Sonic Pieces is a boutique record label from Berlin, founded and thoughtfully managed by Monique Recknagel. They have always been focusing on quality over quantity, therefore every carefully selected release comes as a limited edition in genuine packaging, hand-crafted with locally produced and designed material. The label’s musical output and unique artwork form a connection between each release that is both recognizable and challenging, while celebrating the difference and individuality of each project. They have released 20 records so far, each of them representing a sonic milestone in the life of the label. Mostly focusing on neo-classical and ambient music (and so much more than that!), they have been working with musicians such as Deaf Center (Erik K Skodvin, Otto A. Totland), Kreng, Nils Frahm, Greg Haines, Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka, Hildur Guðnadóttir… Do we need to say more? We certainly don’t, but you should definitely read what Monique has to say about her concept and aesthetics, the hardships of sustaining the label financially, and how does it feel to run a record label as a woman. We even asked her what would she do if there would be no Sonic Pieces…
As usually, you can also listen to a guest mix featuring some of the finest pieces of their discography – even a special one from Jasmine Guffond‘s first album under her real name. ‘Yellow Bell’ is going to be released on 30 January on Sonic Pieces. The compilation is mixed by a good friend of the label, Lingg Wray.
What do you find the most stimulating/disappointing thing about running a label?
I’m usually most excited about the creative part, especially the artwork for which I work closely together with Torsten at FELD. The production of the Sonic Pieces packaging is so detailed, and seeing all the single parts coming together is always a great experience.
We are not able to do certain steps in the production chain in-house, like pressing CDs and vinyl, manufacturing the print products or the embossing of the covers for example. I realized not everyone has the same quality standards that we have and is putting the same care into their production. Getting things back and not having them look or sound like they were supposed to, is maybe the most disappointing and annoying part. However we made our experiences over the years and with most of the manufacturers we are working together for several years now. Meanwhile they are familiar with our standards, which definitely helps. Nevertheless there are new surprises waiting from time to time and we learn something new with almost every release.
Do you think that in our digital era the non-musical elements – eg. album artwork – are overlooked and not appreciated enough? How important are these kind of aesthetics for Sonic Pieces?
I rather think the opposite. Mainly because you can get almost everything in digitalized form, packaging and artwork play a much more important role for the physical products. I would even affirm that beside the analog sound of a vinyl, the packaging is the main feature why you would still want to own a physical record. It makes a lot of sense to put extra effort into the packaging and rather make it special. Most music lovers, especially within our small niche, are collectors and appreciate it.
I never really thought about this too much when I started the label, but for Sonic Pieces the packaging became one of the key elements to create a recognizable series.
Click on the pictures to enlarge! (Photos: Erik K Skodvin)
Not too many music labels are run by women. How do you feel being in this position, since you almost exclusively release music made by the opposite sex (with some exceptions among the releases).
In general the music business is very male orientated. Also most of our audience and followers are male. I don’t mind though, I like working with the opposite gender.
However, there are some female musicians on the label. We have several projects that involve both genders. Portland Stories has a 3 to 6 female-male-relation, which is a lot comparatively. Then there are Hildur Gudnadóttir, Anna Rose Carter of Moon Ate the Dark, Insa Schirmer and Donja Djember of Insa Donja Kai and our next release will be the first solo female artist record on the label. It’s by Jasmine Guffond, an Australian musician living in Berlin.
Besides that I also work with women in other aspects of the business. I would say for a good working relationship the gender doesn’t matter though. It’s more about respecting, getting along with and understanding each other, and this rather depends on a personality than a gender.
How does a ‘regular day’ look like at the Sonic Pieces office?
I’m happy that we don’t have such a strict and consistent daily routine. Our day always depends a bit on the projects we are working on, which step at the production of a release we are at and what comes up during the day. Sometimes I’m busy crafting covers most of the day, on other days I might be mainly working on the administration side and if we have a new release out we are busy packing orders. Also I usually start the day checking up on emails and sometimes that might change my initial plans entirely.
Do you have a personal favourite among your releases? Which one are you the most proud of?
No. To me every release is important. I see the label more as wholeness, where every artist and every record is part of a bigger picture that defines the label sound.
As a small independent label in the middle of Berlin how do you make ends meet financial-wise? What are the most significant difficulties when it comes to this?
First of all I have to say Berlin is probably the best place to make the label work. Even though rents and living expenses increased a lot since I moved here in 2002, it’s still affordable compared to many other major cities in the world.
In general it isn’t easy to make a living out of selling records these days, although the special and limited character of the Sonic Pieces releases definitely helps to sell them faster and get liquid resources back earlier to reinvest. However, I’m pretty much depending on selling out physical releases to be able to cover the expenses plus the work and time I put into making all the packages by hand. Still if I calculate my hourly rate, I’m completely underpaid and earn much less than you would at most other jobs. The time that goes into the actual label work, communicating releases with artists, taking care of the manufacturing, promotion, distribution, accounting, just to name a few, is increasing, and that part of my time isn’t even calculated properly into the expenses of the physical records.
