Moving Metal: Hypnotic Dirge Records

Moving Metal: Hypnotic Dirge Records

Jun 12
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An Interview with Nicolas Skog, Founder and Head of Hypnotic Dirge Records

 

Moving Metal is an ongoing interview series with underground and indie heavy metal music labels, from one-man DIY distros to mid-sized outfits. The purpose is to introduce metal fans to the people and machinery behind the music and the bands they listen to, and to get a behind-the-scenes look into the workings of the metal underground. Past interviews have been with Black Lion Records.

 

Hypnotic Dirge Records Logo

 

If you’ve been listening to this site’s weekly heavy metal podcast for any length of time you have likely heard music released through a small-but-well-known label from Saskatchewan, Canada called Hypnotic Dirge Records. Nearly a decade into its existence, the outfit has become a trusted beacon in the world of underground extreme music, specializing in black and doom metal with plenty of space given to folk and experimental releases. For the second part of my Moving Metal series, HDR head and founder Nicolas Skog spared some time to talk about the history of his DIY endeavor, the unique business model, and the current output. Read it below, and also check out the companion podcast episode along with it, which covers a range of releases from the label’s catalog.

 

 

Playlist:

Orphans of Dusk – Nibelheim (1:15)

The Foetal Mind – The Big Crunch (7:51)

Thrawsunblat – She, Arboreal (13:59)

Aerial Ruin – Burn the Season (19:03)

Dolven – Inhale (23:02)

Netra РEverything’s Fine (29:00)

Subterranean Disposition – Embittered (34:18)

None – Wither (44:16)

Mavradoxa – Across the Nival Grove (54:29)

 

Hypnotic Dirge releases have a broad range of styles, but the label definitely still has a signature umbrella of genres. How did you personally come into this kind of music as a fan?

I started listening to black metal when I was 16 or so, beginning with the ‘gateway’ bands like Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir before discovering Darkthrone and Burzum, Satyricon, Emperor – the classics. After that you just get caught in the rabbit hole of countless new discoveries and endless music and in my opinion there’s never been so much good new black and doom metal as there is now! The sheer amount of quality music is never-ending and there’s lots of artists forging new paths for black metal right now so it’s a great time to be a fan of the genre.

What’s the origin story of Hypnotic Dirge Records, how did it get going?

Around mid 2008, I decided that I wanted to release the second album of my ambient project Ancient Tundra myself to learn about the process and be in control of the promotion and distribution aspects. There was nothing wrong with how my label handled the promotion and distribution on the first release but I wanted to take a more hands-on approach. Rather than just self-releasing, I decided to try out a small DIY label and also release some other projects’ albums from friends and acquaintences that I was in contact with at the time, such as Winds of Sorrow, Echoes of Silence, Astral Luminous, Immundus, and Neige et Noirceur. It was a very small operation at the time and I had no real long-term visions for Hypnotic Dirge. However, as time went on, I began to slowly but surely take every aspect of the releases more seriously. Some of those early releases weren’t presented very well and they were all CD-r releases until the Exiled From Light double-album in the summer of 2010. Some artwork was pixalated as well and there were some other amateur errors. I was only nineteen at the time and had a really underground ethos as well as a fair bit of naviety about the whole process. However, it’s all part of the evolution and I think there are many labels that started out in a similar way and can’t totally stand behind their early work. It’s all part of the process.

How DIY was the label in its first incarnation and how has it progressed in terms of professional production and distribution of albums? It’s a noticeable step from CD-Rs to professionally pressed CDs.

Very DIY. I still got so-called ‘pro’ CD-r’s done, meaning that they were still made in a CD plant rather than handmade, but they were all CD-r’s until mid 2010. In retrospect, it might have been a bit more interesting if I did do the releases hand-made, or at least tried releasing some in A5 CD-r format, considering they weren’t replicated CD’s anyhow. When you first start out as a label and nobody knows who you are, it is pretty intimidating to drop $1500 on a professional manufactured CD, especaially as a nineteen year old with a less-than-optimal day job. I think I also I got too ambitious in the quantity of releases pretty early on as well and ended up releasing nine albums in the first year. In retrospect, it might have been a better idea to focus more on quality and do 3-4 of the best releases on Pro-CD.

 

Nicolas Skog – Founder of Hypnotic Dirge Records

 

HDR is a non-profit label, how does that change the business dynamic between label, artist, and music listener?

