Field Hymns Records, a self-proclaimed “wee label” based out of Iowa City that has been releasing quality experimental rarities since 2014, is on indefinite hiatus. The label’s operator, Dylan McConnell, is soon moving to Toronto, Canada—where the future of his operation is yet to be determined. In response to the possible end of one of Bandcamp’s best well-kept secrets, I decided to reach out to McConnell and see if I could elicit some honest reflections on the origins of the label, the rewards/pains of working for free, what his hopes are for the future of underground music, and other aspects of fighting for the preservation of art in this increasingly commercial world.
1. Please give a brief summary of Field Hymns’ inception. Why did you start the label? Were there ever points when you thought about giving up?
“I started Field Hymns (well imagined a future of such a thing) on my birthday in 2010 in Portland, Oregon. I had worked previously for a label and knowing the day-to-day, less-sexy parts of the biz, it didn’t seem like a terribly bad thing to do with my time. The gist of my thinking was that since I had befriended a host of musician’s whose music I was really keen on, I felt like I should try to get people to listen to their music. And I wanted to get filthy rich. I kid, of course. I’ve never made a dime from the label. The label’s run so far has been mostly smooth but the only times I think about giving up is around minute forty five of standing in line at the post office. In fact, printable postage is the most important factor in Field Hymns longevity: I can’t imagine standing another minute in line, watching my youth ebb out of me in the federal building purgatory hellscape that is the current USPS system. Another heart-breaker is when you put out a good album and an assload of effort and it’s nothing but crickets and dust from the internet. That’s really crushing. Maybe that’s the hardest part really: an artist gives you their work and you can’t squeeze a fucking email reply back from a reviewer or blog. That’s the worst.”
2. Talk about being based in the Midwest. How do you feel location matters or doesn’t matter when it comes to disseminating music?
“Location matters only insomuch as access to local talent and touring bands. Iowa City is right on I-80 and gets a great deal of bands great & small passing through its fertile fields. Local promoter Chris Wiersema books for the two local festivals (Mission Creek & Witching Hour) as well as his own Feed Me Weird Things series and thanks to his curation, I have been the beneficiary of a creative & performance largess I could not have imagined prior to my moving here. I have seen so much excellent music I probably would have ignored on the West Coast, just due to my laziness or the embarrassment of riches that living in the Portland media market affords one. When you are living in a smaller market, you go out to see anything that looks remotely interesting, as you don’t know the next time a band will come through. And I have found artists I have released later just because I took a chance and went to a show due to I having nothing better to do. As for as disseminating music, that’s why we use email, Bandcamp, and mailing lists. That triad is mostly effective. You just don’t get to rub shoulders and get facetime with other labels as often, being in a small market. But you also get to see amazing music real close and very affordably. That I will miss about Iowa City, for sure.”
3. Going off of the previous question: How big of a role has Bandcamp played in your success as a label owner?
“I am a big fan of Bandcamp. The upside is that the platform has all these built-in social components to it: the smartphone apps, the auto emailing when dropping of new works, the subscriptions, and of course the digital marketplace. And it has opened up doors to fans across the sea for sure. The downside is that now there are a bazillion tape labels and it’s seemingly getting harder to be heard over the plethora of releases that drop every hour. When we first started I felt like the label took right off: cassette labels were still a novelty and it was an open field. These days releases seem to hang around longer. I feel this limbo also is a result of a real dearth of music journalism. There were so many blogs writing about underground music and now I can count on my fingers the survivors or standard bearers. Less reviews = less access to peoples ears. Or maybe tastes have changed. Who knows. I think Facebook has killed most of what Spotify hasn’t. Why read long-form articles about music when you can click on a link and listen to someone’s life work for virtually nothing? Don’t even get me started on Spotify. Mark Masters and his Hi Bias column on notable Bandcamp tapes of the month is amazing and really helps shine the light on the cassette movement. Tabs Out as well. Thank god for those boys.”
4. Talk about your communication with the artists on your label. How have you generally gone about selecting them? Did they contact you first or did you reach out to them? What do you take into consideration when choosing artists? Their current following? Previous work (if they have any)? What about artists from other countries? How is it different working with people thousands of miles away?
“It’s a mixture of submissions and me being totally psyched about something I heard and then trying to cajole an artist/project into doing a release for us. I don’t particularly care about prior work as much as how the current work moves me. I have two pals who I pass submissions that catch my ear onto, just to get their read as to how interesting it is to them. They are as much a gatekeeper as I am, and their silent partnership keeps me from overextending myself (mostly). I don’t care where someone is from and I would bet at least a quarter of our releases are from folks overseas. Music is universal man. We obviously can’t pay for tours (or anything besides manufacturing really) and are terribly thankful for anyone taking a chance with us, foreign or otherwise.”
5. Does Field Hymns have a future in Toronto? What is your initial perception of the music scene there? Inclusive? Exclusive? Will any of this play a role in the continuation of Field Hymns? Or will your online following dictate whatever your next plan of action is.
“TBD. I plan on winding it down until I get a sense of what running a label in another country would be like. Right now we have no new releases slated. It’s hard enough to sell tapes in the US: shipping from Canada might be onerous, who knows. I have no sense of the scene there yet. I am sure it’s interesting and like nothing I could imagine, so will wait til I get there to suss that out. Prior to this expat upheaval, I had envisioned a sister label to Field Hymns, something that could release all the heavy experimental stuff that genre-wise was the impetus for the birth of the label in the first place. That idea is coming along slowly, the label will be called PolyFonal, and those releases will be coming out once I land, get settled, and get a lay of a life north of the border. The future, like the weather, is uncertain, but bound to happen.”
6. Regardless of whether or not Field Hymns persists, how do you feel about the label’s cannon? What kind of mark do you hope the label has left thus far? What advice would you give other fledgling label operators?
“I try not to think it in terms like that. At the end of the day a label’s cannon hopefully is just a window into someones taste in music and not just a cynical market formula for extracting wealth from the people. Since the latter would never be a concern, I’d say that you would get a pretty good sense of what I was listening to, what I would fight for, and what I was stoked about. It’s a pretty simple equation over here. My only advice to future label owners would be: a) be considerate, b) be prepared to work for free, forever, and c) don’t be a dick. Label words to live by, by yours truly. Oh, and if you love art, never vote for motherfucking Republicans.”