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Separate Mind: From Unknown to Known

Further Records, Sunil Sharpe and Samuel Kerridge speak to Richard Brophy as he dissects what it takes to takes to make it in the current electronic music climate. 

Every hour of every day, inboxes across the world are flooded with upcoming electronic music releases. Many come from unknown artists and producers who are looking for the necessary support to project them from the bedroom to the record store, the club and, in some cases, put them on the road to a paid career in music.

The support can take the shape of a favourable review, chart position, Facebook like or retweet from DJs, labels and journalists. Technology is a great enabler and facilitates these endeavours, but it can also be viewed as one of the factors in a cruelly short lifespan.

The brevity of an electronic music producer’s presence was brilliantly documented by the German artist Stefan Goldmann in a series of thought-provoking essays for Little White Earbuds in 2011.  At the time, Goldmann wrote “artists emerging now face the hardest times ever to establish themselves”. A few years on, do these assertions still hold true or have they even greater resonance nowadays?

It could be argued that the launch of Fluence, an online service ‘for those who work and play with digital media’ represents the logical conclusion of the phenomenon Goldmann set out in his essays. In essence, the service allows producers to pay writers and ‘experts’ fees for feedback on creative projects. To some, Fluence would appear to have an air of desperation about it, but arguably it could be a response to the barriers that face new producers who are seeking recognition and support for their work.

In the electronic music sphere, to move from unknown to known – no matter how fleeting that time in the sun might be – some artists choose to make as much noise as possible on social media, hire a PR firm to do their bidding or strike it lucky by signing to an in-favour label.

Unknown artists may be disheartened by what they perceive to be a consensus among the main media outlets about which acts receive coverage covered. These editorial decisions could be due to commercial reasons – an artist with a big online presence could help guarantee that all-important ad revenue-generating eyeballs – with websites aping their rivals’ content (a loathsome term). Sometimes it’s because the label has hired a PR firm that will campaign on its behalf to get coverage, or it it’s because like other sections of the media, music journalists, tend to adopt a herd mentality and feel safer hunting in numbers.

Let’s look at the recent coverage of Objekt’s debut album, Flatland (full disclosure: this writer wrote a feature on this very talented artist for DJ Mag). Without seeking to detract from what is clearly an excellent album or the talented producer who made it, it was noticeable nearly every major music website covered its release. To reiterate, Flatland is an excellent work, but why did it receive blanket coverage ahead of other excellent albums released this year? Was it because PAN, the label it appeared on, is enjoying a run of acclaimed releases? Is it because Objekt’s music is the definitive sound of 2014 or was it just a coincidence that it chimed with writers and all of these music websites decided to cover it?

The good news is it’s still possible for labels and artists to become known without recourse to any of the above methods and channels. A good example of this is the Sex Tags stable of labels – who were invited to contribute to this piece but declined – and going back further in time to the anti-marketing techniques of Mad Mike and Underground Resistance.

In other instances, the slow road is the most effective one to travel, an approach that has eventually paid off for Irish techno DJ/producer Sunil Sharpe. Having spent over a decade playing the local circuit, Black Sun and Blawan’s Sheworks label picked up on Sharpe’s abrasive but individualistic techno sound and his international bookings soared. Ironically, he says that making a name at home was the biggest challenge early on.

“Dublin was very competitive when I was coming up and I really appreciate that it was. Few DJs had records out, so it was purely down to the sets we played. To take it further beyond your domestic scene is mostly reliant on productions rather than DJ ability. That’s not to say DJing /mixing ability doesn’t help once you make that step, it does, but not as much on the international circuit now,” he says.

Sharpe says constant gigging at home equipped him with the skills to impress on an international level, but good timing also played a role in his ascent.

“Without releasing many records, most of my gigs were Irish-based before, then proper techno made a comeback and quickly new opportunities began to come up. Sometimes you’ve gotta just wait your turn and I guess that’s what happened with me,” he feels.

