Ralph Lawson has played a rather large role in the world of the electronic for well over two decades with his label 2020Vision and his disc selections the world over, holding down a wide ranging array of residencies.
He's also a very eloquent character and always has something constructive to say about the music industry, which was a refreshing antidote to my ever increasing cynicism towards it all. We sat down in a shiny hotel lobby pre-fabric
DJ Mag Awards to chat Leeds, the formative years of the label, where it's at in 2014, on into '15 and that dirty word... content.
So you’re celebrating 20 years of 2020Vision so I wanted to look back at your formative years. You played the first record at Basics, correct? What was it?
Yes. Marshall Jefferson Presents Truth - Open Your Eyes
I wondered how and why you've never fallen out with Dave (Beer) from Basics after all these years?
I never lend him money!
That’s a good question and that’s the honest answer. Basically I’ve just always kept money separate because he’s a bit of a nightmare for it and I honestly think that’s why we haven’t fallen out. He’s got his own way of working and I think it’s part of his character but it’s very different from my character and I made quite a conscious decision a few times to really just be the DJ. I’ve never been a partner in the business.
But you kept the show on the road a lot of the time?
I must admit that I did keep the show on the road a lot of the time, I’ve worked for nothing to keep the show on the road but I was never formally a business partner.
Music was primarily your side of things?
Yeah, I ran the record company for nothing and we got in Herbert, Chez Damier and Ron Trent, X-Press 2, Josh Wink... The label went alright but I started 2020Vision at about the same time and it became very apparent to me that I was much happier doing my own thing really.
But 2020 was shaped by a lot of Basics?
Absolutely, I totally admit that and I’m happy for 2020Vision to have strong ties with Basics and to be influenced by, particularly in the early days. The DJs were coming over to play Basics on a Saturday night, I’d hi-jack them - we had a studio, I’d take them back. Quite often they’d stay a few days, maybe even a week. We’d drag them in the studio, make tracks and put them out!
Many people argue that Leeds is still the best place to go for house music in the UK.
Yeah, I think Leeds and Glasgow - Glasgow’s kind of the purest place in the country. It’s just kept to be such a pure distinct scene because there have never been tonnes of clubs, it has really been based around Sub Club and The Arches, to a lesser extent as that is more techno. Sub Club has just been there, Rubberdub has just been there. There are other things but they’re all inspired by that. Leeds I always thought of as being slightly more fashion driven - it was a little bit between the two, looking down towards London when something was hot in London and then they’d jump on those DJs and book them very quickly. But it has got its own scene where it’s past that now and it’s a highly competitive scene that probably gets just as good DJs as anywhere else on the planet.
When I first moved to London 20 years ago it'd be a real event to see one of the American legends or whoever. Now you can pretty much see one every weekend, there’s so much choice in London now. Do you have that same competitiveness up in Leeds?
Yeah it’s getting very competitive, it’s an advanced scene. There’s a lot of clubs, there are people that have built big companies out of it. What happens is that people will start to demand exclusives so it’ll become harder and harder to book a certain artist so the game is to get young DJs earlier and earlier, build a relationship with them and hope that there’s some kind of loyalty and they’ll stick with you, which isn’t always the case. But the earlier you get in there now and the better you are with people, the better your chances of keeping them. In Leeds now, all the main headliners - take a top 50 - I can assure you that every single one of those DJs will be tied to a club or promoters in Leeds and London so for new promoters it’s really about building your own party and coming up with something different with your residents, your concept and your production, as well as finding up and coming people.
It’s much harder to go down that route now than it was 20 years ago, even 10 years ago - before social media. Everything is a brand now, from the moment you launch something it becomes a brand, rather than a word of mouth thing. Word of mouth exists in a very different form these days.
Word of mouth definitely exists, it’s still the most powerful tool for sure. Texting out or using social media to get across to a bunch of people is still by far the quickest and most effective way of promoting. If anything, I think it’s the other way around - flyers and posters are less effective.
I found myself being drawn to flyers again...
I’ve started picking them up outside a club again now and I do look at them because, I guess my point was, yes you have word of mouth on social media but in terms of cutting through it used to be as simple as ‘have you been there? It’s amazing’ and I feel, maybe I’m just old and cynical, that maybe that’s lost a little bit.
