Tympanik Audio: an interview with Paul “Synctank” Nielsen

Founded by Paul Nielsen (a.k.a. Synctank) a veteran of the North American industrial & electronic music scenes and one of founders of the Hidden Forms radio show, Tympanik Audio is, so to speak, the ‘new kid on the block’ of the underground electronic music scenes. Though recently founded (Autumn 2007), this American label has already gathered a remarkable pool of international talent counting acclaimed and lesser known innovative artists in its roster: Totakeke, Aural, Displacer, Ad·ver·sary, Rekt, Stendeck, Unterm Rad, Pneumatic Detach, Integral, Flint Glass, Disharmony, Subheim, Atomatik13, Tapage, Endif, Lucidstatic, Phylum Sinter, Autoclav1.1, Pandora’s Black Book, and Flaque.

Paul Nielsen1 – How and why did you come about starting Tympanik Audio?

As far back as I can remember, I wanted to run my own record label. I have been an avid fan of electronic music since 1984 when I first heard New Order’s “Blue Monday” and since then I have had a burning desire to introduce the uninitiated to the wonderful sounds I discovered. I have been hosting a radio program here in Chicago called “Hidden Forms” for many years now. In the Fall of 2007 I decided to release a limited compilation CDR featuring some “Hidden Forms Radio” favourites to help promote the show and the music we play on the air. I basically sent out a couple dozen emails to various artists asking if they would like to be a part of the compilation, expecting very little interest or response. To my amazement, almost all of the artists I contacted were thrilled to be a part of the project. So what was originally supposed to be a single disc CDR compilation turned into a double-disc digipak compilation. My friend Mike was slated to do the artwork for the release and he basically posed the question to me: “Why don’t you just start a record label?” I always talked about doing so but was usually too drunk, lazy, and/or depressed to make the move. After a few days of deliberation, I decided to go ahead and make it happen. I’m not getting any younger so I figured “If not now, when?” So, I quit drinking, got my shit together, and started a record label. Tympanik Audio was born.

2 – When you started Tympanik Audio, were there any labels that you could say were a reference/inspiration for your efforts?

Most definitely. I really admire what some of my favourite labels have built over the years and I was certainly inspired by that. The quality, consistency, and artistic vision of labels such as Hymen / Ant-Zen, N5MD, Brume, SKAM, and even older entities like Frozen Empire, Pendragon, and Dossier have given me a lot of inspiration to make Tympanik Audio successful.

3 – Almost mandatory question, how did the name “Tympanik Audio” come about?

After I finally made the decision to start the label, I struggled with the name for quite some time. It kept me up a night. I wanted something that conveyed the remarkable transition and interpretation of music from the air to the human mind. Finally after a couple weeks of brainstorming, it hit me in the middle of the night like an epiphany: “tympanic membrane”. Essentially the term refers to the eardrum. The miracle auditory receptor in the human body that receives all sound. An organic audio conductor. Tympanik Audio.

4 – Since the inception of Tympanik Audio, are there any events in the history of the label that you’d consider as particularly relevant, from difficulties and setbacks to successes?

When I started Tympanik Audio, I knew very little about how a record label operated. I had to do a lot of research and number crunching. I pretty much spent the first month every night after work figuring out and planning how it would all function. Each release is a learning experience for us. There have been mistakes, but we have learned from them all.

Printing is a big part of the CD replication process and everything has to be just right with our artwork files and even then, there is still the danger of the Printing Company, no matter how experienced and professional they might be, to make mistakes. Managing our finances is another big issue. Everything we make from CD sales goes right back into the label towards promoting a current release or paying for a future CD, and there is a lot to pay for. CD replication is extremely expensive, which is why it is so important for our listeners to purchase the CD instead of downloading it, legally or otherwise. Without CD sales, our label will no longer exist.

We have had successes, yes. We have been very fortunate to recruit all the artists on our roster. I have admired each of their work for many years and now feel very privileged to have the opportunity to help each of them achieve their visions. I really can’t gauge our successes on any sort of monetary scale. Success with this label to me means presenting albums that we can be proud of, and most importantly that the end-listener enjoys and appreciates. This is essentially what it’s all about for us.

5 – So far what would you consider as special highlights (or successful) releases and artists in the history of Tympanik Audio?

