Stamp Collecting: The Mystery of White Label Vinyl
- Published on Tuesday, 11 March 2014 21:09
Limited-edition, hand-stamped, white label. Words guaranteed to stir up excitement in even the most seasoned record collector. Those words – that phrase – have aided the vinyl revival of the past couple of years, creating buzz and hype around mysterious new record releases, sometimes before you've had a chance to listen to the music. So is this a fresh, though possibly cynical, trend that has helped kick much-needed life into what was, ostensibly, a dying market. Or, really, has it always been like this?
The white label 12-inch record first came about with disco, as a pre-artwork, promotional copy (promo) sent to the press and radio stations, or as audio test pressings (TP) of a new release. By the 80s, a decade in which dozens of new dancefloor music styles were born, handfuls of 12-inch promos began forming a currency that distributors, and sometimes labels, dropped into record shops to create a buzz around new records before their intended release date. Record shops duly kept a few under the counter (those that weren't skimmed off among staff) to keep for regular customers, many of them DJs, who would then push those upfront whites into their sets. At this time most DJs held residencies, so with repeated play, could really make those tunes their own. And because they were white – that is blank, without artwork or release information – they were genuinely secret tunes – a symbol of how connected you were as a DJ and how upfront your music.
Move forward to the 90s boom years for electronic/dance music, and kudos from owning white labels was strong among DJs. Besides this, there were also many small, independent labels starting up for whom whites were the cheapest and fastest way to distribute product, even as an official release. “A lot of whites, maybe even most, were done like this out of necessity, to keep costs down,” recalls Aidy West, who has been running his Vinyl Underground record shop in Northampton for over 20 years. One of the first retailers to embrace online selling, and one of the few survivors to weather the vinyl industry's recent period of downturn, he has watched the trends of record labels closer than most. “There was a lot of homemade music coming out of urban areas, self-pressed [in the 90s] – so it had to be done cheap and was naturally raw. The fact that the image fitted was a bonus.”
Promos and TPs still did the rounds, but more and more these new labels, who couldn't afford label artwork or outer sleeves, began hand-writing, stickering or stamping logos or information on records as a quick and visually striking way to make their product glow in the sea of white cluttering up the walls and rack of record shops.
“The stamps were the quickest way of getting some kind identifier on the labels. It was something that could be done then and there, rather than waiting for label art, recalls Josh Brent, who ran the, now much sought-after, Schatrax label in mid-late 90s. Schatrax 12”s were instantly recognisable for being released with nothing more than a simple stamped label logo.
Matt Densham, who runs Greta Cottage Workshop, is also no stranger to stamping records. He's been doing it since the mid-90s. “I used to work with Post Office Records. It was a very low-run, DIY label. Dave the owner used to handcut all the sleeves and I would help stamp them. I used to see it as a money-saving exercise as, joking aside, we burnt the chairs in the woodburner one day due to being cut off. After that [ditching artwork] seemed like the obvious money-saving choice! They looked good, and I appreciate it all the more today, but I didn’t see it turning into the craze it is now. GCW stamping really grew from this.”
Chicago-based DJ/producer Hakim Murphy was inspired to set up his own label from watching the process close up. “I worked at Groove Distribution and a co-worker of mine was stamping 7" records. Later we had some records and I had to do all the stamping. I liked the aesthetic and the personal touch. At the time I was conceiving ideas for my label and so I made a stamp then pressed up some white labels. Machining Dreams was born.” Hakim says it was the do-it-yourself ethic of the label, beyond just stamping labels, that was the key. “I was not doing this as a selling point, just as a stylist thing, but also financially; not having art takes several hundred dollars off the overhead cost.”
As well as the minimal aesthetic – and shops and labels might not have known it at the time – the idea of stamped whites as a byword for something special was already forming, if only in the eyes of record buyers. The 90s were when house and techno was at its unit-shifting peak, with 12-inch releases regularly selling in their thousands. With many major labels bank-rolling stables of dance labels, being recognised as 'an independent' meant instant credibility in a crowded, almost over-active marketplace, awash with marketing budgets to accompany fancy artwork. A plain white label, with no information other than perhaps a recognisable stamp, became a short-cut to something underground. Says Hakim: “I always liked white labels. The dj in me is attracted to stamping.”