I don’t know, the clubs that are really unbelievably successful in Leeds are often through student bases so basically a night will pop up like Technique or Loco and it’s basically them and their mates and the people who are around them in the bar and before they’re even booking DJs, they’ve got their own residents and they’ve got the party first which I like. I don’t know what’s happened in London but what’s really happened in Leeds is the house party scene. I don’t know about here but it is massive in Leeds. It’s got to a lot of students and young people who don’t want to play the club fees and what’s happening is that everyone is trying to attract them by putting on bigger and bigger names which means that the door prices are going up and people aren’t paying it because they can’t afford it. Then they’ve got their drinks on top so they feel they’re going to have more fun at a house party. What’s happened is that they’re quite organised now around a certain area, the police have said ‘Ok, you get doormen and do it properly, you check out the numbers and the fire capacity and do it right’ I should be a bit careful but it’s like ‘we’re going to turn a blind eye as long as you’re doing it right and you’ve got no noise complaints’. Basically they’ve become highly organised, with 300-400 people they clear the house out and I’ve played a couple. Red Bull have got involved, sometimes they’re in there, putting some products in there and they’re free in but you’ve got to have tickets. There’s health and safety there, fire extinguishers, doormen and they’re kept pretty tight and they’re really good. It’s more of a vibrant scene. There used to be house parties when I started and that’s where I got into clubs for being known as playing around on the house party scene first. Some of these DJs have got a very loyal fanbase because they’re putting on parties for free so suddenly when they put something on in a club they’ve got 500 people there like that. And they keep the prices quite low.
I knew nothing of that at all. Do you think it's because of insane London property prices or...
I’m not sure if it’s just more of a ‘college town’ thing, I can imagine it in a Leeds or Nottingham because I think it is very much based around student areas, these houses and these streets are pretty much all occupied by students and I think it’s a little bit of how the geography of the city works as well.
I’ve played a couple as well - I asked to play! Go down and play for free, it’s just fun because they’re good parties.
They’re the gigs you really remember...
Yeah, it was really fun. There’s something about just being in a room and it’s a house party and it’s not so restrictive, people are immediately responsive because they haven’t paid for a ticket. I’m not saying it’s the future, just that it’s an interesting little scene.
I think it’s important to have balance in everything. I wanted to ask you about Sheffield vs Leeds.
Is that where you’re from?
No, I was just interested. Obviously there’s LFO and a lot of Warp people from Leeds.
It’s always been a bit of a bugbear for me that it was always the Warp sound with the artists all from Leeds.
I’ve always had in my head the Leeds sound as a much more house based sound whereas Sheffield is the more bleep side of things. I did know that George was from Leeds but I never really made that connection and I didn’t know that Mark (Bell) was from Leeds as well. You don’t want to pin people down to cities but there was obviously quite a distinct sound that's been attributed to each city.
Yeah, in Sheffield you had Sweet Exorcist, Forge Masters. It was kind of balanced with the artists, it was really just the fact that Warp Records was from Sheffield but that’s a long time ago. It’s the 90s. I think we’ve got to remember that Leeds always had both, alongside Basics we were running The Orbit and The Orbit was just a pure techno club are we were both Saturday nights, we ran from the same sort of times and we started at the same time and it was two worlds. It was a big like two scenes, the techno scene and the house scene, and they probably looked at us as a big more of a Saturday night with girls and we played vocals, not that we played a lot of vocals. We’d maybe think they just had younger kids who all had Vix and inhalers. At the end of the day they were getting amazing techno guests like Derrick May and Sven Vath early on, Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin really early and we were getting really good house acts, more of the UK balearic scene as well. We had three floors so we’d always have that bottom floor which was Weatherall and Justin Robertson etc. That was a very different scene as well.
First pop record you ever bought?
Pop record? It’s really socially unsound now but it was probably Gary Glitter. I used to love My Gang. We’d sing it at school!
What was the first electronic record you ever heard and how did it make you feel?
