You know how you walk into a supermarket to buy a tube of toothpaste, and find yourself staring at so many different choices that you wind up buying a bag of Super Sugared Gummy Devils, because slow decay seems a far smarter option than the latest carcinogen-laden additive du jour?
Music’s a lot like that, these days. Time was, rock broke up into two or three genres. There was the stuff you liked, the stuff you hated, and the stuff that some enterprising journalist had labeled the next big thing. Psych, glam, metal, punk… one at a time, gentlemen please.
Now, you can’t even belch without the local village idiot slapping a label on the sound, and then chewing you out because it sounds like something else; and half the time the terms are so meaningless that you could search for years for the correct definition, by which time life has moved on to something else entirely. What’s the point of having the sounds of tomorrow, if they’ll be the sound of last month in thirty minutes time?
Better to stuck to the sounds of yesterday, and see what new noises can be conjured from them. And, in so doing, enter a world in which the most thrilling echoes truly trace their roots from the darkest corners.
Asked to sum up the Ghost Box label’s output, co-founder Jim Jupp explains, “The music is largely, although not entirely, electronic, and mainly instrumental (though increasingly less so). Its artists share influences in library music, TV soundtracks, vintage electronics, folk music, weird fiction and forgotten films and TV shows. We think of it as a kind of world where pop culture from the mid sixties up to the early eighties is happening all at once, in a kind of parallel world. Not historically accurate, but naggingly familiar.”
Those musical moments from horror movies that ensure you jump in the right place. The background music to old public information films. Children’s TV themes and old radio sound effects. Back in 2004, when Jupp - who records as Belbury Poly - and partner Julian House (aka the Focus Group) launched the label, this was largely untapped territory; the likes of Current 93 and Broadcast were moving in that direction, and probably remain the grandparents of it all. But “Hauntology,” as the labelers labeled the emergent sound, had still a long way to go before even tapping its full potential, and Ghost Box has remained at the forefront, both in the UK (where its primary sources and influences certainly lie) and elsewhere.
“I guess this strange old British stuff comes over as more exotic or just plain weird,” says Jupp. “But it seems to strike a chord anyway - particularly in America where we have our biggest audience outside of the UK (even more than any other European country).”
The discography is deliciously streamlined: the Other Voices and Study Series of 45s, and a succession of albums that are as varied as the sources that can be said to have inspired them. For even a blanket summary of Hauntology’s contents can only go so far.
A pinch of Delia Derbyshire, Queen of the BBC’s pioneering Radiophonic Workshop, as her (and their) work shifts through their own output and its impact on others. Play the White Noise LP Electronic Sounds, a Derbyshire-led conspiracy of precisely what it says on the tin, and ask where it ends and, say, early Kraftwerk begins?
Or listen to her theme to TV’s Doctor Who, still in regular use more than fifty years after she first scraped a house key down a piano wire, and ponder the synthipop of the early 1980s. But don’t stop there because the most haunting Hauntology draws its imagery from everywhere - imagine a movie that has never been made, but is built around every scene you’ve ever seen that made you laugh, cry, scream or hide. Then conjure the sounds that every still image feels like.
Elsewhere in the toothpaste aisle, other creatures are crawling now - acid folk, sundry strains of psychedelia, space rock, prog and plenty more, all eyeing the same turf from different angles of intent. But Ghost Box have remained true to their initial aims, and across releases by Belbury and the Focus Group, Eric Zan and the Advisory Circle, Roj (ex-Broadcast) and Pye Corner Audio; a reissue of the Mount Vernon Arts Lab’s so-majestic The Séance at Hobs Lane (titled and indebted to the BBC’s 50s drama Quatermass and the Pit); Hintermass, Jonny Trunk, former Ultravox mainstay John Foxx and Broadcast, the label has cornered what Jupp laughingly describes as “ahem... mature record collecting types into soundtracks, vintage electronics and obscure psych or prog and weird old TV programmes.
“They're also a fairly literate and academic bunch, judging by the number of interview requests we get from research students writing about Hauntology or Retromania.”
It was a slow process. Early releases were CD-R only, with manufactured discs following once an audience started not only to swell, but also to prove loyal - a process aided immeasurably by the label’s own sense of identity. “We've always put a lot of time and effort into our artwork and concepts. The visual identity of the label wears its references on its sleeve (even if they area little obscure sometimes) so I guess that helps drag in the right audience.”
For the most part, the recordings are Ghost Box’s sole interaction with audiences, and that too plays a part in the overall mythos. “Our artists don't do much live performance, and are happy to remain fairly anonymous. So the label acts as a kind of identity for everyone - getting equal billing to the performer name. Effectively, we're a small collective of very like minded artists that work on solo projects and often collaborate [although] we also have occasional guests like The Soundcarriers and The Pattern Forms who are more like regular bands.
“The main thing is though that everyone understands and fits into the Ghost Box aesthetic.”
For this reason, Ghost Box is not a label that actively invites you to mail in your demos. “In ten years, there have only been two artists who sent unsolicited demos that we wanted to work with. In our case, of course, we also have to turn down a lot of great material because its not quite the right fit for our rather narrow aesthetic constraints. Most of our output comes from like-minded people we already know of, or we have been introduced to through our work.”
Besides, “we now have so much material scheduled up for the next two years, and so little time to put it all together, that we've had to close the doors on new demos for the time being.”
The past decade of Ghost Box has not been a straightforward journey, of course. Speaking words that could (or should) be echoed by every small independent label carving its path between the Behemoths of the mainstream industry, Jupp explains, “It’s a constant learning process, but the main thing I've learned is to chase every penny of income due and don't work for free. I t’s become very uncool to ask up-front about payment - I guess that's a result of so many artists not having management any more. It’s a shame that [just because] music consumers are clearly undervaluing music, that composers and performers seem willing to do the same just to get themselves heard.
“The prizes for weird underground music were never high of course, but all of the contracts, negotiations, registrations and boring admin are all worth it when taken as a whole. If you want to go down a DIY route without label or management like we did, you just have to do a lot of paperwork. And always ask about the fees or royalties right up front!”
Another key element is the label’s own vision of what its audience requires, both artistically and in terms of presentation. “Its about putting a lot of effort into our design, packaging and concepts. So that our listeners want to own a piece of physical art that puts the music into context.
“The piracy thing is part of the landscape and we all have to get used to it unfortunately. There's a few tools to mitigate it but its not going to go away. The pitiful income from the streaming services is also a little depressing. But I think you either have to take a stance and face not making any money from music, or embrace the whole damned lot and see all these things as marketing opportunities.
“There are loads of very small streams of income available to everyone, at whatever level … Odd, really, but it seems to be simultaneously the end on the industry and a golden age of opportunity.”
And a major part of that golden age is the contain ling good health of Ghost Box. “At the moment we're focusing on re-issuing our back catalogue on vinyl, especially the stuff that came out in ye olde CD days.
“We have a tenth anniversary compilation coming up in the summer. Then, more in our Other Voices series of singles by Ghost Box regulars and special guests. We also have new albums in the pipeline by Hintermass, Belbury Poly, The Pattern Forms, Pye Corner Audio and a brand new artist not yet announced to the world….”
Which we await with wired anticipation.