Even after I spent two hours inside the Alameda art studio/headquarters of music label Time Released Sound, its owner and sole employee, Colin Herrick, was still talking rapidly about the next eight releases he has scheduled through 2014, his sentences exploding like they'd been bottled in his brain for years. Herrick said he spends ten hours a day, seven days a week, inside his small studio working on highly intricate, handmade packaging for his label's limited-edition releases, putting about a month of work into each and averaging one release per month. As I walked out of his studio onto Park Street, the late afternoon sun and fresh air transported me out of his dizzying, overwhelming, beautifully strange world. Perhaps noticing the relieved expression on my face, Herrick pleaded, "Please don't make me sound crazy."
Herrick isn't crazy, but he is obsessed — obsessed with art, music, and creating the packaging that connects the two, sometimes literally and sometimes abstractly. An artist who supported himself for decades working construction, Herrick started Time Released Sound in 2011 with no connections to the music industry. Two years and 32 releases later, the label is now his full-time job. This summer he'll spend two weeks in Iceland handcrafting album packaging from local foliage.
The Oakland native has spent his entire life pursuing art, as a former resident at Berkeley's Kala Art Institute and co-owner of the Autobody Fine Art gallery in Alameda. In his studio, he unearthed a few large lithographs, part of a series he spent six years making in the Eighties. "People haven't seen these in twenty years," Herrick said. Like everything he creates, the lithographs — portraits of a pouty punk-rock girl acting out the seven deadly sins — are dark in theme and highly detailed: All the shading, smudges, and scratches were done by hand.
"Here I used to make all this big art and now I'm going blind, cutting all my little paper dolls," Herrick said, pointing to the scraps of antique books, collages, and drawings strewn across the studio. "It gives me a headache. It'll probably give you a headache just hearing about it."
For as long as he's been making art, Herrick has collected bizarre, custom-made music packaging, which labels and fans refer to as "bespoke." The music it contains is often as obscure as the vessel itself: Herrick's collection is composed mostly of industrial and Japanese noise bands. Time Released Sound specializes in ambient, neo-folk, and "beatless" electronic music by primarily international artists. When he first started the label, Herrick didn't have any musicians onboard. So he created three sample album packages and showed them to artists he liked. "I knew they'd want them," Herrick said confidently. "They were pretty cool."
His first release was The Girl in the Clock by Japanese drone artist Shaula. Its CD sleeve is an art deco paper frame collaged with images dating back to 1853, cut from a volume of The Illustrated London News, the world's first illustrated weekly newspaper. Herrick purchased the book on eBay, where he gets most of the relics that fill his packaging. He also uses his own art and materials from his house: Vacuum debris (complete with his cat hair), a bead from his mother's jewelry collection, and a short story he wrote on an antique typewriter have all made their way into his releases. "My DNA is all over this stuff," Herrick said. "In a way, I'm recycling my life into this packaging."
Like all of Herrick's releases, each of the sixty copies of The Girl in the Clock is unique, from the collaged illustrations to the antique photo inside. Despite the label being virtually unknown in the states, Time Released Sound has sold out nearly all of its releases. The Girl in the Clock was priced at $60 and sold out within a week on its website.
Italian ambient/drone artist Fabio Orsi signed on for the label's second release, and other artists quickly followed, including maps and diagrams, Wil Bolton, and Plinth — all ambient electronic artists based in the UK. Herrick gives the artists he works with 10 percent of the physical releases to sell or keep, plus a percentage of any profits made after Herrick recoups his costs. Most releases are priced at about $50.
For Plinth's Collected Machine Music, the label's eleventh release, Herrick handcrafted seventy miniature music boxes, each of which plays a unique song composed by the artist. At $100 — the label's highest price point to date — Collected Machine Music sold out within an hour of going on sale. Herrick said the album has been auctioned online for upwards of $400. Considering he spent two months creating its packaging, Herrick said he's probably undercutting his prices — a fact he's still grappling with two years into his business.
"An hour before a release goes live, I'm clicking the button to sell it for less," Herrick said. "I mean, how many people will buy two $50 releases in a month?"
Currently, about fifty people (most of whom reside overseas) buy every release, according to Herrick. He said he has about seventy semi-regular customers, and another eighty or so one-time buyers. Most albums are issued on CD and include a digital download. His first vinyl release is in the works.
Herrick said he gets at least one demo a day from artists, and while the music may seem secondary to his elaborate packaging, he said he's picky about who he decides to work with. "If I don't like the music, I don't get involved," he said.
Where the Light Stops is an example of a conceptual album that came to life in Herrick's hands. The album, by electronic artist The Inventors of Aircraft, explores the decline of the railway industry in the UK, and includes field recordings of trains. To match the aesthetic, Herrick created one hundred copies of a hand-sewn CD sleeve constructed from an antique railroad stock certificate and clasped together by a plastic piece of train track. Inside, Herrick collaged vintage illustrations of the passing countryside and an old diagram of a train signal, to which he soldered a red LED bulb that flashes when pressed.
His latest release, Listen to My Nerves Hum by avant-garde pianist Benjamin Finger, might be his most ambitious yet: Herrick turned a rectangular chocolate box into a deconstructed bird's nest containing broken bits of old piano keys and a twelve-inch-long, skeletal-looking bird, also constructed of piano pieces. "Couldn't bring myself to make a hundred of them this time," Herrick said. "Seventy was mind-numbingly tedious enough."
When Herrick talked about traveling to Iceland this summer to construct an album for the Swedish electronic artist Mikael Lind, he couldn't deny his excitement about going to the land of artists like Sigur Rós and Björk. "My dream is for the label to come to the attention of a big artist who wants to do a special release with me," Herrick said. He said he'd happily hire some full-time help if that ever happens.