Awfully Ahead: The Enduring Influence of Awful Records
by Liam Thomas
For artists and producers today, having a computer with halfway decent music production software has become the first and most important step toward a career as a musician. The viral and meme-saturated nature of popular music, as well as the platforms that allow artists to upload their work with a direct pipeline to their listeners, have entirely democratized the popular music landscape. It has become more and more common for artists to achieve worldwide recognition through increasingly D.I.Y-minded methods, illustrated through the collective-mindset appeal artists like Brockhampton all living and working together under the same roof, or through using accessible tools like iPhones and iPads to produce music at a professional level like wunderkid Odd Future alumnus Steve Lacy.
The current emphasis on approaching music from a D.I.Y mindset has already impacted the music industry in a big way, evidenced by the streaming industry titan Spotify dropping their mafioso attitude toward artists and implementing in-app features that allow musicians to upload their music directly to the platform. This independent attitude has permeated our music culture so deeply that we’ve reached a point where, sadly, it is being sold back to us. Labels and streaming services have latched on to this mentality, facilitating a wave of music that publications like Pigeons and Planes (owned by Complex Media) have dubbed “bedroom pop,” a title catchy enough to earn the new genre a featured Spotify playlist of the same name. But where did all of this start? Many would point to the molotov cocktail of originality that L.A. industry upstarts Odd Future hurled into the public consciousness in the early aughts, and while Tyler and Co. deserve due credit for their massive impact on popular music, I believe this sea change in the music industry actually began on the opposite coast.
Throughout the 2000’s, Atlanta-based record label/artist collective/flophouse Awful Records facilitated the successes of artists with uniquely established brands for themselves that have slowly but surely become strikingly imitable formulas within current popular music. Evidenced by a recent creative partnership with RCA records, where the label is essentially paying Awful to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing, the industry is clearly recognizing the collective’s importance to popular culture and acknowledging their widespread influence. Whether it’s the emphasis on the importance of memes to successfully market music, the D.I.Y bedroom-pop diva persona, or the concept of an artistic collective living and working together under one roof, Awful Records did it earlier than (and more organically than) any of their contemporaries.
Comprised of sixteen artists total, the appeal of Awful Records goes in each and every creative direction. Founded by dirtbag rap icon Father and labelmates Archibald Slim and Stalin Majesty after the three left art school, Awful Records was born out of friendship through shared struggle. In the beginning, as the label was still developing shape and coalescing talent through inadvertent personal connections and friends-of-friends, many of the artists were financially insolvent, living and working together in a derelict house owned by producer Ethereal. “We were all sitting in a three bedroom house, starving together. Eating the same bag of chips, you know?” Ethereal recounts in an interview from a superb Boiler Room documentary about the label. This shared struggle brought the labelmates closer together, creating a deeply organic bond between these artists that is almost un-imitable.
Father has stated that he picks the artists he wants to sign to Awful Records with the similar mentality to how he approaches thrift shopping: “You wanna find that one piece that nobody’s gonna be wearing. You wanna be able to say ‘this is something nobody has right now. This is unique as f--k.” This mentality has not only led Father to be astonishingly well dressed, but it has allowed him to create an artistic space that encourages collaboration between a wide range of deeply creative individuals that proved to be years ahead of their time. Groups like Odd Future, and subsequently Brockhampton, have utilized this formula to achieve worldwide success, but neither has adhered to their D.I.Y roots as deeply and unyieldingly as the Awful Records crew.
For both OF and Brockhampton, there was and is a very obvious disparity of talent between the members of both groups, with emphasis placed on the frontman before anyone else. For Awful, everyone working within the label is working to another’s benefit. The label functions as a living organism, with each member contributing a necessary service to the greater functionality of the group. The formation of Awful Records was entirely organic and personal. Their coincidental formation functioned as something of a less-online precursor to the Kanye West fan forum that brought the members of Brockhampton together. Throughout the last decade, many musicians have tried to construct collectives that emulate the brand perfected by Awful Records, and in doing so, disregard what inherently makes the Awful Records formula work. That sense of right place, right time, the happenstance and sense of organic collaboration that Awful Records is founded on, is not something that can be intentionally facilitated.
While the from-the-mud appeal of Awful Records typically translates well into their grimy aesthetics and carefree attitude, this brand fits (literal) bedroom-popstar Abra like a glove. Father discovered Abra’s music shortly after he had formed the label, and brought her on board almost automatically. Abra’s glitzy, caustic, D.I.Y. take on modern R&B seems to serve as antithetical to a majority of the tone and imagery found in Awful Records releases, but the mentality through which she approaches her craft both represents an essential component of the Awful Records brand and serves as an antecedent to a multitude of trends seen throughout modern pop music today.
In keeping with the artistic autonomy that Awful Records is founded on, Abra writes, produces, and mixes all of her music on her laptop in her bedroom closet. Her music manages to come across as both daringly immediate and inherently lo-fi, and her songwriting typically deals with deeply personal issues. This bedroom-pop diva persona is a formula that has grown in popularity over the years, inspiring a multitude of different artists. Most notably and recently, acts like Cuco and Clairo have co-opted the bedroom-popstar brand to national recognition. However, while this formula is something Abra perfected at Awful Records, she doesn’t let it define her. Abra has proven her versatility not only with the clear artistic progression of her sound from project to project but with her definitive features on projects ranging from labelmate Father’s Awful Swim to Charli XCX’s 2017 mixtape Number 1 Angel. Nevertheless, the current popularity of the bedroom-popstar persona is further indicative of Awful Records enduring influence in the popular music landscape.
While Awful Records may have achieved an undeniable amount of success in a relatively short time, in-house producer Ethereal will forever be in a state of disbelief: “I’m, like, completely stumped as to why this shit works. Like, it all spells disaster, but for some reason, Awful Records is like this well-oiled, drugged out machine.” While it's clear to see where Ethereal is coming from, there’s something about Awful Records that makes it almost immune to failure. The completely organic nature of the group's formation, the idea that everyone contributes a different service to the label, the D.I.Y approach to music production and release; Awful Records doesn’t approach music like a record label, they approach music like a group of friends in it to have a good time. Maybe instead of trying to replicate their formula, more artists should follow Awful Records’ lead in this respect and just have fun.