Seventeen years ago, you had to actively seek music out. Large streaming libraries weren't bombarding you from every possible angle to sign up and pay for their services. The consumer had to expend more energy to actively seek out deeper cuts they couldn't find on radio or The Box.
To help local kids and music enthusiasts connect wtih L.A. underground music, a couple of Angelenos got together to birth dublab, a DJ collective and internet radio network that has since grown into a local institution that reflects the diverse, independent spirit of the L.A. underground. This month, dublab celebrates its 17th anniversary and the weird, winding path that led them here.
Current dublab leaders Mark “Frosty” McNeill and Alejandro “Ale” Cohen met through Hoseh, a dublab DJ who at the time had a show on KXLU. They met in “a dark alley on a full moon,” Frosty recalls, and had several brainstorming sessions for an all-night party. Ale was in a band called Languis at the time, which was an integral part of dublab's early years.
As an internet station, dublab “started in September of 1999,” Ale explains via email, “when online streaming of audio was still unheard of by many, or still a novelty. This new-found media territory was a place that could be defined by the lack of rules, structure and traditions that existed — and still do — in other forms of established media.” Frosty had co-founded the station with partner Jon Buck; once Ale joined the team, they began to expand into party and event planning.
As with a lot of DIY projects, dublab has struggled to keep the lights on at various points of their journey, especially at the beginning. “In early 2001,” Frosty writes via email, “we momentarily ceased broadcasting operations because we were flat broke. We hosted a final live broadcast that was a wake of sorts, but within a week we made some big sacrifices. My partner Jon sold his car, I moved onto the studio floor for two weeks and we downsized our physical space.” Doing whatever it took to keep the station afloat, Frosty adds, “helped us learn to overcome adversity and weather whatever storms may pass our way.”
Over the next decade, dublab slowly grew, creating different partnerships and alliances with other cultural and musical institutions — including MOCA, Red Bull Music Academy, Inner City Arts and Roland, to name just a few — and improving the quality and depth of its programming. In 2008, they finally received non-profit status, and since then, in many ways, have taken the mantle of what KCRW always promised to be (“eclectic,” diverse in its programming, unconcerned with commercialism) and actually delivered on it, with a freeform programming format that skews heavily towards electronic music but includes a little bit of everything.
Along the way, the crew has learned that their audience isn't just 20- and 30-something hipsters, which you might expect. Instead, says Ale, “our audience ranges from middle school kids to seniors. The feedback is always positive. Our listeners seem to understand what we are about, and even those times our funding doesn't allow us to be very sleek [or] technologically advanced, they know what matters is the message.”
Dublab is currently making a play for terrestrial radio, so you may soon be able to listen to them via the web or your car radio dial. Ale admits trying to get a spot on the terrestrial dial “has been a long, long, long process, but after many years we can say that we got a permit granted to put up an antenna and start broadcasting on FM, through an LPFM license. I can't give many details now as many things are in the works, but expect more news early next year. We are hoping to be on the air by late 2017.”
So, if all goes to plan, the station should be FM broadcasting around its 18th birthday. More people still listen to traditional radio than you might imagine, so this move promises to broaden dublab's audience even further.
Dublab and similar platforms from around the world like NTS, Boiler Room and Rinse are in many ways moving counter to where the majority of web-based streaming platforms are headed. Ale believes that “the role of streaming services may be limited. At the end of the day, as the social animals we are, we are still looking for personal connections and material/physical experiences. That's when the nightclub, the local venue, the record label, the record store, the local scene and the radio station takes over. We need that direct connection, which really can't be replaced by computers and algorithms, or so I hope.”
“People want to hear music that moves them emotionally,” Frosty elaborates. “Well-versed human DJs are empathetic and can connect to listeners in a more impactful manner than streaming services run by algorithms.”
To celebrate the 17th anniversary, the crew is hosting a blowout this weekend at Union (formerly Jewel's Catch One) that features several seminal L.A. selectors such as Peanut Butter Wolf, Monalisa, the Far Away crew, beardo super group Vinyls on Wax, and many more.
Egyptian Lover, perhaps L.A.'s most important electronic elder statesmen, who is also playing the party, sums it up best: “Dublab is a way an artist can be heard when no one is listening.”