“The Black Sun and Sheworks releases made a big impact. I had been making tracks like these for quite some time but didn’t feel I had an outlet for them, so it was almost surprising to me when there was a sudden burst of interest in my music. “Let Christy Take It” was nearly two years old when I released on Black Sun – if that bounce for proper techno hadn’t come back it may well have just sat on my hard drive doing nothing,” Sunil believes, adding that getting recognition from Blawan was also crucial.

“Blawan has been one of the new faces of the techno scene and for good reason. I loved the first Karenn record from him and Arthur, it was really exciting to see new blood come in and offer up such a mature techno sound, so to follow on from that on Sheworks was exciting. Between that and gigging with the guys a good bit, it has no doubt helped raise my profile.”

In the same way that Sharpe spent years gigging on the local circuit, UK producer Samuel Kerridge was making music for years before he was tempted to release any of it. “I’d flirted with it for a good five or six years before solid ideas were developed,” Kerridge says, arguing that “there is far too much immediacy amongst a lot of producers, and you can find yourself in a battle trying to keep your artist integrity. Above all if you haven’t got anything to say, then don’t say it. Forced music is soulless.”

When he eventually felt ready to release material, Kerridge initiated contact with a few labels, including Horizontal Ground and Downwards, although he is keen to stress that his releases on these labels “didn’t happen overnight as some are led to believe”. Samuel does acknowledge that his association with Horizontal Ground and Downwards raised his profile during the early days, but he contends that “the key factor has to be the music – and a good release will always find its way to listeners no matter what label it is presented on”.

“It’s still a very small pond we are all pissing in, there’s only so far an audience you’re ever going to reach. What’s appealing to me with Downwards and Horizontal Ground is that it’s not pushed down your throat; there isn’t some mega PR campaign behind a release. They are the platform and the music and artist hold centre stage. The listener can make their own mind up.”

The arrival of Kerridge’s dark, textured soundscapes on Horizontal Ground in 2012 and Downwards the following year coincided with a wider acceptance of techno and electronic music’s experimental sounds. Does he feel that serendipity played a role or was his output merely part of the zeitgeist in the same way that Objekt’s Flatland could be seen as 2014’s definitive release?

“I don’t believe in luck,” Samuel says, but admits there does seem to be a bigger appetite for experimental music. “People want more from music than what is shown to them in the mainstream. In hindsight, maybe I did hit the wave at the right time, but who knows what the main catalyst is. It is essential to do your own thing and not be guided by others.”

While Sunil Sharpe and Samuel Kerridge’s rising profiles coincided with greater interest in their chosen sounds, it could be said Seattle label Further was ahead of the curve. The label, which is run by Mark Cullen and Chloe Harris, was releasing limited edition cassettes – starting with house producers Aybee and Lerosa – long before it became a fashionable format. Mark points out financial concerns rather than any attempt to set themselves apart was behind the decision to release on this format.

“Cassettes are a way to put music out in an analog format without the financial risk of vinyl,” he explains. “I’m more into vinyl than tapes but manufacturing records is so much more complex, it takes a while to learn your way around it.”

Do they think in recent years a lot of labels have used the format in an attempt to garner kudos? “I think so, but I also like that there is more available, more to listen to, more to talk about,” says Chloe. “It’s unfortunate when major labels do it – just stick to your thing and let us explore the small pie stuff.”

Mark points out that the format has become more popular due to the coalescing of scenes and sounds, but still has reservations about well-known artists using an approach that has benefited newcomers.

When we started doing it, it was more a noise/experimental/lo-fi rock format – it wasn’t that common in house or techno. Those scenes are closer together now than they were then and cassettes are a great fit for new artists, artists releasing music as a stream of consciousness, or established artists trying something totally different. I think it’s a bit of a shame when it’s an established artist doing their established sound. It crowds out the market on one hand and seems exploitative of the artist on the other. Using them as a means of generating cheap ‘sold out/limited edition’ hype is the worst.”

The other thing that helped Further stand apart was their on-point A&Ring; Mark says the Aybee and Lerosa tapes were “massive for us” and gave them the confidence pursue the venture, which in turn led to the release of Donato Dozzy’s landmark K album on Further.

