Back to Ground Level with Andy McAllister
Breaks and bass label Ground Level have announced a best of compilation due out on 4 May, which is intended as the last release from this excellent Derby-based label. Before they disappear, I thought I ought to ask Andy McAllister how the label came about and why it’s going.
1. What was your background before Ground Level Records – you were a drummer I think. That’s not the usual entry to label management?
I actually was a bit of a suit before I started the label, I worked at a multinational mobile phone brand for a 7 years, but had been drumming, DJing and producing since my teens and kept this up throughout my time with them. It got quite surreal at times: sitting in breakfast networking meetings in the mornings then DJing alongside the likes of the Stanton Warriors at Spectrum at night! After my 7 years with that company came to an end I made the decision to work in music full time, I was running a weekly night in Derby called Ground Level, and the guest DJs I was booking kept giving me incredible music, that’s when I decided to start Ground Level – as an outlet for this awesome music! As far as experience of label management goes I had exactly zero, I learned everything on the fly, and was guided a lot by my mate Jonny Strinati who ran Splank! Records – one of the best labels around in breaks at that time.
2. What was your ambition for Ground Level Records?
My ambition when I first started was the be the next Fingerlickin’ who at the time were ruling the breaks scene. Back then breaks was a much bigger genre than it is now, if I remember rightly the first Plump DJs album sold in excess of 60,000 copies. It was the cool genre and everyone was playing it – from James Lavelle through to Carl Cox. I remember going to a Fingerlickin night at Spectrum in Nottingham (before I started playing there) and all three rooms were taken over by Fingerlickin artists, and just thinking I want to create something like this.
3. What’s your favourite release (and go on, your least favourite)?
Can I cheat and name a few favourites? I think the first release Serious Wobble by Stylus Rex still holds a really special place in my heart, just the whole experience of getting the amazing original, commissioning Maelstrom to do the remix, pressing the vinyl and picking up the first box of vinyl from the plant, and finally the launch event for the label were just so much fun!
Rebel’s Sketchy’s album Goodbye Gravity is a firm favourite too, an album that took Dave from being a breaks producer to an electronic music producer, using so many different genres and all done so well. That is not only one of my favourite Ground Level releases but also one of my favourite albums period.
DJ Hero’s remix of Bounce by Zap! Pow! Die! is another favourite, it was the first time I’d worked with DJ Hero and he had a hard task – ZPD had delivered not one but two versions of the original and they were both awesome. DJ Hero turned in a stunning remix that had support from the Plumps, Krafty Kuts and pretty much every big player in the breaks scene.
As far as my least favourite, I can honestly say that looking through the catalogue now there’s nothing I’m not proud of. There are a couple of my own releases that every time I listen to I want to go back and change, but I think that’s just the mindset of the producer, the job’s never finished but at some point you have to decide it is!
4. Why did you decide now was the time to end Ground Level after more than 7 years (I hope it wasn’t the Acid Ted blog kiss of death)?
Don’t worry it certainly wasn’t anything to do with Acid Ted, I really appreciate the support you’ve given the label over the years.
I like to think of a future where anything is possible, but over the years I’ve found that harder and harder to picture when working with Ground Level. We went from an age where there were multiple record stores selling your product to basically a market where one store dominates, which is never a healthy thing in any industry. The cost of entry was higher when the label first started, to make a decent vinyl release you’d be spending around £1000 a release, and that sort of acted as a filter for the music that shouldn’t be out there.
Producers need to realise that just because they can release everything they make they don’t need to release it all – there is a subtle difference between creating a body of work and creating a meaningful body of work. If the music isn’t the best thing you can possibly make, and stands up against the best music in your collection then all your doing is creating pollution – not only are you clogging up the stores and making it harder to find good music, the servers the music is stored on for these stores are literally creating pollution by using electricity to power them!
There was a horrible trend that started a couple of years ago that I’d get an unsolicited demo from a producer, which I’d reply to saying the idea was cool but it needed a lot of work, then rather than the artist going back and making the track better I’d see it coming out on another label a few weeks later, and it’d go nowhere.
Labels need to have higher standards, and I think the stores themselves need to curate music based upon merit rather than the stack-em-high, let everything in policy they have now. When I worked in a record shop we didn’t just take in a copy of everything that was offered to us, we listened to everything and then decided if it was going to be a fit for our customers.
Social media is a blessing and a curse, on one hand it’s great to be able to have access to the people that buy your music and communicate directly, but it is so abused by some people it looses it’s shine. Spammy DJs and producers are the digital equivalent of those automated PPI calls you get on your mobile, and just as frustrating. I unfollowed one producer on Facebook as his posts were polluting my feed and the following day I got an message from him asking me to follow him again, these guys are like the used car salesmen of the breakbeat world. And when I see talentless people getting ahead because of their spam and hounding, while deserving DJs and producers aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve, it makes me want to run a mile.
Aesthetically standards have slipped in a massive way, I have always loved the artwork element of music, and some of my favourite releases also have some of my favourite artwork attached to them. Looking through the front page in breaks in Beatport some weeks is like a masterclass in how not to design record sleeves. There are some labels that always put out quality graphics, but at the same time there are many horrendous pieces of ‘photoshop for dummies’ fodder out there. So, when you combine unfiltered music with amateur artwork you then get a place where people really don’t want to shop. We were the 13th best selling label in breakbeat in that store last year, yet once the costs of running the label were taken into account didn’t turn a profit, and that’s without paying me a wage. And to put it further into context only one of our releases that was digital-only has surpassed the sales of our best selling vinyl release, back in 2008.
