Talking Tapes With Filip Zemčik of Z Tapes
Every day I try to discover music from all pockets of the world that will blow my mind and open up my ears to whole new sonic landscapes. Hearing a brand new song is cool, finding out about a new artist can be rad, but for me, discovering a new label that's finely curated and boasts a fresh sonic aesthetic is the real winner. The internet has made stumbling upon new labels from all over the globe a much easier possibility, but it still requires digging. Towards the end of last year I was poking around on Bandcamp -- arguably the best DIY platform for artists and labels to share music, and music fans to discover random music -- and came across a quickly-blossoming label called Z Tapes. While their output of warm, sensitive, and intimate lo-fi bedroom pop music from predominantly American artists had me thinking their home-base could be Brooklyn, or possibly Indiana, I was a bit shocked to see 'Bratislava, Slovakia' listed on their Bandcamp page. As I dug in some more, it became apparent that this little label -- which releases all of their music on cassette tape, also something I adore -- was pushing high quality releases at a prolific rate. Basically every week I was receiving notifications about a new release from Z Tapes, and every week I eagerly wrapped my ears around their latest brilliant offering by some little-heard bedroom artist. I had to know more about the person behind this DIY label in Slovakia curating such a captivating sound, and building a supportive community of musicians and music lovers in the process. It turns out his name is Filip Zemčík, he's a wealth of insight into running a DIY label in the 21st century, and he was incredibly generous in answering a ton of questions I wanted to ask him...
Can you elaborate on any music that influenced your upbringing and discerning ear prior to launching Z Tapes and prior to discovering the labels (Orchid Tapes, Crash Symbols, Birdtapes) that significantly influenced launching your own label? Did you grow up around a lot of music? How did you discover new music? How did you acquire music? Did you own any tapes or have any strong awareness of the existence of cassette tapes prior to discovering those cassette-focused labels? Do you have a particular favorite song or album that you feel best embodies or influenced the Z Tapes sound?
I cannot remember time when I was not listening to music. As I child I remember encounters with vinyl records of my dad's, to which he was listening while working out. We listened to Beatles' songs while we were traveling to Croatia for family vacation. Also when we were young boys, me and my brother were recording music from radio to tapes and listening to them nonstop. Mostly pop bangers of 90s and early 2000s. First music we (my brother and I) owned was recorded on cassettes. The Offspring, The Bloodhound Gang and local Slovakian punk bands. My brother had a huge influence on my music taste and thus in my early teenage years I was listening to pop punk bands as Blink 182, NOFX, Sum 41 and more. I did not have any specific taste until I was 14-15 when I was starting to discover more indie bands like Arctic Monkeys, Foals, We Have Band. That was era when I joined Myspace and starting to use it to discover new music. I was not into cassettes at that time. I did not buy any physical media, I was just listening to music online. However later on when I discovered Bandcamp and all bands that were present there I began my path that lead to starting my own label. When I started in 2011 my music blog Start-Track, I discovered bands like Coma Cinema, Elvis Depressedly, Teen Suicide, labels like Orchid Tapes and Crash Symbols. That was time when I got back to tapes and started ordering them and collecting. It was moment when I become attached to this specific format and wanted to be part of whole community which was forming around it. My blog started a new chapter in my music life when I started to be contributor to music scene instead of being just part time receiver as a listener or fan at shows. Also it was time when I started to focus on smaller bands and found joy in discovering new, pretty unknown artists from different parts of world. Z Tapes was a natural step in this direction, when I wanted to bring more people to music I liked. The biggest influence for Z Tapes, sound wise was Mat Cothran and his interest in music. Our first artist on label, Johnny aka Euphoria Again was introduced to me thanks to Mat, who was friends with Johnny. When I look back, Orchid Tapes became my role model label wise and sound wise too. However I feel like everything Z Tapes was came naturally from music I liked and posted on my music blog. I did not plan it at all. It was very spontaneous and I did not need to think a lot about artists I wanted to release. When I liked something, I just wanted to give it a try and share it with my small but constantly growing audience.
What job were you doing when you decided to start Z Tapes as a hobby? Was there a particular moment you recall when making the decision to launch a label? What was it about either the artist or the music for the first Z Tapes release (Euphoria Again's 'Bedroom Recordings') that gave you the confidence/excitement to embark down this road?
