For years, Ariel Pink was a DIY outlier, resurrecting lost sounds and creating bizarre pop music from the confines of his home. Working essentially in isolation in the ’90s and early ’00s, Pink amassed hundreds of cassette recordings. After he signed with Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks in 2003, the label released three of his early albums, though Pink never wound up recording a studio LP with them.
Pink parted ways with Paw Tracks after a few years, and following a period of artistic inactivity he signed to 4AD, where he released his breakthrough (and debut) studio album, Before Today, in 2010. Recently, Pink moved to Mexican Summer to release 2017’s Dedicated To Bobby Jameson, another career highlight. Mexican Summer’s Ariel Archives project is now aiming to bring more of his early work to light as a series of reissues and retrospective collections.
While exploring the world of labels and trying out different arrangements, Pink has amassed a robust following of listeners seeking lo-fi paradise and is now widely recognized as the first major figure of the chillwave genre. And he’s gathered some valuable lessons about what to look for in a label relationship.
Keep moving forward
When Pink started recording music in the ’90s, he says he had no intention of releasing any of it. “I don’t release records,” he says. “A label releases my records. I’ve never, ever released my own stuff.” But after sitting on over 500 cassettes of material for years, he decided that it was time to make a move toward sharing it with the world. So he burned some of the music onto a CD and handed it off to Animal Collective, who had recently started their Paw Tracks label.
Paw Tracks made the investment to release three albums’ worth of Pink’s previously recorded material: The Doldrums (2004), Worn Copy (2005), and House Arrest (2006). Pink started gaining a following and some renown as an indie artist forging a bold new style.
“I really wanted to record a new record,” Pink says. “I got a lineup together with a band; we started writing songs, and actually rehearsed before we would go on tour. Four or five years later, we were signing with [4AD owner] Beggars. It was the beginning of a new era.”
Mind the group chemistry and presentation
With 4AD—at that time the home of Bon Iver, The National, Deerhunter, and St. Vincent—Ariel Pink found himself in the big leagues. They wanted to pay him to go into the studio, and he was happy to oblige, although the experience had its challenges.
“It was weird, mainly for the fact that I hadn’t written any songs in five years,” Pink says. He was burned out from years of writing and was feeling overwhelmed by his new situation. His anxiety was mirrored by his band once they started working. “The band imploded right off the bat. We didn’t know what we were doing,” he says. “Those records were difficult.” Pink worked with some of those same musicians throughout his 4AD albums—Before Today (2010), Mature Themes (2012), and pom pom (2014)—but wasn’t on the same page as the label as to how the band would be presented. Ultimately, he was the only member on all three albums.
Stay in control of your music
As for the recording experience itself, the label had very little involvement in how things went, which worked perfectly with Pink’s creative methods. He says 4AD gave “an OK at the beginning and an OK at the end.” As a result, Before Today was a powerful artistic statement and Pink’s most successful album to date by far, gaining spots on many publications’ year-end lists, including the No. 1 spot on Pitchfork’s Top 50 Songs of 2010.
Know your value
After Pink’s success with 4AD, he decided to move on, taking a deal with indie label Mexican Summer. Before signing, he made sure the terms would be attractive to him throughout his work with them.
“The difference is that I designed the terms for my deal with Mexican Summer. I made it so that I would be happy with everything, regardless of what they did,” Pink says. “I was content at the outset. If they never release anything, I’d be even happier, actually—it’s a lot of work to tour a record and all that stuff.” He seems to have found his groove—Dedicated to Bobby Jameson was another career high.
It feels like things have come full circle, in a way, but with Pink much happier. Though the Ariel Archives project was conceived by Mexican Summer, Pink still has oversight as far as how the music is released. “I definitely do have almost all the say in every single respect in all these things,” he laughs. “Maybe I’m a little hard to work with, but I just try to keep things in a way I can live with…. I’m happy to be doing it.” After fifteen years of searching, that seems like a fine place to have ended up.