Indeed some of the biggest labels in the house and techno scene, the ones that seem at the very top of the tree, only sell 3,000 or so 12-inches per release. Relatively speaking, that's miniscule. It also tells us something we should already know: that despite the endless battles about authenticity within the dance scene, it's practically all "underground". If one label sells 3,000 pieces of vinyl per release and another 300 per release, neither are massively successful, and neither come even close to mass popularity. The truth is, throughout the dance scene, few are making a fortune and most are merely managing, or worse.
The most obvious reason why is that techno music just doesn't resemble other more successful genres. There are few lyrics, even fewer traditionally structured songs, and not many personalities. The artists who do enjoy commercial success tend to sound markedly different from the house and techno music you hear in nightclubs, suggesting that there's only so much of a market for sparse and repetitive electronic sounds. Secondly, techno is consumed and distributed in its own way. With some exceptions, it’s usually ill at ease with the album format that has dominated sales for so long.
But it may not be entirely true to say that external circumstances alone are restricting the popularity of the music. In 2008, one of the biggest disappointments about a scene that is producing a slew of records that are vibrant, interesting, and artistic on a weekly basis is that some labels persist in making it difficult for fans to hear them. Of course I'm talking about vinyl only labels. It seems almost amazing in 2008, that if you like Perlon, Mojuba, Hello Repeat, Dubsided, Ar:pi:ar, Aesthetic Audio, Underground Quality, or countless others, you don't have much choice about what format you can get their music in. You either buy it on vinyl, or you're coerced into making do with an inferior quality digital version, either by ripping it yourself, or worse, illegally downloading it.
So why do certain labels release only on vinyl? Generally, the reasons fall into two categories. First there are ethical concerns. Some labels are strong supporters of the vinyl industry and the record store, and don't want to fuel a digital industry that they perceive as a threat to that. Keith Worthy, who runs Aesthetic Audio, is one such label owner. He explains: "I have nothing personal against those who opt for digital distribution, but vinyl is my main weapon of choice at the moment. One reason is because a lot of good people own and work in record stores and I appreciate and respect this aspect of the artistry".
When you think of "minimal" and "vinyl only", Zip and Markus Nikolai’s long-running label is the first that springs to mind. Check: Melchior Productions ‘Different Places’
Mojuba specialises in deep dub-infused house and techno, and the quality is almost always high. Check: Oracy ‘Let's Swing’
3. Aesthetic Audio
Keith Worthy's Detroit label has had three excellent releases so far, just don't expect to find them digitally. Check: VA: ‘Underground Anthems EP Vol. 2’
The fledgling Romanian label run by Petre Inspirescu, Rhadoo, and Raresh. Check: VA ‘A:rpia:r 001’
5. Hello? Repeat
Daze Maxim and Jan Krueger's psychedelic minimal house label is home to Bruno Pronsato. Check: Bruno Pronsato ‘There's Galaxies Better’
6. Smith N Hack
A loose collective of Hardwax affiliates that release disco affiliated records. Check: Smith N Hack ‘To Our Disco Friends’
Patrice Scott's label is hugely popular with the likes of Efdemin, focussing on melancholy Detroit house. Check: VA ‘Underground Anthems EP Vol. 1’
8. Underground Quality
Based in Connecticut, DJ Jus Ed's psychedelic house imprint is popular across the Atlantic with the likes of Cassy and Move D. Check: Anton Zap ‘Do It’
The day Moodymann's label goes digital will probably be the same day The Pope appears on an ad for condoms. Check: Moodymann ‘I'd Rather Be Lonely’
10. Vinyl Club
This Spanish label was home to last year's most high profile vinyl only release. Check: Petre Inspirescu ‘Sakadat EP’
Another reason some labels are staying vinyl only is that they fear digital downloads mean more illegal filesharing. Carl Craig, who has only recently agreed to put his Planet E releases on Beatport, admits that this was a major concern at first: "The problem with digital is how to make it work where somebody isn’t taking your music," he recently told RA. "I’ve had a lot of people who just simply download my music online. For free, I mean. Vinyl makes people take three steps before they can actually put mp3s up online to download.”
