Album cover

REACH — Ride The Algorithm

At the crest of 2018 I moved to Los Angeles. It was a long-gestating idea, dating back to before I founded Numero with my partner Rob Sevier in 2003. Our company was nearly 15 years old and was becoming bigger than just a few weirdos hanging around in a basement. We also felt a bit stagnant, having pushed ourselves firmly into the middle class of record labels. Something needed to shift. It ended up being me.

Rob and I piled thousands of records in a 25-foot Penske a couple days after Xmas 2017, covering the 2000 mile gulf between Chicago and L.A. in about 52 hours, including an extended 15-hour delay in Amarillo when we blew the truck’s transmission. The rest of that time was spent squiggling across the middle of the country and discussing our plans for the record company. Get bigger and risk further alienating our already weary customer base? Go more niche in a sad attempt to shrink back into our hipper, younger self? Where should we go next? What were we not hearing? What’s a record label even mean these days?

The first recording to ever bear a label featured the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company logo. The only reason the cylinder even had a brand on it was to tie the 1879 recordings back to the expensive furniture Thomas Edison was hawking. The earliest “records” were born as advertisements for hardware. Is it any different now? Victor, Brunswick, and Columbia were merely the Spotifys, Amazons, and Apples of their day, owning the extremely valuable infrastructure while paying pennies to the artists and creators. Meet the 21st century boss, same as turn of the century boss.

Our ilk didn’t even get interesting until after World War I. Whereas once we were the marketing wing of furniture companies, the record company morphed into an arbiter of taste. Otto Heinemann’s Okeh and Harry Pace’s Black Swan shepherded so-called “race” and ethnic recordings into the market, and simultaneously democratized music for the listener. This industry then survived Prohibition, The Great Depression, and World War II. Artists came and went. Labels too.

It was in those post-war years that the modern recording company was born. The next wave was founded by people who were passionate about music; Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun’s Atlantic, Syd Nathan’s King, Alfred Lion & Max Margulis’s Blue Note, Jack Holtzman’ Elektra. They showed up at a confluence of perfect moments and rode a lucky streak to the stratosphere. But for the rest of us, there’s always going to be something. Next it will be climate change. Before that it was the death of the CD and the rise of file-sharing. A 1979 recession shrunk the industry nearly in half. Since the 1950s, more than 1.5 million unique recording companies have been breach-birthed into the world. Fewer than 100,000 stand today. From the corporate towers of Atlantic down to the lowliest Youtube-to-MP3-only bedroom shops.

Labels that want to stay in the game are wearing out their sneaker bottoms trying to figure out what the next iteration of their business is going to look like. What are we going to be about? Press releases on Tuesdays? 1-in-6000 album Fridays? Endless 25% off sales? Parroting memes in a desperate attempt to market ourselves to zoomers? Retweeting record reviews no one is going to read?

In the end, will we be anything more than a 15 character line in the meta data?

I hope so. Because when a record label is good, it becomes a cultural touchstone. It says “Hey, we were onto something for a minute.” Berry Gordy’s Motown, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton’s Stax, Tony Wilson’s Factory, Alan McGee’s Creation… these companies have lived long past their most interesting chapters. They did so by promoting compelling artists and ideas at the right time. They’re all out of business in their own way, propped up as logos by various parent companies over the years. That’s a testament to how great they were. We’re still interested when we see the Stax snap on the back of an album.

There are plenty of examples of companies unable to make the jump from 78 to 45, 45 to LP, LP to CD. CD to whatever the hell this is now. But the survivors were never hemmed in by format. Music is music. If you’ve got great ears and a little money, you can go a long way. A record label right now might not be much more than a kid with the Adobe Suite and a few friends with a cool track. But eventually those ISRC codes are going to get bundled together as an artistic legacy, and we’ll be here to help a new generation of musicians and listeners connect to the past in a meaningful way.

For most of that first year in Los Angeles, my record collection sat in boxes in the garage waiting for shelves to be built. In my little backyard office I started a new adventure in listening: YouTube. I’d hit play at 7:30AM and then just let the algorithm take me across a world of genres for the next ten hours. I started making notes on records I thought were interesting, leading to album deals with Rupa Biswas, Charlie Megira, Batang Frisco, A.R.T. Wilson, and Lenny White.

It was White’s 1977 recording “Enchanted Pool Suite” that first caught my ear. A mix of classical and jazz fusion, the nearly-ten minute, three-piece suite is a rush of harp plucks, lush strings, and walking basses before breaking loose into an all-out prog jam sesh, where Lenny puts on a drum clinic beneath endless soloing guitars, violins, and keys. Who was this guy and where could I hear more?

