Label Love #36: Optimo
There's very few people who could run a record label based on releasing whatever the hell they like, with barely a moments consideration given to whether any one release sounded anything like the record that had precreded it. Optimo though, they've been doing it for years. The personal project of Keith 'Twitch' McIvor, Optimo Music has released everything from swamp blues to brittle electro to tracky techno to throbbing post punk. Every track is simply a reflection of McIvor's taste, the distillation of a life spent DJing a thousand styles in a million clubs, and over the years, he's been proven right time and again. We caught up with Keith to try and work out what holds together a label that defies catagorisation. And we learnt that, whatever happens, there's no point sending him tech house;
The first Optimo release came from Big Ned. What was it about them that, after all the years that you'd be running the Optimo night, inspired you to kick off the label? How linked to the end of Optimo as a weekly club was it?
Before Optimo Music existed, Jonnie and I had run a label called Oscarr but it was always hard getting people to connect the label with Optimo and its release schedule was sporadic to say the least. One of the reasons we stopped doing Optimo as a weekly club was to have more time to focus on other projects, but Jonnie decided he didn't want to be involved with the label as he had too many family commitments. I decided to relaunch it on my own and make the Optimo connection more explicit by calling it Optimo Music. Originally the idea was to focus on music from Glasgow which is what I did for the first few releases. My friend Dave who I had worked with on many different projects over the years let me hear this album he had made as Big Ned. I felt it was the perfect first release as it captured the spirit of lots of non dancefloor music I love and reflected the idea that Optimo Music would release music I loved, whatever style of music it might be. That release will almost certainly be the only CD release the label ever releases.
Were there any other acts that you nearly started off with?
I had 4 releases lined up from day one: Big Ned, Divorce, Den Haan and Dollskabeat, all of whom I had got to know through the club night. Big Ned came first as Dave was the first one to deliver final masters and artwork.
Were there any labels you were looking to for inspiration on setting up Optimo?
No, not really. There are so many labels I deeply love and admire but the ones that particularly resonate with me seem to have far more of a coherent identity than I have ever managed to have. It would probably be a lot easier for people to get a grip on the label if I had much more narrowly defined tastes but that's not who I am. Optimo Trax was an attempt to have a slightly more defined identity – i.e. it is for the dancefloor – but even that label has been all over the place musically. The downside of not having a more defined identity is that people think I am open to all music which I'm certainly not. I actually do have a defined aesthetic (at least one that makes perfect sense to me) but it is perhaps hard for a lot of people to narrow in on what it is. One result of that is that I seem to receive endless identikit demos from producers who tell me they make tech-house. If there's ever been a duller style of dance music than tech-house I've yet to hear it.
You followed Big Ned with Den Haan, and I think it's fair to say that the two records sound pretty far apart. What did you see as the link between the two acts? Was there one? Has there ever actually been an Optimo Music philosophy put into words?
I think anyone would be hard pushed to find a connection between those two releases! The only link is that they are both from Glasgow. It certainly wasn't an attempt to confuse potential followers of the label but I see no reason why liking one would make liking the other mutually exclusive. Optimo Music's philosophy is loosely: "there is no genre, no dogma," or simply that it is a reflection of my tastes and I release music I believe in and want to share with as many people as I can. It would probably be impossible to run if anyone else's taste had to be considered. Running the label is a labour of love; it's my hobby. It's much less expensive than if my hobby was say golf or snowboarding.
How much has the label been a reflection of your DJ sets?
I have played every release in my dj sets. Many of them only in a warm up set as a high percentage would no doubt clear most/all dancefloors, but I don't really ever concern myself as to whether anything on Optimo Music would work in someone's dj sets. Although, there have been a handful of dancefloor explicit release on the label. With Optimo Trax, my A&R criteria is simply that everything that comes out on that label has to be something I'd be excited to play in my sets. There have been several potential releases that I know would have done very well and would probably have been played by many other djs but as I wouldn't have played them I turned them down.
What have been the toughest lessons to learn over the last 6 years?
I have been running labels for over 20 years so one might think I had learned all the lessons but I am still a blundering amateur. I have a business degree but I'm not really a business person, nor would I want to be. I put 100% love and energy into every release but have an inbuilt aversion to hype and really, I see my labels as some sort of cottage industry mainly existing outside the demands of capitalism rather than as a business. Hmmm, I wonder how many artists will strike me off their list of labels they'd like to release on after reading that?! Anyway, the toughest lesson I think I have learned has become apparent as I have stepped up the number of releases the labels put out, and that is the amount of work involved. I was always determined never to have an office job but have ended up creating one for myself, but actually, I enjoy working hard which after many years of being a lazy git in my younger years has been quite a revelation. It is immensely satisfying and I am fortunate to have a small but wonderful support team – Jill and Andrew – who help me out.
There's a strong aesthetic presence on label; does this come about by sitting the artists down and discussing artwork, or do you call the shots?
One inspiration I did take from another label was from Matador Records. I released an album with them around 2000 and in the first meeting they said they felt a release should be a complete reflection of an artist's vision, from the music to the artwork and they would never interfere in the artwork side of things unless the artist chose to put a swastika on the sleeve. That resonated with me and despite the fact that most of my favourite labels tend to have quite a defined aesthetic with regard to sleeve design, I always encourage the artists to provide the artwork. I have been very fortunate that many of the artists I've worked with have also been artistically very gifted. I also possibly take subconscious influence from Factory Records in that there have been a few releases where the sleeves have probably resulted in the release making a loss.
