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.”
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.”
It's worth remembering that being the boss and developing a family of artists around you can be both a blessing and a curse.
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).
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.”