The “internet killed music!” narrative is and has always been rockist propaganda, peddled by people who are legitimately old and technophobic, but also by younger Rolling Stone subscribers who dully romanticize the era when physical media reigned—an era they likely weren’t even conscious during.
“People say the internet killed music, but I think it’s totally the opposite,” says Quinn Jarvis-Holland. Holland is the co-founder of Portland, OR-based beat and ambient label Oligopolist Records, and he makes the point that a lot of vital music probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the internet. “It’s similar to how in the ‘70s there was a whole campaign against home-taping, but now we recognize that home-taping probably spawned a lot sampling genres and the mixtape, and everyone loves mixtapes now.”
“The ‘internet killed music’ idea comes from massive labels just saying that because their profits are getting hurt, but I don’t care about that at all,” Holland continues. “If someone actually cares about music and people connecting with artists, then they should be happier since that’s able to happen much more easily now.”
For millennial music nerds Holland’s age, whose adolescences occurred well after CD sales began plummeting but before the advent of streaming platforms, the internet was all that mattered—particularly second-generation P2P programs and the bedimmed recesses of archive.org, whose music section is the contemporary equivalent of a record store free bin (as any Grateful Dead completist can attest to).
“When I was younger, I couldn’t go to shows [because I was a minor], and I was trying to hone in on what I was interested in, so I just kept digging deeper and deeper through the internet and finding all of these weird labels who would post archives of music for free,” Holland says. “I didn’t have a credit card, so I couldn’t buy music online, which meant it was either torrenting or getting this shit. I thought it was so cool that artists could get this good and would then just give their music away to people.”
An oligopoly, as Holland explains, is a market dominated by only a handful of producers, which accurately describes the record industry. While the three remaining major labels (Universal, Sony and Warner) no longer have ostensible control over the market, they’ve retained dominance by fragmenting themselves, not unlike Voldemort’s horcruxing. Several established “indie” imprints are actually operated by one of the aforementioned giants, and the few exceptions are still at the mercy of an infrastructure they designed.
The label’s name is, of course, tongue in cheek. This is reflected in the banner artwork on Oligopolist’s website, which depicts 11 silhouetted suits sitting around a conference desk and likely conspiring to take over the world/discussing the art direction for the new Metallica album.
By contrast, Oligopolist was designed to function as a collective, with every artist on the roster theoretically having equal stake in the label, although Holland and label co-founder Parker Johnson have wound up being its “executives” by default. “We’ve always had the biggest roles, but that’s probably just because we’re more driven than everyone else,” says Johnson. “But we’ll give any of the artists the Bandcamp login info or whatever, and I think we really like the idea of having everybody be that involved.”
“Sometimes it’ll get stagnant and somebody will message me about an idea they have, like someone recently posted a bunch of photo sets on the website, and I checked it out the next day, and was like, ‘wow, that’s a lot of awesome content,’” Holland adds. “The dream is to have it be decentralized, but the reality is that a core does have to exist to keep the momentum going, and people like to help out when something is already rolling.”
In addition to music, Oligopolist hosts artwork, photography and poetry by collective members on its site. Holland says the label is also in the beginning stages of prepping a coffee table art book.
Holland and Johnson also provide mixing and mastering services under the Oligopolist umbrella—something that began as a somewhat dilettantish experiment for the pair, but ended up becoming much more of a focus. “A lot of people have been coming to us for that, and I think it’s because we’re bridging a gap,” says Holland, referring to the inordinate cost to getting a record conventionally mixed and mastered. “When you’re a small band and you’re not making more than $1000 a year, why would you spend several hundred dollars on mastering?”
“We’re definitely trying to focus on doing it for cheap, because we know how to do it and the pay grade on that shit is just unbelievable,” says Johnson. “We have the knowledge and technique and we can make really nice-sounding record and do it for really cheap, simply because that’s how it should be.”
Portland has historically been a “rock town”—its musical heritage is ensconced in the stuffy traditions of punk and metal. As Portland’s culture became more and more commodified, those tendencies evolved into the palatable, beard-core bardship of artists like the Decemberists and Blitzen Trapper—but it’s rock music nonetheless.
It wasn’t until recently that the city’s more diverse offerings began getting coverage. In the summer, Pitchfork ran a piece on Women’s Beat League, a synth class taught at the S1 gallery, Portland’s preeminent, subterranean electronic venue. And roughly two weeks ago, the rapper Amine made his TV debut performing on The Tonight Show—an event that in several years will likely be looked back on as one of the most significant moments in the history of Portland music.
Oligopolist, which was founded in 2011, has benefitted from the sea change, although Holland and Johnson still feel fringier than most of their peers in Portland’s electronic and hiphop communities. But that’s always sort of been the point: riding the wave would require a degree of compromise, and Holland in particular is pretty outspoken in his contempt for “the game.”
“I think we’ve definitely connected with way more scenes or communities that already existed or have sprung up since we started, but at the same time, I feel like there’s something unique about our label, and so we’re still kind of a satellite,” says Holland. “I think it is novel how decentralized [we] push for it to be—I really don’t know of very many labels that aren’t just run by one person.”