Monday, April 11, 2011

Pterodactyl Squad's Joe Allen on 8-bit, Internet labels, and worldwide collaboration

Posted By on Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 10:00 AM

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Net-based label Pterodactyl Squad is devoted to video game-inspired music, be it imaginary soundtracks or original 8-bit compositions. Late last month, the label released an 8-bit tribute to Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. That tribute is a follow-up to last year's 8-bit tribute to the music of Weezer. (Where that album was a compilation of songs spanning Weezer's career, the new release is devoted to one album.)

We spoke to label co-founder Joe Allen via e-mail -- he's based in Japan -- about 8-bit vs. chiptune, and the logistics of running an Internet-based label that's worldwide.

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The Pitch: You live in Japan and run an international online label devoted to 8-bit music. Does being in Japan feed into the chiptune scene or vice versa?

Joe Allen: In short, for me, no. There's no doubt Japanese technology has been vital throughout the history of video games and their music, and there are a variety of talented Japanese performers and collectives within Japan, more so than many other countries. But ultimately this kind of label is heavily Internet-based and doesn't depend on mine or Ross's (arcadecoma., who runs the label with me) physical location. I run the label in the same way that I did while I was living in the U.K.

I live in a part of Japan which, while it's a big city, has a poor music scene. In my experience in Japan, outside of Tokyo and Osaka there's really not much going on musicwise. Also, artists don't tend to release music for free as much, which is something our label was founded on.

Obviously, in-person collaboration is almost impossible. How do you get these releases done? Is it just a slew of people all over the world using Skype or e-mail?

Yes. Like I said, this scene and our label is heavily Internet-based. Neither could exist without the technology of the Internet, which I find fitting, as you could also say the music we release is heavily technology-based.

Through various projects such as my band (Spheres of Chaos) and podcast (Gamewave Podcast), I'm in contact with a lot of different people, so when I'm starting a project like this, I can send an e-mail out to people I know who I think would be interested and suitable.

I've only ever met a couple of the people who have collaborated with us. Again, the label is dependent on the Internet, and I think that's one of the beauties of the whole thing. We don't deal in anything physical, and all our music is free to download. Our whole label is almost a tribute to the Internet itself.

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How did the idea for the tribute albums come about?

Our first tribute album was Weezer - The 8-bit Album, released in 2009. It was conceived and produced by Ross, who's a big Weezer fan; I had minimal involvement with that one. Eight-bit cover albums are 10-a-penny, and invariably, there are a lot of poor ones, so I think Ross wanted to create the definitive 8-bit Weezer tribute before somebody else took the idea and ruined it. Up until that point, we'd been releasing only original music, but the Weezer tribute was a massive success, and is still finding new fans every day. We also tapped into a wider audience of Weezer fans and introduced a lot of them to the concept of chiptune. The album was even acknowledged by Rivers Cuomo. So after experiencing such a positive reaction, there was no reason not to do another.

What, to you, is the primary difference between 8-bit and chiptune?

It all comes down to personal preference. There are loads of different words to describe this type of music. Some would argue that the only real chiptunes are those made within the limitations of a video game console's sound chip. But usage of the word 'chiptune' is becoming more and more common, and it doesn't necessarily mean only music made with a sound chip anymore. These days there are people who use it to refer to anything that sounds like video game music.

I prefer the term '8-bit' because I think it's a broad term that's easier to understand for people who aren't familiar with the whole chiptune scene. And, for me, it brings with it a whole set of connotations and associations, such as the 8-bit aesthetic, childhood memories of playing 8-bit consoles, retro, lo-fi, etc. It's quite a vivid term for a certain generation.

Describe the genesis of the label. What was the impetus behind releasing music for free and, specifically, 8-bit?

I first got into the whole [8-bit] scene through my band, Spheres of Chaos. We played video game-inspired rock music -- some covers, some originals -- and while there were no like-minded musicians in our city, we ended up finding some online. Our band also hosted a podcast called the Gamewave Podcast where we played 8-bit music, and through the band and podcast we got to know the guys who ran the 8-bit netlabels at that time, such as Mega Twerp and Betamod. As those labels became less active for one reason or another, there was still my band and a group of other artist friends who were looking to release 8-bit music. The start-up costs for netlabels are low, and it just made sense to band together to put our music out on one label.

The idea of releasing music for free on netlabels was already tradition by the time the Squad began three years ago, and even mainstream music is heading in that direction. Offering music for free also gives you freedom to do whatever you want as you avoid the whole "money ruins art" problem. Ultimately, offering something for free means you'll reach a wider audience.

We accept donations, but only to offset costs. Sometimes our releases are available in a physical format, but this is handled completely by the artist rather than us. We're not looking to profit from the label, just to have a good time as a creative collective and give people something they'll enjoy without asking for money in return.

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