Warped Vision (Part 3)
MT's enquiry into the health of the independent label scene continues with a visit to the home of electronic listening music.
From dance music to listening music, Sheffield based independent Warp Records have always been closely associated with the electronic sound of the underground. Simon Trask finds the four-year-old label in good shape and poised for expansion...
The idea for setting up Warp Records first came to label partners Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett through their involvement with the Warp record shop (formerly the FON shop) in Sheffield's Division Street. When DJs started bringing in cassettes of their own music, the pair decided that it deserved exposure.
"The British stuff was actually better than a lot of the US stuff, it sounded fresher," recalls Rob. "We realised that there was a market for it, and if we pressed it up and took it around to other shops in the country similar to us they'd be really keen on buying it - so that's what we did."
Aided by £2000 and an Enterprise Allowance, Warp Records began life in July '89 in an upstairs room of a shared house in Sheffield. Here 500 copies of The Forgemasters' Track With No Name' were hand-stamped before being driven round to selected dance shops. All 500 12"s were sold in a week; following a distribution deal struck with Rhythm King, the record went on to sell 11,000 copies.
The Rhythm King deal lasted just under a year, during which time Warp established their credentials on the underground electronic dance scene with tracks like Nightmares On Wax's 'Dextrous' and Sweet Exorcist's 'Testone', then went on to invade the national charts with releases from LFO, Tricky Disco and N.O.W.. However, while success came the label's way, it wasn't matched by money, and Warp ended up pulling out of the distribution deal.
"We were totally on the rocks," admits Steve. "We nearly went bust, definitely."
However, salvation came their way in the form of distributors Pinnacle, who took Warp onto their books and gave them an advance so they could keep going. The ascendancy of rave music at this time didn't make life any easier for Rob and Steve, who took a conscious decision not to jump on the bandwagon.
"Financially that was probably a mistake at the time, but in the long term it's benefitted us because we're seen as a label which stuck it out and didn't go with convention," says Steve. "Now labels that were into the rave thing don't know where to go, whereas we're coming out and selling a significant number of albums. Labels can't catch up with us as quick as when we were just doing 12"s, 'cos so much more work goes into getting an album out."
"Both myself and Steve have listened to albums as well as singles all our lives," Rob adds. "We know what goes into making a great album, whereas a lot of people who are coming from a dance background will have real trouble understanding it because all they know is compilation albums. There's a big difference between a compilation album and an album you put on and don't take off until the final track's played, which is what we're after doing."
Warp first tasted album success in '91 with debut LPs from LFO and Nightmares On Wax. Thanks to an American release, LFO's debut is still the label's biggest-selling album by far, having shifted 80,000 copies worldwide, half of which were sold in the US alone. However, it was the Artificial Intelligence compilation, released in July '92, and its associated concept of electronic listening music which really opened things up for Warp. Steve explains the reasoning behind the album:
"It was just through hearing stuff like Black Dog, B12 and Aphex, and realising that it was brilliant music but you could never put it out as a single because nobody would buy it. It was listening music, so why not put it out on the format which suited it best, which was an album.
"Our logic up till then had always been that you put a track out on 12", you sent it to DJs, and they told you whether people danced to it or not. But it was obvious that that wouldn't happen with that sort of music."
Warp have followed up Artificial Intelligence with albums by artists who appeared on the compilation, such as Polygon Window (Aphex Twin), Black Dog and Autechre. It should come as no surprise that, of this newer generation of Warp artists, Aphex Twin has been the biggest selling; the label's success in signing him to a 6-album worldwide deal last July could potentially reap them considerable rewards.
With the success of the label's electronic listening music albums, where do Rob and Steve see Warp heading?
"We see it becoming more like an electronic music label, rather than a straight dance label," Steve replies. "We'll still put out dance as well, but it seems to be taking less of a priority. The buyers are less interested in 12"s now - I think it's virtually only DJs that are buying them. There's just too much stuff out and people can't afford the time or the money to wade through them all; I think people are just buying DJ mix tapes if they want to hear loads of dance tracks.
"Basically, The Orb's market is what we're heading for, artists like The Orb, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, where the appeal spreads right across the board."
Not surprisingly, these days it's CDs which represent Warp's biggest sales area. Rob and Steve are against lowering CD prices, feeling that it would damage independent labels a lot more than the majors, who could more readily absorb the losses created by lower margins. Rob points out that the majors have extensive back catalogues to draw on which, obviously, most independents don't. The pair don't agree with the argument that lower CD prices would benefit the independents by encouraging more people to take a chance on unknown artists.
"I think people won't take risks because they've been stung so many times," says Steve. "It's not the price, it's the quality of the music - or rather, the lack of quality. People just want a decent album that they can listen to from start to finish, and they'll pay any price to get the album they want."
Despite their current success with CD albums, Warp haven't turned their back on vinyl or on the 12" single.
"We're still very loyal to vinyl," comments Rob. "That's where we started off, so we'd be very reluctant to just drop it. I suppose eventually people will stop buying it though, it's inevitable; there were probably people who loved 78s when they went out, and people who loved cylinders before that. But I'll be glad when there are fewer formats. MiniDisc and DCC do my head in; the idea that as a record company we've got another two formats when there's a smaller market, it's just crazy."
Warp have set themselves a busy schedule for early '94. January will see the release of the Aphex Twin triple LP Selected Ambient Works II and an album and single from Detroit techno veteran Kenny Larkin, to be followed in February by the Artificial Intelligence 2 album and an LP from Cabaret Voltaire's Richard Kirk. Album releases are also planned from, among others, Black Dog, B12, LFO and Nightmares On Wax.
In addition, Rob and Steve have set up a new video label with computer graphics artist Phil Wolstenholme, who Warp aficionados will know has designed some of the label's album covers in the past. The video label's first release, due March/April, will be a video version of the Artificial Intelligence 2 album.
"We want to do the visual equivalent of what we've done musically," comments Steve. "There's a lot of people starting to do things visually as well as musically with their computers."
Rob and Steve are also looking beyond video to CD-ROM and CD-i. They are already involved in the 'Virtual Nightclub', a CD-i project which is about 80% completed according to Steve - who also reveals (you read it here first) that the Aphex Twin might be providing the soundtrack for a new interactive CD-i movie which Philips are funding.
"He's totally into doing it, but it's just a matter of whether he's got the time to fit it in," Steve explains.
And what of the future for Warp? Still only a small label, are they taking on more than they can handle?
"The amount of stuff we've got coming out in '94 is ridiculous," admits Steve. "There's so many other artists we want to sign as well, but we're getting to the point where even if we really, really like something we can't sign it, because then we're just not going to be able to give enough attention to the artists we've already got. Hopefully we've got it just about right."
It hasn't always been an easy path to follow, but by sticking to what they believe in Rob and Steve have created a label with a clear identity, a loyal following and a bright future. Warp, it seems, are getting a lot of things right.
Feature by Simon Trask
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