CDBaby and the Contemporary Private Press

One question I always ask DJs or musicians when I'm out traveling (and consequently, one I often get asked) is, "Do you still buy records?" The answer is almost always in the negative, or at best "not as much as I used to." The rationale most of the time is that the good record stores have dried up or the record hunting game in general has become prohibitively expensive. No doubt, I’ve noticed fewer gems in the dollar bin, and lots more Duane Eddy, although my sleuthing hunch is that more people are just downloading their music off blogs. And this is OK, I guess. I’ve downloaded music from countless records I would never be able to afford, and am the richer for it. The drawback to this practice however, is that one becomes increasingly dependent on others to unearth new records to listen to, sample from, and/or reissue, and less keen to do it for themselves. And much like the world's current oil crisis, we are running out of resources and driving metaphorical SUVs at the same time.

I wish I could count the recent number of times albums of immense rarity are discussed openly among casual music fans, but unfortunately, that number is too high to recall. This type of table talk almost never used to happen in previous decades except amongst the unshaven, poorly attired, and loathsome record convention types. But with the reissue scene in full swing and niche music blogs continually sprouting, this change is inevitable. I mean, Roy Ayers records used to be a special find. You didn’t see them everyday. Nowadays, I run into kids at record stores looking bored out of their minds in the Milestone, Muse and 4AD sections, and heading straight for the late '80s cosmic disco reissues. Nothing against the Italians at all, but this continual need for ever-crazier records has reached its pinnacle, I’m afraid. The well is running dry, the car is sputtering on fumes. Dusk is approaching. As collectors we need to re-evaluate our motivations for collecting, and either return to the classics of comfort, or find new sources of outlandish tunes for ourselves. I mean, there were only so many records pressed in the first place.

Currently, the gold standard amongst collectors, the truffles if you will, are the "private press" records. For our purposes, this means albums that were financed by the individual musician or band as opposed to an established commercial label. The sound is therefore often incredibly lo-fi, budget-oriented, and oftentimes punctuated by the type of bizarre instrumentation, songwriting, and delusions of grandeur that never got the artist a proper record deal in the first place. However, like we have previously discussed, these records are finite in quantity and there is a full-fledged land grab for the remaining good ones. Speculation and price gouging have become the norm, and reissues have often gobbled up whatever remaining bits lay on the cutting room floor. The Konrads, Jandeks, Prophets, Daniel Johnstons, Lloyd Millers, and Kenneth Higneys of the world are no longer safe. (Sorry for the name-dropping. All of these are either reissued or on blogs anyways.) Finding records of this caliber in the wild seems nearly impossible now. We are beating a dead horse.

On the eternal trail...

So the burning question is, what do we do now with this apocalyptic information? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure, nor do I know where we are headed as a species, but I do know of one vast reserve of strange music that has barely been tapped... digital.

Nothing against the Italians at all, but this continual need for ever-crazier records has reached its pinnacle, I’m afraid.

Now, I know there are plenty of contemporary vinyl records coming out with incredible tunes. And a good chunk of them could fall under the private press umbrella. To a degree however, these releases are inherently nostalgic and playing off the aesthetic of the private press albums of yesteryear. Hell, I do this all the time with my records. The ultimate truth of the matter is that the vinyl format is no longer dominant. Besides club music the medium is often relegated to an ever-more niche target group associated with '70s hi-fi systems, Eames chairs, ceramic owls and manual typewriters. The mp3 is the sheik of the desert now, and while we can lament the loss of physical format dominance, let us remember that this is only technological evolution at work; similar to the way the Gutenberg printing press wiped out the scribe industry, modern medicine ruined leech farmers, and video killed the radio star. There is no sense in going the way of the Luddites. The new breed of mentally unstable artists are no longer pressing records, they are putting their stuff online.

Headquarters of the new peculiar

But where, you might ask?

The answer lies deep in the sleepy enclave of Portland, Oregon, in a nondescript warehouse that plays home to the offices of CDBaby. The company has a catalog of more than 250,000 albums, and over 2 million digital song tracks, making it the largest online community of unsuccessful recording artists ever amassed under one roof. This is where the closet producers, singers, and general delusional types congregate. This is where the last remaining untapped reserves of completely peculiar music lay. This is the new private press. And thankfully, this is also where new music is born.

Let me illustrate...

Otis G Johnson

Here is a dude who put out two highly coveted gospel records in the '70s that fetch hundreds of dollars for their spooky reverb-heavy drum machine soul. And here he is with a release from 2010 that is every bit as unique and spooky (and even contains some of his old songs).

Johnny Afro

The Bay-Area-based Johnny Afro has no less than 40+ drum machine-heavy albums available on CDBaby. It just doesn't stop...

Rafael Brom

Another oddity with a vast catalog of albums, most waffling between new age ambient relaxation music and sinister fire-and-brimstone revelations. This one is from the latter category, and appropriately entitled, 'You Will Believe In Hell When You Get There.' It also comes complete with a sinister organ ending, and guillotine noises.

Chief Kooffreh

No explanation necessary. This is what happens when you abuse your wife.


A true stalwart operating within the grossly-overlooked female gospel rap genre. A co-worker once called this genre "Worship-hop."

John Barber

This one came with a glowing recommendation from the CDBaby staff. For fans of Gary Wilson and Ariel Pink. And cheap synthesizers.

Ralph PJ Johnson

Wait, is this some lost Prince outtake? Is this some collector's modern soul record worth hundreds of dollars? Nope, it's from 2011.

J.O.T. aka Grande Gato

Winston-Salem's weed loving gospel rapper drops an ode to Chris Paul, the point guard for the New Orleans Hornets NBA team. Sounds like it was recorded through a tin-foil Walkman. That's why I like it.

And this is only the microscopic tip of the iceberg. There are at least 37 songs I wanted to share as well, but I'm sure I would have crashed the server.

For the savvy hunter, there exists a plethora of unheard, contemporary music rife for consumption, conveniently stacked and digitized somewhere in those grey offices of CDBaby. Yet, I don’t want to downplay the drawbacks, as the hunting can be tiresome. There is no longer a physical item to hold, admire and examine. The artwork is crude and unforgivably small. And forget about it altogether if the Internet connection is spotty. Still, the fruits of labor can be worth it, as this digital realm is the new habitat of the private press. I compare the hunting process to the oil extraction in the sands of northern Alberta, there is definitely a vast reserve in there, but it’s a pain in the ass to get to. But with that said, let’s now dig in together, full speed ahead. The compilations, re-issues, bloggers, and hoarders of the world are fast on our tails.

  • James Pants

By James Pants on May 20, 2011