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Digital Libations

Moonshine Records label head Steven Levy on why independent companies own electronica — for at least the near future

By Marc Weidenbaum

Home to DJ Keoki, Electric Skychurch, Cirrus, and countless compilation series (Psychotrance, United DJs of America), Moonshine Records predates much of the current electronica hype. This interview with label founder and A&R head Steven Levy was done in preparation for a story for Pulse! magazine (“Black Label,” September 1996) about independent record labels that specialize in electronic music.


 

Marc Weidenbaum: Let’s start at the top, with a brief history of your label.

Steven Levy: Moonshine’s been around for almost five years. We’ve had a few different distributors, our current one is RED, which we just inked a deal with two months ago. Originally, I used to put on raves and clubs here in L.A., used to DJ at them. Through some of the people they used to bring over from Europe to play at the raves, I made some connections and somewhat naively decided, Why isn’t this music getting out here, and how do we get it out? Put together a compilation, called Techno Truth, and hooked up distribution, back then through Indi. We hit the nail on the head at the right time, with the first release, when “techno” was a big word. The first record sold, and we just kept putting out records from then on, compilations mainly.

Weidenbaum: When you started with compilations, was it understood you’d eventually do full-length releases?

Levy: Yeah. At the time, even in Europe there weren’t really any album artists coming out of the genre, and there were a lot of big singles that were big in the raves and the clubs, but none of the artists that were doing big singles at the time had got to the level of doing full-length work. The other side to the scenario was that in America, you’re not going to make enough money selling 12″ singles to support an actual record label. So, the compilation was the inevitable route.

Weidenbaum: Does a company make money on 12″ singles. I’ve heard differing opinions.

Levy: How we make money on 12″ singles is, really, from licensing those singles onto other compilations, and to other labels, and to other territories, from the one-off single project. I would say that the sale of the 12″s and [cost of ] the manufactured 12″s is to promote them so that we can then do that.

Weidenbaum: What is it about the 12″ single that lends a cachet to something.

Levy: I don’t know if it’s a cachet. It’s a necessity to get club play and to get it onto the turntables of the people who play music, so people can hear the music initially.

Weidenbaum: Where are you from?

Levy: Originally from London.

Weidenbaum: And you started the label with your brother?

Levy: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: What is the division of labor?

Levy: He handles the business side, the day-to-day operations, the money, that kind of thing. I handle the creative side, the A&R, the packaging, the artist relations. We meet with the marketing and the advertising end of things.

Weidenbaum: What’s coming up you’re most excited about?

Levy: We’ve got Keoki’s first full-length self-produced album, which is called Ego Trip; really excited about what’s happening with Cirrus’ album, called Drop the Break. That was released about eight weeks ago and it’s selling really strong. We’re getting tremendous support at radio and college radio and press, and they’re doing some amazing touring. What else we got coming up? Couple of signings in the works I’ll talk about at a later date. Also the fact that we signed Carl Cox in the U.S.

Weidenbaum: You still involved with Mixmag?

Levy: We’re distributing their releases, yes. That came about through a relationship we had with Guy Arnedell, who was running DMC in the U.S. We kind of together formulated with him the whole United DJs of America series, and then when Mixmag, which was kind of a sister company in the U.K., said, Well, why don’t we put these albums we’re putting together for the magazine out in America, they put it through the same channel, which was us.

Weidenbaum: A lot of electronic labels are inking with majors; other, like Ninja Tune, are staying apart. What’s with Moonshine?

Levy: The beginning of this year, with all the focus that’s been on electronic music, we had a lot of interest from major labels, and there’s still interest going on. At the same time, we were distributed by Navare for the last two or three years, and our deal was up with them. I saw a lot of opportunities were open to us, but when we looked at the major label system and getting into that, it didn’t make sense, so we went with RED, cause they gave us the best of both worlds, in that they are an independent company but when push comes to shove, they’ve got Sony behind them, Sony distribution set up behind them to really put records away and put records into the stores. So, we chose to go with RED and stay independent, ’cause the company’s independently owned, um, but seeing as how the majors work, and even in discussions with people at the majors, they freely admitted that they could not do the business we’re doing in the way that we do it through their systems. It does not make sense at this point to go with them.

