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In three years, Relief in Abstract Records – the crew that launched phenom XXYYXX, whose music has garnered tens of millions of YouTube views – has become Orlando’s most wave-making electronic music label. And its founders still can’t legally drink.
The idea began between buddies Jered Dowden and Lex Johnson (who met at Oviedo Mall when Dowden was 16 and Johnson 15). Relief in Abstract actually sprung up from a generic suburban landscape that Johnson says was full of “really bad hardcore, really bad metal music.” At the time, he was active in a band with XXYYXX’s Marcel Everett. Dowden was the band’s manager. While painting Dowden’s room, the two pondered ways they could promote good area music. By the time Johnson got home, Dowden had already created a Facebook page for their venture and dubbed it Relief in Abstract.
RIA was a creative umbrella that started with music projects by their immediate friends (XXYYXX and Fortune Howl), then expanded to their friends’ sonically like-minded friends (electronic acts Grant and Marble) until the name gained enough traction to bring on outside submissions (Spies on Bikes).
Despite their prevailing rock surroundings, there was a new, altogether different drift among RIA’s foundational artists, like XXYYXX and Fortune Howl.
“They started experimenting with electronic music,” Dowden says. “They started listening to artists like Flying Lotus and James Blake. And they started getting more and more inspired and deeper into that L.A. beat scene that was going on, as well as London garage music. It was just interesting to us that they were making pro-sounding music so young, and we wanted to get our foot in the door with music as well.”
The forces of their circumstance – both intentional and serendipitous – took rapid shape. “We were a bunch of teenagers,” says Johnson. “[XXYYXX’s] Marcel was 15 when [his debut] Still Sound came out, I was 16, [Dowden] was 17 … and I think that was something that gave us a little bit of attention. And I think [the creative direction of] people like Guillermo [Casanova] and Alana [Questell], that kind of helped us get the image, and that helped us feel less like a group of kids trying to do something and feel like something more legitimate and more like a business.”
The alignment of their stars would prove a powerful thing, altering their realities suddenly. “When people were asking me [about interning at the label] at first, I was working at Del Taco,” Johnson laughs. “I was like, I make tacos, man, and you want an internship?”
The whirlwind since has whisked them around the country and even to Europe and Mexico on tours. Still, the two are awestruck whenever they reflect on their artists arriving in major music cities to celebrity reception (as when XXYYXX and Fortune Howl sold out the Music Hall of Williamsburg last summer).
From the beginning, RIA has operated as more of a familial collective than a traditional output-based label, built on joint sufficiency (management, promotions, etc.) and creative cross-pollination. They fostered a sense of scene both within and around the label by emphasizing community, often presenting together in full-label showcases. Even with the outsized recognition of flagship artist XXYYXX, RIA remains egalitarian, pushing all their artists with an even hand.
Although RIA rose as an electronic label, that signature was incidental and, in fact, may soon change. “That’s not what we aspire to be,” Johnson says. “It just happened to work out that way.”
RIA’s latest addition is Orlando indie-pop act Out Go the Lights, the collective’s first full band and a pivot toward a different route for a label that – despite its still-fresh niche foothold – is committed to forward motion.
“I’m at the point right now with electronic music that I’m kind of getting away from it,” Johnson admits, citing the dilution of a genre in boom. “There are a lot of people that do a lot of amazing stuff, but you can find 100,000 people on SoundCloud that make the same song that have the same presets from Logic Pro or from Ableton or from Fruity Loops. I’ve gotten hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of submissions to the label … and half of them sound exactly the same.”
Besides territory, RIA looks to expand in identity. Johnson says, “Another thing I think we want to try to do is bring on some new acts … and to try and grow past just being known as an electronic label or the XXYYXX label.”
But first, there’s the special anniversary event for the hometown base. “They’ve supported us for a long time, and they mean a lot to us as fans … and we want to make it more than just like another show,” Johnson says.
“They’re really active supporters,” Dowden says. “They’re family, essentially.” And family, it seems, is something Relief in Abstract knows about.
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