In Conversation: Inner Ocean Records

Running a label which releases most of its compilations in physical format for eight years is no mean feat. Yet through prioritising the importance of naturally evolving their musical roster and direction, Inner Ocean Records have been duplicating, pressing and sharing tracks for nearly a decade. Surrounded by the hundreds of kilometres of prairies, mountains, and forest which landlock the label’s home base of Calgary, Canada, the label’s sonic journey has seen them venture from ambient, lo-fi hip hop to future soul and indie pop. We caught up with founder, Cory Giordano, from across the pond to talk about the resurgence of the cassette during 2020, how to run a label during a pandemic and their plans for the future.

You were artists before you set up the label – when did you first start releasing music?

Prior to starting the label in 2012, I had been involved in the electronic music scene since 2005. I started as an ambient chill DJ and got involved with a crew facilitating chill spaces at dance parties in western Canada and some larger festivals like Shambala and Burning Man.  I began working on my own music during that time, however the songs were only ever played live at parties. I self-released some limited 3 inch CD’s around 2008 with a friend Chris Tenz as part of a live performance ambient duo called Language of Landscape. I had another release in 2009 under the name Talik with a friend Andreas Adams. The music was largely IDM/electronic.  For both projects we had worked with small indie labels in some fashion, but it never really felt like the labels were adding much value to what we were doing. This spurred me to create my own indie label with an artist first mentality.

Inner Ocean was created because you wanted to set up the sort of label that you as an artist would have loved to be a part of whilst making your way in the industry. You’ve mentioned before how important it is for you to be an open platform so that you can adapt to support the individual needs of each artist. How do you go about doing that during a pandemic?

The pandemic has certainly flipped a lot of things on its head, the music industry being a prime example.  We feel really lucky that the pandemic hasn’t really changed how we operate given that we primarily exist online through our own website and platforms like Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music etc. We have organized live shows and events in the past but these are rare occurrences and we don’t rely on them to support our artists.  We have a very dedicated fan base that supports us through our mail order of tapes and records, in addition to a healthy streaming ecosystem.  The pandemic shifted a lot of people to work from home and fostered a ton of support for local and independent businesses. That meant a lot of people were picking up tapes and records to play while they were spending way more time at home.

Lockdowns and travel restrictions have meant that now more than ever people are relying on the internet and social media as a way of staying connected. You had contributors from all over the world and a solid online community before the pandemic happened. Have you seen it strengthened as a result of it?

Yes, definitely. It’s been really cool to see all the innovative ways artists can share from their home: live-streaming performances, Q&A’s, etc.  With people not going out as much and mostly just staying at home, people in general have become much more available to have phone calls and video chats. We work with people all over the world and so we’ve had even more time available to connect with artists and work on different projects.

“[Nature] is certainly a theme I can’t seem to get away from; it always keeps me coming back for more”

The imagery you share alongside your track and compilation releases focuses heavily on the natural world. Does being based in Calgary (a city famed for the amazing landscapes that surround it) shape the way you experience and approach music?

Growing up in Calgary definitely influenced how I approach music. I have always spent a lot of time in nature and it’s always been something important in my life. It’s certainly a theme I can’t seem to get away from; it always keeps me coming back for more. Calgary is also fairly isolated geographically, which made for very unique localized music scenes here and some of my all time favourite music has come from artists in this city. That isolation also meant not a lot of touring artists would come here, and so the only choice was to go online to search and dig for music, which I still do to this day. If I had grown up in a larger city with more access it’s possible that I would’ve structured the label differently.

You release your compilations via cassette. What is it that makes this format special to you?

We started releasing cassettes initially because they were an affordable option for a physical format to press. It took a little while for them to catch on in a big way but for the past several years cassette sales have been the fastest growing format.  When I was a kid, cassettes were my first introduction to music before we had CD’s, so I will always have a special place in my heart for tapes. I don’t think the format suits all music, but for the right music I think tapes really shine.

The resurgence of the cassette this year took many by surprise, with sales hitting their highest since 2003. You’ve been releasing compilations via cassettes for nearly a decade. Did you see the revival we’ve experienced this year coming?

Our label’s tape sales have been growing year after year so I am not surprised. They are an affordable option to buy and produce. You can usually buy 2 to 3 cassettes for the price of one record. Over the past couple of years I have seen quite a few tape stores pop up and be really successful. The best example is a store we work closely with in Tokyo called Waltz. The owner Taro has built a beautiful physical store and sells only cassettes and cassette players – his store is a destination for many when travelling to Tokyo.

How do you select which artists to feature on compilations?

We don’t have a secret recipe for our selection process. When we hear something we like we just go with it, and so in that way our selection process is quite organic.  We have discovered a lot of artists through submissions for our compilations and have later released albums and projects with them. Many have become good friends with us and with each other. Slowly over time the community snowballs and takes on a life of its own.

“The main goal will always be to create diversity in our sound, to test the boundaries of what we can do, but still have that distinctive ‘Inner Ocean’ sound”

The label’s early days saw you focus on ambient and experimental music, before you launched Inner Ocean ‘Season 2’ in the summer of 2014, which saw a shift towards hip hop and lo-fi. Looking forward, how do you see the label’s sound evolving in the future?

Evolution and what is next for us is something that is constantly on my mind. One of the elements that drew us to lo-fi music was that it would incorporate many different genres and styles of music within its umbrella.  The main goal will always be to create diversity in our sound, to test the boundaries of what we can do, but still have that distinctive ‘Inner Ocean’ sound. In the last couple of years we have released ambient, jazz, hip hop/rap, soul, R&B, funk, lo-fi and a variety of electronic styles. Going forward we hope to keep bringing a bit of everything to the table that will hopefully delightfully surprise fans. We have quite a few projects for 2021 in the works that we are very excited about!

It’s been a big old year, which releases are at the top of your list of favourites for 2020?

I never like picking favourites haha, I don’t like to leave artists out!

Most recently I am extremely proud of our first Drift Ambient compilation, First Wave. We worked with a lot of new artists on this album and we really wanted this project to be a standout piece in someone’s music collection. We had amazing feedback on this compilation which I am so happy about. I don’t think this was a typical ambient album and I was so grateful that we got such a warm response.  We also dropped our Inner Ocean Sessions – Warehouse Collection which was the culmination of our residency series in 2019. We flew out a bunch of artists to come hang with us in our Calgary warehouse studio, to make a bunch of music and just have fun. The pandemic didn’t allow us to continue this series in the same way but we look forward to continuing this in the future when the world gets back to normal 🙂 

I’ll give shout outs to the following releases this past year as some personal favourites:

Dominic Pierce – Vivid

Gas Lab – Blue Room

Es-K – Only So Much Time

Isak Gaines – Revelries Pt. I & II

David Lavoie Quartet – Juno

Distance Learning – Deep Water Libraries

Ave Grave – Westward Drift

Dokkodo Sounds – Sea Tumble

Warm LCD – Verda

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