Powering down: the story and legacy of PC Music

As they stop releasing new music after a decade of constant innovation, we look back on the story of the most influential label of the streaming age – and explain why now is the perfect time for A. G. Cook to call it quits

Record labels are inherently messy and complicated organisations. On paper they may appear simply tastemaker operations, hand-selecting artists they love and, through releasing their music, forming an identity and developing a following along the way. In reality, even if they can sufficiently get off the ground, they become multi-headed beasts that need to act like an accountancy firm or HR department as much as they do a creative outlet. 

In an industry where success is often defined as simply surviving, for record a label to start, breakthrough, thrive and have a genuine paradigm-shifting impact is incredibly rare, especially in an era where Spotify playlists are often more influential than the labels who sign and release the music featured on them. The age of the record label as a buzzy, zeitgeist-shifting epicentre is practically over. Which is what makes PC Music, a label set up by producer A. G. Cook in 2013, such a unique entity. As it announces that after ten years of operating it will cease to release any new music, it leaves behind a legacy that is almost unparalleled in contemporary music. A record label born from seemingly nothing – a few tracks uploaded to Soundcloud – to something that in many ways defined the sound, style, aesthetic and culture of an entire decade. 

Cook was brought up in London – the only child of two architects – and was a relative latecomer to music, deciding, on something of a whim, to join the school funk band on guitar in sixth form. At Goldsmiths university he undertook a course literally called Music Computing, and here he reconnected with old school friend Danny L Harle to form Dux Content. Inspired by nostalgic explorations of technology via art in the comedy duo Tim and Eric, a blend of music and technology – both sonically and aesthetically – was baked into Cook’s interests from the off. The natural conclusion was to create an outlet like PC Music (Personal Computer Music), and he launched the label with the aim of “recording people who don’t normally make music and treating them as if they’re a major label artist.” 

Cook shunned press to begin with. There were no meticulously planned and prolonged release campaigns, just an endless and spontaneous dumping of new acts and songs for people to catch up with. The label dropped several singles and EPs, spanning around 40 tracks, in its first year from the likes of GFOTY, easyFun, Princess Bambi, Hannah Diamond, Danny L Harle and some of Cook’s solo work. All of it on Soundcloud, all for free. The music was often a brash mix of jittery electronics, euphoric trance, styles of pop that spanned Europe, Japan and Korea, the kind of pitch-shifted vocals normally reserved for pummelling happy hardcore records; all coated with a production style that felt simultaneously retro and futuristic. It was bubblegum pop that was chewed up, spat out and chewed up again. Much of it would become known as its own new genre: hyperpop.    

By eschewing standard label conventions and approaches, it was quickly emerging that PC Music was more of a sprawling and interactive online art collective made up of producers and vocalists all collaborating together, rather than just a simple outlet for releases. Aliases and characters were made, along with conceptual cyber figures and fake pop stars like QT (a project consisting of Hayden Dunham, Cook, the late producer SOPHIE and singer Harriet Pittard). QT, who to this day has only released one track ‘Hey QT’, was a popstar whose only sole purpose to exist was seemingly to promote her own energy drink. It immediately and intentionally blurred the lines between marketing and art, fashion and music, irony and sincerity. Was it a satire of our insatiable appetite to consume or just an extension of its methods? 

PC Music created a world to inhabit and explore as much as it purely offered a selection of music to take in. The bonkers sugary pop run through a wood chipper sound of the label was reflected in its aesthetic too. 1990s computer graphics intermingled with big, bold, bright colours. Artwork that could feel both cheap yet slick. Half arsed but also deeply considered. One standout was the cover for easyFun’s 2015 Deep Trouble EP, which mimicked the EasyJet logo on a plane that had crash landed onto water, with Sims-like characters shooting down the inflatable escape slide to party. Champagne bottles and a keg float in the water, while the characters are bikini ready. It’s a piece of artwork that feels exactly like how the music sounded: over the top, daft, fun, extreme.  

Also inspired by the Japanese concept of kawaii (cuteness), PC Music’s aesthetic was camp and shiny but also had undertones that were harsh and abrasive. Centred around consumerism, cyberculture, advertising and the existence of modern life online (often all chopped up and jammed together, much like the music itself), a slew of titles were thrown at PC Music’s existence: post-modernist, post-ironic, post-internet, post-genre. It was of course brutally divisive. It drew just about every clichéd criticism and accusation you could imagine: “it’s not real music”, “my child could make this”, “hipster bollocks” etc. etc. In some ways it’s understandable, it is the kind of music that is maddening to many; like all the worst parts of early-2000s pop merged with all the worst types of house music, filtered through an all too knowingly antagonistic yet cutesy production style. It felt designed and engineered to push buttons, to prod at the status quo, to drive home poptimist values to patience-testing extremes. For many, it lacked subtlety and was artless art. But it was also overtly, and celebratorily, feminine in its style and execution. Tracks like ‘Every Night’ by Hannah Diamond were almost naive and teenager-like in their lyrical explorations of love. Merged with the blindingly glossy nature of the music, you had something that felt as girly as a fresh copy of J-17. Exploding at a time when techno bros were reigning supreme in clubs, for many this music offered up a refreshingly playful approach that was anti-macho and anti-purist. A dose of fun that was also undeniably fresh. 