For one thing, I think many underground labels are ‘non-profit’, not necessarily by choice but by circumstance, and they of course keep forging on for the simple fact that it is a labour of love and a passion that the label founder has. They would be releasing and distributing music regardless and they only hope to not lose significantly sums of money and make their label financially sustainable. My initial motivation for calling Hypnotic Dirge a non-profit was basically to state to anybody naive about ‘owning’ an underground black/doom label that I have never made a cent of profit from this project, and in fact, until about 2014 or so I lost a significant amount. Actually, I took a significant hiatus from releases for ten months in 2014 in order to recover some of the money lost over the years, and then restarted again in 2015 with a new focus and determined to make HDR self-sustaining. Since then, it’s worked out pretty great. I still haven’t made a cent but that’s never been the intention. Every little bit of sales and/or donations goes right back into new releases which is perfect!As far as the artists go, everyone’s been really understanding about the realities of running an underground label and the costs associated with each release – which goes beyond the manufactiring itself. There’s also shipping costs associated with promotion and distribution, costs of printing non-sale items such as release cards and stickers, etc. I just aim to do what I can to give each release as much support as possible while keeping the long term sustainability of the label in mind as well.

All your releases are free or donation-based on Bandcamp, and the label doesn’t take any exclusive rights for the records. What’s behind the philosophy of making the music as accessible as possible, and entirely eschewing a consumer/commodity business model?

This is extremely important to me. My personal values are actually very anti-business, which makes running a ‘business’ technically very strange for me, and at times uncomfortable. Unlike most of the old-school mentality that many metal fans and bands have, I am completely in favour of free digital music and I have no problem at all if listeners want to download our releases for free. Of course, I would appreciate a donation as a token of appreciation for what we’re trying to do and in order to keep things sustainable enough to keep printing physical releases and shirts for those who still prefer physical copies. Luckily, the whole model has been working out quite nicely, I actually used to have the digital downloads on Bandcamp set to $5 each, but I found that a lot of people weren’t willing to pay that much. You can (and many people do) say that that is a sign of people underappreciating art in an age of over-saturation and over-stimulation and not understanding the time, effort, and money put into these releases by the artists. I think those people have a point, and I feel similarly on one hand, but to look at it a bit differently, there has never been as many bands, albums, and releases even within the black and doom subgenres as there is now, and you simply can’t expect people to pay a lot of money for every release they like.

We are also ‘competing’ for people’s attention and ears, not for their money, so I would much rather set the albums as ‘name-your-price’ and let people donate a couple dollars if they choose than set the albums at $5 and just have people go to the countless blog sites and download them for free anyway! I found that this has allowed the music to be heard by more people than it would have otherwise, and those who appreciate your project and have the financial means to do so, still do donate. There never would have been even close to the amount of downloads on Hypntoic Dirge releases if the price was still set at $5. We also have a deal on our Bandcamp for people to download our entire digital discography (67 albums and counting) for $C25, which works out to less than 40 cents an album! You can still download each album for free, but this is a great and easy way for people to support the project and then slowly going through the discography at their own pace and deciding which – if any – albums they would like to physically own. If all our listeners donated and bought the full discography, we’d have tons of funding for many upcoming physical albums!

I’ve often felt that patronage and fan community support is the likely, if not best, business model for arts going forward in the digital age as a replacement for the obviously dead one of the past. You’re a working experiment in that very idea, do you see it working on an industry-wide scale, even if it’s just the underground industry of indie bands and small-to-mid level labels?

Yes, I absolutely do. I see this trend as inevitable and bound to happen in the long run anyway. You can’t fight technological progress, and if you do, you end up as just another example of the business ethic hindering progress in general, of which there are countless examples in the world. Just to point out a very obvious one – we have had the capacity to power the world through renewable energy for decades now. Limited potential even existed as far back as 1912-1913 with Frank Shuman‘s project in Egypt. Since that time, we have only faced further obsfucation and restrictions from powerful business interests who would rather protect their own limited self-interest than look at the world in a systemic way. In a very general sense, I think the record industry operates the same way. Powerful business interests acting like vultures taking advantage of the true creators and artists. Human history is filled with these stories but I believe that the dominant ethic and incentive structure only exacerbates these problems. Call it capitalism, neo-liberalism, whatever – the way we’ve structured our economy will continue to lead to increased destabilization, mass migration crises, water and food shortages, widespread poverty, bio-diversity loss, etc. etc. Not looking good.

