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IsDiff Records: IDM Takes PDX

First appeared in the Willamette Week, September, 2002

“There are a lot of bedroom electronic producers here in Portland and they're making music that's fantastic but not commercially viable,” says Galen Beals, a local electronic musician who goes by the stage name N-Grava. “I love the idea of pulling a blanket off something unusual and saying to a crowd, 'ta-da!'” He and some of his laptop-lugging cronies are starting a new Portland-based label called IsDiff Records to bring their eclectic, electric exercises to the world.

“Kyle Jones (Glomm) and I started talking about releasing our music on our own. We looked into the costs of producing a CD and realized that it wasn't as expensive as we had initially thought. Eventually, Jonas Rake (Dampkrane) and Ro Subramanya (Bitmarch) joined in to help out.”

All of these guys make variations on what is commonly referred to—for lack of more descriptive terms—intelligent dance music, or IDM. This basically means exploring the boundaries of musical sound; pushing the limits of what their software and hardware will do. The results run the gamut from bouncing bubbly beats to expansive rhythmless meandering.

Of course, no electronic music label can be without a website, and Beals has put together a very spiffy one for IsDiff (www.isdiff.com). What’s particularly noteworthy, however, is that the site allows the visitor to download or stream a full album’s worth of complete, high-quality mp3’s of N-Grava tunes, with songs by others to come.

“I want people to know what we are about when they go to our web site,” explains Beals. “To me the best way seems to just give them some of our music to decide for themselves if they like it.”

This puts IsDiff in the company of a growing number of electronic music labels who offer at least some of their releases for free download. Referred to as Online Labels, these sites run the gamut from unabashedly non-profit groups offering all their artists’ material, complete with cover art, to somewhat more conservative operations, who alternate mp3 releases with recordings offered on CD-R. IsDiff leans more towards the latter.

“IsDiff is not strictly an online label,” says Beals, referring to sites that give everything away. “We all share the same ideals about making music, but we don’t always have the same feelings about releasing it. One of the things I'm interested in doing is offering releases in many different formats, on-line, CD, vinyl, and even minidisk or DVD.”

This unconventional approach is also something of an inevitable response to the inexorable tide of online file sharing. “At one time I thought there were enough music collectors out there who would buy records just to own them, so that they have something tangible in their hands. But now that seems to be shifting.”

On the other hand, Beals and his buddies are pragmatic about their financial prospects. “The object at this point is just to promote our music. Get it in the hands of people who like this kind of music. All the money that's made from the label, even the shows, goes right back into doing more releases.”

So, the only question that remains is whether a mid-line city like Portland can support so much esoteric electronica; IsDiff joins OMCO, Audio Dregs, and Archigramophone in the local IDM market. “I think Portland has the potential to become an electronic music hotspot, says Beals. “The real eye-opener for me was when Autechre played here last year; the place was packed! Where did all those people come from? I think having several local IDM labels helps us, makes us stronger, more unified. It just means more twisted electro for Portlanders.”

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