Starting a record label? Best take some notes then

Recently the great guys at Attack Magazine released this amazing guide on setting up a record label. We thought it was such a great piece, we just had to share it. Make sure you give the guys a follow on their facebook as well.

Running a label is easy. The day-to-day process, at least. Anyone can do that bit. Running a good label? That’s a whole different ball game. Think for a moment about your own favourite imprints and what characterises them. Whether they’re genre-defining legends like Trax, Warp, Strictly Rhythm, Transmat and Metalheadz or more recent names like Hyperdub, Ostgut Ton, Ed Banger and LIES, chances are it will be far more than just the music, because there are many labels that release great music, but that doesn’t necessarily make them great labels. The true standouts are those that make your heart flutter when you see their logo popping out at you from a record rack – those buy-on-sight guarantees of quality and a clearly defined aesthetic; those whose way of doing things you admire; labels whose entire ethos you subscribe to.

“THE BEST RECORD LABELS ARE CULTURAL ICONS THAT CAN REFLECT THE TIMES WE LIVE IN.”

The best record labels are cultural icons that can reflect the era we live in as well as any social study. They are historical journals, forever setting in stone musical trends, format fetishes and other signs of the times. They aren’t just about delivering music to people – if all you care about is letting people hear your music, get a SoundCloud account. They’re about identities and stories, communities and, in some cases, whole lifestyles. The labels to which we submit and subscribe are those we consciously or sub-consciously allow to define our own identities; they’re extensions of our personalities, signifiers of our self.

EASIER THAN EVER
Starting a label in 2013 is easier than it’s ever been. Digital music can be released in your sleep and even pressing a small vinyl run is a fairly straightforward process. That said, 2013 is also the toughest time to start a label thanks to the ever-rising tide of homogenised averageness which gets released each and every day. No longer are 300 hand stamped, ‘limited’ white labels enough to get you noticed (except, most likely, for the wrong reason). Barely a day goes by without a new label being announced, and when pressed about their motivation for adding to a saturated market, all too many label owners resort to that trite platitude: “We just want to release good music that we like.” So where do you start? Is a desire to take control of the release process sufficient justification for launching a label?

For Midland, currently enjoying the success of release 001 on his newly minted Graded, it was “just a desire to present my music in the way I want to, with an emphasis on distinctive artwork and a collectable vinyl product. I want the label to feel hand made,” he continues, “from the artwork to the music; something that has the digital edges rounded off.” And with that he has an MO, the basis of a clearly defined aesthetic, a loose template on which to build in the future.

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A STUDENT OF OCCULT, QUANTUM PHYSICS, NEW AGE PHILOSOPHIES AND THE ESOTERIC, SO WE’RE PLAYING WITH THESE IDEAS VERY SUBTLY THROUGH THE LABEL.”

Detroit sex-punk Jimmy Edgar had grander designs from the off. His new Ultramajic label – run with Machinedrum – has been birthed to “develop artists, develop a new sound for myself and take this visual journey more seriously. I’ve always been a student of occult, quantum physics, new age philosophies and the esoteric, so we’re playing with these ideas very subtly through the label.” Of course, it will take the passage of time and arrival of a few releases for these concepts to be implanted on the brains of those who buy Ultramajic releases, but if you don’t start right, you ain’t gonna end right.

FORMAT FETISHISM
And then there’s the format itself. Midland admits to having had sleepless nights deciding on whether to be vinyl-only before coming to the conclusion that “it’s not my place to dictate what format someone buys and plays my music on”. Jimmy Edgar also stresses its importance: “It can make or break a label,” he explains. “For us it’s an advantage to have a really slick physical product because we want to create monumental statements.” Dixon Avenue Basement Jams concur on the importance of image: “Originally we had planned to just do white labels with no stamp and no info at all, but we thought after a while that would get boring for us and also, from my own personal experience working in Rubadub, white label records with no art tend to end up stuffed behind other releases on the wall, so we wanted something that would stand out on a record store wall and would be instantly recognisable.”

Not every label is conceived with such forethought, though. Since 2005, Yossi Amoyal has run the Sushitech label, home to luminaries such as Delano Smith and Steve O’Sullivan. “I always wanted to let the music be the driving force behind the label,” he explains, “rather than a release schedule or brand. The music dictates our schedule rather than the other way round, so we might have two releases a year or 10, it all depends on the music and if the artists and I feel right releasing it.”

At this point it’s important to consider the bravery – and by the same token, restraint – required to run a decent label. It would be easy to get sucked into a regular release schedule for a number of reasons – it keeps you in the public eye, you increase your chances of having a big hit, of becoming flavour of the month and so on, but once you set out your stall, you’d better hope you have badass beats on tap or you will inevitably have to lower your quality levels just to keep up with your own self-imposed schedule.

