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.
“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.”
Do your own thing or don't bother at all.
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.
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.”
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…”
A new label should be a bit bold, and deliver something that’s gonna get talked about.
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.”