“Is there any consideration or thought for artist development in the modern digital release domain?” – Lee Softley aka Blue Amazon

I recently came across a topic of discussion on social media that Lee Softley brought up after a visit to ADE. It was about up and coming producers and what support is out there for artists from labels these days and what possible solutions could there be to find the next Underworld or Chemical Brothers.

Things have changed a lot over the past 20 or so years for all involved. Before streaming platforms such as Spotify existed producers were making good money from their releases on CD and Vinyl, however in the current climate of digital sales and streaming even established producers make a fraction of what they were and up and coming producers will have to make a lot of music to even be able to afford a Chinese takeaway.

I mean how long is this sustainable? Many producers I know do it for the love of it but the next generation, how long will they persevere for before they get alienated with the whole industry. It seemed like an interesting topic so we welcome Lee Softley perhaps better known as Blue Amazon, one of the key players of progressive house in the 90s and who has remixed icons such as Madonna and New Order.

Your recent trip to Amsterdam for ADE sparked off this conversation for you. Can you tell us the good and the bad from your observations?

Ok, first of all, thank you for having me. Before I start getting into to this I think it’s important to highlight that my comments regarding ADE were based on conversations and observations whilst I was there. ADE in itself I think is fantastic and a very healthy breeding ground for people to meet, network and productivity. It’s not many times in the year that you have a lot of like-minded people, cool music events and the industry all in one place.

Highlights for me being there were meeting acts such as “Drunken Kong”, chatting to “Christian Smith”, the Tronic label party was awesome, Phutek DJ sets, bumping into DJ Pierre on the street, meeting up with long-term friend “Alex Flatner” and seeing what he was doing with his management of “Boris Brejcha”. I have to add that I was mainly invited along to some of these meets with “Mike Mannix” from “Iconic Underground” who was also conducting various press pieces with some of these people.

So, one of my topics of conversation when speaking to mainly labels was the whole area of artist development and is there any consideration or thought for this in the modern digital release domain. Sadly, in the majority and I emphasize not all, the answer is no.

For some the reason given was-

“that it’s not really the 90’s anymore and there’s not the money to support it”

and for some it’s was like asking if they ever considered that splitting atoms could really be possible, or the whole debate over which came first the chicken or the egg – i.e. which came first the artist or the industry that sells it?

I mean are we getting to the stage where it’s becoming like the whole coffee industry and debate that had to be addressed? I.e. super brands selling coffee but there was no consideration for the coffee farmers and fair trade? That was something that had to be addressed and it’s where “Fair Trade” came from. I have to say that for some younger labels and outfits this is understandable as they are growing in what technically is a new industry and a business model that is uncertain and not refined – in fact, we need a new model and fast.

As the artists aren’t making any money for their music the only way to make money is to get gigs and the releases are used as nothing more than a calling card. Do you think the overall quality of productions is suffering if you look at the average releases out now?

Yes, I think you are absolutely right, there is a panic and a silly mentality over how quickly and how often can I gain exposure. It might work for some artists but if you look at the majority of successes, the main emphasis is on quality first and not frequency. The idea is you make things count, make things last and stand the test of time, the question is are you a slave to marketing or an artist?

I’ve personally been involved in studio sessions overseas with established producers etc. and the talk before you have even hit a note on a keyboard is all about how many releases we should release in one year.

I’ve often pointed out-

“didn’t we used to just go to the studio with an objective just to make something good?”

In terms of the gig aspect, releasing mass quantity doesn’t mean that you will get lots of gigs. Gigs are also about your presence, the buzz about you and the support you gain from your activities. Unfortunately, it’s also a sad state of affair’s that some promoters will book you based on Facebook likes first, rather than even considering if you’re actually a good DJ or not.

But here is a good example of how it could work better, look at the artist “Sam Paganini” – He was well known in the 90’s with his releases such as “Zoe”. But for a period of time and maybe because he wasn’t pushed in our faces, we didn’t hear as much about him. If you look his releases over the past 8 years or more, he was active and you can hear the development of his sound to where he is now.

Obviously, in recent years he’s become more familiar again with his involvement and releases on such as “Drumcode” and other labels. He released his track “Rave” which was also part of his huge “Satellite” album.

“Rave” was a track that stuck in the Top 100 Beatport techno charts for over 1 year and can still be heard in clubs now. He’s now one the hottest Techno DJs and plays worldwide etc. The point is – it wasn’t all about frequency of releases, or marketing ploys, it was about his own artistic development and quality.

For a lot of up and coming producers who don’t currently have a well-known name. It seems the only way to progress is to keep trying to make music good enough to get on to the bigger well-known labels and then hope their demo is heard or be lucky they have some connections. Many of the bigger labels you only ever see well-known names that are already making a good living, do you think all labels should take a responsibility to unearth gems / artists? I know some do but many are all about right now.