Needless to say, it confused the hell out of people. Was it “the future of pop or contemptuous parody?” asked The Guardian. Is PC Music “really the worst thing ever to happen to dance music?” pondered VICE. Sam Wolfson, in that same Guardian article – in which he’s treated like a prop in the PC Music world, hopping from one manufactured interview environment to another – perfectly surmised it as: “music which sounds like Japanese tween pop of the distant future played through the JD Sports in-store radio of 2002; an internet-only cooperative whose fetishisation of manufactured pop and AOL-era internet aesthetics has led it to create what might be thought of as a club-based version of the Disney Channel.”  

People couldn’t make up their minds. Was it a piss take? Pure agitation? The music was often so extreme in its tonalities that it only ever offered a binary love or hate response. Although there was occasionally a third option, which I’ve personally slipped into from time-to-time, in liking some of the output a great deal more than others but regardless having a deep appreciation of something that could come along in the 2010s and disrupt the world of dance and pop music so spectacularly. 

It was a situation that the label embraced. “I’m not surprised it’s become a talking point,” Cook told The Guardian. “It’s presenting itself in a very full-on way, but I wouldn’t wanna dismiss either side. Are we stage-managed or disorganised? Are we oversharing or mysterious? Even the name itself is malleable because it’s so literal, it can be interpreted to mean any genre or style.”

In 2015 the label started releasing influential compilation albums properly – i.e. people could buy and download them – featuring their ever-growing roster, and the impact of the label’s sound, affiliate artists and distinct tone began to spread. SOPHIE was writing and producing for Madonna; Charli XCX’s shift to more experimental pop came via working with PC Music artists on 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP, swiftly followed by her hiring Cook as her creative director. That same year Harle was collaborating with Carly Rae Jepsen

For a few years the label existed in a kind of liminal space between fantasy and reality, where it was its own subculture and musical genre. It was in a deeply unique position of making music that was reflective of a hyperactive online culture, the very essence of real-time music making, while also blazing something of a trail for how music, style, fashion and language would evolve. In a few years it went from an indefinable, strange, singular curiosity to a template trend-setter. The likes of 100 Gecs popped up, fully embracing all things PC Music, and soon the layering of everything all at once became omnipresent in culture. 

Over the years the label’s role shifted however. Despite hyperpop being a term that had been following the label around since 2014, by 2018 Spotify had deemed that enough activity around it existed for it to be officially declared a genre. It got its own officially curated Spotify playlist. All of a sudden, teenage bedroom producers like osquinn would blow up overnight, reaching streams in the millions after being included on it. When Cook did a takeover of the playlist, adding tracks by the likes of J Dilla and Kate Bush, he received kick back from the next wave of hyperpop producers such as osquinn. Times were changing, but what a compliment for the universe Cook has built: the fact that something PC Music was so instrumental in creating and popularising had now evolved into something more fluid and indefinable than ever, gaining new syles, definitions and interpretations, is perhaps the most fitting testimony to a label that was always rooted in evading easy, lazy categorisation. 

While retaining much of its core sound and style over the years, it’s also fair to say that PC Music wasn’t a one-trick hyperpony. Recent album releases by the likes of Holly Waxwing and Ö contained many elements that critics once argued were entirely absent from the label’s work: space, subtlety, tenderness, delicacy. 

Today the label’s influence can be felt in both the underground and the mainstream, reverberating in the micro and the macro. In Chal Ravens’ excellent 2022 article for DJ Mag, she explored “how pop became the sound of the underground”, a lineage which can be directly traced to the output of PC Music. As for the mainstream, if you were to take the fundamental sonic and aesthetic principles of PC Music and ask AI to make a movie based on it, the results probably wouldn’t be too far from the new Barbie film – all maximalist and glaring and unashamedly pop. Not to mention its soundtrack, which features Charli XCX.

On one hand it seems like a strange move for a label to call it a day when it’s still clearly discovering and releasing interesting new music, but there is also something almost perfect about accepting one’s own limitations and self destructing with such clinical neatness. There is a beauty in knowing that you created a zeitgeist movement that changed the shape, tone, colour and style of both pop and dance music, while acknowledging that that same world moves at such a pace that one minute you can be leading the charge and the next minute you are chasing it. It’s the perfect PC Music ending.   

A. G. Cook by Alaska Reid
A word from A. G. Cook

We emailed Cook a few questions about if he’d always planned to stop PC Music after 10 years, what he feels the label’s legacy is, and the ambitions he had for it in those early days. He wrote back:

PC Music has never had a specific manifesto – when I started it in 2013 it felt like I was trying to nurture something that I couldn’t quite define, just a feeling of untapped energy and potential. Over the years it’s been characterised by a shared attitude of risk taking and an unspoken certainty that pop music can’t be fully owned or explained by the mainstream or the underground.

In a world of streaming and smartphones, the idea of “newness” has slightly blurred into the more drab notion of “content”, of a state that is constantly updating but never ending. 

I genuinely believe that the work done by PC Music and its affiliated artists transcends the ordinary. While that decade of work speaks for itself, some of my favourite parts of it are still obscure, unknown or completely untapped, and absolutely worthy of exploration.

I’ve always been interested in how we categorise the past, present and future. It’s integral to making music, running a label or defining a genre. PC Music isn’t doing what a traditional record label would do, it’s evolving into a new form and celebrating the newest music that ever was.”