Independent distribution, promotion and royalty accounting company Label Worx, based in Hull, marks its tenth anniversary this summer.
Co-founders Chris Chambers and Matt Abbott met when working as DJs in 2004 and set up Alter Ego Records the following year.
Having been let down by multiple distributors, they built their own label management system out of necessity, and eventually morphed into a full distribution company themselves in July 2007, signing up 150 clients in their first year.
Abbott spoke to Music Ally about the 10 things the company has learned (or been forced to learn) in its first decade in business.
Sometimes there is no other option but it do it yourself
“Myself and Chris were DJs and producers and we set a record label up at the start of the digital era. We had direct deals with AudioJelly and Beatport at the time, but we realised there wasn’t a living in it and we knew that to make money we would have to run 10 sub-labels releasing a track a week – and with that money we might be able to scrape by.
We had a spreadsheet that we’d pass between each other with the new releases and realised it was a nightmare [to handle]. Chris built a web platform [to process it] and that was literally the start of Label Worx. We built a system for us to use as a part-time record label to make our lives easier and cut down the admin so that we could run the labels.
Bit by bit, people asked us to master and distribute them. We had previously used three different distributors and they had all cocked it up. Our releases were going up [to the stores] wrong. We built the system ourselves to do the job correctly.
Eleven years ago, when we had the idea, no one knew what the cloud was. We had to build our own cloud. It’s not like today where you can sign up to Amazon Web Services and start your own company. We literally had to buy servers and make a content delivery network. We had to build everything ourselves as it just didn’t exist – from the infrastructure to the software.”
You have to play the long game
“Before any decent label will work with you or trust you, you have to be around for a while to prove what you can do. You have to stick at it, working hard to prove what you are worth.
At the start of the company, we knew that we were doing something right as some labels were signing up. Initially they were smaller and newer labels, but bit by bit we got slightly better and slightly better ones. You’d put labels in tiers and if you were constantly signing labels in a higher tier, then you were doing what you needed to achieve. If you were constantly getting rejections [that would be a worry].
At the start we were the whippersnappers, taking business from the bigger guys – so we are very mindful of [new companies coming in and doing that to us]. Even though we are getting bigger and bigger, we are still trying to operate and have the same ethics of a youngish company. It’s still the same mindset; we just have more skills and better quality. We are still hungry.”
No one wants to know you until you are someone
“When I first started DJing, I’d spend £70-100 a week on vinyl. I religiously did that, researched the music and spent a fortune, practiced my mixing and became a good DJ. But nobody would give me a set. Then I [stopped DJ-ing and] started making music, had it released on record and then I got DJ sets. There were kids out there who could do a better set than me as they were practicing week in, week out – but I wasn’t.
The second I stopped DJing, I started getting sent promos and free music. I never got a promo when I needed it and now I get sent more free music that I can deal with. It’s only when you get a name that people will trust you and give you a chance.
It’s chicken and egg as you need that leg up to help you get yourself there. Barring the last year, everything we have done at Label Worx has come from word of mouth. That is the best way to grow a company. When you get a referral from someone, it’s like a done deal.”
Dance music is as big as it was in the 1990s
“It is bigger in certain strands. In Europe it’s maybe not quite as big as when Gatecrasher, Cream and Ministry were putting on club nights every week. You’d struggle to get a big monthly club night across Europe now. Whereas in America it is much bigger than it’s ever been; so if you average it out, it’s definitely as big as it was in the 1990s.”
Outsourcing other software solutions and connecting to their API is a good thing
“It is a double-edge sword with this. If you can’t get it from somewhere else, you can always get something bespoke [built] – which is great; but you’re responsible for completely maintaining it yourself. Whereas if you rely on someone to do a section of it, that is completely their department as they are the people running and updating it so you just tap into it for a small fee.”
Getting things done properly in the dance industry can be a challenge
“We are all clubbers! Some of us think we want to do this as a job and that’s how we got into the business. That’s great and there’s a lot of passionate people here. But they are not necessarily business people.
That applies to everything. You work with DJs who say they’ll get a remix back to you and they go out DJ-ing have a big weekend and [disappear]. That happens. With release schedules, you are going to get that. That’s just the way it is.
You get things like people saying, “Oh, it’s actually my brother’s friend who runs the label. We’ll get back to you.” And you keep having to go back to them [to get it done]. From our point of view, if you can provide clarity, sanity and professionalism in a less-than-professional environment, then you have an edge.”
The digital age is constantly evolving at a super-fast rate
“The way people are consuming online with playlists and streaming is getting faster and faster. How have we had to change in the past 10 year? Not hugely. We were not a physical distributor that then had to pivot; we started in digital so everything was built around digital.
That hasn’t really changed massively. The method of the digital music being [sent to the stores] and then us marketing it is exactly the same. It’s just the means of consumption has gone from à la carte and more towards the subscription model.
We are still pitching our tracks to somebody somewhere [to back the track]. If it’s a good track, it’s a good track and people will want to listen to it. It doesn’t massively change what we need to do.
It used to be that the lead time for a track was six weeks to promote it and get it into stores, but that lead time has got much shorter. People are now promoting it for a week and then releasing it.”
Be ahead of the curve without looking at what everyone else is doing.
“You can spend forever looking at other people and what they are doing. It’s good to see what they are doing, but you really want to be the company that everyone else is looking at to try and copy. What we did originally was do something to solve a problem that needed to be solved.
It’s about giving a service rather than just developing something because someone else is doing it and you feel you need to as well. You need to tackle a problem and solve it yourself. If you look at them and make what they made, you might make the same mistakes. If you want to make something better, find the problem and make a solution for it.”
Quality over quantity – always
“You can get into that mode of thinking of just putting more releases out, doing more and more and getting more labels signed up. The quality can then decrease in the service you are providing. If you are doing something really well, you are better off doing less of that but doing it really well rather than doing lots of things and doing them badly.”
We are living in an age where everything needs to be done yesterday
“Within that, you have to be able to deliver things as best you can. If a track has a bit of hype, people will want to get it out there – and I appreciate that and we want to give them the best service we can, getting it out to get the best out of it that we can.
Having to work longer hours is a consequence of people working in different time zones and you are sitting waiting for their call. In the past you could work 9-to-5, but we have known no different. We live and breathe it. For people running labels in their spare time, it’s their release and their baby – so if they have an issue with the release they want to get it solved [quickly]. If you can solve that problem and others can’t [that gives you an advantage].
Whether that [always-on working culture] is right or wrong is a tough one. I just can’t see the industry going back to 9-to-5. I can’t see that happening in any industry today. If you don’t come back to clients immediately if they contact you over the weekend, they will move company by Monday. Everyone else is on the same treadmill.
I would like it if there was an amnesty and we could turn the treadmill down. That would be nice, but I just can’t see it. Kids coming through are just used to instant gratification [with regards to online content]. It’s a cultural thing. People want instant gratification and that is how it works.”