“Dozzy really encouraged us to release the album on vinyl and I’m so glad he did because that was the perfect album to start with. It generated a lot of goodwill from shops and customers which gave us the opportunity to throw a few curve balls soon after,” Mark believes.

“The Dozzy record really made us stand out. It’s techno. It’s heady. It’s soulful. It’s ambient. It’s basically a perfect starting point for a lot of the stuff we wanted to do,” Chloe believes. “I especially liked the album Aybee did for us. There’s something different and special about his flow and on that record I think he just did what he wanted and had the freedom. I think that is maybe something people like about Further, we let artists do what they want and they generally create something different to their regular output. Jo [Johnson’s] record is another great example of that,” she adds.

The other factor that sets Further apart from other labels is it’s a genuine DIY / cottage-industry affair. The label sells its cassettes and records directly and the catalogue ebbs and flows its way through house, ambient, abstract and electro, the antithesis of a well-planned out release schedule and PR campaign.

“Selling direct really helps with the cash-flow and selling via a distro really helps with the volume, both of which are vital to keep things going. We still really enjoy the process of packing up the records once they arrive from the manufacturer. The first time is so exciting and that hasn’t really diminished much since then,” Mark says, adding “we don’t like labels that release the same type of record time and again, it’s so boring. Consistency is just a lack of ambition.” Given their approach, it comes as no surprise that Further have a somewhat jaundiced view of how the music media operates. “It can be a cyclical jerk fest,” Chloe states baldly, while Mark elaborates: “I don’t read them unless they cover something we’ve done. If you’re trying to do something different it can be quite disheartening. They all seem to suffer from a reliance on a limited pool of journalists and PRs cross-pollinating. I guess that’s what causes the rise and fall of fashions in most artistic pursuits and it bothers me a lot less than it used to. We get enough media attention to get by.”

Does this lead them to believe there is a tendency among music journalists to cover what everyone else is covering and not to dig deeply?

“The ones at the top of their game are more independent but like running a record label, copying what’s popular can be a shortcut up the greasy pole,” Mark feels. “At the moment everyone’s into black and white photocopied artwork and Goth techno. It destroys all meaning when so many people are reading from the same script.”

“Maybe they don’t need to spend as much time trying to find stuff because it’s already there and being promoted. Also I think it can be good click-bait,” Chloe adds.

Sunil Sharpe agrees with the Further crew’s view there isn’t a lot of independent thought going on among music journalists, which he feels is due to the increasing competition for eyeballs.

“Many publications suffer from a kind of parrot syndrome,” he believes. “They are serving a different purpose now it seems, more about the quantity of content than anything else, so there is a lot of replication. At the same time, this also emphasizes the growth of many online music publications and the public’s expectancy of constant content, which is a testament to electronic music’s popularity now.”

Despite this, Sharpe is happy hard techno’s resurgence in popularity has led to more coverage of the sound. “There are some who cover techno out of necessity and who don’t really get their hands dirty with it, but to be fair, its better having any coverage than the measly amount mainstream print media give electronic music,” he says, adding online platforms are still home to exceptional music journalism.

“Get the right writer and interviewee and you’ll always have a winner; that recent Philip Sherburne interview on Pitchfork with Aphex Twin for instance was a brilliant read. Also that piece last year on Vice, where the writer singled out a string of quite poignant comments posted below old skool tracks on YouTube and offered his own analysis – that was the most uplifting thing I’d read in ages. There were tears in my eyes reading it.”

However, he has less praise for the music media in Ireland, which he feels has failed to cover the organic growth of Irish electronic music (a development that was discussed in the recent Juno Plus review of Whirling Hall of Knives’ release on Sharpe’s Earwiggle label). As he points out, most of the Irish labels and producers who are putting out great electronic music have been around for a while, which he feels has been beneficial to the development of the scene.

