AV's Q & A with Mike Griffin
Ambient Vision's Q & A with
AV: Tell me a little about yourself just prior to making the decision to form Hypnos Recordings.
MG: I had been recording some very minimal ambient music of my own for a couple of years, and wanted to release my own CD, which became Sudden Dark. Before Hypnos even really got started, the concept expanded from a vehicle to release a CD or two of my own music, into something like what it is today. The decision to form Hypnos wasn't really a decision to form an aggressive, fast-growing, adventurous label. If I had known what it would become, I might have been afraid to take the first steps.
AV: Was there something specific that really pushed you over the edge and gave you the impetus to form Hypnos?
MG: In the beginning, the decision to start Hypnos seemed secondary and almost incidental to my desire to start releasing my own music. The big revelation for me was finding an artistic direction that I wanted to pursue through music or sound. So at first, the great majority of my energy and focus was on my own personal music, and a lesser focus was on the idea of this label. Gradually that ratio has become reversed!
AV: What were some of your early goals as to what Hypnos would be and what it would not be?
MG: From the start I wanted Hypnos to be an honest and straightforward enterprise, driven primarily by artistic aims and goals. I never pretended that business realities did not exist, or that Hypnos could survive while ignoring the forces that affect any small business, but I was determined that the creative and explorative aspect would be primary. I wanted the business side of things to be strong, so that the label could continue and grow, but I have never expected the label to make me a lot of money. At first, my goal was that within five years, Hypnos would stop losing money! It was a pleasant surprise when Hypnos became profitable within about a year and a half, and that has allowed me to release a lot more CDs and a wider variety of music.
AV: Being a musician yourself how did that influence what Hypnos was to become?
MG: I have always felt that the appearance and presentation of a CD should support the style and mood of the music, and since I am responsible for virtually all of the art and graphic design on Hypnos CDs, it is only natural that I should choose music that fits the already-established visual aesthetic of Hypnos. Because of that, I have only chosen music to release which fits my concept of the label, and because my concept of the label was formed only after my own musical direction had been established, it could be argued that I am guided as to what kind of artists I would ally myself with, by how much I feel they are in sync with my own tastes and goals. Of course, Hypnos has released a lot of music that I never would, or could, have made myself, but I still feel that this music has an essential something with which I identify.
AV: As to the foundation of Hypnos when was it that it became a living, breathing record label and how did you go about securing the first few artists to record for your label?
MG: The first three Hypnos CDs to be released were works by Saul Stokes, Viridian Sun (my collaboration with David Tollefson), and myself solo.
None of those three artists had ever released anything elsewhere, and none were known at all prior to the beginning of Hypnos. So in the beginning, Hypnos was an unknown label with unknown artists. The fourth CD, though, was a double-CD various artists compilation called The Other World, which included work by such well-known or at least better-known names as A Produce, Jeff Greinke, Vidna Obmana, Jeff Pearce, Alpha Wave Movement, Ron Boots, Richard Bone and many more. This changed the perception of many people about what Hypnos was about, and how legitimate it was. That compilation actually made quite a splash at the time, and remains one of our best-selling CDs ever.
It was also the beginning of a transition to Hypnos operating as more of a "real" label, releasing music by people who had been releasing music elsewhere prior to the existence of Hypnos. That may seem like a small distinction, but I believe the listening public looks at a label very differently if the artists involved include nobody but the label owner himself (or herself) and friends, as opposed to a collection of established names.
The next several solo releases included participants in The Other World, like Jeff Greinke, who is one of the great artists in our genre, and Richard Bone, who was also getting much better-known. Now, Hypnos has an artist roster that includes most of the people doing really vital work these days, and of course this makes people regard Hypnos as some kind of "powerhouse" label in our genre.
AV: Was it rough going at first as far as making ends meet with the expenses of marketing, recording etc.?
MG: At first, by far the greatest limitation on what Hypnos could do -- how many CDs it could release and how much it could promote them -- was my own personal cash flow. The amount of money coming in from CD sales was almost zero for a while, so every CD pressing was a major personal expense for me.
Every promotional mailing was a big, complicated undertaking, and every magazine ad was an effort to get people aware of the CDs so they'd start buying them. It was really like planting all your money into the ground and hoping something would start to sprout up.
So while there was never any risk of bankrupting myself, for a while it was like a really expensive hobby, and I didn't release CDs any more quickly than I could afford to. I think the reason it was never really "rough" for me is that I started out with the assumption that I might never sell a single CD, and I should only release the stuff on which I was willing to lose a lot of money! If I had quit my day job and borrowed start-up money from the bank, it might have felt a lot more risky and scary. Instead I just decided to put off buying my first home for a while, and spend my savings and extra income on subsidizing this label startup.
