For independent record labels, exposure leads to expansion. An originally tight-knit community gradually comes untethered. Artists leave for the promise of bigger budgets and bigger hits elsewhere. Risk is jettisoned for the safe bet.
L.A.-based electronic-music label Friends of Friends (FoF) isn't the exception to the narrative, but it's close. Five years removed from the label's inception, founder Leeor Brown hasn't altered his approach.
"I'm just trying to play the long game, to keep working on projects that I'm proud of, that I think are pushing boundaries," Brown says over lunch at La Tropicana, a Highland Park market that doubles as a deli, near his home.
Also nearby is the FoF office, an open, spacious, wood-floored room on a second floor that overlooks the neighborhood's tree-lined streets. Inside, Brown's small staff is relaxed but on task. Breaks are taken both to pet Brown's dog and to ensure it doesn't run out the door.
Born out of its founder's vision and careful curation, FoF was one of the earliest labels to emerge from the salad days of L.A.'s semi-legendary beat scene. Compared to the punishingly percussive, bass-heavy hip-hop/electronic hybrid most associated with the scene, FoF's music is softer, more melodic. It's built to help you weather a breakup, not splinter speakers.
Yet FoF artists aren't carbon copies in a Brown-run assembly line. Each artist offers a distinct variation on the label's aesthetic.
"I don't feel like there's any one sound. It's just kind of an attitude, if that's possible," says renowned L.A. producer/DJ Alfred Darlington, aka Daedelus, Brown's close friend, who appeared on the label's inaugural release. "I think [FoF] works because Leeor works."
Though understandably beleaguered by the demands of running a label, Brown is upbeat. In the past half decade, FoF artists have performed at major U.S. festivals including Coachella and venues worldwide. Several of the label's releases are canonical beat-scene albums.
The label's latest release is a career-spanning, double-disc compilation, 5oFoF: Five Years of Friends of Friends. Both a celebration and a reintroduction, it's a testament to the label's depth, reach and influence.
Brown couldn't be prouder. "Seeing everything in one place really has left me teary-eyed."
An L.A. native and married father of one, Brown was raised on '90s hip-hop. His introduction to electronic music came through friend and Hamilton High School classmate Dave Fisher, who now does A&R for FoF's techno/house imprint, Young Adults.
After college and a short stint in radio promotion, Brown turned his affinity for the then-nascent beat scene into a profession. He became resident publicist for Lincoln Heights bass haven Low End Theory and promoted records by such heavyweights as Nosaj Thing, Daedelus and Flying Lotus.
Given Brown's connections and good taste, starting his own label made sense. He knew what other labels were doing. He knew he wanted to do something different.
FoF's name stems from its first and decidedly different release. In 2009, Brown asked Daedelus to record an EP with another artist of his choosing. The result was Friends of Friends Vol. 1, a split EP by Daedelus and Jogger — to Brown, a friend and a friend of a friend.
Instead of releasing Vol. 1 on CD or vinyl, FoF sold custom-designed, organic T-shirts packaged with a digital download card printed on seed paper. "It was so revolutionary in so many ways, I couldn't help but be swayed into participating," Daedelus says.
T-shirt EPs proved too unconventional, but Brown wasn't deterred. Instead, he signed Shlohmo, Salva and Groundislava, young local producers he felt needed a platform. He originally met Shlohmo while doing a show at Internet radio station Dublab, where Shlohmo was an intern. Salva contacted Brown about booking Shlohmo for a show, then sent Brown his own music; Groundislava went to middle school with Shlohmo and was a member of his then-developing collective, WeDidIt.
"[FoF] ended up being this really big fam of extended fam," says Shlohmo, whose real name is Henry Laufer. "It was kind of a big blanket for everyone to be under."
To help finance the label, Brown created a PR division of FoF. Since the beginning, it has handled publicity for both outside clients and the label's artists. It was a balancing act before the label was able to hire more staff on both sides of the business, but Brown made it work: "All I did was invest money I made on the PR side. I'd pay myself, pay a part-time employee and invest money into records."
The real exposure came in 2011. Salva, Groundislava and Shlohmo released successive, well-received LPs. Each was unlike anything the beat scene had heard before. Music blogs and publications began regularly featuring FoF artists, and sales increased; Shlohmo's 2011 LP, Bad Vibes, remains FoF's best seller.
The following year saw FoF's first brush with the mainstream. Salva and RL Grime's remix of Kanye West's "Mercy" became the top trending track on SoundCloud and received radio play in several major cities.
Then, in 2013, Shlohmo began working with Def Jam R&B singer Jeremih. Their collaborative EP, No More, was released gratis in July, and their song "Bo Peep (Do U Right)" currently has more than 3 million plays on SoundCloud.
Predictably, the exposure has led to expansion. In April 2012, Shlohmo's WeDidIt collective became a label; last month, Salva launched his own label, Peacemaker. Fortunately, the divisions have been amiable and not entirely absolute. FoF still handles Salva's PR; Groundislava's latest album, Frozen Throne, was released by WeDidIt in the United States and abroad by FoF.
"I never saw it as jumping ship," explains Jasper Patterson, aka Groundislava. "I feel like I can release stuff on both, and it doesn't affect how I see either of them."
"WeDidIt was always my focus, but Leeor gave me the help and the home that I needed to start and make that dream come true," Shlohmo says.
FoF continues to expand and innovate. Last year, the label released debut records from German-based artists Kyson and Perera Elsewhere. This year, with Deru's 1979, they released arguably the most creatively packaged record of 2014.
In addition to 1979's interactive website, Deru created a hand-held, walnut-encased projector — complete with an internal speaker and rechargeable battery — which plays album tracks and projects their corresponding music videos. It was a passion project that received little press. Regardless, Brown is elated that FoF was involved. "It wasn't about the money. To me, it was just more that we did this cool, amazing art project."
With several releases planned for next year, including albums from Different Sleep, Braille (a solo project from Sepalcure's Praveen Sharma), and Moombahton originators Nadastrom, FoF's future looks as bright as its past. For now, it has proven that an indie label can retain its ethos, even if it doesn't retain all of its artists.
Brown, ever the optimist, plans to continue to find new sounds, take risks and search for a way to create an unbreakable community of musicians.
"Five years ago I had no idea this is how things were going to look now. You just have to keep pushing."
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Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the artist behind Braille as Naveen Sharma. His actual name is Praveen Sharma. We regret the error.