Life after “netlabel”: an interview with ZOOM LENS’ Meishi Smile

by Lisa Kwon

ZOOM LENS is traversing life after “netlabel.” The label collective is in its fifth year of materializing a vision as nucleated by founder and experimental pop/noise artist Meishi Smile. By name, ZOOM LENS has existed for almost a decade, but Meishi Smile defined its properties and boundaries in 2014. Now they are interested in exploring new challenges around consumerism and the intersection of Western and Asian popular media.

ZOOM LENS boasts an international roster that comprises artists from China, Philippines, Singapore, and the United States. Initially inspired by Japanese pop and the art flourishing from the country’s underground culture, the label offers an array of sounds ranging from chiptune, ambient, noise, and dream pop. Each artist’s foray into a new project feels gently experimental; 2019’s releases from Bedspacer and Moon Mask cross over into nostalgic electronica and honest songwriting found in sheets of synths. Musically, ZOOM LENS’ artists are rebellious, a spirit that is indomitably nurtured in home countries that rigidly monitor distribution of popular media. ZOOM LENS evokes fellow feeling amongst musicians who want to demystify this suppression on a personal level.

In its heyday, youth-incited netlabels promised democratically social gatherings. When they became the alternative means of distributing art – introducing free or “pay what you want” models for artists to discover each other more accessibly – they also contributed to interesting social patterns amongst online communities. Artists and creators leveraged existing functions on social networks (private accounts on Twitter, Facebook groups, Tinychat) to make online interactions feel more personable and connective. Borne of social networking, the ZOOM LENS community became a tightly-knit family, its locus bustling from the knowledge-share between multiple cultures and locations via group chats and URL hangouts.

A part of ZOOM LENS’ success can be attributed to its fluid commitment to defining their ethos in relation to where they are in their history. For Meishi Smile, an important move was to peel ZOOM LENS away from prior notions of its place in the digital realm. “The online world and the offline world are more singular than ever, and it’s dangerous to think that they aren’t coexisting because we have seen real life political and sociological implications in ignoring that,” they say.

The vagaries of today’s Internet have changed the way that we consume. It’s no longer in defiance that artists take to the web to distribute music; the Internet has become an accommodating place that theoretically levels the playing field for all artists. Still, there remains a lot to be done for those who are in countries where mainstream music is overzealously protected and regulated by conservative corporate industries. For these musicians, the offline world – their physical homes – can be the realm where they often feel most alone. Today’s underground labels are redefining their responsibilities to underrepresented artists by exploring new structures to imbue with the sense of belonging. It starts with remembering the things that can be done short of being online.

I spoke to Meishi Smile about ZOOM LENS existing outside of the Internet and building the label’s community to be representative of a global music landscape.                                                      

———

LISA KWON (LK): I wanted to start by saying how happy I am for ZOOM LENS to reach its 10th year this year! What was 2018 like? What were the highlights?

MEISHI SMILE (MS): Thank you. For myself, ZOOM LENS came into its own in 2014. 

The longevity of the label is dictated by a centralized philosophy & ethos. I would much rather view its progression likened to an auteur who continues to define that meaning in clearer terms and broader expression throughout their history. 

The year 2018 found us centralized in Japan for several months. We questioned our former roots in net label culture, the emphasis of a global Asia, the ever-changing influence, consumerism & intersection of Western & Asian popular media, and how we foresee the modern musical landscape & our roster.

LK: Awesome. I’m imagining it now like a living, breathing history. It does feel as if you made a deliberate move away from identifying ZOOM LENS as a “netlabel” and shook those “netlabel culture” roots a little bit. What was limiting about that term, or what was turning you off from it?

MS: The word “net label” used to serve as an alternative to what labels or the traditional music industry stood for. In fact, I would say they had very little interest invested in the latter, with more focus on radicalized thinking, community, and simply a greater access to art.

I would credit people within the punk scene such as Jeff Rosenstock, alongside the proliferation of the Japanese net label scene as key purveyors in creating a space where people were allowed access to art for a “pay what you want” or free model.