I was living in London, working at Starbucks, when I decided I want to start a label but it took me half year to actually do my first release which was published on November 11, 2013. It was a natural step in my desire to get involved more in music community. It was an upgrade of my music blog to next level. Before the first release I was traveling the states for two months and meeting people I discovered thanks to my music blog which I had been doing for a while at that time. Huge boost was visiting Total Bummer Festival in Orlando, which made me interested in the lo-fi, bedroom pop community and the people connected to it. It felt great to be part of a music community. At that time I was already in process of doing my first release. I wanted to try it. I have always loved to try new things and a label was a big challenge for me. I do not think the Euphoria Again’s music was the driving point to start label, but it was a perfect mean how to launch Z Tapes. It makes even a lot more sense now that I have chosen that particular band and release. It captures the perfect lo-fi sound I always wanted to have on label. A huge driving force for my label were the people who were around me from the beginning and encouraging me to start my own label. A huge thank you belong to them. Especially to my brother, who was a significant part of my early music experience. He supported me from beginning and was excited about the idea. It gave me confidence to jump into label game.
Any advice you have for someone interested in launching an independent label?
Be patient. Everything takes time, sometimes you get recognized without big effort, sometimes it requires a lot of time, money and a very strong will. Start a label because you want to release music not because you want to make money. You won’t have positive monies for very long time. Have an idea who you want to work with and who will be your audience. Starting a label without any audience (my first audience was coming from my music blog) will be very hard and you might get disappointed after first weeks/months. Do not be discouraged by anyone around you who thinks that starting label is bad idea. It is a crazy idea, but it is worth putting your time into it. Do not be afraid of thoughts of quitting when success is not coming. I wanted to quit my label hundred of times and I still play with that idea. Do it because you love musicians you work with, you love your fans and for the sake of music community. You will get your reward at the end. There is a lot of to tell after 4 and 1/2 years. If anyone is looking for more advice, they can always get in touch with me. I cannot promise I will have enough time to answer every question but I will try.
It seems like Bandcamp has been a wonderful platform for Z Tapes. Can you talk about how the platform has helped you grow your audience and reach them directly? Do you feel a strong connection or find significant support for Z Tapes' releases on any non-Bandcamp platforms?
Z Tapes is a child of Bandcamp. I think there would not be our label if this platform did not exist. I started to discover music that shaped my label on this platform and it showed me that starting my own label cannot be an impossible task. Despite the fact that you live on opposite sides of the world from your artists or fans. Also Bandcamp is very easy to use and I was able to get a hold of it in a very short time. I learned how it works and how it can be used to help the label to grow. Another boost for label was Bandcamp’s launch of articles where we got several features which helped us gain a bigger audience. We have been present on top of several Bandcamp tags, which is still helping us to get new fans. I try to promote this platform everywhere I am as it is the best platform to release and sell music. I consider myself a Bandcamp expert, too (hahaha). Besides Bandcamp there is Youtube, where our artists are getting some love. Past months we've had some features on Spotify playlists. The coverage on music blogs is not as big as I would want to but it is hard to do PR these days. Also, features on blogs do not drive a lot of listens or sales in the end. It helps more to build awareness of your artists or your label. I try to find other means to promote our music and explore new territories which are not being used in the music world. Our socials are very active and we try to maintain a constant conversation with our fans. It brings a lot of positive feedback and attention to the music we love. I am always brainstorming more ways on how to make people interested in the things we (cassette labels) do. One way was starting the platform United Cassettes, which re-launched a bit ago and is getting more attention. Its slogan sums up its purpose very well: “we help cassette labels grow.” I am learning that I am not alone in this and I wanted to find a solution that will help all cassette labels. Because I think that music released on cassette labels need to be heard.
Only a couple songs in the Z Tapes catalog have come from Slovakian artists. What can you tell us about the Slovakian music scene? How are music fans in Slovakia typically consuming music? Do you sell Z Tapes releases in any Slovakian music stores or sell many tapes online to fans in Slovakia?
Music scene in Slovakia? I did not know there was a thing like that. I could be joking, but sadly it is also true. I am not involved in the music community in Slovakia nor I like music that is made here. I find it very boring, unoriginal. I find it also too superstitious - without heart. I wish there was something to talk about but honestly there are not many shows happening and not many interesting new bands. It feels like music is dying here. People listen to Spotify and radios, which play just the same pop songs. The alternative scene is scattered and it doesn’t provide any environment for smaller bands to form. Also from my own experience no one really cares about the fact that there is a lo-fi cassette label in Slovakia. I do not have support here and I encounter weird reactions doubting what I do. I can count my Slovakian fans on one hand. Though I have one that is our biggest fan. He buys everything we release! But besides him, there is tiny support for us. I tried to sell our cassettes at vinyl fairs but reactions were pretty frustrating for me. I wish it was different but I think that physica analog format in general (vinyl or cassette) is not popular anymore and it is hard to find any customers at all. Maybe it will change in future, but at this point I do not really care. We are an online, global label and we want to work with that.
