Ryan Hemsworth is one of the most popular (and well-liked) producers around right now. Part of this has to do with the fact that he’s so good at social media. Not good in the way that Beyonce or Rihanna are masters of their social media presence, but good in that audiences get the sense that Hemsworth’s online persona is 100 percent his own.
I met Ryan backstage before his show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn. It was his second night performing in the city—the night before, Hemsworth performed for a packed Bowery Ballroom. In our conversation, the admittedly “cool” Canadian producer spoke comfortably about communicating online. His latest record Alone For The First Time finds him exploring a sense of isolation familiar to many of us whose lives have moved increasingly, and dizzyingly at times, into digital space.
This past summer Hemsworth began releasing other artists’ songs on Soundcloud under a mysterious label aptly named Secret Songs. The releases, delightfully experimental electronic music from every corner of the Internet, were released with near reckless abandon. Forgoing any of the hurdles of press or distribution, Ryan asked his friends for music and put the songs he liked online.
“I’ve been doing mixes and stuff for a while and it sort of just grew out of that,” Hemsworth said. “Like, I would put friends songs in mixes and people would go and look up those songs and it sort of became a kind of ‘pay it forward’ type of thing, and things just came naturally from that. With Secret Songs it was a way to directly put out my friend’s songs.”
Abbreviated with the universal sound of keeping a secret, “Shh,” Secret Songs is unlike most indie labels that popped up in 2014. Hemsworth understands his audience better than any A&R and navigates their universe with ease. Supporting him on this leg of the tour is Tennyson, a brother-sister duo barely out of high school whose bombastic brand of electro-pop drew a headliner-sized crowd at Bowery Ballroom.
“Ryan messaged me on Facebook about his manager really wanting to get on a call with me,” Luke Tennyson said when asked how he became part of the label. “After that Ryan’s manager became my manager. Before any of that, I had like 1000 followers on Soundcloud.”
The duo’s track “You’re Cute” was the first release from Secret Songs in May. The song sounds like a collection of triumphant moments in a video game, gliding through levels of dance, jazz, blues and pop seamlessly, each transition a small victory.
Tennyson’s music taps into the collaborative ethos of this next generation of musicians who find their start on platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp.
“I think its crazy. I was just putting stuff online and all of this happened. The amount of people who are shouting Tennyson at the show is all because of Soundcloud. Its insane.” Tennyson said.
Hemsworth brings that collaborative approach to his label, offering wider exposure for artists he finds online. Talking with him, I got the sense that this isn’t part of some master plan to win at “youth branding,” but instead an organic result of his own habits, a suspicion he somewhat corroborated in the interview.
Hemsworth sees it as similar to “how people lurk each other on Instagram.”
“For me it’s just like using every tool of social media and digging around until I find something that’s really good, but maybe not established for whatever reason.”
In September, Secret Songs released a compilation for free on Soundcloud. The release was a collection of tracks centered around #ffb6c1, the hex code for the color pink.
“I just wanted to have a super simple theme with it that each artist could bring their own interpretation to.” Hemsworth said. “For the next release the color is black so I’ve reached out to guys like Suicideyear and Fifty Grand who already have that sort of atmosphere in their music.”
Hemsworth describes his label as a chance for him to make decisions unencumbered by industry pressures. At his Bowery Ballroom show, he wears a t-shirt for musician Ricky Eat Acid, who also has a track on Secret Songs, and bounces between tracks from his latest record and floor-shaking remixes of obscure k-pop and rap songs at the drop of a hat; proving to be both a brilliant marketer and a hyperactive collaborator. With his Secret Songs label, he manages to blend those two skills.
That means a certain level of transparency can be expected when it comes to the label’s releases. In our conversation, I got the sense that artists featured on Secret Songs are musicians that Hemsworth really enjoys and who he genuinely wants to see have a wider audience.
“For the first compilation it was just a lot of people I wanted to work with. It was also a chance to release music from a lot of female producers that I’ve been a fan of for a long time now,” Hemsworth said.
With songs from artists like Ellie Herring and Kero Kero Bonito, shh#ffb6c1 is a perfect introduction to the label. With streaming platforms quickly becoming the norm in music consumption, Ryan Hemsworth’s not-so-secret Secret Songs opens up a new world of possibilities for distributing music online, regardless of industry restraints.
“This has been really fun for me because its a lot of the stuff that made me really excited about releasing music in the beginning. I think its sort of a response to a lot of the stuff I have going on now where its like every song needs a blog premiere and just relying on outside sources.” Hemsworth said. “With Secret Songs I wanted to eliminate that and just release the tracks on Soundcloud and send them to the people who I know would like it.”