Let’s talk about the new compilation album, ‘Subarctic Nocturnes: Below the Wilted Grove’. It’s part of a series that focuses on a different genre for each installment. Is the new comp series meant to serve as a representation of what HDR is and what it’s about or is that more the purpose of the original compilation albums?

Yes, abosolutely ahthough the first two albums in the “Subarctic Nocturnes” series is probably a more accurate representation of the music that Hypnotic Dirge typically releases since they focused on black metal and doom metal. The third compilation – focusing more on neo-folk and acoustic material is a bit of a deviation from our standard releases, but I’ve always had an appreciation for some of this more subdued and subtle form of expression.

The reasons why we haven’t really released any full-length albums in this style (barring stroszek, to an extent) is more or less a case of limited time and financial resources, and perhaps placing a slight bit more importance on black and doom metal. Just sticking with those two genres as a base and of course looking for experimental and eclectic sounds within that base keeps us plenty busy and it’s tough to keep up even with that. That being said however, I’m definitely not ruling out the possibility of releasing more neo-folk or acoustic material in the future as I think its atmosphere generally fits in really well with black and doom metal.

 

 

What does this kind of music on the new comp mean for you as a music fan and as a label? Where does it fit within HDR’s umbrella?

It was a pretty cathartic experience to release this compilation actually. It felt really nice to listen through a lot of neo-folk and ‘stripped down’ acoustic material, narrow down our choices, contact these artists and explain our intention, and eventually try to create a song order that flowed nicely. Actually, out of the three compilation albums that we released in the series, this one was definitely the one that we put the most work into, and much of the credit has to go to my friend who also helps with HDR – Nicholas Andras – as it was his idea to do a compilation album in this style and he did lots of the work behind the scenes to prepare everything!

It felt necessary to release Below the Wilted Grove because although we haven’t released many full-lengths in this style (except stroszek, as I mentioned) it is still a representation of the aura and melancholic mood we try to make Hypnotic Dirge known for. Releasing it in late autumn as the leaves fell and the landscape began to turn white seemed like the perfect time as well!Also – all three compilation albums in the series had artwork from Coby O’Brien who does fantastic oil and water based paintings. We tried to find three images as album covers that would be representative of the genres of each compilation – Doom, Black, and Neo-Folk.

I’m sure you get quite the stream of demo submissions from underground bands; what are you looking for when listening to them and looking for the next Hypnotic Dirge release?

Ultimately, I’m looking for a certain mood, aura, and atmosphere. That is the most important thing. I have no issues with releasing relatively unknown bands as well as more established bands. In fact, there’s been a pretty consistent mixture of both throughout HDR’s back-catalog.

Unfortunately, I have to turn down a lot of releases that I personally enjoy and appreciate, and there have been some missed opportunities in the past for sure, but I just try to catch as many demos as I can, listen to each one at least a little bit, and if I enjoy it and feel that it will fit Hypnotic Dirge’s schedule and the aura we strive to project, then we can begin discussing a potential deal!I hope that people understand that I can not respond back to every demo I receive, and that an unanswered demo is no slight on your music. Ultimately, I am just one person and my personal opinion on your music should be of no real importance to you anyway, and realistically there is simply no time to respond back to everyone. Running HDR is basically like having another full-time job on top of my regular day-job.

What are the plans going forward for the label, both in the immediate and distant future?

We’ll be releasing a handful of black metal releases this summer! Beginning with Mavradoxa on June 22 which has an excellent expansive and atmospheric sound. They released their debut album Sojourners last fall independently and eventually through Nebular Winter Productions, and they quickly returned with another album. The band actually sent me a demo after releasing Sojourners but I was too slow in responding to that one! We discussed the possibility of releasing their next release through Hypnotic Dirge, and I was pleasantly surprised at how soon that came about as well as how much I enjoyed it! Beyond that, we’ll be releasing the first full-length from a British one-man project called Kassad on July 6 which has a really claustrophobic and ‘urban’ black metal sound! There’s a couple more black metal releases planned for the summer but they haven’t been announced yet so I won’t mention them here. All these albums will also be released with a shirt and sticker and I’m really excited to get these out because I think there is a really solid stretch of albums on the way! In the more distant future, next year marks ten years in existance as a record label so we want to do something special! I don’t want to give away too much right now but there’s been some discussions about how to commemorate such a thing, and we’ll definitely be doing something!

Hypnotic Dirge Records can be found on Bandcamp, Facebook, YouTube, and their website.

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