A Queens native, White cut his teeth with Jackie McLean before hooking up with Miles Davis in 1970 and inventing the future of jazz. Credits on Davis’s Bitches Brew, Santana’s Caravanserai, and Chick Corea’s Where Have I Known You Before led to a deal with Nemporer Records in 1975, where White cut two monuments to progressive jazz: Venusian Summer and Big City. Though they’ve been perpetual dollar bin records for the preceding 45 years, White’s first and second albums are a who’s who of jazz’s post-bop wave; Weldon Irvine, Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Jimmy Smith, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Hubert Laws and Larry Young run roughshod over both. Their dollar status is a reflection of just how popular these albums were, both receiving endless pressings around the world before failing to make a timely jump to CD and a next wave of listeners.

I stumbled upon A.R.T. Wilson’s Overworld on the Tube the same week as Lenny White’s Big City and grabbed cheap copies of both, and proceeded to play little else for weeks. I had no idea the German-issued LP was the soundtrack for a 2013 multidisciplinary modern dance recital performed as a one off by composer Andraas and dancers Rebecca Jensen, Sarah Aiken, Rachel Coulson, and Janine Proost. Listening half a decade later. It was clear he’d found the sweet spot between new age, ethno-groove, Chicago house, and G-funk. Simultaneously relaxing and evocative, Andraas described Overworld as “Neo-Paganism, Pop Divas, YouTube, Yoga, and Death Metal side by side in a live performance that searches for transcendence in the most unlikely places.”

My first trip back to Chicago was a brisk affair, as I’d already slipped into a California attitude about the weather. Imagine my shock when I felt the 0 degree wind hit my face while waiting for an airport taxi to deposit me at our Little Village office. Built in 1919, the Success Bottling Company operated out of 2533-35 South Troy Street during the soda-boom years of Prohibition. It was a bunch of other businesses until the 1980s when a young Mexican immigrant family acquired the property and turned it into Estrada Auto Repair. A giant concrete driveway was poured from the street to the alley, in anticipation of a boom time for lemons of a flailing US auto industry. When we got there in 2015, the space was little more than a junkyard with a roof.

Walking up to our windowed doors, our Factory Outlet retail space can be seen. A triangle of various formats, the Outlet is the only retail operation in the world that carries every in-print Numero LP, CD, 45, t-shirt, and tchotchke. We custom built the DJ booth and record bins with the same exacting standards we apply to our records. The space’s numerous plants hang in macrame cocoons tied by our own audio engineer Stephen Arndt. Winding up the stairs, guests are encouraged to look at our collection of art by un-noted illustrator Rob Soden—whose work we based 2014’s Cities of Darkscorch board game off. At the top there’s a fork between two worlds: the offices of the label to the left, or our library to the right. It was in that library on my return to Chicago that I first heard Masumi Hara.

A multi-faceted artist perhaps better known for his Eastern surrealist paintings than for his brief foray into Japan’s new wave underground, Masumi Hara floated in on a pillow of late night magic. The 1984 LP had been procured by Rob via the always on-point 2 Bridges record shop located in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown. A seamless mix of the organic and inorganic, the recent past and the distant future, the possible and impossible, Masumi’s 4 X A Dream album has no peers. Balearic acid folk and damaged steel drum dub sit back to back with no discomfort to the listener. The LP opens with “To Live In The Sea,” a six-minute wash of dreary synths, electric guitar solos, and Funky Sueyoshi’s mansion-wide gated snare and bass drums. Tom Sugiyama’s vocals are peculiar and arresting at once, as he coos “When I returned home you were dead” in a patternless wail in the opening minutes. A tortured narrative develops of a life not at sea, but in it.

Though Numero has issued a dozen or so official and not-so-official cassettes over the years, I hadn’t owned a working tape deck since the previous century. Douglas Mcgowan—west coast A&R for the label—not only insisted I get one, he ended up sourcing the Techniques RS-BX606 dual deck that sits in my office. Wanting to stay on the ambient side of things for this compilation, I cracked the shrink wrap on the only new age tape not in storage: Alex Johnson’s Operation Oasis.

I didn’t pay close attention to the dub upon our initial 2017 release. I knew it was an album given away to active service members during Operation Desert Storm, the music intended to be an audio tonic to combat PTSD and the like. Whether it worked in Iraq or not we’ll never know, but it hit me in the right spot at the right time. Looped guitars, ARP synths, a violin, and endless builds. The original 1991 cassette was also distributed in car dealerships, auto repair shops (though not Estrada Auto Repair), and in rental car decks—solid strategies all.

