Name: Jennifer Lucy Allan
Occupation: Researcher, Journalist, Writer, Arc Light Editions Founder
Current Release: Martin Bartlett
Recommendations: Anne Carson's Fragments Of Sappho, a book I have so many post-its in they are rendered useless. In Carson's translation, Sappho's fragments look like scores, and I have been using them like this for a couple of years with Laura Cannell. We do heterophonic singing in spaces with acoustics where our voices gather like clouds. Our favourite place is Mistley Towers near Manningtree – tiny, but with a strange acoustic that collects our voices, piling it up in sonic cumulus above our heads, and I recently recorded with her and her partner Andre Bosman at The Wapping Project, an old hydraulic power station in London with a very long reverb / Any second-hand record shop, find the sound effects record box, especially if they don't obviously have one. If it's a scruffy cardboard effort underneath the main racks, you're in luck.
Website/Contact: You can read more about Jennifer at her website jenniferlucyallan.tumblr.com
When did you start with your own label - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started Arc Light Editions in 2013 with James Ginzburg, with one of my favourite records – Arthur Russell's Another Thought. This was a way of getting something out there that wasn't available and wasn't affordable, and it grew from there.
My early passions and influences are only really becoming clear to me now. It's all a gut feeling. I was exclusively a music writer for a long time, I started when I was about 19, writing for a tiny website in Manchester, thankfully now defunct. I was their electronica - with an ‘a’ – reviewer, which should give you some idea of what sort of age I was. While studying, myself and Ben Beaumont-Thomas had a Wordpress blog (at the peak of the blog house era – I got all the worst scenes coming up). A few years after this, I started writing for The Wire. When I started in the office when I was about 23/24 – I felt like a funfair goldfish who'd been dropped in the great barrier reef. The shapes! The colours! The sounds!
What I have learned is the feeling of getting snagged on a sound or an idea, which is an actual physical rush. I'd say this is my biggest driver or inspiration – I now recognise it as “The Hunger”, and I know that it usually leads me to good things.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as a label curator and the transition towards your own approach? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I remember when I was younger feeling like all the people I admired were much more successful than me at my age, had started much younger than me, and knew far more than I ever could – the classic is young DJs claiming they knew everything about 90s rave from their dad's insane tape collections, or who went and snuck into clubs age 12. I was so jealous as I never did that, but I was also so curious, so hungry to know everything. I still feel vast gaps in what I understand about the way things developed – knowing music is like trying to get to know all the flora and fauna in vast landscape of hills, valleys, lakes and rivers, and it's only recently I've felt I can talk with authority on certain species.
Eventually I just stopped staying in my own lane – seriously, fuck staying in your own lane – and now I do a bit of everything out of passion, principle and because of financial practicalities. Right now, I'm working up to our next release, of a composer and musician called Martin Bartlett, who worked in electronic music and in spoken word. I adore it, but I say that about every release. I sometimes do the artwork, but for Bartlett I brought DR.ME on board. I'm also finishing a PhD on foghorns at a department called CRiSAP at UAL in London, but my funding ran out so I'm going very slowly. I've also got some radio presenting coming up, for Late Junction on the BBC (although it will finish soon) and am tying up the last loose ends from a weekend of Annea Lockwood's music I curated for Kammer Klang. I also recently started another label called Good Energy with a friend in Scotland, Kevin McCarvel, to reissue an incredible Scottish punk record from the 80s by a band called Nyah Fearties and we're starting work on our second release. The main thing I don't do is take photos or make film – I can't stand still long enough to get a good shot.
It's only when I stand back and look at what I'm doing at the moment that I realise I got somewhere. I feel like I woke up age 30 and discovered I finally knew something about music. This is perhaps a long version of saying keep it up, our knowledge and our ears grow over time.
I was not systematic and wasted so much time trying to learn about things I felt I should know about. I spent ages listening to library music and trying to get a grip on these vast catalogues before realising years later I didn't actually like most of it. Things really started kicking off for me when I stopped doing what I thought I should be doing, and really started letting my gut feelings lead me.
