I expected. The second area is Buddhism, and the label has actually become an important part of my spiritual practice, especially the practice of giving to others (dana). From that point onwards, it was clear that the label had to be charitable – and to my surprise I soon found out that it actually was the only 100% charitable record label in Europe (and maybe even the world… at least I am not aware of any similar venture). I then started contacting bands and artists that I personally love, and the response was enthusiastically positive, despite the limited compensation we can offer – contributing artists only receive 10% of the print run for their own sales, that’s it. The first one to agree was Eric from thisquietarmy and Parallel Lines. Others quickly followed, including Aidan from Caudal and Nadja, as well as Glen and Ernesto from Sylvester Anfang II (now unfortunately disbanded, but featured with their individual projects on the most recent tape release).
I initially used my personal savings to release the first two LPs, but at some point this became too much of a financial burden, as I was still a student at that time and sales were going slower than I had envisaged in my naïve idealism. Luckily, I got the opportunity to apply for funding from an organisation called “UnLtd.” that works with universities in supporting social enterprises. It took only a few PowerPoint slides and about 10 minutes to convince the panel of my idea (I didn’t make them listen to drone, though), and the funding was enough to finance the first three releases, plus some flyers – maybe you saw one of them at Roadburn 2013 – and a more professional homepage. It then took me another 9 months or so to get the label registered as a charity. Owen actually played a crucial role in this process, as he wrote the expert opinion we needed for the application. Since then, running the label has become a lot smoother, and it just felt fantastic when I could make the first donation!
Owen: The expert opinion was required by the UK Charities Commission… luckily I had just got the first ever academic journal article on drone metal to be published, so I could prove I was an official expert! I thought it was a great idea so I was happy to get more involved a couple of years later.
(((o))): Your label focuses on the environment, and especially in donating profits to endangered species, which I think is a brilliant initiative. How do you find the endangered species you want to work with? Is this something the artists you release have a say in as well?
Sven: The bands and artists always decide on the animal to which the release will be dedicated. The only criterion is that the animal needs to be listed on the IUCN redlist – some species are for example only endangered in a particular area of the world, but overall fall in the “least concern” category, because they inhabit different parts of the planet. Such an animal would not qualify for a dedication on our label, but this happens rather seldom – after all, more than 40,000 species are listed on the IUCN redlist, and over 2,000 were added to the list over the last 5 years. So there are plenty to choose from, unfortunately.
Sometimes we suggest animals to the bands, but in most cases they already have one in mind, for example because there is a geographic or personal connection, like for Parallel Lines, who are from Canada and dedicated their album to polar bears, or for Caudal, who chose the European ground squirrel following an incident where someone got hit on the head by a nut, which turned into a kind of insider joke. So you can see there are all kinds of different motivations!
(((o))): You recently expanded the team behind Oaken Palace Records by taking our own Echoes and Dust drone specialist writer Owen Coggins on board. Does this mean you see room for the label to grow?
Owen: Yeah, I’m excited to get involved. Hopefully we can continue building a reputation for great and interesting records, and at the same time raise some money. As far as I know it’s a unique idea to run a record label as a charity, so definitely we hope we can carry on doing this!
Sven: I am super happy to have Owen on board! A charity needs a minimum of three trustees, but the other two trustees that were involved in the early days of the label (and still are) don’t really share my interest in drone music and are more motivated by the general vision of raising money for endangered animals. This meant that over the past years I was the only one contacting bands and the releases so far largely reflect my personal music taste – which is of course subjective, specific, and thus limited. Working with Owen has brought in a whole new perspective on the diverse genres of drone and psychedelic music, and it’s not only broadening my own perspective, but also the focus of the label in general. More on that below…
(((o))): You focus mainly on drone and psychedelic releases. Is there a specific reason for this musical focus? Would you ever consider going into different musical genres? Owen quite likes some obscure black metal as well for example…?
Owen: Both of us are pretty serious about drone! In fact I met Sven in the process of doing my PhD research about drone metal… I think it’s important for any label to have a really strong identity, whether that’s aesthetic or sonic or whatever, so it makes sense for us to follow that interest in drone. As well, it seems to me there’s some element of the contemplative, reflective nature of drone music that fits with an attempt to do something about damage to our environment. Having said all that, the first release I was involved in (which we exclusively reveal below!) was a bit of a departure into slightly more noisy territory, but still with that drone foundation. So there’s room for amazing diversity of music relating to drone.
Sven: Music, at least in its non-mainstream form, has always been a channel to communicate alternative views, radical ideas, and revolutionary messages – including raising environmental awareness. Think of bands like Hexvessel, Wardruna, or Velnias, who constantly voice environmental concerns, and communicate their love for nature and animals through lyrics, artwork, and instrumentation. So yes, in general we could easily expand the musical focus of Oaken Palace Records. At the same time, like Owen I believe that what separates good from mediocre labels is a clear musical orientation, a kind of “golden thread” that follows through from release to release. I hope that we have achieved this so far, and it is important to me to keep this special Oaken Palace spirit alive. That being said, drone and psychedelic music really is very diverse, and our new release marks quite a significant point in that regard.
(((o))): Do you approach the artists you want to work with or do you also get artists approaching you as well?
Owen: We’ve had people approach us, but normally we contact artists who we think would fit the label. As a charity, and in order to ensure that we’re able to contribute to the protection of the animals we’re dedicating the releases to, we want to make sure we take on records that can sell 500 records.