Mcgowan also brought Crystal Ascending Wave’s Modulation Del Sol to my attention, a tape that eluded the 200,000 attendees at Steve Wozniak’s 1982 Us Festival in San Bernardino. Woz’s three-day, 12 million dollar extravaganza featured video games, computers, robots, and lasers alongside Tom Petty, Pat Benetar, Fleetwood Mac, The Police, The Kinks, The Ramones, and The Grateful Dead. A domed shaped theater housed a proto-IMAX program called “Journey To The Central Sun,” with visuals by Emile Canning and music by Mark Josephson and Ken Stover. Mcgowan described their “Modulation Del Sol” as “high energy prog-fusion with a new age slant. Cinematic and unabashedly affirmative—music for beating the odds and winning at life.” A barely-distributed tape preserved the audio program and featured cover art by a firm fresh off designing the MTV logo.

In the wake of 2009’s 24 Carat Black: Gone! The Promises Of Yesterday release, LaRhonda LeGette contacted us about a handful of recordings she made with the collective’s enigmatic leader Dale Warren as a teenager. It took nearly a decade to untangle the mix of digital and analog tapes, AIFFs, WAVs, and other miscellaneous and no-longer-compatible digital file formats, culled from numerous sources languishing in storage units and old harddrives. Many were used on our 2020 follow up III, a forgotten album of Warren’s Atlanta productions in the early ’90s. We held “Thou Art With Me” back, however, fearing the distorted digital crunch on a reading of Psalm 23:4 might interrupt the purity of Dale’s neo-classical explorations.

For a minute, Numero was a technology company. Working with Syntonic Research, we created an app that compiled the ’70s nature recordings of Irv Tiebel. It was called Environments, and for a week in mid-October 2018 the 500 gigabyte digital box set was the #1 download in the App Store. We considered an IPO, but quickly remembered we’re a tiny record company operating out of a former auto body shop. Instead we plowed our thousands into acquiring more un-music from the natural world. Like John D. Curnow and his field recordings of birds in Wisconsin. A high school biology teacher from Richland Center, Curnow spent several summers in the late-’60s with a large directional microphone and portable tape recorder, capturing the squawks and clucks of the Warbling Viero, Yellow-Shafted Flicker, and Least Flycatcher. An album and an EP worth of chirps were issued on his own Biota imprint, manufactured at Jim Kirchstein’s renowned Cuca Records plant, studio, record company, and radio station out in Sauk City.

Expanding on that idea of environmental music, whenever I hear the words “smooth jazz” I’m transported back to my first post office in Chicago, where a cadre of old ladies blasted WNUA on the overheard speaker while losing my mail. I walked to the Wellington Station on Ashland Avenue every day for years while running Tree, my first record company, and would often bump into then Sun-Times’ music critic Jim DeRogatis unloading promos from the overflow box. In 2005, when he told me that Numero was “performing revisionist history” I was offended, and a little hurt. But now I wonder if he wasn’t on to something. History could use a bit of revising. Maybe I was listening to the wrong smooth jazz the entire time.

When murmurs of a so-called Smooth Jazz Underground began percolating around the office in 2018, there was no shortage of raised eyebrows. But as I began to take the work in, I began to hear SJU as the workman’s version of new age. We didn’t know how the world would react to Iasos back in 2013, but as it turned out there was an audience for this music outside of crystal calibrators and windchime repair shops. The same will eventually be said of smooth jazz, eventually, we think. Calvin Keys’ “Touch” takes a more synonymic approach to the oft-maligned genre, with washes of delighted skatting by former Ikette Maxalyn Lewis pinned under Keys’ endless dancing up and down his guitar’s fretboard. Issued on Olive Branch Records in 1985, Full Court Press provides the perfect soundtrack to the post office of your dreams.

I fear I’ve been too harsh on the post office in my life. They fuck up a miniscule amount of packages considering the overall volume, even if one of those botched deliveries was a box of irreplaceable quarter inch master tapes from Deep City’s Willie Clarke. This public utility has made the distribution of extremely obscure music possible, and for that we can all be grateful. Take the Eugene Electronic Music Collective, a group of tape trading enthusiasts making their own variety of early computer music in Oregon in the ’80s, for example. Suse Milleman discovered the E.E.M.C. via Peter Nothnagle’s New Dreamers radio program on NPR affiliate KLCC. She began submitting songs for their limited compilation tapes, and “Open Heart/Hawk Belly” appeared on 1988’s Principles, which found an audience of about 100 people. That this music made it into the world at all is a miracle, and the USPS can certainly take a bow for it.

