Label Love #44: Phonica Records
So obviously you know the Phonica record shop – the Central London store has been around long enough now that it's earnt that right to be called an 'institution', and this week they are celebrating their 12th birthday at Oval Space. Having been supplying dance vinyl to the world's finest DJs since 2003, it was inevitable that a record label would follow. Sure enough, in 2009 Phonica Records was born, swiftly followed by the sub labels Phonica Mix Series, Phonica Records Special Editions, and Phonica White. With Phonica's 12th birthday coming up at Oval Space this weekend, it seemed the ideal time to catch up with current label manager Alex Egan to discuss the Phonica Record's past, present and future…
How closely do the Phonica labels reflect the shop's ethos?
We stock a very wide range of music here at Phonica but house, techno and electronic music has always been at the core of what we do, so naturally it's been the main style of music we put out on our labels. I would say the main thing that ties the shop and labels together as far as an 'ethos' goes is our curation… much like we won't stock every single record offered to us, we won't just put anything out on the labels. A lot of the artists who have released on the labels are also regular customers or in a couple of cases even worked here, so there will always be a strong link between the two.
What’s the difference between the various offshoots?
The main label kickstarted everything for us but after a few months we kept coming across more and more great music, some of which was a bit deeper or 'trackier' so we quickly realised another outlet was needed, so along came Phonica White.
Our Special Editions label is for music that perhaps isn't aimed at DJs, it can be a bit more experimental or even song-based, but we feel has a certain something that captures the imagination and deserves to be pressed onto vinyl in nicely designed packaging.
On top of those we're also behind a couple of other labels, such as Karakul which focuses on a deeper, warmer house sound, Alex Bradley's Utopia and Laetitia Deering & Abi Thompson's Okno, both of which we back while they curate. Of course, the main label is still going strong, we just reserve that for our bigger profile releases with full artwork.
Which came first, the desire to release a particular tune, or the desire to run the label?
As I wasn't here at the very start, Simon (Phonica's shop & label founder) tells me it was a bit of both, friends and customers were making tracks and sending them through asking staff what labels should release their material. On top of that, two of the shop's employees – Hector and Anthea – were also producing tracks so Simon and co. thought, why not start with them?
How and where do you find most of the music for the label? Do artists submit their work to you or do you actively seek new names?
All of the staff contribute and help out in looking for tracks & producers, its very much a team effort. As well as talking to producers in the shop and asking them to send us tracks, we come across promising material online all the time on sites like soundcloud and get in touch that way. Also, as we get so much new music in every week, often from new and previously unheard of producers, there might be a record that catches our ears and we'll track them down to ask if they have any other material or would like to create something for us. That was the case for Art Crime's recent 12" actually… we loved his record on WT so decided to drop him a line and a few months later put his 'Obsession' EP out.
What's been the most successful release? And what have been the biggest surprises?
Overall, the reissue of Bob Holroyd's 'African Drug' is probably the most successful, with Four Tet's epic 11 minute remix. Midland's 'Play The Game' and recent 12" on Phonica White 'Before We Leave' were both big sellers too. Of course, our compilation 'Ten Years Of Phonica' did well and continues to sell, even a year and a half on. It was particularly rewarding working on a big project across 3xLPs, 3xCDs and 3×12" samplers and seeing all that effort paid off!
As vinyl increasingly becomes a luxury product, does that have a great impact on the nature of music released on vinyl?
A few years ago during the vinyl slump when a few distributors closed down I would have said some labels might have thought twice before pressing a release up unless it was 'DJ friendly' or would appeal to vinyl enthusiasts in some way, but nowadays that's not the case. While vinyl will never see the kind of sales like back in its heyday, they do seem to be improving and we're definitely going through a purple patch at the moment. Pressing a few hundred copies of a record is within reach for most labels and isn't the big risk it was even a few years ago. Regardless of format, the real challenge these days is cutting through the noise and getting your release heard as there's more music than ever being put out.
What's been on the shop stereo non-stop so far this year?
That's a very, very difficult question to answer as new releases pour in each week (and there are many staff with different opinions), but off the top of my head I'll say Levon Vincent's self-titled LP, the Boof LP on Running Back, Insanlar's 'Kime Ne', the Lena Platonos reissue on Dark Entries, Lnrdcroy's 'Much Less Normal' and the Letta Mbulu reissue all got played a lot when they arrived and still do… but I really am barely scratching the surface. Let's see what our end of year charts tell us!
What's your stance on digital vs vinyl?
Vinyl will always come first at Phonica, we're a physical shop after all and the staff are all mad about records, yet we're not against digital at all. We put out the majority of our label releases digitally as well to give digital DJs and regular customers a choice. Strangely enough, vinyl and downloads seem to compliment each other really well, as a lot of our customers buy a record to DJ with or keep in their collection yet appreciate the convenience of downloads to listen to on their phone or wherever. In my mind, it just makes more sense parting with money for something 'real'… records are just such oddly alluring things and it's human nature to desire tangible objects.
I often get told that vinyl is more of a promotional tool these days than an earner – the amount of DJs who’ve said ‘records are just a DJs calling card’ is quite surprising. What do you think of this – has it got implications for artists who don’t DJ?
It's a shame, as the music should always be valued for what it is rather than a means to an end. If it's a great record then sure, I understand why fans want to see that artist perform their music, but when they're getting booked to DJ and it isn't what they do, and haven't put in the time to learn, then that's just odd. There are so many fantastic DJs that don't produce out there that can't seem to break through because they haven't got a record out. It doesn't seem fair, but I guess if you look at the situation from a business point of view, promoters want to book acts who can draw a crowd, and punters seem to go for the creator of their favourite records rather than those who only play them well. Over the past few years DJs and producers have got wise to that and realise they have to cover all bases to be successful. It's just one of those things. Of course, some are lucky enough to be talented at both!
What can we expect to hear from you guys in 2015?
We have a number of records lined up including a superb new Phonica White from Iori, a new Special Editions release which we'll be unveiling soon, a new Utopia 12" and a pair of Karakul 12"s, the first of which is by Al Zanders which is out very soon. We've also got another release on our main label on the back-burner, but more on that another time!
What 5 releases should a newbie listen to to best understand the label(s)?
I'll cheat and start with our compilation of course…
1. Various Artists – Ten Years Of Phonica [Phonica]
2. Bob Holroyd – African Drug (inc. Four Tet Remix) [Phonica]
3. Iori – Moon [Phonica White]
4. Sad City – You Will Soon Find That Life Is Wonderful [Phonica Records Special Editions]
5. Midland – Before We Leave [Phonica White]
Phonica records are celebrating their 12th birthday at Oval space on Spetember 12th. Details and tickets from over here
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