I was first introduced to the Portland-based label Dropping Gems two years ago when they released their first compilation, Gem Drops. I was shocked. Here was a labor of love, done by friends for friends, with incredible beats and songs, and all the revenue went to the American Cancer Society. I stayed fresh and young, I got down with some kale jams (seriously), and I loved it so much I even featured a track on my Redford Rise mixtape, for all of you to enjoy.
Gem Drops Two followed the next year with the same inspired blend of tracks. Anything from synth pop, hip hop beats, ambient, drone… it was there. This was music to fall in love to, to get lost in a forest with, to make you dance in the sunshine. Once again, the proceeds went to cancer. Once again, I was smitten with the music.
Gem Drops Three came out yesterday. Many of the same things are there, but after several years, the sound is more refined. This is a labor of love. So through some help by friends of friends, I got a chance to ask label founder and Portland native Aaron Meola how he does it. And in the loving tradition of The Fox Is Black interviews, I asked him five questions about music, love, and passion.
Everyone talks about wanting to start their own record label. What made you do it?
Aaron: A lot of my friends were making interesting music and didn’t have a proper outlet for it. This was in Olympia, WA, around the time I was graduating from college in 2009. There was a cluster of us playing shows and collaborating with some frequency, but there wasn’t much organization behind what was going on, or a way to present it as a whole. All the components were there: a group of talent, a base of listeners, and a creative environment to foster us. I stepped in, decided that the pieces needed to be put together, and helped provide a framework for the artists and community to grow.
How much did the environment (specifically, Pacific North-West) influence this decision and which artists to pick?
Aaron: The artists are really what created the label, the ones who helped determine what it represents, and I think the environment is a big part of what drew all of us to the Northwest to begin with. The founding members were all interested in similar sonics, and we all still share creative influences, so in a way we picked each other. The cities we represent, Portland, Olympia and Seattle, have very rich musical histories, and we’re attempting to be the modern incarnation of that legacy, as far as electronic music is concerned.
What styles of music do you look for? What defines the Gem Drops series, to you?
Aaron: When I’m curating the Gem Drop series I’m basically looking for introspective and emotive material. Sometimes it’s pretty groovy or funky, but it’s all thoughtful music that was made by an artist expressing an emotion, extending beyond an attempt at making a club banger. Generally the music contains a lot of lo-fi elements, ambient textures and field recordings, but that’s not a requirement. Another thing that holds the music together is a true community vibe. Although the artists who have been featured in the series span the globe, I would say they all have a similar DIY ethos and commitment to true artistic expression.
When it comes to the visual aesthetic, where is inspiration drawn from? Any particular style or artist?
Aaron: When it comes to our aesthetic, to our overall tone and presentation, I’d say our natural environment is the biggest influence. The Northwest is basically beautiful greenery clashed with innovative technologies, and so it’s no surprise that our aesthetic reflects this. It’s a mix of organic and natural looking elements that have a mysterious or futuristic quality to them.
There are several artists I work with on a regular basis that help further define out visual presence. Patti Miller is a major one. She’s done artwork for us from beginning, everything from podcasts, album covers, press shots, you name it. Her cross-discipline work has strong lo-fi qualities to it, with a mystical undertone that does a good job of catching the essence of our sound. Thoughtcloud is a team of designers that have also done a lot of our visual material. They create highly customized digital atmospheres from scratch using tools like Cinema4D. Their stuff is an interesting mix of modern digital forms crossed with more natural geometry. Two others talented folks who have collaborated with us are Teeple and Miko Reevereza, both inspiring in their own ways. I’ve been really happy with the talent we’ve attracted and the opportunities we’ve had.
What advice would you give to anyone getting started in this?
Aaron: It’s not going to happen overnight. Stick to it, by pushing for what you truly believe in, and by creating things that you want to stand by artistically. Bandcamp, social media tools, and the Gem Drops series have been the biggest components to our growth, but it took years. Beyond that, shows are how artists build a real fan base, by getting on the road and reaching listeners directly. The whole process is crucial to success. Lastly, trust your gut when it comes to the big decisions.