The notion of net music doesn’t exist anymore, because everything now exists on the net. The digital spaces we used to occupy have been co-opted and the sense of expression explored in that early work has now been demonstrated more as a brand, rather than a place of introspection or subversion.

The word “net label” simply doesn’t place us into any ethos anymore, nor does the word “net” even mean much to me now. The online world and the offline world are more singular than ever, and I feel it’s dangerous to think that they aren’t coexisting because we have seen real life political & sociological implications in ignoring that. We’re just a label, who put out what we want and stand for what we want.

LK: In many ways, the Internet helped ZOOM LENS get its start. I think everyone’s relationship with the Internet now feels pretty hairy. What’s your personal relationship to it?

MS: We need to accept the transience of the Internet, both personally and politically. Only now are we seeing greater accountability for the surveillance system of social media, the implications of mass data mining, and the force of the algorithm on a level to a point where these notions are now talked about openly and not as unfounded paranoia. 

We are now discussing the implications of addiction, the psychological effects of being pummeled with tragedy day after day. We are overwhelmed, we need to step back sometimes. Who are we emoting for? For what sense of inner fulfillment does our oversharing satisfy? 

I would say admittedly I have an unhealthy relationship to the Internet. Sometimes I need to remind myself of my addiction, my self-worth, and I check my settings to see how long I use my applications. I suggest many people do the same, and consider the psychology that is being used to fuel this.

Simultaneously, I love the Internet. I love online communication. I would not know nearly 90% of the people I know now without it. To think we should just not use phones is ridiculous, but we have seen the power of how unethically we have been treated by those who now own the web. We need to realize that the Internet is no longer the safe space our generation grew up with, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can have more accountability and push for a better Internet for the next generation.

LK: I think at at their best, “netlabels” brought together underrepresented musicians to experiment and affirm each other’s work. You said it yourself too, that netlabels used to have more focus on community. Do you think the conditions of the Internet today have changed in a way that’s making it harder to build creative communities? Where can artists find them now?

MS: We have to ask for what does the community serve, and who? What does it say when brands, influencers, or corporate social media accounts interact with us online as if we are equal? 

Do we truly share a commonality? Or is just that outsiders are looking to the most informed leaders of culture, to the most rabid knowledge of stans & fandom, to the most desperate of validation, to dictate where they should shift their marketing towards next?

That’s how I believe the conditions of the Internet have changed. Our movements are hardly silent, we’re being advertised by inconspicuous means, and we have to cherish our individuality, creativity, knowledge and autonomy as unique, and something built from our relative experiences and pain. We have more spaces than ever, but who we offer ourselves to, on what sort of platform, is very important.

The individual is not to blame, but let us have the self-awareness that the consumption, industry and community of art will always be in motion. We should destroy nostalgia and recognize the shift and create the next thing.

 Bring people together online. Bring people together in-person. Have private conversations beyond public display. Just don’t be limited where you navigate, and I feel artists will be fine.

LK: Thank you for that! What did you learn in Japan during the few months you were there? Did you learn anything about its people’s relationship to music?

MS: Being in Japan, it just reinforced to me that there’s a lot of amazing music being made, which is being severely overlooked from the outside. 

The same goes for the rest of Asia even moreso, or anywhere that the West isn’t invested in artistically. We have some very amazing artists this year who come from China, Philippines, and Singapore, and of course we want to always expand more globally as time moves forward. 

While I would find it an issue to say that we need the Western world to validate music from abroad, I do wish there were more avenues to bridge both worlds. I also want to ease the conflict and racial tension between Asian people domestically and abroad – I am a believer in music being a great unifier. I want to show the world that we have a commonality.

LK: Do you think there is progress being made in the West to invest in Asian music and media? Where are the challenges?

MS: For better or for worse, definitely. The progress in representation in the arts I feel is still deeply rooted in appealing to the West or serving to sustain consumer values, but I would see that as yet another basis for which people like myself who don’t fit into that narrative to begin to deconstruct it. We cannot tear down, dissemble and rebuild something that does not yet exist. The true challenge is will we build it in an image which will continue to liberate us, or will it be in an image meant to keep us entertained and complacent of our current system?