“There used to be a massive inferiority complex at play in Ireland for various reasons, not just in music, but you notice less of that now. There’s a lot of self-belief here now and many people making names for themselves as a result. I don’t think anyone has stopped to really think about it though, it has all been quite organic,” he says.

Sharpe doesn’t hold back when talking about the Irish media’s apparent failure to document the slow but steady rise of Irish electronic music artists and labels.

“In Ireland, we have a core group of mostly rock journos who regularly write articles taking potshots at the club scene and electronic music purely because they know many people will get a rise out of it,” he claims. “Sometimes I don’t even dislike the individual writers for it though, there’s very clearly an editorial agenda too and some of these guys need a good clip around the ear.”

However, Samuel Kerridge doesn’t hold such a critical view of the wider music media and believes there will always be crossover in terms of what music is covered and what is overlooked.

“The main point is a lot of very talented artists can be overlooked, but you don’t need the media to confirm what you’re doing is right. It’s only a singular opinion, hopefully everyone makes their own choices,” he says, adding “maybe it is easy or lazy to follow trends and not go against the grain but… I’d like to think the majority of journalists have their own minds”.

So if there are mixed views about the media’s role in highlighting emerging producers, labels and even scenes, what about using social media to promote yourself – would this be more appealing to a DIY operation like Further?

“There’s such a fine balance between promoting, talking yourself up and being super annoying. Some people are great at communicating that they have new stuff out without being dicks. Then there are those of us who probably can’t and shouldn’t do it at all,” says Chloe, while Mark adds: “It can work for some people, and not for others. I’ve had to unfollow quite a few house and techno ‘originators’ for their sickening self-promotion. It made me wonder if they originally made it through unique talent or just because they were the biggest pests.”

Both Kerridge and Sharpe profess a personal dislike of social media, but the latter says “I have to accept it as part of my weekly and sometimes daily routine for music related stuff”. Kerridge agrees it can be a necessary platform for upcoming producers to promote themselves on.

“It depends on the artist and what you are trying to achieve from it,” he says. “The internet gives everyone a voice, good and bad. I agree to some extent it is important to try and utilise available channels, especially the way social media is used today. But some are more worried about how many Facebook “likes” they have than putting out a great record. There’s something special about the unknown, and plenty of artists steer away from it. The problem with social media is you’re screamed at from the rooftops whether you want to hear it or not.”

“It’s still a very small pond we are all pissing in, there’s only so far an audience you’re ever going to reach.”

Against this noisy backdrop, countless new artists and labels are trying to move from obscurity and gain recognition. In Goldmann’s essays, he made the point the lifespan for a new artist is approximately half a year. Faced with this dilemma, should new artists try to get as much recognition as possible for their work while it lasts and milk it for what it is worth or is this flawed thinking – should they be in it for the long haul?

“Following your unique vision is far more important than trying to milk a current trend or hype,” says Sunil. “Many producers embarrassed themselves when bland minimal techno came along and some are only managing to redeem themselves now if at all. Granted, if bland minimal really is your thing then go for it, but so many faked it, and you can see that now in the way that few important or memorable records came out during that time.”

Mark agrees many well-known artists simply ‘rebrand themselves’ over time as its “harder to keep things going over a longer period”. Speaking as a label owner, Chloe points out Ghostly and Warp have successfully reinvented themselves over decades, but adds “it’s easier if you aren’t a dance music-focused label. If you have other sounds you enjoy it makes it easier because you’re not trying to get the latest DJ fodder out there for the 200 DJs that will play it for a week”.

Let’s leave the last word to Samuel Kerridge, commonly described as one of the most uncompromising artists to emerge in recent years. He admits “everyone has their time in the sun”, but argues the length of time is down to the individual artist. “We all have to evolve, but jumping ship to the next movement is not evolving. I would never get caught up in any “hype” nonsense, I’ll stick to what I’m doing, whatever is going on around me will bear no influence,” he states. For any producer looking to move from unknown to known, it’s probably the best piece of advice they’ll ever get.

Richard Brophy

Kerridge live montage courtesy of Juan Mendez