Simon B recently contributed a track to our recent bass music album, and he also heads one of the pioneering record labels in South China: Guangzhou Underground. We sat down for a chat with him over the interwebs…
Tell us a bit about your musical background
I’m a musician and a music nerd before anything else, so DJing, promoting and having a label are simply extensions of that. I was lucky enough to be in my early teens when rave and hardcore exploded in the UK, and artists like The Prodigy and Liquid were in the pop charts. But I got into more underground stuff through tapes of DJ sets that I’d blag from older students at school, and – this is going to sound weird – MTV, which had a dedicated program for dance music where you’d have obscure Belgian hardcore next to all the chart stuff. I began collecting dance vinyl in 1991 pretty much as soon as I got my first part time job at school, then began DJing and promoting in 1995 when I moved to college. Promoting has always gone hand in hand with DJing for me just as the means to have somewhere to play ad to control the music direction. The label is a more recent development, beginning three years ago shortly after I’d arrived in China. As with my DJing and promoting, I was determined to keep it multi-genre. I guess because hardcore was my first introduction to dance music, I’ve never seen house, techno and bass/breaks-orientated music as wildly separate genres.
UK is obviously the homeland for bass music. But how do you find the music and clubbing scene in China compared to the UK?
Dance music in the UK still holds that ‘wow’ factor for me but I got jaded with clubbing a long time ago because all the nights were so focussed on narrow niches and sub genres. So coming to south China was actually refreshing because there really was a feeling of anything-goes when we started putting on nights. The first thing to remember is that China does not have the same history and culture of clubbing and dance music as the UK, Europe and US (though that is not to say it has no history of electronic music, which is a different story). It is still a relatively new development. Most people are being introduced to all the genres and subgenres in one go, and are kind of evaluating them without the cultural baggage attached. For example the ‘EDM vs underground’ argument does’t really stand up when people who come to our nights and geting down to all the cutting edge half-step jungle are the same people going crazy to EDM acts at Storm. And this is something really refreshing to me, and made me revaluate a lot of my own attitudes to what’s ‘underground’ and what’s just good quality dance music. You realise a lot of underground music is so self-referential that it doesn’t really stand on its own. That’s not to say it isn’t frustrating when you want to play deeper or old school stuff.
Why did you start the label, and has it been a worthwhile endeavor. If you could do it all over from the start, what would you do differently? Have you been able to break even?
I’d been in contact with Alex Agore for a couple of years, and had a chance to release some songs by him. There was no masterplan, and it was simply a case of dive in and learn on the job. GZUG the record label and GZUG the party promotion started at the same time, and at first that seemed like a great way to build a brand both locally and internationally. And that has worked to some degree but promoting and running a label are like full time jobs in themselves; I think I could have pushed the label a lot further if I had focussed solely on that. Another thing I hadn’t been prepared for was how the economics of the dance music ‘market’ have very little rhyme or reason to them. Royality rates and remix fees etc vary massively from artist to artist, and not always in line with how big their profile is. It took a while to get a feel for that. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that digital sales figures are minute compared to the old days of vinyl, partly due to piracy, partly due to the rise of streaming, but also quite simply because the market is flooded. Most artists make their money from DJing so recorded music just becomes a kind of calling card for that. Therefore, to return to my original point – if you’re going to do a record label, you need to be into it full time to really make it work. We’ve broken even, but we would have got their a lot quicker if I’d devoted all my time to that.
Which platform has been the most successful thus far?
I think this might disappoint a few naysayers, but Beatport by a long shot is where our most sales are. As for the runners up, it depends on the genre. For house, Traxsource is the clear winner. For Bass Music, Juno does alright. Surprisingly, we sell a lot on iTunes too – their files are still 256kbps as far as I know, so I guess it’s regular listeners and not DJs buying them.
You’ve been able to sign some legit artists. What is your favorite release thus far?
I am so chuffed to have worked with artists I was already a fan of such as Alex Agore, Lady Blacktronika and Stranjah. But to be honest, my favourite release is one of the ones that got the least attention: Kaison’s Eth Olam E.P. There’s a real emotional depth and earnestness to the music.
Now that you are returning to the UK for a masters, what will happen with GZUG?
It’s a PhD, not a masters – the big one! The label is going on hiatus as far as new signings are concerned, but I’ll keeping the back catalogue ticking over with licensing and getting it onto other platforms that we aren’t on yet. As for the parties, Bass Panda and Failed State will keep them going, and I’ll help organise from afar. To be honest, I want to get producing properly; I’ve had a few releases before but never given it any proper time and attention.
What the most important bit of advice you would give to aspiring record labels?
Get your stuff mastered properly! As a DJ I get fed up of decent tunes that are unplayable because they’ve just been brickwalled through a plug in, or worse yet haven’t been mastered at all. Why go through all the hassle of getting a release out if it’s going to sound rubbish in a club.