Ready, cassette, go: how to start an independent label in the Russian north

Underground Sound

The city of Petrozavodsk, in Karelia in the Russian north, is home to the independent cassette label Full of Nothing. The location might be unknown to most of its listeners — from as far afield as Tokyo, London and LA — yet the label’s cassettes sell out within days. New releases are sent to different corners of the world carrying tracks from local underground talents such as Suokas and Moa Pillar, as well as young prodigies from abroad such as Pick a Piper and Squalloscope.

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Full of Nothing founder Ivan Zoloto originally set up the label with his girlfriend and creative collaborator Anya Kuts (together they also form noise duo Love Cult) but nowadays largely runs it himself — all from his bedroom. The DIY approach fits with the romantic appeal of cassettes — both a seemingly outdated format and the ultimate source of nostalgia for the millennials. Bedroom cassette labels make the new global underground, alongside the new generation of zines and home recorded music acts. For Zoloto, however, DIY is not the main reason to be in the game — it’s all about unforgettable, daring music.

We asked Ivan Zoloto what it takes to set up a record label in the middle of nowhere and how to forge a relationship with the international cassette community.

When did you first get the idea of starting the label?

I was fascinated by obscure music since early childhood and by the age of 10-11 I learned how labels and the visions behind them helped shape musical movements. It’s always been a dream of mine to work on a collection of recordings that’s unique and makes for a complicated cross-referencing system of fascinating music. Hopefully, people who’ve been following us over the course of these 50 releases appreciate this. If they don’t, it’s OK too.

Why cassettes?

Well, I’m not a die-hard tape fan. Originally (in 11th grade — when I came up with the label name) the idea was to release CDs. I dreamt of decent affordable vinyl (quite hard to arrange in Russia but still). I’m cool with digital releases, too. It’s just cassettes are the golden middle-ground. It’s a simple and affordable format that has an air of decadence about it, as well as peculiar cultural connotations, hints at nostalgia — and above all that, it makes you appreciate the whole record rather than individual tracks. There’s no best format but tapes are very cool indeed.

Are you in contact with the international community of cassette labels and does that help?

Well, sure! Pretty much everyone owns a cassette label nowadays, don’t they? We try to take the best ideas from the cassette community — mostly musically. People should truly believe in music, that’s my main concern. All the DIY spirit for its own sake is not for me. I’m very enthusiastic about daring music. Fuck trends and scenes.

People should truly believe in music, that’s my main concern. All the DIY spirit for its own sake is not for me

What is your overall idea for the visual aesthetics of the label?

Art must be a bit of an understatement. There are way too many people around us obsessed with “professional-looking images”. We’re not willing to join the competition. It’s minimal, it’s nice to look at, it has a bit of depth, the music will tell the rest.

How do you choose artists?

Their music should sound brutally honest, artful, have a bit of depth, some structure, some melodies, but most importantly no cliches.

Could you give an insight into the day-to-day life of the label and the transition from from the idea to the physical cassette?

Nowadays it’s basically just me. The label is based in my bedroom in Petrozavodsk. I’m looking for artists with a vision, sometimes they send their demos in – but mostly it’s listening to links in the feed. We talk a bit, come up with a direction for a release and then the artists take their time to finish the work. We agree on an artwork, send emails to bloggers (and come up with ways to present the release online), fire up the digital files first and then produce tapes with the GoTape factory in St Petersburg. I regularly go to St Petersburg and ship 80 per cent of the cassettes to shops and individuals, bringing home what’s left. Usually we sell out of a release in 4-5 days.

It matters that people step outside their comfort zones and explore regional scenes

What’s the hardest thing about running a cassette label in Russia?

Finding decent music and like-minded individuals, I guess. It’s not hard, you’ve just got to pursue it. The Russian postal service is not very fast but it’s much cheaper than anywhere else and we have cool blue boxes.

Do you think it still matters for a label (or artist) to have a national identity in contemporary global world?

No, absolutely not. Though, it matters that people step outside their comfort zones and explore regional scenes, especially outside the US/UK/EU. The popularity of western music is a result of its political influence and it’s important for a music fan to have a vague idea what, I don’t know, the Indonesian scene is like. We’re trying to keep an eye on what’s happening in different pockets of the world, even though we’re always finding new Russian visionaries.

What would be your advice to someone who wants to set up a cassette label?

Think twice.

Interview: Anastasiia Fedorova
Image: Full of Nothing