I don't like the term 'promoter' that much," explains Ryan Martin. He's awake and on the phone, fresh from sleeping off a long drive back to his home in Chapel Hill after playing a short run of East Coast dates under his Secret Boyfriend alias. We joke about the coke-bro music marketing stereotypes the word "promoter" can imply. It's unsurprising to hear Martin, a longtime organizer in the Triangle's experimental music scene, deflect the word and its associations, given what he values in music and music communities.
Those values are front and center with Hot Releases, the amorphous label that Martin has run since 2008. Martin has slowly expanded the initially noise-focused label to include releases charting the porous boundaries of drone, sludge rock, experimental pop, coldwave, psych-folk, and a slew of other atypical zones. Like most of his pursuits, Hot Releases is a natural extension of Martin's immeasurably strange taste and remarkable skill at grassroots community building.
Local adventurous types might know Martin as the main presence behind the anarchic Savage Weekend, a two-day, eighty-act festival held annually in May, which has grown into a weird family reunion of sorts and one of the East Coast's larger noise events. Appropriately, Martin is ringing his label's anniversary in with a two-day party at Nightlight comprising twenty-something national and local artists. In the last nine years, he's released records or booked shows for almost all of them.
"Most of Hot Releases came from doing shows and meeting a lot of people who were quietly killing it who I wanted to help out. For most of these records, things happened organically," Martin says.
Yet, for such a varied and outré discography, Martin's imprint hides in plain sight, under a comically unassuming moniker taken in part from a sign at a video store that he used to frequent. Martin used it as a placeholder and just never came up with a better name, he says. In the beginning, it primarily served as an outpost for his own warped, handcrafted releases as Secret Boyfriend.
Over time, it grew to include other national artists, including Carlos Gonzales, aka Russian Tsarlag. Gonzales is a prolific musician who has grown into something of an underground cult figure in the last decade, thanks to his atmospheric, idiosyncratic take on lo-fi songwriting. For Martin's own genre-melting sensibilities, he was an instant fit. Hot Releases put out Russian Tsarlag's third album in 2009, and the two have frequently collaborated and toured together ever since.
Thanks to Martin's ever-expanding connections, he quickly filled the Hot Releases catalog with intriguing records: LPs by Italian industrial pioneer Maurizio Bianchi and electropop jams from the excellent, now-defunct VVAQRT. Before an eventual rerelease by Mexican Summer in 2013, Hot Releases first reissued Static Crash, from Greensboro dreampop icons Ashrae Fax, on vinyl in 2011. Another 2011 release, a split between Providence techno experimentalists Unicorn Hard-On and Container, would later be canonized by Resident Advisor as an early document of the so-called "technoise" movement. As Martin goes through the discography over the phone, he sounds excited at each new item on the list, as the memories of each release flood back to him. Asked about his recent favorites, he cites the Montreal art punk band Gashrat as an example of a band he caught live and knew right away he wanted to work with. He mentions that picking favorites can be difficult when he curates everything to begin with.
Martin makes it clear that he wanted Hot Releases to be more than just a noise label, but he's quick to point out that he has a great deal of respect for labels that "really go down the hole into one thing." It's a tricky line to walk for any label—do you sell directly to your audience, or take artful risks that might alienate them? Martin's considerations have little to do with finances or trends.
"I don't read many popular music blogs or keep up with internet trends or anything like that," he says.
His goal is to put out the music he likes—often offbeat things that other labels won't take risks on—rather than seek releases that will move product. Are there more reissues or tentpole artist releases coming, then? Martin says probably not. As he points out, the releases from Bianchi sold very well and likely brought a bit of international attention to the label, but reissuing and putting out larger records from established figures doesn't always seem worth the sweat to him. He would rather focus his efforts on those who could use the help.
"Putting out well-known limited-release records that sell out instantly is cool but can feel kind of empty," Martin says.
Beyond this weekend's anniversary celebrations, Martin still plans to keep releasing music. Naturally, his business has changed a little since 2008: he now has most of the Hot Releases catalog up on Bandcamp. He speaks positively of the site and seems happy to sell through it, though he expresses uncertainty about streaming culture and mentions how forums and other niche avenues he used to direct-advertise releases in the early days have all but died out.
"It used to be easier back in the late 2000s," Martin says. "Back then, I could go to certain forums like Chondritic Sound and post about the tape and know a certain amount of people would buy them. Things are a lot different now."
He mentions the resurgence of tapes and vinyl as boutique objects and predicts that CDs will eventually make a comeback. Will longtime experimental labels like Hot Releases be putting out CD-Rs again eventually? Who knows, but a lot happened in the past nine years. Time will tell what another nine will bring.