I suppose what really broke smooth jazz open for me was the Paradise Is A Frequency YouTube channel. Mario Martinez, Scott Trausch, and Jeff Michael started uploading tracks in 2017, training their focus on the marginalia turning up in St. Louis thrift stores. Slap & Powell, Michael Hayes, Andrew Gordon, and Barry Coates all percolated from their unique perspective. Bob Siebert’s 1983 album Six Lyric Pieces is the kind of record that’s been flipped by for years. Noodly contempo jazz with a fretless bass? No thanks. The guy is smoking a pipe on the back cover of the record, for shit’s sake. And yet “Rain” is a wildly compelling listen that effortly drifts between smooth jazz and new age. Or as Mario puts it: “Cascading ambient jazz, drip dropping dreamily on the windshield of a parked car.”

“Be insane—be divine!” the late Bill DiMichele sang to no one in particular. Enamored with their city’s thriving Filipino community, the duo’s name roughly translates to San Francisco Kids, and evokes the creative energy that poured from the peninsula during the Reagan crisis. Before the tech bro invasion, DiMichelle and Eric Jensen plied their synth and sequencer trades to create a singular document of misunderstood minimal wave. Recorded in fits and starts over the course of 1985, the self-released, eight-song Batang Frisco LP appeared the following year in a simple black and white sleeve accompanied by a D.I.Y. lyric sheet. Or did it? Most of the pressing never left their apartments, escaping via mail order over the course of three decades. DiMichelle was still hawking them on eBay for $25 in the weeks leading up to his death in the summer of 2019. This record is dedicated to him. And Vern Rumsey. To Jackie Shane, Lou Ragland, and Tony Palkovic. To the nearly 300,000 people (at time of this pressing) who died because this country thought it would be a good idea to elect a know-nothing grifter.

It is sheer coincidence that the title of this compilation and the artist Reach share a name. The album title was derived by chance, spied on a royal blue t-shirt in my Highland Park neighborhood. REACH, it read, in letters that appeared to be exploding out of the cotton itself. In a previous iteration I can imagine the shirt being the uniform for a summer bible camp, or a failed rebrand from the Dupont suite of oral hygiene products. But in that moment, as the 20-something-year-old kid wearing it breezed past me, the message resonated profoundly. Towards what, I wondered.

Bill Reach and Dorothy Carter’s short-lived collaboration under the name Reach is entirely unmysterious, however. What an incredible last name to grow up under, with inspiration pouring out of every signature. Carter was a bit of a northeastern underground folk legend of the hammered dulcimer and zither variety, with solo records on Celeste, and with Robert Rutman and Constance Demby’s Central Maine Power Music Company. The two convened at North Brookfield, Massachusetts’ Long View Farm Studios in 1977, issuing the results on Reach’s own White Cane imprint. The track centers itself around the cicada-like hum Dorothy’s dulcimer, joined in the penultimate half minute by Bill’s longing pedal steel. Is this country? Folk? Ambient? “Gold Dust Twins” is all of those things at once somehow. It might be the most hopefully dour song I’ve ever heard. It’s the epitome of Reach.

What is Reach after all? Most immediately, it’s a physical manifestation of a playlist that I pieced together for no other purpose than as something to listen to while drawing in the afternoons. A focusing agent in a time of endless distraction. I’ve long felt the compilation is a dying artform marginalized by digital service providers and record stores alike. But when done right, a various artists album can be just as powerful as the single artist statement. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets, and Manoel Barenbein’s Tropicalia have all withstood decades of scrutiny and survive as definitive works of genre art. They all began as private mind gardens. Reach is unlikely to join that pantheon of greatness, but I hope I’ve made good use of what few resources this planet has left for committing old music to another piece of plastic.

The ultimate purpose of Reach, however, is to push these 12 micro stories and songs as deep into the future as possible. Each one of these artists has an album or more of material out there awaiting an audience, and I hope this record inspires a new round of discovery, in 2021 or, climate-willing, 2121. Most copies will be filed away on dusty shelves, then sold when the user tires of dragging it around or dies. Many will be lost to fire or flood. A few will find their way into libraries and institutions. But the music will live on, in the cloud or some other place we’ve yet to glimpse.

That being said: If you’re reading this out there in the distant future, huddled around a campfire and deciding what next to burn for warmth, please accept Reach as a gift from a tiny record company that popped off during that brief epoch when humanity was afforded the opportunity to reflect on the minutiae of its own existence.

Ken Shipley, January 2021