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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Crammed Discs and the demise of sublabels

Crammed Discs and the demise of sublabels

It's hard to express things in terms of ‘the best artwork’, especially with over 600 releases under our belt.

Interview Diederik Decroix
Photographs Philippe Levy (Photo Marc) , Jim Bara (Photo Hanna)

Crammed Discs is still run by Hanna Gorjaczkowska and Marc Hollander, the same two people who started the label in 1981. Back then, Marc Hollander was a musician. His first album, Aksak Maboul's Onze Danses Pour Combattre la Migraine, was commissioned by Marc Moulin (well, kind of) and released on his short-lived Kamikaze label.

Hollander: “As Moulin’s label didn't really exist, I started promoting the album myself, sending it to musicians and small labels abroad. I got great reactions, so that when the time came to record the second Aksak Maboul album, I chose to go DIY and released it on my own. I then felt like extending the ideas we were playing with in Aksak Maboul, like mixing genres and styles, collaborating with various musicians etcetera, on a slightly broader scale, and to gradually develop a label.”

“The label was eclectic and internationally-minded from day one”, Hollander says. “The bands we recorded and released during the first couple of years included two experimental post-punk bands from London (People in Control & Family Fodder), a Franco-American band (Band Apart), a Dutch-Israeli-Iraqi-Turkish combo (Minimal Compact), and four Belgian bands. Apart from Aksak Maboul and The Honeymoon Killers, both bands I was in, we had Des Airs and By Chance. The label's motto at the time was ‘Fun & Cosmopolitanism’. It says it all.”

“We’re happy and proud of having remained a small company with a hands-on attitude.”

Hollander: “During the first couple of years, we belonged more to the cottage industry than to the actual industry. At the time, lots of indie labels were sprouting everywhere, which was a welcome change after decades of major label hegemony. The record business underwent lots of changes over these last 35 years, but in a way, we're still operating now like we were doing then. We’re happy and proud of having remained a small company, with a hands-on attitude towards everything from recording to promoting and distributing, with close relationship with the artists, and a roster which keeps evolving and morphing. What's certainly changed is that we need to be involved in all aspects of the artists' activities if we want to survive. But then again: we’ve always worked like that: like an incubator for artist development rather than a company which simply puts out records.”

Hollander: “The sublabels are a fiction: we invented them to try and convince the media and public that there was some kind of deliberate plan to put some order in our way-too-diverse output. That’s why we released the Made To Measure series for albums which were more experimental and instrumental, with releases by John Lurie, Benjamin Lew, Hector Zazou, Arto Lindsay… Then we had SSR for our electronic releases, soon joined by two little brothers: Language, which is based in London and Selector, from Paris. We’ve put out over sixty electronic music releases. Everything from downtempo to drum'n'bass to house, from 4hero to Carl Craig and the Freezone series in the 90s.”

The list goes on. Hollander: “There was also CramWorld, for the more clearly world music-oriented release, with Zap Mama, Taraf de Haïdouks and later on Congolese bands such as Konono N°1. And then came Ziriguiboom, in 1998, devoted to new strains of Brazilian music. Bebel Gilberto, Suba, Zuco 103, DJ Dolores, Cibelle... The truth of the matter is that, all along, we've simply kept following our intuitions, and have gotten excited about a variety of styles and artists we’ve encountered along the way, often by chance or by accident. I love it when things happen like that.”

“These borders between genres are quite artificial, but at the time we felt that we needed the sublabels because a small group of people simultaneously producing traditional Balkan Gypsy music, indie rock and electronic music would not really be understood or taken seriously. In recent years, these sublabels have lost their relevance, as the audience has gotten used to trans-genre and boundary-breaking music, which suits us perfectly. So we’ve finally shed that skin and have dropped the sublabels for the last five years. It makes sense, since we work more and more with artists which could be described as post-genre or post-national. As an exception, we did recently revive the ancient Made To Measure series to release a few albums under that banner.”

Gorjaczkowska and Hollander keep on doing what they do, and have fun doing it. Hollander: “What we do, apart from trying to find projects and artists that excite us, is to help these artists build or develop an international career. We've viewed this as an absolute necessity since day one, because when you create leftfield, niche or specialist music, however you want to call it, you need to find the audience that will love those releases, and that audience is scattered around the planet. So you could say that this is our mission to sow seeds in all the main countries and try to get things going everywhere. It's still very DIY, yet of course way more professional than in the early days.”

Hollander: “It's hard to express things in terms of ‘the best artwork’, especially with over 600 releases under our belt. What comes to mind right now is that the covers by Austrian electronic music artist Auto Repeat were among the most fun and provocative. That Acid Arab's album cover is quite a statement. Le Ton Mité's upcoming album has a beautiful cover too and I'm quite proud of the Congotronics box and the 10-LP Tuxedomoon box sets, which both have great artwork.”

When asked about the best Belgian artist released on Crammed Discs, Hollander explains he doesn’t think that way. In his opinion, every artist that works closely with Crammed Discs becomes a little bit Belgian. “It’s not about where you live or where you were born”, he says. Hollander and his staff get deeply involved with the artist they work with, so they do get somewhat ‘Belgianised’ in the process. Hollander continues: “I'm always more excited by what comes next, so I'm really proud of our current and upcoming releases. We have a series of wonderful albums coming out in 2017, by Aquaserge, Le Ton Mité, Lula Pena, Yasmine Hamdan, Kasai Allstars and Juana Molina…”