“Throughout rave / hardcore in the early 90s, stamped whites were common. I think this was the first time that the white label became so desirable, a selling point,” says Aidy. “Labels would intentionally release stamped whites as they knew that buyers viewed them as something special. "Got any white labels mate?" was the common question in record stores, and continued for way too long.” Aidy even admits the shop had a go. “We also sold lots of advance white labels at the time of labels like Mosaic / Solid Groove/ Primitive etc - so we used to stamp them ourselves, to promote the shop I suppose.”
The 2000s were a difficult time for the vinyl industry. Sales plummeted, record shops closed, distributors collapsed, labels faded or died – while all the while the download industry grew. DJs' and music buyers' demands changed as they experimented with or switched playing formats. If you liked to buy records, or you were a record shop, it was tough– especially with so many wav or mp3 converts choosing to scoff at the predicted death of vinyl.
But vinyl didn't die. In fact, over the past two-three years, vinyl has had an upturn in popularity. The reasons are numerous – but you can attribute it to a combination of three things: a) physical records, and owning them, have simply become desirable again, particularly to a new generation too young to have experienced the Saturday afternoon record-shopping ritual so common in the 80s or 90s. B) the online music information resource Discogs has become a massive marketplace for secondhand vinyl in the past 8 years, and hundreds of DJs and collectors who had decided they didn't need records anymore put vast collections online. This introduced new and younger record fans to music unavailable on download, often for peanuts. And c) record labels run by vinyl enthusiasts, those who had weathered the scorn of their download-loving peers, realised that if they were going to sell music and recoup costs on vinyl releases – they would need to remodel their businesses. This meant smaller pressing runs of 100-300 copies, dispensing with artwork and pressing only white labels. But because they had to retail at higher prices, they had to create value, so hand-stamping and hand-numbering limited-edition records added a personal touch to negate the price hikes.
Madrid DJ/ producer Ernie changed the way he runs his Minuendo label as a direct result of the clamour for hand-stamped 12s. He began stamping records with his label's 20th release. “This release was only ever available on digital. But after six months I wanted to release it as a 10-inch with two tracks. It would be limited to 100 copies, hand-stamped with a small Star Wars scene pic. The release was a big success and sold out in ten days. That signalled a change in Minuendo. I am now my own distributor, only limited editions from 150 to 300 , no repress, numbered copies and hand-stamped editions.” Ernie has even posted short videos of stamping records on youtube, to the approval of avid collectors. He says: “ With the stamped record you can offer unique pieces – no two copies are identical - and that is the key. The vinyl junkie loves the exclusive material to play or just for collecting.”
Over the past few years, with small-run, hand-artworked labels, records have become tangibly personal – the label owner has spent time counting, numbering and stamping each individual record so it's worth that extra pound. We live in an era that is increasingly obsessed by provenance – sales of artisan breads from a local baker or craft beers with handwritten labels have blossomed in the marketplace, so why wouldn't we like our record labels to be 'craft' items too?
In 2014 Apple is the second biggest company on the planet (after Exxon) while branding can be studied at degree level. Back in the mid-90s, desktop publishing was still a new skill and Apple Macs weren't affordable; making your own artwork, and having savvy ideas on selling points such as provenance simply weren't on a label's mind. As Josh Brent recalls: “The only idea [behind giving his releases different-colour stamps] was to not have a load of white labels laying around that we wouldn’t know what they were without opening them to check each time.”