AV: When did you realize that Hypnos was going to make it and that the decision you made to form it was the right one?
MG: As I mentioned above, when I began, I decided to treat this as a very expensive hobby so I wouldn't be too disappointed if I didn't sell many CDs. That was I could keep doing it at a manageable pace and never put myself at personal financial risk, and also I'd be less likely to give it up right away when I didn't see a good financial return. One thing that I've observed again and again is that people start up these small labels, thinking that if they invest a few thousand dollars, they'll make a big profit right away and that will fund future growth. Then they don't sell as many CDs right away as they had hoped, and they can't afford to do a second or third CD, so they just bail out. I basically assume that any new startup label is going to fail within the first year, unless they keep putting out new CDs at least every few months, and the reason this happens so often is inadequate preparation and unrealistic expectations.
So for myself and Hypnos, I never had to achieve any particular financial success in order to feel that I could sustain it. It might never have grown beyond one or two CDs released per year, but I was prepared to dump my personal money into it on that kind of a basis and not consider it a failure. Still, I had somewhat more optimistic goals built somewhere up above my rather dim expectations, and I rapidly found myself exceeding even these most optimistic goals. I could see a snowballing of the label's reputation, which led to some really great artists coming onboard, which of course enhanced the label's reputation even more. All of this stuff had the effect of making more people interested in what Hypnos was doing, and it reached a sort of critical mass some time in 1999, where I knew there was no going back.
AV: Does Hypnos have a musical philosophy as to what type of artists fit best within its framework?
MG: Prospective artists ask me this all the time, perhaps seeking any kind of secret trick that will help them get a deal with Hypnos, or perhaps conversely hoping to avoid any hidden pitfalls that will kill their chances. But there is no strict rule about content. Many people assume that because most of the music on Hypnos is electronic ambient, that only synthesizer music is acceptable. I don't have strict rules against percussion, or vocals, or acoustic instruments, or anything like that. At least half the CDs on the label include non-electronic instruments, and two of the "core" artists, Jeff Pearce and David Tollefson, record exclusively with electric guitars. So there is nothing simple like "synthesizers good, guitars bad." Of course I do have some fairly vague, difficult to express, ideas about what kinds of things I like, and certain styles of music are more likely to get me intrigued or excited, so I'll start thinking "That would be a great Hypnos CD." But I'm not going to tell you what those things are!
AV: I've read on Hypnos' forum boards on your website about how your artists feel about working with you and the label, tell me about your philosophy towards your artists and why is it so successful in fostering such a good working relationship?
MG: First of all, as I've said elsewhere, a label is only as good as the artists involved. I'm not so arrogant as to think that Hypnos is great because of ME -- I know that people who buy Hypnos CDs are interested in people like Robert Rich and Vidna Obmana and Jeff Pearce, and on and on. I think that this respect, and the value I place on the work of these guys, helps the artists feel that even if they won't get rich on their royalty payments from Hypnos, I will respect them, treat them fairly and represent them as well as I can. Most of the artists on Hypnos seem to have become personal friends of mine, which confirms my feeling that I've chosen a good group of guys. Also they recognize that it benefits them to have a label relationship that is consistent and lasting. It helps listeners to figure out who these guys are, and what they're all about, to have one label representing and promoting them over a period of time. The best thing for all of us would be if Hypnos continues to grow, and the roster of artists also continues to develop, and one helps the other. Then, world domination!
AV: How much of a hands on approach do you take with the recording of the music that you release on the Hypnos?
MG: It's an interesting situation, in that most of the artists who record for Hypnos have their own recording studios of some kind or another, and they complete their recordings without my presence or immediate input. Then, if any input or interference is coming from my end, it comes about after the artist is done. There have been instances where I messed around with recordings to a very significant degree, with the understanding and encouragement of the artist. More often, I have much less involvement and maybe do a bit of mastering to make sure the final tapes have the right kind of polish. I don't have a need to dictate every detail, so if I receive a master recording that already sounds very good, I leave it alone and release it as-is. On the other hand, sometimes a bit of work is needed, and when that's the case, I get involved in the re-mastering process. I try not to interfere with the artist on decisions about the creative stuff. I guess you could summarize my philosophy by saying that I'm willing to get as involved as I need to be to make the best possible CD in every way, but I'm also willing to keep my hands off if that makes more sense in a given case.
AV: How do you feel about where you stand as a Record label today and what direction is it that you would like to see the label move in over the next few years?
