When you look at the major changes in the way dance music is disseminated and consumed over the last five years, it's clear that very few have benefitted the UK scene. The rise of the online record store as a gigantic central node for vast quantities of vinyl from all over the world, coupled with the first wave of house and techno mp3 stores, has swiftly put paid to the days when a UK label could hope to sell a few hundred or even thousand more copies on home soil, or in Ireland, purely due to ease of availability and price.
The recent success, in the UK, of house and techno from Germany and other continental countries has been mostly at the expense of an ailing homegrown scene. Now, even in a British based online store, you might have to dig around to find a record made locally. If you need convincing of the shift, just take a look at the charts on any of the major online record stores. How many records released on British labels are in there? Similarly, have a glance at the listings for some of the biggest clubs in London, there are precious few British headliners.
One name that does stands out is Matt Edwards (Radio Slave). One of a small enclave of successful and credible UK producers in recent years, Edwards has worked his way into the record boxes of many of the dominant house and techno DJs with a series of deep and dead eyed remixes. He also runs Rekids, one of the few new UK techno labels whose releases you will find challenging the continental dominance on the racks (and servers). Yet as a successful UK label, Rekids is in a minority. Edwards believes the downturn in fortunes for UK labels is due to British people in general having a lesser view of dance music than their continental counterparts.
Great packaging, great remixers, and some of the best house and techno around.
Will Saul's twin labels have gone from strength to strength in the last year or so with releases by Brits such Tam Cooper and Saul himself as well as imports like Marc Romboy and Phonique.
3. Modern Love
This Manchester label has been releasing abstract electronic music for years, but in the last twelve months it's gained a lot of attention with great releases from Move D, Andy Stott, and of course the Deepchord presents Echospace series.
A fledgling British label with the Swat Squad, Stefan Tretau, and Dan Berkson/James What on the roster. Some of their latest releases have found favour with the likes of Anja Schneider and Matthias Schaffhauser.
Part of a long tradition of strong UK house labels, Freerange has released almost 100 singles from the likes of Jimpster, Fred Everything, Milton Jackson, and Brett Johnson, to name just a few.
Anyone who's bought house or techno over the last few years will probably have picked up one of the nice white Rebelone vinyls, where well known producers don an animal alias and usually come up with the goods. Past highlights include 12"s by Ripperton and Loco Dice.
7. Border Community
There are usually more seasons in a year than Border Community releases, yet nonetheless the label is one of the most iconic of the 00s.
8. Off Key Industries
Matt O'Brien's label specialises in house/techno with a more hardware feel to it. There are just a handful of releases so far but all have been well worth checking out.
9. Soul Jazz
How do you classify a label like Soul Jazz? Some of the best compilations over a long, long, period of time, and despite so many retro releases it still moves with the times, adopting dubstep into its rather large family in recent months.
10. Third Ear
This revered UK label was responsible for Brendon Moeller's storming 'Jazz Space EP' earlier this year and also Carl Craig's remix of Theo Parrish's 'Falling Up', plus the hallowed Detroit Beatdown series.
Will Saul, a producer who also runs two of the UK's most well known imprints, Aus Music and Simple, agrees: "Europe in general takes electronic music a lot more seriously than the UK. Over there it's treated as a genuine artform whereas it's more like a byproduct of nightclubbing here. You can see that also in funding from councils in Europe. Electronic labels and events over there get a lot of council funding and sponsorship, that's something that would never happen in the UK".
Despite these obstacles, the likes of Simple or Rekids have carved out niches for themselves in a market that's more competitive than ever. But does being located in the UK push a label towards a certain sound? Although Saul feels most of the successful UK labels are quite distinct from each other musically, he does identify one common thread: "I do think UK labels are a little more eclectic. Ourselves and the likes of Freerange or Rekids don't necessarily release the same type of music all the time".
This broader approach distinguishes many UK labels from their continental counterparts. It's commonplace for even the biggest European labels to only release a thin slice of house or techno music made by a tight knit gang of artists. Perhaps it's a question of location. Even though London is often seen as the centre for British electronic music, no particular brand of house or techno is dominant in the city. In fact, you'd have to turn to dubstep to find a genre that has foreign producers focusing on London artists and clubnights, an intriguing inverse of the current state of play in house and techno.
Beyond London, in Manchester or Leeds or all around Britain, there are certainly plenty of fine clubnights and even a few labels, but again there's no dominant or representative style of music This makes an interesting contrast with Germany, where there are obvious if not rigid demarcations in style from city to city, as evidenced by a quick glance at the most prominent labels in Berlin (Pokerflat, Get Physical), Cologne (Kompakt, Traum), Frankfurt (Cocoon), and Hamburg (Liebe*Detail). There's a real sense that these labels harness a sort of shared consensus in their home cities, built up over years from the local grass roots. It's a consensus that doesn't exist in UK cities.
Of course neither the eclectic nor purist approach to running a label is definitively better. The likes of Rekids or Simple/Aus don't owe any debts of authenticity to anybody, or any scene. Their purpose is to release good music, wherever and whomever it comes from. As a result, they can arguably throw the spotlight on a much wider range of music than their continental counterparts.
And this is exactly what they're doing. Almost from their first releases, both Simple/Aus and Rekids have balanced a steady flow of releases by UK artists with remixes by a slew of different foreign producers. In the process they've acted as UK based filters for a whole range of interesting electronic activity from across the globe. If you compile a list of the remixers chosen by Aus/Simple and Rekids it's like a colourful who's who of numerous different styles of 2007 house and techno, with Marcel Dettmann, Isolée, Prins Thomas, Lee Jones, Claude Vonstroke, and Exercise One just some of the producers who've been brought in.
Damian Lazarus's Crosstown Rebels imprint takes that aesthetic even further. With barely any UK artists on the roster, Crosstown tends to simply cherrypick producers from all around the world, and in the process it has transcended its London location to become arguably one of the most overtly "global" labels around.
The flipside, however, of zoning in on a particular sound with a limited roster of artists, isn't generally quite so common in the UK, but there are exceptions. Manchester label Modern Love is perhaps the closest a UK label comes to a purist imprint. Citing Basic Channel as a massive influence, the label shares the gravitas of some of their German counterparts. This year in particular they've enjoyed huge success with the morose dub techno of Deepchord's 'The Coldest Season' series.
But tellingly, label boss Shlom says Modern Love aren't even particularly conscious of being UK based at all: "I don't really think about whether we're a minority in the scene as a successful UK label really, because apart from geographic location I don't even consciously think 'this is a UK label'. That's especially true because we've had a lot of dealings with labels in Berlin that we have a closer affinity to."
This idea that geographic location doesn't have to matter for a label, at least when it comes to the business side of things, is one that's particularly indicative of the current climate in dance music. Today, where a record was made is often irrelevant in terms of how easy it is to get, and has only a marginal effect on how much you'll have to pay for it. For UK DJs, this means local labels no longer have an edge in terms of price and availability. Instead they must compete with labels from all over the world in a battle that's more purely about quality than ever before.
Right now, there are fewer UK labels than ever that are managing to do this. It may be harder for them today than 10 years ago, but then, no matter where people buy their music, or in what format, becoming a label that people buy on sight will always be difficult, and becoming a label that people define their taste by and truly believe in will only ever be the preserve of a precious few. Those are the biggest challenges. They're also the ones that never change.