Weidenbaum: Could you delineate that for a layman. What are the things that indies do that are difficult for a major to consider?

Levy: We make money selling 10,000 records, and we know how to make money selling 10,000 records. We have ways of promoting records and building a fan base for an artist or even for the label that completely baffle the major labels since they really have a system that they plug every record into and if it works it works and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. The whole priority system: If a record isn’t selling over 100,000 records it’s considered a flop. We don’t need to do that to get the records out. At this point in electronic music the fan base isn’t that big. It’s growing, and we’re doing our best to help it grow, and now that the doors at radio and major commercial press are opening, our sort of fan base is opening and we can tap into the, maybe, more traditional forms of promotion, but still having the base that we work with.

Weidenbaum: I was reading this article about the movie Titanic, and the writer was talking about how the movie had to be put off because it wouldn’t have enough of an advance to meet the press deadlines. Indie labels don’t depend on press the same way majors do. The whole production hinges on how magazines have a two month lead time.

Levy: Sometimes even longer. We were talking to some magazines lately and they have, like, four or five months. On our end of things, like you said, we don’t have to rely on the press to do it, because we don’t have to sell hundreds of thousands of records, and we also don’t have to work by the same rules. I mean, they have rules in place of how they do it. They’re attempting to make some changes, because they’re seeing that the way major labels have been attempting to work records recently has caused a real downturn in the whole music market, because they’re not believing in artist development. There is no story behind a lot of artists who come out. For us, with Cirrus, we’d been working them two years before their record came, with 12″ releases, with them going out playing, with us making people aware of them, with street awareness of them.

Weidenbaum: Are these new rules or old rules. So many people get their info on the Internet, that it’s almost old hat when they turn to Rolling Stone — or Pulse! for that matter.

Levy: I think that’s true to a certain extent. The power of the Internet is maybe still overestimated. I’m more and more a fan of the Internet, but I still think that your average kid in the street usually finds this stuff out in Rolling Stone before the Internet.

Weidenbaum: What are the new rules?

Levy: The old rules. I read The Mansion on the Hill, about the old rock’n’roll business — Springsteen was out touring for three years before he released a record. There was a local awareness on a big level of a band before people would even consider picking them up. Bands had experience playing in front of audiences before they would be allowed to go in the studio. Now, it’s like, you know, a band does a demo tape, which they could do in their bedroom studio, and the song sounds like a hit to an A&R man — he picks them up, doesn’t even know whether or not they can play live, and it’s very manufactured. Next thing you know they’re trying to put the band in front of 10,000 people opening for a bigger band, and they don’t cut it. What we’re trying to do, because the way our business is set up, the actual financial end of it is supported by the compilations; it doesn’t matter whether or not we put an artist album out on schedule, and it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a hit. We create an awareness of a band just by having a record out there, and we build them. We’re not looking to break them on the first album, even the second album.

Weidenbaum: What’s the investment structure? It’s privately held.

Levy: It’s owned by my brother and I.

Weidenbaum: And are there any other investors?

Levy: No.

Weidenbaum: How much money did you initially have to invest?

Levy: It just sort of grew. We scraped together enough money to put a compilation together, and then the money that we earned from that compilation we put back in, and then we put another one out, and then we put it back in, and it’s been this constant re-investment.

Weidenbaum: Estimate market value for the label right now?

Levy: Obviously, we’ve looked at it. By industry standards, probably got to be worth over 10 million dollars.

Weidenbaum: You mentioned the label has fans. One of the beauties of electronica is the association of a label with a particular sound. What do people go to Moonshine for?

