Since 1999, Sam Valenti‘s Ghostly International label has become a beacon of quality. Whether you know it or not, you’ve seen the trademark ghost logo, plastered on lap tops, notebooks, car bumpers, and any other stick-able surface you care to mention. This ghost is a symbol of quality and abstract thought that takes pride in catering to a special audience of music lovers and appreciators of art in general. Over the years of its existence, Valenti has curated a sensitively detailed web experience showcasing not only cutting edge music pressed on gloriously-colored wax, but general artistic statements hoping to marry the idea of art and commerce. Blurring the lines between our own thought patterns of what these two disparate ideas can represent takes precedence with Valenti, and he takes a keen interest with how our own creativity and passion can evolve these constructs.
Growing up in the Detroit area, Valenti first started as a DJ inspired by dance music. With offices in Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, and Los Angeles, Ghostly is inhabited by 10 employees who work to keep the artistic passions of the label alive. Artists like Recondite, Tycho, and Com Truise are just a few examples of the levels of artistry fostered at Ghostly with new artists being signed all the time, promising to surprise and beguile listeners everywhere. We recently chatted with Valenti about the label, his views on the current vinyl industry, the new Discogs app, and more!
What were your first major motivations to become a DJ? Was it based around your basic love of music or did it mean more than that?
For me personally, in a pre-internet context, it meant that you could be part of the music. Through DJing, it meant that you were helping to create connections between different records. I always liked the philosophy that records are the conversation amongst themselves. I like the idea that records represent a thread of communication, and was always fascinated that you could create a story by using all kinds of great music in the world. I love not just the performance aspect, but the idea that your mind can draw connections between sounds and styles that may have not been heard before. Also, growing up in the Detroit area was very diverse and open-minded to putting different ideas together, so this made music very exciting. It was never about just one genre, it was about finding the consistency and the elements that connect genres. I’m still fascinated with music for this reason, and specifically records, for the language they can create.
In such a diverse environment, did you mainly draw inspiration from Detroit performers in terms of your DJing?
Absolutely. I got to know people like Mike Huckaby, DJ House Shoes, Mike Servito, Keith Kemp, Terrence Parker — artists that were very accessible and had the chance to meet and converse with at record stores. You’d even see people like Dilla at the store — not that I was coming up and bothering him — but there was a community of like-minded people playing music. For instance, House Shoes would sneak me into clubs so I could listen to him play, so it was a big brother/big sister-type of network in Detroit that made very accessible. You’d also hear these people on local radio, so they would have a reach without actually being a “world famous” DJ.
There does seem to be a consistent thread with artists from Detroit we’ve talked to in that there was a strong community-driven vibe that was about spreading the passion for music around as much as possible.
Yes, we all shopped at the same places, so there was a narrative structure that made it tangible to have a record store culture in our neighborhoods.
Your mentioning of the narrative structure brings me to the website. It seems important to you that people not think of the website as selling musical releases and art (prints, etc.) as separate entities, but to think of all of it as the same experience. Is it a fair assessment to consider that this is an attitude you hope to maintain?
Absolutely, I think of it all as one thing. It’s a conversation with culture that utilizes music/art, and other elements of creativity to produce something more than the sum of its parts, hopefully. I mean, the site is only as good as the music we put out as that is the central hub of everything we do, but I think you can tell big stories with music, especially when you engage other senses and ideas. Music is enough in itself, but I also want to have fun with the process and invoke other aspects of humanity.
How do you envision continuing to offer unique art via your website whilst commercialism becomes more prevalent? The web obviously makes it easier than ever to obtain material objects, so do you feel this diminishes the experience of appreciating art?
I think it should only help how we grow in terms of art representation. More people are exposed to art and can self educate. The need to travel or buy things is removed so people can discover more freely. The decision to purchase something comes from a lot of places including supporting an artist and having something on your wall. There’s nothing like seeing work in person.
Your peripheral label to Ghostly is Spectral which seems more focused on just music.
Yes, as much as I love the labels that make big statements concerning art and music, I also love dance music labels, like Transmat or Metroplex, where the 12” was the art. So in that way, Spectral is about efficiency. We did open the label to focus on dance music and sort of establish a speed that suited the music. It was more about stripping back the decision making so we could focus on getting the work out to an audience quicker.
Can you explain the importance of always issuing your vinyl releases in different-colored variants? Is this something you leave entirely up to the individual artist?