LK: In your US-based position as Meishi Smile or as ZOOM LENS, what is the most immediate thing you could provide an international artist? Is it a platform, distribution, Western attention…is it any of those?

MS: When I’ve talked with most of my artists, what seems to resonate most with them is what we stand for. We’re able to give a platform that aligns with what they want to represent to the world. 

My goal is to typically provide as much as ZOOM LENS can in terms of a typical label, but also provide them with the moral support, creative direction, community and guidance so they can develop themselves further and realize their capabilities. 

The most important thing is to recognize the artist as an individual, and the artist having more power than ever. The aspect of self-sufficiency is to be highly admired, so we want to work alongside them and help refine their vision.

LK: What did it take for you, as Meishi Smile, to know your vision and stance? Did you have a support group, akin to how ZOOM LENS’ artists have the label as theirs?

MS: My ethos behind ZOOM LENS was simply a culmination of my personal experiences. There are many facets of my identity which I can speak on, but the most significant would have to be growing up as a 4th/5th generation Japanese/Chinese American. 

The sense of disconnect to my ethnic heritage and growing up predominantly amongst non-Asian people gave me plenty of time to gain introspection about how I related to this world, and by what means did I relate.

The notion of my being so deeply influenced by imported Japanese pop culture, a recycled amalgamation of Western culture derived from the effects of post-WWII, hypercapitalism, and post-modernity, has always been a source of conflict for me.

I am by design, a product of the corrosive effects of pop culture. 

I wanted to create a label which would critically look beyond the narratives we were presented, set to explore the dark side of pop culture & music, a search for identity, and the abandonment of social norms. 

Eric Nakamura, the founder of Giant Robot, was a huge influence on my youth. The fact that he was a former punk and a photographer making photocopied zines who spoke unabashedly about his interests taught me that I could form American and Asian Pop culture into my own outlook on life. Till then, I had no Asian idols.

I would also have to cite cultural critic Hiroki Azuma as a parallel to the philosophy of ZOOM LENS. They use the foundation of subculture not as fetish commodity, but as a serious basis for intellectual discourse geared towards social change and uncovering patterns of capitalism.

LK: For young artists who want to find their own collectives, what can they do? Where can they go?

MS: Instead of telling young artists what they should do, I would like to ask them what they want to do first. 

What makes you feel the way you do? What are your ideals? What do you wish to accomplish in the moment? In the big picture? 

We have to do away with the perception that we are alone. We will no longer be alone when the lonely come together to find a commonality. The foundation of the past is here to build upon, but not necessarily one we have to emulate. Allow artists to share new ideas and expressions.

LK: What’s in store for ZOOM LENS in 2019?

MS:  We have quite a few new releases around the time of this interview, which I’m very excited about…

Alex Wang “0%” – Imagine nu-metal as club music. This is maybe the most aggressive release on ZOOM LENS, and reflects the modern, urban shifts of China. They’re also a member of Howie Lee’s Do Hits label, one of the most forward thinking electronic labels right now in Asia and worldwide.

oh my muu “let’s fall apart” / “trying my best” – The first is a collaboration with a local band called phoebe’s guitar. They do something very interesting by utilizing sparse piano and synths to evoke what would typically be tinges of lead guitar on a post-rock track, but make it a slow-burning, and cinematic electronic instrumental instead. They also released a new video called “trying my best,” which is like if Masaaki Yuasa filmed a K-Drama. It’s bittersweet, and touches on such moments as battling depression and growing up with an immigrant parent.

Reinabe “In The Object” – A lullaby over beds of static and pulsating noise. The video takes heavy influence from Katsuhito Ishii’s “Funky Forest,” and interjects it with themes of post-humanism to explore the in-between space and avatars which marginalized people often explore as a form of empowerment. Power to the LARPers.

Ceramiks “Badminton” – A seriously talented multi-instrumentalist combining elements of breakbeats, post-rock and shoegaze. Name me an electronic artist who plays violin in their set right now? I don’t know what Yellowcard is up to these days though…


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