What's the most unique demo submission you've ever received? Has there ever been a release you passed on for Z Tapes that you regret?
Most unique demo submission? One time we received hand dubbed submission from a fan, but did not decide to work with that artist for now. Usually we get a lot of emails, messages, but we always prefer to find music by ourselves or get it as recommendation from our friends, artists or fans. I think there were releases I did not manage to get on my label I wanted, but I do not regret anything. I think that everything is where it should be. But there is one that comes to my mind. It is last Lucas Vidaur’s album which was released on other label because we were taking a break.
Are there any films or books you feel capture or closely resemble the Z Tapes aesthetic?
I love watching movies, I love reading books, but I am not sure if there is anything particular that is inspiring Z Tapes. I love short stories of J.D. Salinger or Roald Dahl, teenage books and teenage movies. I love all Sci-fi, especially Star Wars (my favorite movies). But I think it is more shaping who I am and what I like. I would need to give it a long thought to come up with some specific connections as I have never thought about it. There is one book/series that caught me recently. 13 Reasons Why. I loved how it used cassettes in their story line. It is a nice feature for this format.
Is there a style of music outside of lo-fi bedroom pop music that people might be surprised you're a fan of?
I love pop music. I listen to various kinds of pop music. Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake. I love pop music from 80’s and 90’s. I love pop punk bands from 90’s. Also I am fan of hardcore music, especially going to hardcore shows. It is very refreshing in contrary to my daily music world. I used to be pretentious about music taste when I was teenager but now I can find enjoyment in classical music, jazz music, hip-hop or pop music. It always varies from my mood and what I feel like listening to. I am huge fan of Abba music too. I think being open minded in music taste is a great attitude.
Which other current labels are you most excited about these days?
I love many cassette labels, but with some I have build stronger relationships. I love what Fox Food Records are doing. They are the best UK label. I have been enjoying Citrus City Records’ releases and love their passion for their local scene. I like what Forged Artifacts are releasing and their cassettes look beautiful. Disposable America is a great label that is making cassettes I enjoy a lot. Crafted Sounds, which were, according to owner Connor, inspired by our label. Doom Trip Records are releasing very interesting experimental music. ACR, London based cassette label operated by my dear friend Adam is a label to check out for both for artwork and music. At United Cassettes we have created a map of cassette labels which features over 300 labels around the globe worth checking out. Though my capacities to know all cassette labels are limited.
Are there any Z Tapes releases you feel are particularly overlooked that deserved some stronger attention?
All of them? I find it very hard to pick some releases which should have more attention. I believe that every single one should be heard. However I think Govier's music is not appreciated enough or smaller artists like Mouse Trap, timbr, Pickle Darling, Laptop Funeral should be known more. I could name a lot of releases, each one is unique and deserves to be heard. However I know it is harder with the amount of good music that is released every single day. Only way to get them more attention is to grow together. I hope everyone will get the praise they deserve.
As someone who started running a blog before launching a label, how important do you feel blog culture and online media support is for new artists and independent labels? How do you feel the music blog landscape has changed over the past 8 years? What are the best or most ideal ways to get music from emerging artists in front of music fans?
This is a topic I have troubles to answer. I have in myself two viewpoints which are contradictory. As a person who runs a music blog, I find it an important part of music industry. It helps a lot to smaller artists or labels to get heard and introduced to a new audience. Also the amount of time people invest in it should be appreciated more. On the other hand as label I do not think its as effective as it used to be. I think that in past a feature on blog/website meant a lot compared to what it means now. If you are not blog like as Gold Flake Paint or bigger sites like Fader or Impose, the importance of a feature is not as a significant as it used to be. Nowadays I find Bandcamp’s music blog as the best way for smaller artists or labels to get more attention. I feel like interest in music writings, music reviews and the written word in general is decreasing and thus the role of music blogs is getting smaller. The ways people are discovering music are changing with the rise of Spotify playlists or Youtube channels. I think blogs need to evolve to make a big difference in the future or just be satisfied with smaller, but hopefully truer audiences. I wish I was more optimistic about this topic and I would love to believe a bright future is awaiting music blogs. Maybe (hopefully) I am just wrong.
Any forthcoming releases that are currently in queue for Z Tapes that you're excited about?
I am very excited about new Pickle Darling release (out later this year), I am very excited about our spring compilation and then our next summer comp. Also I am looking forward to new Andy Burn’s album (recently discovered artist), which should be out very soon. I love releasing music and I am very excited when I am pressing publish button for every single release we do. Doing my label brings me a lot of joy.
Can you share some songs that have inspired the Z Tapes sound?