It’s a conversation for sure. I think of the colors like books in a way — with the first printing or second printing you know exactly where you got involved. With the colored record, the aesthetics are awesome, they’re exciting and neat, but I think it’s also about the idea that you were there because there is obviously only so many printed that a certain audience can get access to. It’s not about exclusivity, it’s more about ‘hey, I was awake when this record was there and unveiled’. So at that point you have a freeze-frame moment of immediacy that the colored-edition provides — maybe that buyer was an early adopter that can use the edition as a symbol that they were present. That doesn’t diminish the other versions that subsequently get released, but it’s still a fun artifact to have. Perhaps when you’re in a store or on Discogs and find a copy it’s a nice opportunity to have a different experience with the music. If you’re a DJ it may not be relevant, but I still think it’s fun for certain people.
What’s your take on people who buy up tons of copies of limited editions in order to turn around and sell those limited copies for much more than they originally sold for?
I mean, that’s just part of the market, right? You see that in clothes, sneakers, concert tickets — it’s just part of human nature. Whenever there is scarcity there also becomes market forces that come out of human need or desire. It’s letting the market dictate the price and letting places like Discogs show the buyer what is fair or whatever a reasonable purchase might be. We discourage people buying massive quantities with the intention of selling on our site as it dilutes the opportunity for others to get involved. We don’t have a super hard line about it, but I also don’t think the kind of customer who buys from Ghostly is that type of person, either. We do repress albums when there is a thematic need in the market, but also love the idea of those limited editions being special so when you see one you have to grab it knowing you may never see it again. It’s also a question of cash flow as a business since we can only afford to keep so many records in production.
With the vinyl boom of the past few years do you find it increasingly difficult to get your records pressed at the times you’d like to have them finished?
Yeah, we’re pretty transparent with artists and fans about the reality of pressings. It’s a good sign that there is more demand, but it does take more effort to organize yourselves say, six months ahead of time as you prepare for a release, then having to explain that to the artist and fans — it’s not always the most enjoyable conversation.
Because of the larger labels pressing more vinyl, do you ever find yourself in a pinch as a smaller label to get your releases produced and released?
That’s a good question — I think it would definitely be more intimidating and harder if I had a hot record online or on the radio and had to wait six months to get it out — that would be a bummer. I think that’s bad for the business because music is about the immediacy. Music is moving faster, and the customers are moving faster than the product which is not always a good thing. Then again, it might just force more hardcore decision making on our part. It’s an interesting factor that production has now become a thing to discuss or think about when you are thinking about releasing music opposed to the past when it was just purely price or quantity. Now it’s become more of a question of ‘will this still be important to me in this amount of time’ which is a cool thought bubble where production is now one of the barriers to entry, and not just capital or ideas. I’m sure it will change again — maybe people will jack up the price of pressings and that will be a factor or people will mass produce more. I don’t know the state of lathe productions as I’ve heard mixed things, and maybe we’ll over-consume at some point. I think one of the romantic aspects of the vinyl experience is that it’s always going to be an unstable element, and that’s why it remains exciting to fans. Vinyl is uncertain, and pressings can be warped, waterlogged, lost, or mis-marked. There is an inherently human element to records, and not just in sound, but going back to the existence of a record, that makes it compelling. I think that will always be a factor, so whatever happens next, people will have to react and respond. I think it’s fascinating that the record always fights back. Economically, mechanically — I mean, you can’t just go to a factory and press play and have it press a record. Its repeated arrival in the market enforces that it’s a human interaction that will keep it interesting to people for years to come.
So our new App just got released, and you were one of our Beta testers. What do you think so far?
I think it’s great! Everyone has been waiting for it because record shopping is no longer just a desktop culture. I love that you have addressed ways that people who are in motion, or traveling, or in record stores can experience it, and I think it will liberate Discogs users to use it more. It’s very intuitive, and I’m a big fan of it.
Before you go, what are five of your favorite old-school tunes as well as five of your current favorites?
Sam’s Classic Five Cuts
My first gig ever was a high school dance, I remember the MK Dub being a crucial piece.
This record still sounds so fresh, so strange, so hypnotic. A local classic on mix show radio.
Gigolo was a really creative label, loved that they joined a bridge between the past and the present.
Great memories of visiting New York and going to Fat Beats. A magic time.
Sam’s Current Five Cuts
This jumped out at me the other day while checking out the Bleep newsletter.
And one of our own. This jumped back into rotation. A really special record for some people.