Sven: …and this is often a real pity, because some of the artists that approach us produce really great stuff. The label is simply not well-known enough yet to be able to confidently say that people buy an album simply because it was released on Oaken Palace Records – most people still buy music from the artists and bands they like, no matter on which label it was released.
(((o))): Running a small label is not a cheap business these days and especially pressing records can be quite an investment. I’m curious to hear how you manage to keep the label running, put out all these great releases and still end up with money to donate to the protection of endangered species. How much money roughly are you able to donate with each release for example?
Sven: Financially, we are in a good position due to the initial funding we got, and so far we were able to donate more money each year since the first releases covered costs in 2014. In total, we donated more than GBP 5,200 (which equalled more than 7,000 Euro when I last checked – probably less now that the pound crashed), and more donations, for example from the Blown Out and Expo `70 releases, will follow soon – the goal is to crack the 10,000 Euro-mark this year!
Owen: As far as the financial and organisational side goes, it’s also important that we’re transparent, so people can trust we’re doing what we say! Information about our UK charitable status is on the website, as well as the Trustee’s Reports. We make regular announcements on Facebook and so on when we make the donations, since that’s part of the whole purpose!
Sven: Exactly, transparency really is key when it comes to running a label like this – or any other charitable organisation, for that matter.
(((o))): You’re also releasing on cassettes. People seem to have a love or hate relationship with cassettes, with some people think they should never made a comeback, whereas other people see them as a great, and cheaper alternative to records. Is there a specific reason why you also release on cassettes?
Owen: I know that some people consider cassettes to be an outdated, degraded medium! I think they’re great though, and I actually buy a lot of new music on tape: mostly underground black metal or ambient drone stuff… They’re cheaper, so they can be really accessible for listeners, and it’s not such a heavy risk to put out a tape, and these days they’re much much quicker to get manufactured than vinyl with pressing plant delays and so on. I think different formats all have different practical and aesthetic qualities that can be used in different ways, so it’s great to have that option.
We’ve released two tapes, by thisquietarmy raising money for an insectarium in Montreal, and the second a split tape with great minimal rhythmic drone tracks by Hellvete and Bear Bones, Lay Low. The first one is sold out, and the second is well on the way, over two-thirds gone, and it only came out a few months ago. Costs are covered for that one now, so it’s already raising money for the Radiated Tortoise, which can live to 180 years (time for a lot of drone listening!). It means that anyone who buys that tape now is donating the full amount to the conservation charity.
(((o))): Would you ever consider working together with other environmental organisations?
Sven: We usually ask the organisations that receive the donations to help us with promoting the releases. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. In any case, my experience is that the vast majority of people donating to environmental organisations are not really into drone music… it’s more the other way around. Drone remains a niche genre, so that’s not too much of a surprise.
Beyond that, I would actually love to work with other labels that want to release music for charitable purposes, but there haven’t been a lot of opportunities yet. The general concept has some fans, though. Just a few weeks ago we got an email from a guy in the US, who wants to start a charitable record label as well and kind of asked us for permission! And of course he can do that – you can all do that! The more, the better!
(((o))): Could you tell us what upcoming releases you have planned and which endangered species you’ll focus on?
Owen: Yes! We can exclusively announce that the next Oaken Palace release is a great noisy drone record by Merzbow! We’re super excited to work with such a massively influential and important noise musician. I had a couple of ideas about artists I might like to approach, and am really happy that Masami was immediately up for the idea.
He’s not only got a catalogue of great releases, but also has a history of using noise to support environmental and conservation causes: releasing albums in support of bears, seals, and whales for example. He chose the Kakapo as he was interested in flightless birds, and they’re an incredibly endangered species, down to about 125 individuals that live on a couple of small islands off New Zealand. The money will be donated to the Kakapo Recovery Trust (where you can learn more about the Kakapo, and the work they do). I suspected he might pick something like that, as he had a series of albums out recently, all dedicated to birds.
We asked if the recording could have a bit of a drone element, in keeping with the label’s focus, and he created a massive droning noise track, which extends over two sides. I just got the test pressings… it has that consistent immersive, absorbing quality of great drone music, but at the same time there are all sorts of trademark Merzbow mind-bending noise explosions throughout as well. I absolutely love it.
Sven: In addition, the new Merzbow record will be the first one of a whole new series on Oaken Palace Records, called the Oaken Palace Black Series. Just as in a forest, where you can’t only find sunny clearings and relaxing spots in the shade, but also dark, confusing, and creepy places, drone and psychedelic music has a harsh and noisy side as well. It’s this side that we want to focus on with the Black Series, and it won’t necessarily only be noisy drone – maybe also some droney black metal or doom. Let’s see!
(((o))): You’re a registered charity. Does this mean people can support you financially by donating money as well? If so, give us the details!
Sven: In general they can. In fact, we even tried that for one year, using an integration for our homepage provided by an external partner. Unfortunately, we didn’t receive a single donation that was independent of music sales, so we kind of gave up on that. And that’s okay – after all, our charity constitution says that we have two equally important objectives: Raising money for endangered animals and promoting drone music!
Owen: As well as the physical releases, money from purchases of the digital releases on Bandcamp also of course goes directly to the conservation causes once costs are covered. Also, just to say, you can find out more information on the environmental side and about the releases at the label website, you can listen, and buy digital or physical copies of the records at the Bandcamp site, and keep up with the latest news on Facebook. We’ll be revealing the artwork for the amazing new Merzbow record shortly, and putting up the information for pre-orders. Cheers!