A logical thing to do would of course be to raise the prices for CDs and LPs, but this isn’t easy either. I still want people to be able to afford my releases. And a big problem is also that the pricing structures most distributors and shops work with are pretty outdated. They are based on times when you would produce at least a thousand, often several thousand copies of a CD or vinyl, so the expenses per copy were much cheaper. Now it’s rather an exception if you would do thousand copies of one format. For most releases which fall into a niche it doesn’t make sense to produce more than 500 copies, often 300, 400 items are even enough, but still the prices we sell the records for haven’t changed much during the last decades. No wonder that most small labels are not able to make a living out of their work.
I’m lucky to have Morr Music handling the digital distribution for the label, and they do a good job. So this gains some extra income. Also I’m trying to expand more towards getting syncs for the music I release, and beside that I just started a publishing branch with the help of Ohrfilm from Hamburg.
You do lots of handmade packaging and most of the records have been released in a rather limited number. Even though this – exclusivity – is also an important part of the label’s concept, would you consider increasing this number in order to gain more visibility, to grow?
I’m already trying as good as possible to match editions and demand for Sonic Pieces records. For certain releases it makes sense to work with bigger pressings and do second runs, for others it doesn’t. It really depends on the music and the artist. If you have music that is rather available or an artist who tours a lot, it’s worth considering to increase the numbers, but it’s rather about saturating the demand than trying to gain more visibility.
In my opinion growth is not only about working with bigger scales, it’s more about curating the label’s output in a way that keeps the catalogue interesting and challenging in order to slowly but constantly expand your audience. And for the financial growth I believe it’s best to look for alternative sources of income.
What do you think you’d be working with if there would be no Sonic Pieces?
That’s a very good and challenging question actually. I feel I was never as happy and satisfied with my job before starting the label. Also it was such a natural process for me to start Sonic Pieces and somehow I believe it was meant to be.
I have an education in economics and been working with accounting for several years. Although I like juggling with numbers I was never passionate enough about working with this full time, and I don’t think having a regular office job would be a real alternative for me, at least not long term.
Since my childhood I always enjoyed working with my hands and crafting things. I took a weaving class and also was very interested in pottery for example, which are things that I could totally imagine taking up again. Also my grandma used to be a tailor, and I started sewing myself as a balance to the label work and sitting in front of the computer a lot. So possibly I could have developed one of these paths further.
Do you remember which record has been sold out the quickest so far? Which was the most popular?
It’s hard to tell exactly. I mainly have direct control over the sales at our own webshop, but my releases are distributed through other channels as well, plus that the artists also get a certain amount of copies to sell when they play live.
Some of my first releases went pretty fast at our shop, which was also because I kept way too little of them to sell myself. I remember the 1st edition CD of ‘Flare’ by Erik K Skodvin was gone within a couple hours. So I was trying to hold back more copies of the next releases.
However, I would say the most popular record I released so far is ‘Pinô’ by Otto A Totland, but it is still available as 2nd edition CD. Also I just repressed the vinyl, which was actually the first time I did that for a release. We got so many requests for it during this year, which encouraged me to think about a solution for a 2nd edition LP.
Although you don’t play an instrument yourself, do you ever feel the desire to try yourself on the ‘other side’ of the label as well, to create music?
Several years back I took guitar lessons for a short time. I wasn’t patient enough though and gave up soon. Also there were always other parts of the music circle that intrigued me more. I believe in general it’s better to concentrate on a few things and do them properly instead of working on all sides at the same time. There are enough people out there who are creating music. It needs people who are taking care of managing the music as well, and I often get the impression that artist-run-labels lack a little of dealing with the business side. So I think I’d rather stick with what I’m good at.
Could you name 3 other labels that you are really fond of, that for some reason you consider as a ‘role model’? Why them?
I feel that a lot of labels have their times. I used to be a big fan of Morr Music, City Centre Offices, Type, Leaf or Staubgold for example, but their outputs have changed over the years, and I don’t feel as connected with their catalogues anymore as I used to. Other labels I really appreciate for a certain concept. There’s this German label called Apparent Extent, which is very art-related and also released some amazing records. Also I’m very much fond of the ‘London Is The Place For Me’ compilations on Honest Jon’s. I wouldn’t consider any of these labels as a role model though.
These days my relation to some labels has changed from fan-based to more work-based. Morr Music is helping out with the distribution of Sonic Pieces, is supportive with advise in general and therefore an important partner. Also I’m working closely together with Miasmah. We are sharing offices and a webshop, and since we are good at different things, we complement each other very well. I also appreciate the way Erik is curating the label and his selection of releases.
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