I love each and every release we have put out so far. I think each of our releases has a unique sound and is quite unlike anything else out there. I am still blown away by Totakeke’s “eLekatota” CD. I can honestly say that album is one of the best ‘Industrial’ style CDs I’ve ever heard. I’ve probably listened to it a couple hundred times and it always sounds fresh every time I hear it. I would say the “Emerging Organisms” compilation has had quite a bit of success. I’ve had many people tell me that it is the best compilation they’ve ever listened to. In my opinion, the “success” of that compilation is due to the combined efforts of the contributing artists, the graphic designer, the photographer, and the producer. “Emerging Organisms” wouldn’t have been the same without the exact combination of every person involved. If that was the only CD Tympanik ever released, I would be satisfied with that.

6 – Are there any releases in particular that you would recommend as good ‘introductory material’ to the Tympanik Audio label?

Well, certainly “Emerging Organisms” and the “Approach Lights” label sampler are obvious choices. “Emerging Organisms” is really a collection of music from many of my favourite electronic artists, but it also captures the styles and quality of music that Tympanik Audio strives for with each of our releases. “Approach Lights” is our little label sampler CD that was originally meant as a promotional release to giveaway at Festival Kinetik this year, but it has become quite sought-after. I selected the very best tracks from each of our current and future 2008 releases. The musical styles on the sampler cover a wide scope so there is something on there for everyone who enjoys electronic music, no matter what genre they might be locked in.

7 – Looking back, do you have any regrets with the label? If you could go back and change something, what would it be?

When I started Tympanik Audio back in September of 2007, I really had no idea that it would become as successful as it has in such a short period of time. It’s hard to predict the future of endeavours such as this but knowing all I know now, I think my only regret is that I didn’t start this label sooner. If I had to change anything, I probably would have focused our distribution more effectively and weeded out some of our “troublemakers”. When we started Typanik, we pretty much had to take whatever deal we could make with the distributors just to get our releases out there. As a result, we have been screwed over many times. But that’s just how it works I suppose. When you’re the new label on the block, no one takes you seriously and you tend to get taken advantage of quite a bit. Now that we have established a good reputation and have an acceptable release catalog to back us up, we find ourselves in a better position to make our own terms now. One of the things that really surprised me after getting into all this, is the lack of professionalism between some labels, distributors, DJs, magazines, and the like. I don’t know how some of these ‘organizations’ get anything accomplished. I am an advocator of professional and even common courtesy when it comes to our relationships, so it’s very refreshing, albeit rare, to deal with organizations who can afford us the same considerations.

8 – An obvious question, but what is Tympanik Audio’s ‘relationship’ with the Internet? From promotion tool and digital sales to file sharing and piracy, how has it affected you?

Tympanik Audio would not exist without the Internet, or email for that matter. I would say roughly 90 percent of what we do is accomplished through email. I can’t imagine how record labels were able to operate before the Internet. It must have been very difficult. I spend most of my time outside of work sending and replying to emails to coordinate our activities and maintain a good rapport with our artists, partners, and supporters. I make a point to answer each and every email I receive and I have found people really appreciate that. I feel that good communication is key to the success of our label.

File sharing and piracy is a touchy subject these days it seems. I think a lot of end-listeners feel that record labels are raking in enough money to warrant guilt-free downloading but this is absolutely not true. We struggle to scrape up money for every release. I have scrimped and saved, begged and borrowed, just to get a CD produced. It’s very difficult. CD sales, especially in the U.S. are at an all-time low. The amount of music available in digital formats is staggering and it’s much easier and more convenient for some listeners to get music instantly (and free) than to have to pay for shipping and wait a week for their CD to show up. I, for one, do not subscribe to this method. I grew up on Tapes, LPs, and CDs and take pride in my music collection. Over the years, I’ve purchase some 2000 CDs. I’ll have to admit I don’t buy nearly as many CDs as I use to but if there is an album I really want, I will take the time to order it. There is just something special about having a tangible item in your hands that you can hold, touch, and look at. People have to remember that the CD packaging is part of the experience of enjoying an album. This is what the artist intended and I feel that it is still worth supporting. Money is tight for everyone these days, but personally I would rather focus my music collection on quality, not quantity, so I don’t mind dropping $15 on a CD that I really want to hear and enjoy.

So-called “piracy” of music is rampant these days and will probably get worse. There is really nothing independent labels can do about it; it’s just part of the game. Part of our mission is to communicate the importance of supporting CD-based record labels and artists. Tympanik has purposely not released some of our albums as digital downloads, not as a deterrent against piracy, but to communicate the message to our listeners that Compact Discs are special and worth owning.