While avoiding the temptation to release more frequently and run the risk of reducing quality control, many of the label bosses we spoke to stressed the importance of sticking to a cohesive musical style rather than getting tempted to branch out into too many sounds at once. “You can find almost anything in my collection, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll release all these sounds and genres on Sushitech,” reckons Yossi. “If I did, it would be difficult to present the concise vision and message of our art as well as I hope to.” Critical boss Kasra puts it a different way: “It’s not a lack of ambition; you have to stick to what you know. Every scene needs labels that do their own, different stuff.”

A UNIFYING STYLE
This problem of having a unifying style which evolves over time is more relevant to older labels. Because dance music is an inherently and exhaustingly transient scene, tastes chance and styles evolve at a lightning pace; so how do you react to trends and changes in taste without appearing desperate to latch onto any emergent micro-scene as soon as it happens? Few genres have been as blighted by this problem as drum and bass, an area in which Kasra’s Critical label has excelled since the mid noughties.

“DO YOUR OWN THING OR DON’T BOTHER AT ALL.”

“If you’re there at the start people will follow, but if you come after it depends how you put it across,” muses the boss. “If you’ve always been seen to do different things, when you continue to explore styles it won’t seem contrived. If you’ve always been a certain way then drop onto a new style it will leave a bad taste in the mouth.”

Defected’s Greg Sawyer concurs: “Arguably, our target audience is anyone who likes house music, so that gives us a pretty wide scope when we approach people [for releases]. But it’s about choosing those people wisely, and delivering something we think our audience will appreciate, without becoming too predictable. For example, our Loco Dice In The House compilation – I bet no one saw that coming! It’s not the most obvious of collaborations, far from it, but I think it worked. Hopefully now there are some Loco Dice fans who are fans of Defected, and vice versa.”

Back to Kasra, who started Critical at a time when the popularity of drum and bass was already waning. That fact hasn’t stopped his label evolving into one of the pillars of whatever the genre has become in 2013. “When I started the label, the drum and bass scene was over-saturated,” he says. “There were so many labels it was out of control, so I knew we had to stand out and have a different edge from everyone else. I decided I was going to be conscious about how the records were presented. I was supportive of new artists – pretty much every artist we put out at first was new – and I was looking forward with the music rather than looking back.” In other words, do your own thing or don’t bother at all, because cashing in on the success and sounds of others who have gone before will not set you in good stead.

PUBLIC IMAGE
Rather than ride on the coat tails of those that had gone before, Kasra also distanced himself from the scene’s de facto standard imagery, something which helped to make the label stand out from the start. “It was important for me to avoid the whole alien graffiti imagery. It’s clichéd and I can’t stand it. It’s not what I’m about. I was taking inspiration from a lot of white label records outside drum and bass – so techno and guitar and hardcore records – how they were presented and the spirit of them. One of the things in our favour is that when people see a Critical release they have an idea of what it’s going to be. I think we’ve done enough different stuff to surprise people, but they will still know it’s essentially good underground drum and bass. You have to keep people guessing.”

“A NEW LABEL SHOULD BE A BIT BOLD, AND DELIVER SOMETHING THAT’S GONNA GET TALKED ABOUT.”

And then there’s the long view, the thoughts of those who have run labels for decades and have managed to keep them in the critical limelight, such as Nick Harris and NRK Music. What Harris doesn’t know about the business would fit on the back of a postage stamp. “An independent record label has a lifespan,” he asserts. “Whereby a new label will have their honeymoon period, connecting to their audience and delivering creative records to an eager and engaged audience. Then you have the slump, where you reach a comfort zone, and you start to get, ‘Oh, they’re not as good as those first few releases,’ and then the hard work really begins. Then you have the renaissance, where you hit a purple patch again, and you start to win back some fans with rejuvenated spirit, then this cycle repeats itself with another slump and so on…”

Though he paints something of a bleak picture, Harris has advice on how to avoid such pitfalls. “I think a label has to understand who they’re aiming the music at, and also have the inner confidence to deliver and dictate the formats to their audience. And nowadays, it’s very important to have a focused sound, and a focused image. In this digital age, it’s become a lot easier for any Joe Bloggs to set up a ‘digital label’ and get their music out on the digital platform. It’s common knowledge that the dance music scene is now awash with thousands of labels all pitching for a small slice of the market so a new label should come focused and prepared, but should also be a bit bold, and deliver something that’s gonna get talked about – a dream pairing of original and remixer, or a curveball track or release, something to give your schedule the edge over the many other labels working in similar musical waters.”

GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT
Not every label dictates to their fans, though. Some are happy to give people what they want, whether it’s lifestyle brands like Hed Kandi or Ministry of Sound with their fitness videos, vodka, commercial compilations, bomber jackets and whatever else, or those that strike a balance between musical advancement and fan expectation, such as long-running UK stable Defected.

“We try and listen to our fans,” explains Greg Sawyer. “We’re very active and responsive on our social media, and take both praise and criticism seriously and try to learn from both. It’s really important that the original fans – essentially the people who made sure we have lasted as long as we have – don’t feel like we’ve turned our backs on the ethos the label started with. Defected has always been a label that’s rooted in soul, and I think that, although the music we release and the way we operate has changed, we’ve maintained a level of consistency, and not gone off chasing trends.”