Well this is an area where a lot of concern is generated, because how many bigger labels or known labels will actually and honestly listen to demos from unknown artists?

A lot of the established labels are fed music from their own networks, friends of friends, DJs they know, people they have worked with before etc. Again, this is understandable as it’s a lot harder to check out the unknown artist’s material, make decisions on their music, strike up a new relationship and also you might have to put in place some help and development in getting the artist up to speed, sounds like more work and effort, right?

Again, it goes back to the comments that –

“it’s not the 90’s anymore and there’s no value in doing that and we don’t make much money from digital releases etc”.

But that’s not completely a valid argument and a poor excuse. In the 90’s when I started out I got a lot of support and development from 7pm / Jackpot records. When we were first introduced to Seven Webster from what became Jackpot Records, Blue Amazon was nothing and just a name with a few demos.

But this is what Seven and Jackpot did. They signed our first release, they consistently advised us on how to make improvements to our music technically and they instantly went out of their way to get us involved with remixes with other labels to help us grow. They spent a lot of time finding out what we were about, what our long-term objectives were and what we wanted from all of this.

So, what’s so different between now and in the 90’s? Using my example with “Jackpot Record,” did they know at that time if their efforts spent were going to be a guaranteed commercially viable business prospect? Did they know that we would be able to develop a live act and become an album-recording artist?

The answer is simply no they didn’t and they didn’t have any long-term commitment from us at that point either. What they did do is work with us and helped us grow so we could achieve those goals and there wasn’t any money in it for them at the start. It was more about belief and being creative with artist development.

So, in the modern domain it seems it’s more about taking the easier option, the quickest tried and tested methods and the excuse can be lack of sales returned from MP3’s. Particularly in the UK we have always embraced moving forward in music but sadly recently and not just in the UK we are falling in to the trap of repetition.

Bigger labels don’t seem to take many risks with new artists, as a well-known name is always a safer and more appealing option for the label in terms of promoting their own label. Seems in many cases to me but not all that labels don’t seem to offer any mentor-ship or assistance now; young artists are just a commodity that can be used to help the label fill their release schedules.

Personally, I have had releases that have had next to no promo from labels, tracks have been put up for sale but it seems like they have zero interest in trying to sell it, why do labels do this and what’s the point, it would probably work out better to self-release. Do you think labels have forgotten what their responsibilities to the underground music scene are?

Well, first of all, where is the risk? It’s not like the majority of labels are investing in vinyl releases or manufacturing etc. The majority of the time the artist delivers or are under pressure to deliver the finished article and often they even deliver it fully mastered ready for the release. Some are even doing this via paying out for engineers and mastering too.

So, then the labels job is then to attach some artwork to the release, add a bio, also a lot of the time this comes from the artist directly and is just edited slightly. Artwork a lot of the time is a label template, which just requires a text update. They then upload it to a distribution portal and set a release date etc. The majority of this part of a release is pretty much cost-free and takes a minimal amount of time.

Then there is the promotion part of a release, ok some labels use promo portals such as “inflyte” to send out DJ promos which does cost money for the service but it’s not excessive. They might say “well we have the database” but let’s be honest data bases are thrown around like confetti at a wedding. I might be sounding harsh here and there are labels that do go the extra mile to get results but unfortunately, that’s the minority right now.

So hence what is the risk? If a label were to release music from an unknown artist I assume they would still ensure the quality was right and it was a fit for the labels sound and direction? So why do you need to look at the amount of Facebook likes the artists has first before actually considering signing them? And then make out it’s a risk and could be damaging?

In terms of unknown artists being a commodity to fill a label release schedule well, I think we have to be honest with ourselves and that also can apply to established artists too. We are in a market place where we all know; digital music sales are low and particularly in the electronic domain. One of the reasons for this is because the consumers don’t need to buy single releases or albums anymore. They can stream it and get the full listening experience without buying a physical purchase. The Internet is also littered with DJ mixes full of new releases as well.

So, who buys these releases then? Well, you could say DJs but then the majority of professional DJs get the music free via promos or handed to them directly. So then there’s the music enthusiast who maybe also has some DJ equipment at home but unfortunately, there is a proportion of these people who will download illegally. So, there’s not much left over is there?

This leads to a bigger point. So why do these labels bother releasing your music when rightly they’re not getting much back from it financially? And as you say some put little effort into it?

Well, I think it’s fair and only honest to point out that every time an artist releases a piece of music on a label, they are also contributing and advertising the building of a label brand. The brand development will have a lot more longevity than the individual artist releases on the label or brand. If that brand is successful it can go on to sell merchandise, T-shirts, host event nights, sponsorships etc.