MG: I'm honestly still pretty modest in how I see Hypnos fitting into the music world, though people often do try to tell me Hypnos is the "best" this and the "only" that, and the "greatest" something or other. I don't mean to dismiss that kind of praise, but I probably tend personally to underestimate the size and scope and importance of Hypnos, partly to keep myself focused and working hard. But if I appraise the standing of Hypnos honestly, I have to admit that right now, it has become an important entity in the world of ambient and experimental music. So many of the more established and sizeable labels in this genre have died off, or changed their focus to other styles, that this battle has become one of attrition.
I find myself being approached by people who act like Hypnos is a giant, the absolute summit of all things ambient, which is kind of funny to me, knowing how humble and simple this whole operation is.
I am happy with the artistic accomplishment and direction of Hypnos in these last few years, and would simply like to strengthen the structure, broaden the base and make Hypnos sturdier and more able to explore new directions and ensure that it can withstand changes in the listeners' tastes and preferences.
AV: How do you balance the duties of running the label and being an artist yourself? Do you ever wish that all you had to do was create the music and not market it as well?
MG: When I was first starting, I corresponded briefly with Darren Verhagen of the excellent Dorobo label, in Australia. He told me I was crazy for wanting to do something like this, and that I'd spend all my time mailing CDs and corresponding with people, and have no time left for the studio.
He was absolutely right! It's like having a baby -- they demand ALL your attention and kill your ability to sleep, leaving you no peace. My focus has changed completely, and there are definitely times that I regret that.
I wish I could spend more time pursuing my own musical ideas, instead of trying to squeeze in a few minutes to work on my album FABRICATIONS, which has been in process since 1997. There are rewards involved in running a label, but they're very different rewards from the joys and small puzzles of artistic expression. It's certainly harder to take a break, this way.
I can certainly understand why artists decide not to release their own CDs and deal with all the hassle, why they'd rather have a label do it even if it means they don't make as much money.
But overall, I don't mean to imply that I don't appreciate the situation.
If I felt that way, I could simply walk away from it and go back to the way things were before.
AV: How is 2001 shaping up for Hypnos and what kinds of releases should we be looking for?
MG: So far, Hypnos is still so new and growing so fast that each year has been better than the last. 2000 was pretty strong in terms of the variety of music released, and the number of really great artists doing some of their best work every. But I think there's a very good chance 2001 will be even better.
First of all, it looks like Hypnos will release more music, more different CDs, in 01 than any previous year. That by itself wouldn't be a big accomplishment, but the projects planned for this year include some amazing work by both artists new to Hypnos, and people like Robert Rich, Vidna Obmana, and Jeff Pearce, who have released several albums each on Hypnos before.
AV: To those aspiring to do something similar to what you have done with Hypnos, what kind of advice do you have for them having put some experience under your own belt?
MG: My advice is that if you set off with lofty goals and high expectations, with no discipline, no willingness to struggle and sweat, that you will absolutely fail. Those who think they can create one CD and that a huge empire will burst forth without effort, are kidding themselves and wasting their time. I can't think of a single instance of somebody setting out to do something big and "important" in the world of art, and actually achieving it. It is best to start with humble goals and a true devotion to doing something of real, intrinsic value. Then, you will be free to make the right decisions, the ones that lead to good music and true artistic expression, which the listeners will respond to with great enthusiasm.
Even if in the back of your mind, you hope that maybe your label will catch on and grow into something substantial, you should still approach it with a willingness to work very hard and sacrifice a lot, before you will receive the least amount of appreciation or reward. Ironically, the path aimed toward success does not lead there. You have to find a different way, almost by accident.
Keep reading for a short history of Hypnos Recordings
What does HYPNOS mean?
Hypnos is the personification of sleep in Greek mythology. He is the son of Nyx ("night") and Erebus, and the twin of Thanatos ("death"). According to some sources, both Hypnos and his brother live in the underworld, though others say he lived on the island of Lemnos.
During the Trojan War, Hera (eager to cast her influence on the side of the Greeks) persuaded Hypnos to lull Zeus to sleep so that her brother Poseidon (who detested the Trojans) could intervene on behalf of the Greeks.
Hypnos gave Endymion the power of sleeping with open eyes so he could see his beloved, the moon goddess Selene.
What is the history of the HYPNOS label?
Founded in 1996, Hypnos was first conceived to release solo and collaborative recordings by label founder Mike Griffin.
Before Hypnos even started, though, the idea was transformed into a functioning record label, designed to release a variety of work by like-minded musicians and sound artists everywhere.