Definitely New Order. I got into punk at school, I was too old for the proper punk but it was more new wave and especially The Clash and these kind of bands coming out of post-punk and it was kind of synth-y. I got into Joy Division and when The Clash turned into BAD, Joy Division turned into New Order both incorporated synths, both went to New York, both got influenced by drum machines and dance music. I think that was probably the first sounds I wanted to hear, 1982.
And then BAD turned into Dreadzone didn’t they.
Yeah, without Mick Jones.
How do you keep a record label running now?
Don’t pay yourself! Probably the same as you with your site! You say you love it at first but then it’s just there because it’s what you do! I’ve taken very little money from the label, undoubtedly one reason is that it’s been a bit of a calling card and a brand to have behind me and I’ve just always earned my money through live work - even though it’s more fashionable now and everyone says it’s the only way musicians make money now with royalties being up in the air but even when you did get a few quid for royalties the reality is that it has always been live work. The label maybe makes a few quid here and there. What you do on any label is that a couple of records or a couple of artists go off, earn a bit of money and then you spend it on all of the ones that don’t! The thing that I’m proud about is that I’ve never put a penny in, it hasn’t ever cost me a penny and I’ve never invested anyone’s money in it, it has always been 100% independent and it’s still here. I’m proud of that fact. It hasn’t ever been a drain on my resources, just a big drain on my time.
Is it diminishing returns now?
It’s weird because it actually stabilised to the point where it was delivering a small amount a year and I could balance that with my time and what was coming in and when the parties happen, that was good because the parties were bringing in more money than the label probably. But then again, parties can be up and down - they’re risky, you can lose money there as well. In actual fact, we’re kind of working things next year so it is probably looking better as a business in various ways to do with what we’re putting out, how we’re putting it out, incorporating the live element, thinking a lot more about what we can do as far as other revenue streams go. I am, if anything, slightly more interested in it as a business now than I have been because as you get older it becomes your livelihood and it should be paying some wages! But this is music, in the minute it’s a very, very hard industry. There are a lot of very good people that would be earning six figure sums in any other industry.
They’ve chosen that route.
You make your bed, you lie in it. There’s no way back!
You do end up having to splinter and diversify with other revenue streams, the music will never pay for itself but that’s your calling card and the things around that should be helping sort you out.
Yeah, I think the mistake is that public perception is that as soon as you say DJ they think ‘oh wow, you’re on your private jet and you’re David Guetta and you’ve got your tracks in the top ten and you’re getting £100,000 a gig’. But it’s such a tiny percent, I would say it’s even more skewed than football. It’s very similar to football, the crappest player in the Premier League is earning £30,000 a week but you can be in the lower leagues on wages that people might be quite surprised about. Even there, there’s far more money in the industry and it’s a far tinier fraction than those 50-100 DJs that are really taking home incredible money. For me, I see it as a bit of a carrot - I see all these kids come up and the way they talk about it ‘so and so got £10,000 last week, did you hear what he got for New Year’s Eve? This guy gets this’ and they use that as motivation to drag themselves forwards and I think maybe it’s worth trying a different motivation like ‘I actually want to do this’ or ‘I’ve got this idea for a track I really want to make’. It’s just a bit of a skewed... I find my head frying very quickly when I hear what figures other DJs earn because it’s not why I got into it and it’s very counter-productive, this comparison thing makes you feel like you’re not doing as well as these other guys but there are always stories like that. The reality is that I’ve survived 20 years and I’m still here and I haven’t had to take another job and I haven’t lost money and I haven’t put money in so I’m fairly pleased with that!
That’s really all you want! That gives you an element of permanence and an element of respect.
But you’re only as good as your last gig and there’s no certainly. You’re always hustling, there’s no job security. You really do have to keep on the hustle and retain your energy. I think every year you’ve got to question your energy and focus on how much you’ve got to give this year and if it’s ‘yes, I’ve got something to give’ then you carry on.
I think it’s a really interesting time musically, just in general where everyone is still finding their way in the world of the digital. In a way I think it’s good because it separates the wheat from the chaff quite quickly.