What were your main label-related challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Like pretty much all labels, the challenges all can be reduced to time and money. I don't have enough time to be as detail-oriented as I'd like, and so there are tiny things I'd want to tweak, or fires I have to put out at the last minute. I would like to keep every single release in print and available but that's financially impossible. There isn't much profit in pressing records and if you don't get the support of a few key record shops and distributors then you will struggle to break even. I run Arc Light with help from James, and until very recently it was the two of us doing PR, artwork, everything. This isn't a sob story, it's just reality.
Very early on, at the first Wire Christmas party I ever attended after interning, a writer called David Stubbs (and he probably won't remember this) said to me: "well it's avant-garde music, avant-garde wages", which I thought was really funny and I still pass on to people. It's true – what did you think was going to happen when you decided to try and earn a living through 'avant-garde' music? Tony Conrad lived off chicken hearts in New York in the 60s and that was when rent was peanuts.
It's really all about expectations. Sometimes things do well, sometimes a big freelance job or order comes in that keeps things liquid, and sometimes it's really tight, but while I have my head in my hands sometimes, I'm hardly going to sacrifice my principles for a few extra quid, and doing it as a small operation actually keeps the quality high and maintains my faith in the operation.
While at The Wire I noticed a trajectory for successful labels – they started well, with a few releases, and then their second year they upped the number of releases. By year 3/4 they got a lot of press and were doing one a month, and then the people running them burned out. I watched this and decided I didn't want Arc Light to have that sort of shelf life, luckily my lack of speed and other commitments means I can't actually afford to burnout or do the label full time anyway, so I have always just worked at my own pace, which is... e x t r e m e l y s l o w l y.
How do you see the role of labels in the creative process? What is the scope and what are the limitations of what you are capable of doing?
History is full of things we don't know about, things that don't fit into the narrative. I'm interested in those moments. I just have to work out whether the things that seem remarkable to me are because of my ignorance.
I've been reading a lot about archives (and The Archive). Caroline Steedman and Arlette Farge both talk about how much is not there, and this applies as much to music as to the lighthouse boards I research. A true archive is a Borgesian library, and if everything were recorded then every moment, every live show, every release would be a Tristram Shandy-like undertaking.
More practically speaking, people who make music don't necessarily know how to get themselves in front of people who would like their music, and neither should they – being a musician is not being a label, and the label should be able to spot something that is electric, fizzy, and be able to communicate that fizz of excitement to people.
My limitations are mostly financial. I would like to pay the artists a million quid each, to print on recycled card with plant derived ink and replace trees and clean up a beach every time we do it, to host everything on a solar-powered server farm. I am managing to do one of these things, and am thinking about a second.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the buyers, your own demands in terms of quality?
The artists! Obviously! They are the root of everything and it is my job to try and do right by them. You'd have to ask them if they felt I had achieved this.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the music-, music-PR- and music-journalism landscape? How do they affect labels in general and your own take on running a label in particular? What role do social media play for your approach?
It depends what changes you mean – I don't know what it was like running a label before social media existed. We only brought in a PR person to work on the next release. She is amazing, is a professional and knows far more than I know about how to operate an actual PR campaign. I think there's often a combative relationship between musicians, journalists and PRs, but it’s unnecessary. I am really grateful to have her improving on my usual communications, which are a few tweets and a mass BCC to everyone I can think of that day.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
At this point I don't think I can separate those things. It depends what you think of as technology. I work with ceramics a lot, as a way of using a different part of my brain, it is a bonus that wet clay and iPhones don't match – but all the things I use there are a technology, a pottery wheel is technology, it's just ancient. This perspective is important.
I struggle to have a productive relationship with my phone and laptop, I am easily distracted but at the same time, this is how I find music, talk about it, where I get writing commissioned and usually how I interview people nowadays. I sometimes dream of having been born early enough to have been some shoulder-padded power A&R in the 1980s, purple skirt suits with huge gold buttons and matching earrings, with a glass corner office in a big city, signing Suicide or some other legendary punks. This dream is mostly about how, in this scenario, all my business is done over a landline phone, and when I'm out of the office I'm unreachable. Calling up instead of emailing is usually a faster way to do things, although I get to do it far less than I'd like. I like talking to people and you learn a lot from a voice. It's efficient: a ten-minute phone call can achieve the same as a very long and annoying email thread.