9 – Slightly related to the previous question, how do you see the concept of ‘netlabels’ and, as a labelhead, what is your perspective as to the future and evolution of physical media (CDs, vinyl, etc)?

The future of CDs and vinyl is uncertain at this point. I think this media has some life left but it obviously won’t last forever. There are still many audiophiles like myself who take pride in their CD and vinyl collections and will carry on collecting as long as labels continue to release these forms of media.

From a netlabel perspective, there is virtually no overhead, however, netlabel releases are probably not being taken as seriously as CD releases because there are so many and virtually no money paid for them. When someone downloads a net release, it may get listened to once or twice but ultimately gets lost in their stockpile of MP3s on their hard drive. There is nothing tangible there to remind them that a particular album is even there anymore. But on the other hand, netlabels are good for the unknown “bedroom” musician who can still produce and release their material easily without having to go through the trouble of finding a CD-based label and convincing them to spend a couple thousand dollars to manufacture, promote, and distribute their work. They’re two different camps, but I feel that they can coexist. Whether one will phase out the other remains to be seen.

10 – Perspectives for the future, what lies in the horizon for Tympanik Audio? Can you share some long-term goals and where would you like to see the label heading to?

As we all know, labels of this type are rare, and even rarer still are the longevity of such entities. I’ve seen great labels, with strong release catalogs and stellar potential come and go over the years. This is a tough business, especially for labels like Tympanik who strive to push the envelope and release virtually unknown artists. People want beats and they want accessibility. Those audiophiles who actually take the time to “listen” to music are a rare breed. The rest just want to dance. As long as our devoted listeners continue to order our releases and support the direction we go with the label, we will continue to give them innovative music.

We have a lot of big plans and some great releases in the pipeline right now. Autoclav1.1’s new album “Love No Longer Lives Here” will be out in a few weeks and it is a spectacular collection of work. In July we’ll release a new album by Endif entitled “Carbon”, which will be mastered by Pneumatic Detach to boot. Also in July will be a new EP by Displacer called “The Witching Hour” and the debut CD by breakcore/industrialist Lucidstatic. August will reveal a couple down-tempo releases by two fantastic newcomers: Tapage from The Netherlands, and Integral from Germany. In September we’ll release a 2CD collection from Totakeke featuring a whole slew of previously unreleased material plus some very impressive remixes by Flint Glass, Disharmony, Autoclav1.1, Unterm Rad, Atomatik13, and Lucidstatic. Also expect new albums by Phylum Sinter and Flaque, as well as a sequel release to “Emerging Organisms” at the end of the year. Lastly, we’ll kick off 2009 with brand new albums by Stendeck and Disharmony, and we have plans to launch Tympanik Digital netlabel in the Spring.

11 – What other labels/artists would you recommend at the moment and why?

I just got my hands on the new Hecq CD “Night Falls”. It’s a really impressive exercise in dark ambient and quite different that his previous release but I think a natural progression for him – it’s a very emotional and mysterious album. I love the new Bitcrush CD, another very emotionally-charged release. I’m not a huge fan of drum’n’bass but the new Enduser album “Left” has enough atmospheres and diversity to keep me coming back for more. A fun CD I’ve found myself playing in the car lately is the debut album by Cruise [Ctrl] on Divine Comedy. Keep your ears on the Spectraliquid label out of Greece, they have a compilation out called “Konkrete” which features a lot of promising new technoid artists and they just released a great debut album by Blackfilm. I think “Haab'”, the new Tzolk’in CD, is brilliant as well – Flint Glass and Empusae do amazing work on their own but when they get together, it’s always magic.

12 – Thank you for your time, do you have any final comments?

I would just like to thank you for the interview, and of course everyone in the Tympanik Audio family, our listeners, all of our great artists for the wonderful music they create and for being amazing human beings on top of that, Mike Slansky and Kostas K. for their great design work, Alex Stilts for putting up with my impossible audio mastering deadlines, our promotional team, my partner in crime Racheal for not committing me to a mental institution every time I tell her how much I spend at the post office, my family who has been very supportive and encouraging, and of course Connexion Bizarre and its readers for their interest in Tympanik Audio. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come…

Relevant links

Tympanik Audio

— interview by Miguel de Sousa (May 2008)