Keith Worthy meanwhile, is still wary. "The main problem I have with digital media is that one asshole pays whatever dollars it costs and burns it for twenty of his or her friends," he says. "So better controls need to be in place. Now of course, I want my music available to everyone who wants it, but I evaluate almost everything in terms of opportunity cost. So what cost is that now for the artist? Excessive file sharing? With everything there is a tradeoff, and thus far the benefits of MP3 versus vinyl support that Aesthetic Audio will press vinyl only."
Of course if a label is going to be ripped off by illegal downloaders then it makes no sense for them to do anything which will fuel that process. However it's by no means proven that refusing to sell digital means less file sharing. James Masters who runs the UK label Rekids along with Matt Edwards (Radio Slave), claims that their experiment with vinyl only releases had exactly the opposite effect: "We tried vinyl only with our 008 & 009 releases but the file sharing was so massive we took a decision we could not miss out on making digital formats available too."
Edward D McKeithen, or DJ Jus Ed, who runs the US label Underground Quality, seems practically resigned to the fact that being a vinyl only label will lead to fans who want digital versions illegally obtaining them. "If people want the song they will get it, and if it's digital they will probably get it free either from a raggedy ass boot-leg download website," he says. "Or they will ask a friend to burn it down."
But is there any logic behind giving fans who are interested in your music such a dud choice? Even if there's no excuse for illegal downloading, shouldn't labels be trying to make it easier for fans to do the right thing? There's no doubt that anyone who spends time and money running a dance music label in 2008 has a real passion for music. But there's also no doubt that most dance labels, like any other business, are in no position to turn away potential fans. Not because they should be focused on making as much money as possible, but because if they believe in the music they release they should allow as many people as possible to hear it.
Donnacha Costello, who runs Minimise, thinks along the same lines. "I don't want to exclude anybody. If somebody wants my music it's not really up to me how they get it. At the end of the day you're trying to get your music out there to as many people as you can, and as many people that are interested. So there's no point in excluding somebody. If you're running a business, just looking at it just from a business side, it's up to your customer to decide how they want to consume your product. Otherwise it's like saying 'oh you like my music, well you're not allowed to have it unless you buy it in this particular way' I just don't feel that that's productive."
And this is the crux of the issue. We shouldn't have this face off between the vinyl and digital formats. After all, we have no clear figures to prove that one is eroding the other. Instead we should be thinking of ways to allow as many people as possible to discover dance music in whatever format they want, because the music is ultimately what is being sold. If people want to support the industry and keep it alive then they should support sales in all formats.
It's in this spirit that the five main German distributors have recently started The Pro Vinyl Alliance in which they share their figures to try and analyse the trends that are actually happening, with a view to keeping vinyl alive. But pro-vinyl need not mean anti-digital. In a mission statement from late last year, the alliance stated: "our intentions are to find a supportive and harmonious equation between physical and digital formats." This is a clear example of people who care about vinyl taking positive action to logically support it, and to genuinely examine the effects of the digital market without prejudice. It's an example that others should follow.
It's easy to get entrenched in the debates about the value of one format over another, but the vast majority of people are interested in the sounds coming from the speakers. This is how it should be. And the bottom line is that dance music isn't going to stop being underground just because a release can be bought an unlimited amount of times digitally. Even if the biggest labels in the scene sold three times as many units per release they wouldn't come close to the sales of a major label or a well known band or hiphop artist. This scene is entirely underground for reasons that go way above and beyond format.
The reality is that while DJs and producers can sometimes rise to fame, labels and the people who run them generally don't. Labels are the places where some of the stars had their first release. They are the backbone of the entire scene, the source of the music that the DJs play to thousands of people all over the world. Almost all of them are already selling music centrally online. Yet they may only reach a thousand people or so per release. Should anyone criticise them if going digital allowed them to reach a thousand more?
Top photo credit: Ged Carroll