Look through the scores of hand-stamped releases coming out each week and you might wonder if the music being released has become, in some ways, secondary to its own exclusivity. The more a record is personalised, stamped, the more limited its pressing run, the more desirable the record is to own, before it's even been played. The limited-edition, hand-stamped twelve-inch has really become more than the some of its parts – in some cases it's become a work of art. The best example of this is Firecracker Records, a label that has turned releasing records into a mult-artform. Label owner Lindsay Todd creates beautiful record inners and sleeves by hand, updates followers about the process and release dates on Instagram and Facebook, then sells super-limited runs exclusively via bandcamp.
“I think hand-painted or screen-printed artwork is a nice touch,” says James Thomson, head of distribution at long-running online record shop Juno. “Hand-painted or screen-printed artwork is a trend now. I remember hand-stamped records coming in when I started working at Juno over 10 years ago. Mojuba is the one label that stands out in my mind; they weren't the first to stamp, but they were probably the first to stick bits of carpet to a record.”
Another label-owner producing art for each release is Greta Cottage Workshop's Matt Densham. With an evocative label name, and limited 300 runs, Matt spray-paints and hand-cuts every GCW release. It's something he's done before. “Some years ago, after working together for a while, Brun (Swayzak) & I decided to do a self-funded record (240 Volts VS GCW). We had blown all our savings on street art - Faile, Eiko etc, and I had a period when young of using spray cans, so we decided to step up the artwork. We could only afford paper liners so in the end Brun used an old cog to ‘print’ the paper and middle, then used a stamp from Lidl for the text.”
Says Ernie of Minuendo: “The art I stamp is the same, but I'm always looking for new ways based on the same original idea, combining artworks and hand stamps with different artists such as Robert Hernandez (tattooer) or Eduardo Caballero (designer).”
Once again the vinyl market is vibrant. Although the number of units a record generally shifts has levelled out to a few hundred copies for the smallest, most underground labels, the amount of new music coming out on vinyl is increasing, and some labels are selling many more. The digital market is already saturated, but now the post-digital vinyl market is becoming more competitive. Some labels – cleverly or cynically, depending on your view point – have caught on that hand-stamping is once again shorthand for instant credibility. These labels are pressing way more than their hand-stamps might suggest. “We recently manufactured a Juno Distribution title that was hand-stamped but we pressed 1000 plus,” confirms James.
“Many labels' artwork is solely made up of stamps on white labels and with represses have sold 5000 plus,” adds Aidy. And in some cases, labels aren't even doing any stamping themselves anymore. “I knew from visiting a distributor that you could pay somebody else to stamp your records - 18p a stamp or something,” says Matt Densham. “It made me sad, as I had visions of other label owners burning the midnight oil and doing it for the love.” But he adds: “I feel like the work I put into hand finishing the records, stencilling the sleeves, SHOULD be a selling point.”
Whatever the reason, the renaissance of the stamp, both as a practical artwork swerve and as a marketing tool, has confirmed that white labels haven't lost their desirability. Says Aidy: “I have noticed, especially with younger buyers, that a record being rare/limited (and in some cases even expensive) is one of the main reasons they are buying and collecting. I suppose its totally different from the mp3s they have grown up with. It still is the cheapest way of releasing a record. But because of the recent history of underground music then yes , some labels have purposely done this. It fits the anonymous underground image , particularly for techno: look at Shed / Equalized releases for example. As a buyer I still prefer the stamped white label over a full label for that music – it fits. But other times I get the feeling people are trying a bit too hard to get the hype going.”
Both Vinyl Underground and Juno describe records as 'hand-stamped' on their websites. Again it might be necessity as much as careful marketing. “We do it to explain what it is and so the buyer isn't disappointed when they receive their record in a creased inner sleeve only,” says Aidy. “We do it because sometimes these items can be more expensive,” adds James. “But it's definitely a selling point too. I think it adds an air of exclusivity and mystery. And to an extent an indication that the record is a labour of love.”
Exclusive, rare, credible or simply cynically marketed – whichever, the stamp isn't going away. The last word goes to Hakim Murphy, and it's good advice to any label considering the stamp route: “Keep the music pure and from the heart and, stamped or not, the music will sell.”