So, combine all of the above with the fact that musically i’m now in a different headspace to where I was when I started I had to make the tough decision to close the label, it’s been a hard decision to make but I think it’s the right one.
5. Is it possible to independent labels to make enough money to survive?
Yes, but I think running a label in a niche genre is only going to get a lot harder. The thing with a niche is, well, it’s a niche, and unless you’re super lucky and have a crossover hit you’re only going to appeal to the people who are into your style. If you’re running a label aimed at DJs and you’re already starting in off in a genre that has a small following, only a very small percentage of these are going to be DJs.
However, if you start a label that straddles several genres, or even one more popular genre and you release long-form content like albums and EPs for the core audience of your scene, then make bespoke packages for DJs with remixes and club-friendly tracks to supplement your albums then you’ve got a formula that works. As much as everyone says the album is dead it is still very much alive, and for your Joe Public music fan who doesn’t have the time or inclination to cherry pick songs it’s still their main way of consuming music.
Add to that formula some music that sits well in television or films – last quarter Ground Level earned more from being played on the BBC than from all our music sales combined – and you have a viable business.
There are still a lot of great independent labels releasing great music, creating employment and running as successful businesses and I think there always will be.
6. What does the future hold for you? Tell us about your new project.
I’m in the process getting things up and running for a new project called four three six. For the last couple of years I’ve toyed with the idea of a new style of record label, that’s about awesome artwork and awesome music, and is much about things as it is about bits and bytes. The idea is to put together great producers with urban/street/graffiti artists and create products that come with music. Not so much vinyl or CDs, but things like T-shirts, bags, art prints, etc. We’ll be selling the products at launch events and pop-up stores around the country, and in a few select retailers. The label will really come alive in our live shows which very much be audio visual experiences, with projections and live art complementing the music.
Music-wise the label will be focusing on bass music, electronica and (good – not orange) house. I’ve been working with street artists, graphic designers, music producers, screen printers, distributors and animators for the last few months and things are taking great shape. We’re still a couple of months off launch but if anyone is interested in hearing more they can check out @fourthreesixuk on Twitter.
Other than that I’ve been concentrating on my own music, I’ve been super productive over the last few weeks, and have two new tracks pretty much ready. Plus myself and Sasha Khan are working on a collaboration featuring the vocals of a great singer called Polly Yates, she just laid down the demo vocal yesterday it looks like it’s going to be huge, I can’t wait to get it finished!
7. Give us a recipe
For the last year or so I’ve been brewing my own craft beer at home, it’s a great process, and as there is a lot of waiting around I make sure to launch Ableton at the same time, by the time I’m done I generally have a new beer and the startings of a new track ready…
1. Heat up some water to 160 degrees and put in a combination of your favourite malts, steep these malt in the water for an hour checking the temperature every 10 minutes
2. Strain this liquid in to another vessel, and strain some additional water through the grains, do this twice.
3. Boil your new concoction for about an hour adding your favourite hops periodically
4. Let the liquid cool then drop into a fermenter, adding yeast to the mix
5. After 10-14 days bottle it with a little brewing sugar to carbonate, have a cheeky taste
6. Wait for another two weeks (this is the hard part) then your new brew is ready to drink
7. Share with friends or use to fuel late night studio session
That’s like the quickest most general guide ever, there’s a great book called The Brooklyn Brewshop’s Beer Making Book (does what is says on the tin) that explains the process in loads more detail and has loads of recipes in!
Well, I never expected a beer recipe to feature in Acid Ted and my thanks to Andy for the interview. It’s always a shame when a label that looks like it’s on a roll calls it a day. And, a bit like blogging, it seems to get that bit harder every day for specialist labels to survive. I like Ground Level for the party breaks tunes and attitude. But I also liked it because of the quality that underlay the releases. For me that was exemplified when it celebrated its fiftieth release. For that release it did a label compilation. Most labels would have collected their best bits into a single volume. Not Ground Level. The album Playground was a collection of new tracks and remixes. That’s a mark of the label. It will be much missed.
And while we’re about it and to stop any maudlin, have a free download from Outselect
Breaks, Beats & Bass – The Best of Ground Level
1 We’re Here to Rock Darft Phunk, Andy McAllister
2 Groovy Moves Plaza De Funk Remix Break the Box, Ira
3 Cops On Coke Strider Remix Stylus Rex
4 Dirty Mind Domino
5 Spangle Wagon Stylus Rex
6 Noggins Groove Pimpsoul
7 Earthly Sin Dane O
8 Bounce Fuck That Mix Zap! Pow! Die!
9 Style and Flavour Black & Blunt Remix Break the Box, MC Coppa
10 The Ride Rebel Sketchy
11 Halo Ember Stylus Rex
12 Subtexture Stylus Rex
13 The Theme Andy McAllister
14 Freefall Fisso, Spark
15 Riding West Sasha Khan
16 Celebration Sasha Khan Remix Andy McAllister
17 Come With Me Rebel Sketchy Remix Fisso & Spark
18 Kickin It DJ Hero
19 You Can Do It Andy Mcallister Remix Fisso & Spark
20 Freq Out! Rebel Sketchy
21 Bobs DJ Hero
22 So It Goes Rebel Sketchy
23 Earthquake Fisso & Spark
24 The Big Room DJ Hero
25 Boooshka! Andy McAllister
26 It Feels so Good John Bradley
27 Grinspiller Andy McAllister Remix Rebel Sketchy
28 Do It Baby Fisso & Spark
29 Everywhere I Go Rebel Sketchy, Kwerk
30 Pumped Up Sasha Khan