“COMPLETELY RESPONSIVE”

If all this planning and constant self-assessment sounds too much like hard work, then maybe you should go the route of Jordan Czamanski, one half of Juju & Jordash, who has recently started his own label, Off Minor. That is, to dive in head first and figure things out as you go along. “At this stage I just want the label to make enough money to press up as many records as I want, whenever I want,” he enthuses. “I do want the label to be consistent both qualitywise and schedulewise, so hopefully my intuition will guide Off Minor to a place where it has its own identity and clear yet indescribable character.”

“IT’S WORTH REMEMBERING THAT BEING THE BOSS AND DEVELOPING A FAMILY OF ARTISTS AROUND YOU CAN BE BOTH A BLESSING AND A CURSE.”

Buzzin’ Fly boss Ben Watt also “never planned anything”. It’s a bold move and one that relies on instinct, something you either have or don’t have, but it can be made to work. “We were completely responsive,” recalls Watt of his recently defunct label. ‘Lone Cat’ was only released because a small white label I had made for friends had been bootlegged and someone else was making serious money off my work. Once we got control back and it became the first single on the label, we simply wanted to be nimble and flexible – everything a good independent should be.” Proof of that flexibility came in 2005, when Watt confesses to making one “major step-change” by signing Kayot’s ‘Clear Sky’. “The Kayot record signalled an intent to move towards a more electronic house sound and away from the New York and disco influence of the earlier releases. It felt like the fresh move to make, and we were not alone in making it.”

Nowadays, the sentiments of Swedish techno duo Skudge define the genesis of many new labels. “It was mostly a case of us wanting to keep control over our material,” says Elias Landberg, “and not really wanting to enter discussion with a label manager on what was good and what wasn’t.” That element of self-control is enticing indeed, but when it comes to working with others, it’s worth remembering that being the boss and developing a family of artists around you can be a blessing, in that together you grow and, whether you like it or not, foment some sort of brand identity, but at the same time it can also be a curse.

“We like being friendly with our artists, but it also can be a two-sided coin when your friends don’t understand the realities of the record industry and start to build surreal expectations. Luckily, all of our artists have so far been wonderful and patient with us. When you start getting a bigger profile, people expect you to be able to release whatever you want whenever, but – mostly because of economic factors – we sometimes have to keep a record ready almost a year before release. In this case it probably helps that we’re already friends.”

Of course, there are also labels which, whether they would admit it or not, very much have an end goal in sight with each and every release. Drumcode, for example, or Mike Dehnert’s Fachwerk, or Marcel Dettmann’s eponymous label – these are all outlets for functional techno; stuff exquisitely and exclusively designed for the dancefloor. Whilst format fetishism, artwork and overtly commercial branding are anathema to the people who run such militantly purposeful labels, it means that staying true to your own ideals and keeping quality levels up become even more important.

“IS WHAT YOU ARE DOING REALLY GOOD?”

All of which leads to a crucial question – one which is perhaps even more important than knowing when it’s right to start a label: when is it right to call it a day and stop? Ben Watt drew a line under Buzzin’ Fly earlier this year after a successful decade which saw the label release material from the likes of Justin Martin, Spencer Parker, Stimming and Tevo Howard. The label will continue to sell its back catalogue but no new releases are planned (although Watt is reserving the right to resume proceedings in the future if he feels the time is right).

“IT’S VERY HARD TO PUT OUT RECORDS THAT BREAK A MOULD, THAT STAND OUT. THAT IS WHAT YOU SHOULD STRIVE TO FIND.”

For Watt, the decision was largely personal rather than being driven by musical issues. “On the one hand, my appetite for DJing was waning – the late nights, the long weekends – and I felt if I wasn’t to be playing regularly I wouldn’t be at the centre of the scene anymore,” he explains. “Buzzin’ Fly was very much about reflecting the scene I was involved in. I didn’t want to fake it and pretend I was still out living it, nor did I want to employ a new A&R person with their own ideas. So it felt more appropriate to the label’s ethos to simply withdraw gracefully. And secondly – and perhaps more importantly – I found I simply didn’t have time for my own projects anymore. It wasn’t just the travelling, it was the long office hours too. Everyone knows it’s doubly hard to succeed these days; we are chest-high in a deluge of music. That doesn’t mean you can’t be successful any more, but it means you have to work much harder at it. It takes a lot of time. But, ultimately, at heart I am writer – of songs, music, books, whatever – and I felt I owed it to myself to make more space for that.”

In a dream world, good music should be enough to make a good label, but the reality is that myriad outside factors all have their own impact on whether a label will or will not be a success. That said, as Watt nicely surmises, people still need to be honest with themselves. It’s advice which the legions of new label bosses would be advised to keep in mind as they attempt to launch their own projects:

“Is what you are doing really good? Or is it just generic and too similar to other things? It’s very easy to make and put out dance records that fill a six-minute space for the DJ – a functional tool – but very hard to put out records that break a mould, that stand out. That is what you should strive to find.”