These labels and brands don’t exist without you as an artist contributing music, so the artists should be considered higher in value and compensated in some form, helping the artist develop are one of the ways that can help compensate. Unfortunately, in the majority it’s becoming a 1-way street. I mean some labels wouldn’t be who they are without the artists that makes them, but the artist gets poor royalty statements because of the state of the market, often little support but the brand still exists.

This is something that is damaging a lot of artists unknown and the more established because a lot are giving up hope or becoming demotivated, – what benefit does that serve the future of the industry and exciting music? My opinion is absolutely none.

I think artists have to start having more confidence in what they are actually doing when signing music to labels these days. Are you making music to help sell a brands T-shirts? One of the first questions when you’re signing to a label, should be what are you going to do with my music and is there a plan etc. How quickly you get those answers come back will tell you an awful lot.

You run the record label Se-Lek Musik, you have many talented up and coming producers who have released on your label and have already had bigger labels looking at them such as, Med In Mars and Kiz Pattison. Would you say that one of the main goals for your label is to unearth gems and help expose them?

If the question is, are we a development label or exposure platform, erm yes and no! We always wanted to look at new artists and what they are doing and we will try helping them grow as much as we can. Very much based my own experiences when I first got signed with 7pm / Jackpot, these principles are part of our label. We don’t care how many Facebook likes you have, how many times you have released music elsewhere and we treat every project and artist the same regardless of their profile.

Essentially, it’s about the music the artists are making and like other labels is it a fit with our direction, which can often be quite a wider scope than one genre specifically. If an artist comes to us and even ones that have already released with us previously, say their music is good but maybe not quite what we are looking for, we will try to ensure that the music goes to another suitable home.

We get very excited by new artists and what they are doing and jump at the chance to get involved and find out more. If they are someone we think we can work with we will try to present a plan of action. Once again following the principles of my own label experiences in the early days we will try get them remix work elsewhere and press pieces if possible.

It’s great that some of the bigger labels are considering the artists that we have maybe given a helping hand to and we wouldn’t begrudge any one of them getting an opportunity or signing to a platform bigger than ours. As I have already mentioned about brand building, we appreciate and respect the artist contribution to that and we are always looking at ways to improve it for a more even playing field.

At present we are in process of redefining the label business model and trying to abandon outdated methods and contracting % etc. In the New Year, we could be one of the first labels to give all artist 100% royalties in terms of sales and streaming revenue. This is maybe one small way we can help support artist better for the future and hopefully contribute to artist creativity and desire for them to push themselves harder.

Regarding established artists, of course, we are also interested in them but on the same basis as the others, it’s about what you do musically and not who you are.

There are producers I speak to regularly who are very talented, some I know have had their tracks played by massive names such as John Digweed for years yet they still remain stuck struggling to get further due to their unknown name as they can’t get a release on a massive label. How do you think this can be overcome?

Well, that’s a good point and it just shows that certain endorsements don’t mean that you will be necessarily heard. I would go back to the example I was talking about earlier in regards to “Sam Paganini” and how he’s reinvented himself. But I also think that artists need to become more aware and not buy into a lot of the bullshit that’s fed to them out there.

If you want to be a good artist, then focus on being a good artist and don’t get wrapped up into the crap that you have to be a social media expert; you need to get yourself a PR company to generate some exposure, maybe you need to clean someone’s shoes or buy them dinner? Quite frankly say fuck off to that and don’t buy into it. In effect, by buying into that you’re actually feeding the problem.

Don’t go chasing big labels, try finding a home that you are comfortable with and with people who will take the care to help you progress. Believe me, as soon as you’re making the mark you desire all the labels you wanted to chase will start chasing you. I understand that being on an established label will give you a bigger instant exposure or advertisement, but if that’s not happening well you need to look at other options.

Again, when I signed to 7pm / Jackpot the label didn’t even exist and we were also offered options such as “Paul Oakenfold” and Perfecto. So why sign to a label that didn’t exist, well simply because there was a plan there, the enthusiasm was there and it wasn’t just of case of I’ll release your music on my platform.

Musically again as already mentioned creating a track that’s absolutely unique and purposeful will do you more good than releasing 5 that sound like everything else out there. When artists also stop adhering to these ridiculous expectations it will also help everything else change including labels mentalities.

What was your opinion on the recent Mihalis Safras situation? Was this also a message to up and coming producers?

Well it was definitely an example of not what to do and how it can backfire in and industry where people are becoming very outspoken. The thing for me is it wasn’t a new story and its being going on for years. In the 90’s people used remix parts from Blue Amazon they obtained in their original productions. The worst case was somebody once uploaded Blue Amazon remix parts to a file share portal.

