02 Feb Musical Platforms and Starting a Label
Music labels form an integral part of underground and independent music. With such a large portion of electronic music coming from independent and humble beginnings, it’s interesting to take a closer look at some of their characteristics and operational functions. As a label owner myself, I thought I’d share some of my own thoughts on the topic as well as give some tips that I’ve learned over the years myself.
Electronic music is a variety of music that historically, has been driven by and catalogued by fairly rigid sets of characteristics and rulesets. It’s a substrate of music which has largely been shaped by the tempos and conventions of the subgenres that it exists in. When I first began to become interested in electronic music, specifically, drum and bass, it struck me as very odd that it was categorised so brutally by a specific tempo; why does everything have to be between 170 and 175 beats per minute? I came from the world of jazz and rock guitar and to me, all beats per minute meant were what you set your metronome to when practising scales or other exercises. I became fascinated with this new world of categorisation and delineation within electronic music by tempo and different camps assigned to each genre. As I delved deeper into and become more engrossed with drum and bass and similar genres, I started to discover and pay more attention to labels, which seemed of far greater importance to electronic music than the world of rock, jazz, blues and metal from whence I came. Labels, to me, seemed, in a way, to be the enforcers and arbiters of some of these rulesets.
I suppose one of the most important differentiating factors between the electronic music that I am involved with and “other”, more popular, mainstream genres of music is the independent nature of the whole business. As a basic definition, an independent label is one that operates without funding or association with any of the major record labels, of which there are about 6 or so. Independent labels are completely self-sufficient and autonomous in their chosen field of operation and these independent labels are the powerhouses of the less mainstream genres of house, techno, drum and bass, dubstep. So what, exactly, do these labels do?
Record labels house, market, distribute, promote and publish music. They are the gateway between music producer and artist and listener and consumer. However, in the world of electronic music, it seems, to me at least, that labels hold a slightly more mythical position.
As I mentioned before, as I became more interested in drum and bass as a genre, I became aware that there were different labels or camps, that released different styles of drum and bass and each with its own visual and stylistic aesthetic too. Some put out great music, some put out terrible music and this was a way of categorising the music even further; Shogun Audio had a great roster that was pushing a techy sound, Exit Records was pushing deeper, more thought-provoking drum and bass, Invisible Records was on the fringes with sophisticated yet dark dancefloor tunes and Symmetry was putting out old-school and funky sounding tunes. This was all news to me, a nerdy guitarist who was still learning the difference between 172 beats per minute and 140 beats per minute and trying to grapple with these ideas of fairly strict and delineated styles and conventions.
As I started to produce drum and bass myself, I naturally began to gravitate to admiring and following certain labels religiously. Eventually, I started to release music on some of these labels. The natural progression of this was, of course, to eventually start my own label.
One of the recurring themes in my production adventure over the last 8 years has been that of control; control in producing music, control in the image I want to portray, control of everything music related that is conducive to achieving the image I have in my head of how I think my music should be and be presented. Somewhere in 2014, this idea eventually led me to the idea of starting my own label with my friend and fellow drum and bass savant Lewis Matheson. Imagine having your own platform to foster and release music you enjoy in your own way, with nobody telling you what to do!
I still find it interesting that a record label can be as much of a monolith of awe, mystery and admiration as it is simply an apparatus for the mechanical and expected duties of release, distribution and promotion. I always used to think, “What is a label? Isn’t it just the blessing or approval of certain people held in high regard of music?” In a way, the answer to that is yes. For most people, most consumers and followers of music, that seems to be correct. It means a lot to people when certain music comes out on certain labels and in that way labels can, over time, become overlords and gatekeepers, almost gods to be worshipped. I remember the excitement of hearing the first news of new releases of unknown artists on labels I followed; it was a promise of something new, unknown and exciting made even more so by the knowledge that it had the blessing of the label tastemakers and owners. So with these heady dreams and goals, Lewis and I set off on our journey; Locked Concept was born. I suppose as soon as we thought we had a label, we had a label and were self-appointed bosses of it. In practical terms, there was a bit more to do.
I believe a label needs to have a certain style and air about it. I suppose one of the easiest ways to do this is to apply the same ethos that I had about my own producing career as Lockjaw and apply it to Locked Concept; plan to release music of a certain vibe with a certain visual aesthetic and the rest would fall into place. How could it not? One’s personality can do nothing but shine through clearly in such an endeavour as running a label.
Lewis and I knew it would pay to start the label with somewhat of a splash. I had two songs that I’d produced that had no home yet so those would be the first release of the label. We set up our Facebook, Bandcamp and Soundcloud pages and eventually, LCKD001 was released.
One of the beautiful things about starting and an independent label is that you mostly have no idea what you are doing and learn best practices by making mistakes or copying what your peers are doing. Over the next couple of years, Lewis and I continued to release digital EPs through Locked Concept, mostly of local and unknown producers paired with local and unknown artists. We had the benefit of promoting all our work through Lockjaw social media which already had somewhat of a following and helped get the label off the ground and give at least a little promotion to the unknown artists. Practically, a release for us would entail uploading the EP to Bandcamp where it was available for free or donation, to Soundcloud which provided more streaming capabilities and posting about it on Facebook and that was it. As the years have passed, Locked Concept has become a little more refined and orderly as we learn things on the way. Eventually, we partnered with a distributor, Cygnus Music, which allowed us to push our releases to digital stores like Beatport, Juno and so forth which added legitimacy to the operation.
There are many practical and fairly mundane things one could mention in the discussion of the successful operation of a label which I will spare the reader of as they can be read about readily almost anywhere. There are a few things, however, which I will touch upon which I think are important, things I have learned over the last years of label operation. I think the success of a label, especially in a niche area where the enormous financial gain is not really a factor, relies mostly on a couple of things; consistency and quality. I think out of these two ideals, everything else positive grows from.
Consistency (which can be re-interpreted as discipline) I feel, is the underlying cornerstone of any operation. It helps establish reliability and helps you to build an identifiable style even if you feel you have none. It’s important to be consistent in releases, social media/web presence and any other commitments to the label. Out of consistency, structure grows.
The other ideal, quality, is fairly self-explanatory I feel. Quality will always trump quantity in situations like this. The world does not need more mediocre tracks churned out on a regular basis. Instead, it’s always much better to focus on finding and releasing music which you feel has merit and sometimes that means waiting a while for everything to line up before releasing.
If you are thinking about starting a label, consider why. Let’s make no mistake about it; starting a music label with the intention of making huge financial profits is not a wise decision. It is true that many labels do become financially viable down the track but you are much better off doing it out of love and interest. While running a label is largely a business task, a huge part of it is a creative task which requires a lot of sincerity. See it more as a vehicle for self-expression for yourself and others, only good things will come out of such a sentiment.