Spotlight on the Best Kept Secret tape label
by Dave Heaton
The biggest kick I get out of trying so hard to follow music is when I find out about a band, label, genre, etc. that I didn't know existed. One realm of the "indie" music world relatively unknown to me is cassette labels, record labels that release music mainly on cassette tapes. Being a big fan of the cassette tape myself, these are enterprises I'm interested in learning more about.
Best Kept Secret is a tape label run out of Vicenza, Italy, by one Alessandro Crestani. The other 30 releases in Best Kept Secret's catalogue run across the musical map, from "lo-fi" moody rock to folk music, electronic dabblings and power-pop. The musicians come from places all over the world, and play different types of music. What the releases have in common is that they're made by musicians who care about making music more than they care about being a rock star. These are everyday people who happen to write really good songs. Some of Best Kept Secret's releases include:
Lettuce Prey, Blood From a Stoner Witch: Rough, acoustic, psychedelic pop from Missoula, Montana (includes a David Crosby cover)
A Boy Named Thor, Rocket Scientist Blues (old songs for new ears): Sweet synth-pop love songs flavored with acoustic guitar on side A, a pair of heavenly electronic instrumental odyesseys on side B
Other People's Children, Happy Friend in Frosted City: Melodic electro instrumentals, sensitive pop balladry, and dance-pop tracks that mix the two, all the work of Australian multi-talented musician Jason Sweeney (Simpatico, Sweet William)
hunnypal, Everyone Carries Around Secrets: Melodic noise and forceful, pop-ish rock from Sweden, sort of like a more diverse-minded Wedding Present
John T. Baker, Little Rock Songs: Here (and with his current group The French Broads), Baker plays rock/pop with the free-spiritedness of 60s bubblegum and the grit of blues and country
Cliff Brown Jr, We Are Stardust: Philosophical inquiries in the form of spacey, complex pop from this Austin, Texas mulitinstrumentalist
The label has also released tapes by Orange Cake Mix, Moonbabies, Caligari, Vinyl Bill, Simpatico, River, Garfields Birthday, Chelsea's Corner, 99cent dream, Timo and Shy Rights Movement, as well as some compilations of various artists. While the basic facts of the label can be learned from its web site, I wanted to learn more--so I asked Alessandro Crestani some questions over e-mail. Those questions, and his detailed answers, are here for you now:
First off, could you tell me how and when Best Kept Secret started? What led you to create a label? Do you have a background in music yourself (i.e. are you a musician yourself)?
I'm no musician and I realize that it can seem strange to create a tape label when you're not an artist. But music always had a huge role in my life, in the most pleasant and in the darkest moments. What's more, years ago I used to write a lot of short stories and I remember that everything I wrote came from the music I listened to. Sometimes a song's lyrics gave me an idea for a plot, sometimes I had an idea myself but I wasn't able to develop it, until I found the song or the album that said the same things I wanted to say but had been unable to focus on. However, what convinced me to begin the Best Kept Secret adventure were the last four or five years of my life, my worst ever. My favorite bands and musicians kept me company throughout them. Until I told myself "I want to do something for music, beyond just listening to it."
Because I don't play an instrument, as I said, my only way was to publish other people's material. Of course I had only a few cents in my pocket and I had no idea where to start until I started to explore the world of tape labels at the end of 1996. I was already aware of the existence of the "scene," but, for some reason, I never bothered to look into it and see what it was about. It took me only a few months to decide this was the right path to follow. At then end of May 1997 Chris McFarlane, who records under the name Suretoss, paid me a visit during his tour of Europe. I told him what I was planning and asked if he'd be interested in publishing some of his songs through my label. He liked the idea and we agreed to publish his tape as the first of the catalogue. Then I started asking for advice from all the people I was in contact with. I asked my friend Silvia to help me with designing and printing the covers, and a year later Best Kept Secret was born with the tape Harmless Intentions '94-'97.
How difficult has it been to get the label started and keep it going? What's the hardest part about running the label?
Not that difficult, really. Ever since the beginning the feedback that I have got from anyone I have got in touch with has been great. Plus, in one way or another, word about what I was doing with the label started spreading out quickly and bands begun getting in touch almost right away, so not even finding the music to put out has ever been that hard. The only problem is, you guessed it, time. Back when I was still in school I could do pretty much whatever I wanted, but now that I work, things have slowed down considerably and meeting the deadlines that I set to myself for each and every release has become harder and harder.
Did you choose cassette tapes out of economic necessity or because there's something about the aesthetic of tapes that you like? Have you ever considered other formats (CD, vinyl)?
Like I mentioned earlier, money was factor when I originally chose to do homemade cassettes only. Now I could easily move on to cd-r's, but over the last three years I have discovered that there is something fascinating (something that I can't really define, just fascinating) about tapes that I could not live with out, so I believe I will stick to this format still for as a long time as I can.
How many releases has there been so far?
32, if I remember correctly.
Generally speaking, do you contact musicians you like, or do they contact you?
Both things actually happen. Like I said, I was lucky enough to see bands get in touch with me right after I started the label. But, of course, I keep looking around to see what is out there and if I bump into something that is up my alley I get in touch with the band and ask them if they are interested in doing something with me.
How do you choose which musicians to release tapes by?
Well, the label is loosely pop-oriented, in the sense that the word "pop" does not mean much these days. When it comes to individual releases, I try to stick to the traditional meaning of the word (so it's indie-pop, classic/power pop, noise-pop and so forth), while compilation tapes tend to be a lot varied and even end up focusing on sounds that I only listen to every now and then (electronic, noise/experimental, goth etc.). Having said this, sound quality is also a factor. If a tape is totally dedicated to one band or author, the sound quality must be at least passable. When I do compilation tapes, if I find a song I like and I have the opportunity to use it, I'll use it even if the sound is abysmal. It only happened a couple of times, like on the compilation Broken Bits Of You And Me, but I never regretted it. Like I just mentioned, my compilations are made to offer many different things to the listener, and even if the sound quality can sometimes drop, I don't think it's that much of a problem for the listener. Well, it's not much of a problem for me, at least. Maybe if I was a musician I'd think differently, I don't know!
What releases do you have coming up next?
A full-length tape by an excellent pop homerecording singer songwriter from the U.K. named Tim Chaplin (he has a 7" single out on the French label Plastic Pancake -- go get it!); a tape by Par Avion, one of the many Jason Sweeney's projects; two more volumes of the We are not alone comp series, focusing on dreampop/shoegazer/slowcore/noise and a comp tape called Suspend our disbelief, featuring mostly bands from Europe but also a couple from the U.S.A. and Australia. Also scheduled for release in the not too distant future are new tapes by Cliff Brown and Lettuce Prey and cassettes by Will Simmons, and two incredible sisters from Edinburgh, Scotland, recording under the names Kaye and Kizzy respectively. So, plenty of music to look forward to.
The musicians on your label come from places all over the world. Are there areas of the world that you're particularly drawn to, or where the number of good home-taping musicians seems to be increasing?
It seems to me that the U.S. and the U.K. seem to be the places the cassette culture seems to be more alive. Japan also looks like a pretty interesting music scene, but for some reason I am having trouble digging into it and getting through people over there. There is an insane amount of good music in Australia too, but not many of the bands I have been in touch with are still into cassettes. Can't say much about South America, as only recently I have had the chance to exchange e-mails with folks from there. Lastly, forget about Continental Europe.