Speaking with Connor Murray, the 21-year-old student behind Pittsburgh micro-label Crafted Sounds, is an easy way to feel like a slacker. Murray has been running Crafted Sounds since he was a teenager—first, out of his high school bedroom in the Annapolis area, and now out of his dorm room at the University of Pittsburgh. The label’s ethos isn’t so much based around a single sound—Crafted Sounds puts out everything from pretty shoegaze to indie hip-hop—as a commitment to supporting and reflecting the creativity of the Pittsburgh music scene.
Murray who started attending DIY shows in Baltimore and DC while in high school, didn’t always plan on running a label—initially, he wanted to be a musician. “I tried to pick up guitar and do some stuff with a MIDI board, but I was not really getting the results I wanted,” he remembers. “I was awful at that stuff, but I wanted to be part of music in some capacity.” Taking cues from labels like Baltimore’s Friends Records and Boston’s Too Far Gone Records, Murray “just decided to start my own label without really knowing what went into it. CS001 came out on my 18th birthday during my senior year of high school. I figured interest would remain minimal and we would just exist on the internet. I was wrong.”
Crafted Sounds came to Bandcamp’s attention with the April release of Bridges, a compilation of Pittsburgh bands accompanied by a zine made up of photos taken by disposable cameras Murray had distributed to members of the local scene. The packaging was local as well: Murray made it a point to work with Pittsburgh artists when it came to designing the zine, developing the photos, and creating the Crafted Sounds buttons Murray throws in with every order. “It captures what music looks like in Pittsburgh today,” wrote Murray of the zine on the compilation’s Bandcamp page. The combination of zine and local artist compilation felt like a nostalgic throwback to the fanzine culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s while also offering a fresh look at a scene happening right now, both visually and musically. The pride Murray took in his subject matter was infectious, as well. It’s hard not to be interested in what’s going on in Pittsburgh when it’s been so lovingly documented. Though the first run of zines sold out, Murray has made a second deluxe edition that features twice as many photos as the first run.
We caught up with Murray via e-mail about the history of his label, how he put the zine together, and his advice for people scrambling around in small scenes in non-coastal cities.
How did you get the idea for the zine to accompany the compilation? Did you conceive of them together or separately?
I was in Berlin, Germany for 11 weeks last summer for an internship. I missed Pittsburgh a lot, and I was thinking of doing something big for year three of the label. The idea of the compilation came first. I figured I had met so many more people since the first compilation, and I really wanted to see what a compilation with more time and planning behind it would turn out like. The vision for the zine came after experiencing difficulty trying to explain what Pittsburgh music was like to people I met. I think people need to see it to really get it. I figured a photo-centric zine would be a cost effective way to really put on display what we have going on. The tape + zine package seemed right. Film photography had always complemented the label because it was analog like the tapes. I handed out the cameras and started curating the album in late September of last year. Once the show was booked in October, I knew it was real.
How did you get involved with the Pittsburgh music scene?
I came to the University of Pittsburgh for college in Fall 2016. I met Ryan Hartman who played in a surf rock band called Surf Bored, and Crafted Sounds put out his album that October. We had no idea what we were doing. Ryan introduced me to the DIY culture in Pittsburgh since he was a Pittsburgh native and he did stuff at WPTS. He was plugged in. From there, I basically was in basements and sneaking into bars just trying to tell people that I was serious about doing this label thing. Eventually, I decided that we’d release a compilation (Have a Nice Day) to highlight local music and to meet more people and test the limits of the label. Music on the album was curated both from what I found on Bandcamp and from some of my earliest music relationships in Pittsburgh. It was an interesting grab bag of music from someone who was not even that familiar with the scene. The Have a Nice Day compilation ended up raising a decent amount of money for Planned Parenthood, and we got some recognition from the project. People from all over started reaching out more, and we continued to put out tapes with a focus on Pittsburgh primarily.
What makes the Pittsburgh music scene unique in your eyes?
I don’t think there is a definitive Pittsburgh sound. Nothing is oversaturated in terms of the music that is created. It is a very kooky, very small city. People create the music they want to, since there is no real critical pressure here—yet. I’d like to think that Pittsburgh winters and seasonal depression really help artists tap into a rather interesting headspace as well. People hunker down and perfect their craft when it gets all cold and nasty. Once you’re in the middle of it all, everyone really knows everyone to some degree. A lot of people are from around Pittsburgh, but there are a good amount of people from other parts as well. On the DIY level, it’s cool to see bills with lineups that are completely different act-to-act. Not every city is like that. Things are changing fast around here, and I’d like to think that Pittsburgh will be a more frequent tour stop for outside artists in the near future. Pittsburgh is up next.