Levy: I think one of the things we’ve tried to do with the compilations, and one of the things we’ve seen from the feedback we get from the people who buy them — whether we’re documenting trip-hop or jungle or techno or whatever, we’re picking the best of the genre. Whichever DJs are doing mix albums for us, it’s guaranteed to be good. There’ s no schlock on there. We didn’t just get into this to do Dance Mix ’86, ’96 — two big tracks and a load of filler, six tracks done by the same producer under six different names. If we do a trip-hop album it’s the real deal, it’s the real artists from the genre. So, I think that’s one of the things — you’re going to like the music. We get feedback that says, “I just look for the label and I know that if it’s Moonshine, I might not know what trip-hop is, but I’ll buy the record.” On the artists end of things, we sort of are now focused on where we’re going with that. On one end, with the 12″ dance product, it’s a tougher and tougher end of house, a tougher, pumping house. On the actual artist albums, such as Keoki and Cirrus, I would say “electronic alternative” is the best way to describe it.

Weidenbaum: Who are your role models?

Levy: We’re doing a similar thing as someone like Rick Rubin did during the ’80s with hip-hop. I produce myself, and I would like to see myself in the future — our bands coming to me and saying, We’d like you to produce us. What he initially did — not necessarily what he’s doing now — in the past … definitely model on that. And then, sort of maybe going further back, look at someone like Bill Graham, who really spotted talent when it was at its rawest, and built relationships before people even knew or heard about anything, and built his empire on that. A guy by the name of Tom Hewlitt — I used to go to school with his daughter, and he ran Concerts West and did the original Elvis concerts and managed the Moody Blues, and he was my initial view as to why I wanted to get into the music business.

Weidenbaum: Every system is stratified. Millionaires eye billionaires, much as mid-five figure types eye low-six-figure ones. A&R people at majors hear music every day that they love, but know to be a bad investment — a bad investment for big label. You guys can have a million-dollar business based on albums that sell 10,000 copies. Is there music you listen to that you can’t release. What kind of music do you listen to that you just couldn’t feasibly —

Levy: I don’t think there is any. We have a sublabel, which is called Bottom Heavy, which I kind of run as a hobby on the side, which was a reaction to exactly what you’re saying. I was getting demos from producers I knew and I liked the stuff so much we just put it out on 12″. We’re doing a compilation of this stuff coming out end of August.

Weidenbaum: What kind of stuff is it?

Levy: From low to mid-tempo breakbeat sort of West Coast sounding, all sort of based on breaks, non-vocal, but real experimental, anything from stuff you want to listen to on headphones to stuff that actually does work on the dance floor but is really based around breakbeat. There really isn’t anything [we can’t release], but then there’s other bands that maybe on the other end may be too rich for my blood that I really sort of idolize, that I listen to.

Weidenbaum: Like who?

Levy: Like Garbage, just the whole project, the way that came together, and the music that’s come out of it is just phenomenal. The Prodigy’s a great band — we were gonna sign them, back in ’94. We had the same deal on the table as Mute did, because of the relationship we had with Excel in the past, and the only reason we didn’t get it was because management wanted them for a major. I would have loved that deal to go through. I was having a conversation with the guy from Excel the other day, and he said, Would you have done what Mute did with Maverick [Records], and I was like, Yeah.

Weidenbaum: Good to see them get the success.

Levy: There’s so much shit going on with electronic music at the moment that I’m taking a step back and laughing. The majors are throwing stupid money at the moment at anything that was created on a keyboard with a sampler with a couple of guys that front it.

Weidenbaum: It would be easy to pull one over.

Levy: A lot of people are — bottom line is most of these people have only ever done one track, none of them have ever played live, there’s huge hype going on, and a lot of this stuff is getting signed thinking it’s going to be the next Prodigy or Chemical Brothers. They don’t realize, the Prodigy have been around since 1991, sold millions of records, played in front of millions of people, and all the stuff that’s getting signed is one guy in the studio creating noise — that may be great, but there’s nothing beyond it than one guy in the studio creating noise.

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