Have you ever released anything that's come in unsolicited?
Yes, a few things and more as the release schedule has grown. I receive a phenomenal number of demos and can only begin to imagine how many bigger labels must receive. I try to check them all but, especially with ones sent in for Optimo Trax, it can start to feel like gruelling work so I veto any that don't take the time to at least write a civil email. I'm not actually actively seeking demos but a handful of my favourite releases did come about from unsolicited approaches. I've had a few interesting conversations as a result of demo submissions. A Ukrainian guy sent me a tortuous Psy-trance demo and I mailed back suggesting he might want to actually research the labels he was mailing before contacting them. He then quoted back the quote from our website – "there is no genre, no dogma." Touché. He then mailed back a few weeks later to say he had listened to everything on the label Soundcloud page, had had his mind blown and was going to scrap all his music and start again. Maybe I'll hear back from him again one day?
And have you ever chased a track only to see it snatched away by another label?
No, never. There have been several records I've wanted to reissue though where someone else got there just ahead of me.
What has been the label's happiest accident?
Not so much an accident but probably the fact that I'm friends with the people who run Green Door studios. All my life people have been telling me "I think you'll like this," and they are usually wrong, but when my friends at Green Door tell me this they are almost always right and that has led to a significant number of releases on the label being things they have recorded there.
And what have been your favourite releases so far?
I'm sure every label runner says this but all of them are my favourites. There's not one I regret releasing, even some of the earlier ones that sold terribly. It's also been a great pleasure to release some music by some of my all time favourite artists.
And what's been the biggest disaster?
The first five releases were distributed by a distributor who went bust. I have a basement full of boxes of unsold copies of many of those releases which is always a fairly depressing sight every time I venture in there. Beyond that, I've had a few production disasters but apart from the odd delayed release nothing that has kept me awake at night.
With Optimo having a fairly wide musical remit, what was your thinking behind starting Optimo Trax?
Optimo Music has released a few things that could be considered to be club records but I was receiving more and more great dance music that I didn't think quite sat right on Optimo Music, which is more artist rather than producer led. As I have been djing for nearly 30 years and hadn't run a fully fledged "dance" label since the 90s, I felt like having a club / dj specific label again and so Optimo Trax was born. It has been way more prolific and well received than I had originally envisaged. There is also the Optimo Music Disco Plate series which in terms of vinyl sales possibly does the best of all with the least promotion of all!
In 2015, buying vinyl is almost entirely a past time for the wealthy, true or false?
It is certainly a past time for the privileged, although I know a lot of people on low incomes who will scrimp and save so they can buy records. In my early 20s I practically lived on noodles so I could buy records. Of course records are an indulgent thing, but as someone who has many issues with unconstrained capitalism, I do find it interesting that the vast majority of record labels don't make money. Or at least, making a profit is not their motivation for existing.
How did the Severed Heads reissue come about?
It was actually one of the easiest releases I've done and simply involved two emails to Tom Ellard in Sydney. As with Optimo Music, I wanted Optimo Trax to occasionally reissue some records from the past I still love and with Optimo Trax about one in 5 has been a reissue of old tracks that I still play in my sets. I'm a huge Severed Heads fan so it was really exciting to put this out and show people that there was another side to their music. A lot of people possibly don't know that at the time it was made it had serendipitously fitted in with the nascent house scene.
What, if any, other classic 12" would you love to reissue?
I have several in mind but I'd rather not mention them as we live in an era of frenzied reissuing and I wouldn't want to get pipped to the post.
How much have you engaged with trying new ways of the label making money outside of simply flogging tunes? Is it feasible for an indie to survive by just selling music in the current climate?
Not very much. The labels as yet don't have a Bandcamp nor have I done any merchandise, although I hope to address that this year. I have a constant debate with myself about using streaming services and currently let the artists decide whether they want their music streamed. The labels all sell ok, a little better than they did a few years ago though endless media stories about the supposed massive resurgence in vinyl sales are well off the mark. If I did this for a living I'd have had to give up years ago, so I'm fortunate I don't and every penny I make can go back into the label. So for me, I can survive just selling records and digital but I have far fewer worries or overheads than labels where people are trying to make a living.
What have you got coming up this year?
Just out is the Golden Teacher vs. Dennis Bovell 12" on Optimo Music and the Severed Heads EP on Optimo Trax which is release no. 15 and 16, 17 and 18 are in production or about to go into production. Optimo Music Disco Plate 4, an EP by Norway's Sex Judas is imminent and then on Optimo Music, there is the Boot & Tax double album, an EP by this fantastic young Glasgow band called Junto Club, a double vinyl compilation of DIY / Post-punk 7"s from 1978 – 82 (which has been thee most labour intensive project I've ever undertaken), an EP by The Golden Filter, a new album by Peter Zummo, a various artists benefit album in aid of Glasgow foodbanks, hopefully a Dennis Bovell reissue 12" and there was meant to be an EP by this mysterious but wonderful act called Rita Furstenhof but she/he/they appear to have vanished without trace. If they happen to read this, please get back in touch! There are several other releases I'm mulling over and also a few Autonomous Africa and Bucky Skank releases but that's another story really.
Find out more about Optimo's label ventures here.