Dublab, Cornerstone of L.A.'s Avant-Electro Scene, Marks 15 Years – But How'd They Stick Around?

Dublab's crew of DJs.

Since its founding in 1999 as one of the first 24-hour internet radio stations, Los Angeles' dublab (a portmanteau of "dubbing" and "laboratory") co-founder Mark "Frosty" McNeill" and the rest of the staff "labrats" have staked their antennae on live events, products, and programming you won't find anywhere else.

To name a few: the Playbutton, a wearable mp3 player that streams playlists from Tonalism, a 12-hour, all-night dronefest series; Into Infinity, an international online and physical art and music exhibit done in collaboration with Creative Commons; and "Secondhand Sureshots," a DVD and CD chronicling the process of L.A. musicians crate-digging for records and making new sounds out of them. An all-star roster of DJs that has included such L.A. notables as Flying Lotus, the Gaslamp Killer, and Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel (and the Postal Service) have spun for an estimated 300,000 listeners worldwide, from Tokyo to London to Belgium. 

Like most good things that last, dublab's story begins with a sense of humor. "There was a magic egg that cracked in two," McNeill joked to Billboard over the phone. "No, it very much grew out of the USC student radio station [KSCR, now KXSC]. We had a very good group of folks there in the mid-90s. A lot of us spent a good four years there getting really excited about radio and sharing underground music."

With some of his former classmates he launched dublab to "create a station that was very community-driven, very focused on music that was being neglected or minimally covered." McNeill then fielded a lot of investment interest from the dot-com community -- that promptly evaporated when the NASDAQ bottomed out in March of 2000 and the investor responsible for the site's banner ad backed out. Though their status as a for-profit LLC worked for a while, "for a radio station that's doing things on the fringes of music," says McNeill, "that profit was hard to materialize." 

In 2008, the dublab team decided to form a non-profit umbrella corporation, Future Roots. "After years of operating under a more traditional model of a radio station, it felt like a natural progression, focusing on the world of approaching music as an art form instead of just purely entertainment," says Alejandro Cohen, a full-time labrat (he's also a musician, composing for television in addition to playing slinky, funk-indebted house as part of L.A. trio Pharaohs.)

According to Cohen, like many public radio stations, 40 percent of dublab's funding comes from their bi-annual Proton Drives, featuring donations, sponsors, matching grants, and premiums sent to listeners for their contribution. Two other events -- an intimate salon-style evening featuring food and drinks and the station's September anniversary party -- brings in another 10 to 15 percent. The rest comes from underwriting, grants, and odds and ends: a sound system they make available for rent, event curation, etc.

Where dublab differs from many public radio stations is in their production of original content, such as recordings and in-studio "Sprout" sessions, which listeners can download through the Creative Commons license. Along with Seattle's KEXP and nonprofit musician and technology organization CASH Music, dublab participates in New Jersey freeform station WFMU's Free Music Archive, an open database of pre-cleared songs and samples. (Some of them, like the "Beat Blast" compilation, are only available to Proton Drive contributors.)  

"We've always tried to be really open about giving people what records they're hearing, so they can go out and continue that search," says McNeill. "As record buyers, we've been in those stores where you get a sense of ego and the clerk wants to know it all and is very judgmental of what people are playing, but we've also been in those stores where the clerk so welcoming and eager to turn you on to stuff they love. That's the direction we try to follow. We've heard from listeners the trajectory of their lives have been changed by things they've heard on dublab."

Dublab DJ Matthew McQueen was one such listener. After he started working at dublab when they turned nonprofit, a turning point in his career came during one Tonalism event held at Big Sur's Henry Miller Library. "This sleepy ambient music performance was completely magical," says McQueen, who also spins and produces dreamy sound collages as Matthewdavid. "I got to watch Animal Collective deejay. With the mist and the fog and the redwoods, it was the perfect musical experience."

Inspired by that night and seeing the labrats at work, McQueen started his own record label, Leaving Records, which started out as a garage and bedroom project before being picked up as an imprint by seminal L.A. label Stones Throw. "When we put up our first tapes for sale, dublab was the one posting about it and spreading it from the very beginning," he says. "My loyal fanbase, that buys every tape or every record that we put up? The basis of that is dublab followers."

"Regardless of whether they had the outlet of dublab to share the music, they're exploring the music, sharing it, deejaying, doing other projects," adds McNeill, "but having the platform of dublab is another great reaon to propel them further int heir exploration."