That’s the thing people need to realise - you have been working through the worst ten years in the history of the music industry so if you’ve survived that and come out the other side then that says something for you I think. I’d like to see a better solution to streaming and use of content. People have let it slide that we don’t license tracks to put on podcasts, we’ve let it slide that people’s content is used without them getting money because they say ‘it’ll raise your profile, you’ll get a gig’ and I think we’ve let it slide so that things like streaming and internet downloading is not paying. There’s talk about if there was more cohesive unified action that meant that people across the board were getting a fairer share of the actual amount of sales...
Re-examining everything from PRS down to the ground though.
Yep, PRS, it all counts. All that stuff that’s been out in the ether that hear hear an odd moan about. I really hope that finally comes to fruition within the next 5 years but it could still be over 10 years. At some point, I would like to think that these problems will have been solved.
It’s a legacy thing as well isn’t it? We can monitor everything now.
So there’s no excuse!
There’s no excuse for PRS being like it was 20 years ago. If you can quantify it all now, there is a way of quantifying how many plays you get then it could be a much more fair division of things and then you’re going to sustain the independent. This whole Soundcloud and Youtube thing is great but you wonder who gets paid from that.
Well YouTube is monetised now, they will pay you per plays but it’s then a case of who gets paid from that. Soundcloud is getting, to an extent, quite tight on copyright and I can imagine a little way down the line that Soundcloud pays.
Just for the purposes of the tape a man wearing entirely bubble-wrapping is just walking past us.
Can I ask you about Content?
Yeah, it was up for a number of albums of the year and it was a real fucking big job, it was a 2 year job in the making and it was 20 exclusive tracks from people that we wouldn’t normally get tracks off because they’ve got their own label or they’re too big. It was great to pull that together and it did take me a long time. We did shows around it, we developed the cubes which is a 3D visual show to do something different with the live shows - last one of the year is at fabric on the 27th. It was nice to tie in what we’ve been talking about as part of the history, I like the word - it is about content, what is your content. I think that’s what so important about us, why I’m also here is because 2020Vision has put unbelievably high quality content, we haven’t dropped the bar. We just keep it there, 275 releases and 40 albums and there’s not many I don’t like there. There’s the odd one that I think ‘how did that slip through the net’ but in general I’ll listen to just about any of them now and say that’s a good track!
I’ve been digging out loads from 10/12 years ago.
I think that’s a bit of our legacy is that we’ve put out really high quality electronic music, contributed to the scene and people have kept with us. You tend to hear peaks, there’s nothing much you can do about it - it just seems to come along where a whole wave of talent happens at the same time. There was that electronic house peak with DJ T, Simon Baker, Paul Woolford... It was all around 2006 and then we had another really nice peak around 2009 with the emerging British house scene - Maya Jane Coles, Huxley, Audiojack... They were all hitting at the same time, everything came up nicely then. We had a bit of a dip in 2010 and then I’m feeling a big of a surge for next year with some new British talent, I’m excited about Hackman, Premeisku, we’ve got hooked into this really cool studio in North London which is feeding out a multitude of people - one is hooking up with vocalists, they're working with a whole scene rather than an artist which I like. Concentrating on albums, there’s an album coming out from Forest which is really good and someone else who I’m really excited about. I want to throw curveballs next year, some things sounding a bit more commercial and some sounding really avant-garde - we want to really throw it out there.
The cyclical nature of things. I wanted to pick up on the title ‘Content’ - is that a bit of a sly little dig?
Yeah, it totally was!
It’s just a dirty word for me these days!
Exactly! It drives me up the wall, all these PR people and social media people where like ‘where’s my content at? Have you got my content?’ and it can mean a tweet of you wiping your arse to a photo of you walking down the street. It meant anything, it became a word that was totally devoid of meaning so I thought I’d re-appropriate the word content and give it some real meaning. I’ll give you some real content - exclusive tracks from the world’s greatest electronic artists, just for this project and then drop it and it’ll be done.
We’ve banned the word content in our office because it’s not content, it’s editorial! You’re fucking doing an interview here!
Hopefully we can kill it off!
See Ralph Lawson at fabric on 27th December, tickets can be found here.
Check www.ralphlawson.co.uk for an exstensive archive of articles and mixes from Ralph.