I’m not the only one it’s happened to and what about all the plagiarism that goes on? Again, in the 90’s artists would record tracks and days after they recorded them the tracks ended up on acetates, played out and other productions teams would steal all their ideas and recreate them. Often, they would release the plagiarized version before the artist who originally created it did.

BT was an example of being plagiarised in this fashion. I’m not a fan of witch hunts on other artists and maybe it should have been kept quiet in my personal opinion. One thing I will add though is this, when underground artists steal or take samples from say an artist like “Michael Jackson” or “Madonna “etc, just because they are or were huge and not underground, it’s still the same principle

Can you suggest some solutions that labels could look at which will help the next wave of producers?

Well ok, kind of summarising really but yes labels can change their business models and the way they deal with artist contracting and % to give the artist more in return. Based on my previous comments that labels still build brands even in a period of low sales etc. Otherwise, there could be a brand override for an artist that generates more exposure?

I’m not suggesting they don’t recoup their costs first but considering most are more focused on the bigger picture and brand, do they really need that extra little bit of revenue? It might not make heaps of difference with smaller labels but with the bigger labels it could certainly help, the more established a label is, the more power they have to make a change.

Labels can help more in terms of educating artists in terms of things such as publishing and how it can be beneficial to them. They can support more in terms of helping the artists with such areas as developing their music production if required and not to be as dismissive if it’s not quite the finished article.

If a label has the ability or connection to help push the artist with PR then obviously it’s a no-brainer to try. There’s lots of talk about label events and gigs but why aren’t we seeing more of the unknown artist / DJs being introduced alongside the established artists? It makes no sense not to be pushing these artists more.

Labels can also release more mini albums or EPs mixed with their established artists and the unknown ones.
What about even some of the bigger named producers – who lead labels maybe remixing an unknown on their labels to help them get recognised?

When I posted those comments on social media I talked about football for example and how international football had to address nurturing youth football for the future. I’m not saying that label should have a talent scout system in place but there could be more focus on finding the next super talent rather than an expectation that it will just happen and be delivered.

We are essentially asking labels to be a label once again, in the short term it might be more work and little in return, but if you are that label that helps produce the next “Underworld” or “leftfield” well your rewards will be far greater. I think also particularly in the UK we need to step up a gear, for a nation that was once considered that we were so forward we used to meet ourselves coming backwards, well let’s just say we are far leading anything right now in terms of electronic music.

Who from your knowledge are trying and making efforts for change?

Well in terms of labels you have to mention names such as “Suara and Coyu” who often talks about releasing unknown artist material and demanding that people should treat them as no different to the named releases.

Loose Records and Unrilis” in Italy have quite a number of regular releases from UN established artists and I saw first-hand their support for them whilst at ADE.

Monika Kruse and Terminal M” is another label that features undiscovered artists and she seems to make a point of how she was introduced and discovered their music.

New Violence Records” feature a lot of cool new artists amongst their releases, Phutek label layer 909, Kling Klong Records Germany often do the same, Pro-B-Tech Records on the progressive side are making efforts in management of artists, ICONYC consistently push new people and willing to get remixes for the unknown names.

There are obviously others and I’m not being dismissive, but these labels instantly spring to my mind. In other areas, “The Best Sets” who have the popular YouTube channel / streaming services for showcasing DJs are starting a dedicated section for promoting and featuring unknown DJs.

In Ireland “Phever TV / Radio” have set up monthly radio discussion “The Shooting Gallery” the last Friday of the month 7 till 8pm with selected industry to run through artist demos and more. I was reading about the Pioneer collaboration with CU and unknown DJs featured via their radio channel.

The Techno artist “Arjun Vagale” in India is consistently outputting and collaborating in music conferences and workshops, not only aid artist music production but also to give advice and nurturing.

Rondo – www.rondo.me/ have set up a portal, which is subscription based but allows DJs, artist and labels to connect better, and features good booking / agent features.

If you want to learn more about music publishing and potentially money that is owed to you as an artist outside of music / label sales, I highly recommend watching some YouTube videos by “Jeff Price”. He will give you a good insight to what’s really going in this area. For those that don’t have a music publisher, there are services available such as “Tunstat” that’s can help track and trace for you.

Thank you Lee. I’m sure your advice and pointers will be a valuable insight to many young upcoming artists.

Links:

Fbook: facebook.com/blueamzon/
Fbook: facebook.com/selekmusik/
Web: http://selekmusik.com

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About the author

George is a house music producer & DJ, touching on Progressive and Techno. He is signed to Pro B Tech Managements artist’s roster and has released music on labels including Pro B Tech, B-Tech Noir, ICONYC, Plethora, Clinique and more. His DJ sets and productions are atmospheric, melodic and sometimes groovy. George has played the piano from a young age and has since moved on to electronic music, digital and analog synth’s and DJing using many formats including vinyl, CDJs, Traktor & Ableton.

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