Was there another zine or publication that inspired you?
Micah E. Wood’s features photobook was definitely an influence on this project. He is a photographer and musician from Baltimore who compiled a series of band/artist portraits (mostly local) from 2012-2016 and turned it into a book + tape + zine package. I was never really old enough to immerse myself in the local scene in high school and that book really documented a lot of people I still look up to. I love that project so much.
How many disposable cameras did you have to buy, and how did you decide who to give them to?
There had to be about 10 cameras. I bought a 10- or 12-pack and gave one to The Zells and another to Short Fictions for their tours. The rest I distributed to different bands, promoters, and house venue residents around Pittsburgh. It’s impossible to be everywhere or know everything all the time. I thought it’d be cool to compile the images and moments that other people valued as well. I think the pictures turned out better because I included those people in the process. They rule.
What is your personal favorite image from the zine?
I took a picture at the Bridges release show during Merce Lemon’s set. It was a really intimate moment, and the disco ball at Spirit looked really nice. You can barely see the band in the distance. That night was a dream. I made sure to put that picture towards the end of the booklet.
How long did it take to put the zine together? Any hiccups along the way?
I’d say the biggest challenge was getting the cameras back from people. The second biggest challenge was then salvaging what was usable from the film we got back. I’d say there were about two or three rolls of used film that were lost due to various reasons…dead flash battery, poorly shot pictures, flat-out lost cameras. You win some, you lose some. I had all the film developed by mid-March after getting them out in the fall. It was so cool to get the digital files of the film back, since I had no idea what people took pictures of. I think I selected the pictures and finalized the layout in a week. There are a bunch of great shots that we didn’t include in the first run and even the second run still. The tapes took forever to dub, as always.
You sold out of the first run of zines. Did most of them sell to locals or did you send some further afield? Have you gotten any feedback?
Most of the zines were sold in Pittsburgh, however we did have sales in many other states. The same can be said about the tapes. Someone bought a shirt from Ireland from around that time, too. I made sure to throw some extra stickers in that order! There was a lot of build up to the release. We did a 21-day countdown with a preview of each song in a short VHS video. People really liked that. There’s been some really nice things said about the release from all over. I am just happy people checked it out and know music exists in Pittsburgh. If someone from out of town purchased a zine, I hope they have a solid feel for the music atmosphere here.
Who worked with you on putting the art together for the tape and the zine? How important is it to you to work with local Pittbsurgh designers and artists when putting your stuff together?
Sean O’Connor created the cover art, Rat Lab developed most of the film, Pittsburgh Buttoneer made our buttons, and Flower City Printmakers printed the tape j-cards and zines. I think it is cool to keep it local when working with other creative people because I like to think that it makes what you do more purposeful. If those people do a good job, you’ll go back to them, you’ll tell your friends about them, and then more people will reach out for similar work on their own projects. Next thing you know, everyone is thriving and everything looks great. That’s awesome! That’s community!
What advice would you have for other micro-labels in non-coastal cities trying to document their scenes?
I jokingly say from time to time that it is not worth it unless you think about quitting every day. It is hard to run a label without much direction, or funds, or prior experience in a city that is not pumping out major artists all the time. Be resourceful and work with the people that believe in you as much as you believe in them. Just because where you are may not be as happening as other cities, it does not mean that what you are doing is not important. We are talking incremental growth here. It takes time and persistence. You just need to know that you are going to mess up a lot, and there’s no right way to go about a lot of things. If you deliver art in a way that is experiential and inclusive for every type of person in your scene, what you end up doing will last way longer than you’d ever imagine. That type of work will attract people from places far beyond your own if you do it time and time again.
What’s coming up for Crafted Sounds? Any plans for a Bridges 2 comp?
Flower Crown and Spooled Up just dropped two great records in May. BBGuns, an indie hip-hop act, released their new record at the end of June. I am pretty stoked on it since it sounds like nothing we have worked with before. There is more music coming from The Zells and Eyebawl this fall as well. As we approach 2020 I am looking to continue to retrace roots in Baltimore/DC and grow the label outside of Pittsburgh since HQ is sorta established now. I am considering SXSW and vinyl production next year…madness. I also just bought an embroidery machine, so we will be pumping out some cool custom merch for our acts soon. As for a Bridges 2, we are on track to a release compilation every two years at this point. I’d really hate to mess that up.