Interview: Ben Watt on the Dark Euro Sound, the Business of Dance Music and the Future of Mixes
Ben Watt has had one of the more unusual journeys in the annals of DJ success. As one half of pop act Everything But The Girl, he had much more mainstream fame (and likely more fortune, too) than almost anyone could achieve in club-land. But as the duo followed its muse toward electronic elements in the late 1990s, Watt found his way to the turntables.
A few years later, his Lazy Dog club nights in London were the toast of true-house aficionados. His subsequent label, Buzzin' Fly, created a shiny, electronic version of house music that moved beyond the genre's disco and Latin anchors without turning its back on them. A Buzzin' Fly record could be played by a trancey, progressive house spinner on a Saturday night and by a deep house don on a Sunday afternoon. The label put out early music from Justin Martin ("Sad Piano," a modern classic) and even released a track that featured Terence Trent D'Arby ("A Stronger Man").
After having been sidelined by illness that took him out of touring for nearly a year (it also helped to put Buzzin' Fly output on hiatus for 2009), Watt is regrouping with a mini-tour of the United States -- he'll be at Ecco in Hollywood Wednesday -- and a new slate of releases, including a Buzzin' Fly mix-CD of his own. We recently interviewed him.
LA Weekly: What inspired you to come back to the U.S. for a tour?
Ben Watt: I had a very bad year last year. I was sidelined by sinusitis. I was canceling dates, falling out with my agent, and upsetting promoters. I played two or three dates at the Winter Music Conference in March.
So you have a new booking agent?
No. I worked with Kim Benjamin for about eight years. She did some of the international licensing for Buzzin' Fly. We agreed to call it a day amicably at the end of last year. I thought, "I'm going to need another agent." One day I read through all the old contracts and I said, "This isn't so difficult." I have an assistant. It's not like I do absolutely everything.
You're putting out an album by your wife, Tracey Thorn. Has she gone house?
Buzzin' Fly has a smaller imprint, Strange Feeling, that I started two years ago. It's much more indie based. We put out Figurines and Tiger City and the Unbending Trees. Tracey was getting discontented with the machinations of major labels. I mean Virgin/EMI bares no resemblance to the label we signed to in the mid-1990s. The album an organic, ballad- and folk-oriented record. She wanted to do it with less pressure. She's not touring. Live is not something she does anymore. She wanted to do this imaginatively, without the one-size-fits-all experience you get with the majors.
Will there be dance remixes?
Possibly. It is a beautiful record. She wants to get it out to her core fans. It's not like there's rampant ambition involved. I've been getting back into remixing this year. I did a remix for Empire of the Sun in the summer. I just did something for Bent, who have a best-of [album] coming out. I don't think I would do one of Tracey's tracks though. It's too close.
How has Buzzin' Fly endured the trends in contemporary dance music, from minimal techno to nu electro and beyond?
We have a place and a sound and a look and a reputation, I guess. It's never been a label that has slavishly followed the latest dance-floor moves. At the same time we keep an eye on what's happening. And there has been a move lately back into a deeper, more soulful, Afro-Latin territory, which suits the mood of the label a little more. There's flexibility and fluidity to being on an independent label. We're quite nimble. We never plan more than two or three releases ahead.
How have you dealt with the demise of vinyl among DJs?
We still make a small run of vinyl for people who love artifacts. There is still a small audience for that in the same way there's still an audience for northern soul 7-inches [records]. It's a minority interest. We are just as active marketing to outlets like Beatport and Juno Download. It's different formats for different folks. We lose a little money on the vinyl, but it's a cross subsidy with promotion.
Digital is your core business now?
The business of making dance music is not very similar to rock-oriented indie labels. There's a different set of rules. People want your music as soon as they can get it, and it has a short tail. You have to monetize your releases even at a digital level. The idea of giving way free content in dance music is different. Most tracks these days are dead after three months. That's a business model that's very different than rock, where you can have a three or four month marketing campaign, drip feed a few downloads, and have a full digital package floating out there for six months. It's a longer campaign when you can mix free and purchased content.
I've always said that the dance music community was way ahead of file sharing in terms of exchanging mixtapes and 12-inch promos before there was digital.
Yes, of course that ghetto culture of free exchange and bartering is the backbone of dance music and always has been. I do think you will find that the market is split between people who do want stuff for free and will hunt it down on sites like RapidShare. Having said that, evidence will suggest there is another crowd who like going to the trusted stores and are prepared to pay a dollar, a dollar-fifty, for a high-quality version of a hot track. It's a mixed model at the moment.
Do you ever do online mixes, podcasts?
I do a weekly radio show that goes out on Kiss [100 radio] in the UK. We webcast and syndicate, and we actually pay a webcast license because I'm old school in that way. I know there is a massive webcast culture out there used to free music that doesn't regard copyright.
You've said you're a fan of new media thinkers such as Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. What do you think about his writing on the "free business model," where giving stuff away [like a download] can bring paying customers [for something like an full-length album]?
It's impossible to live without free these days. You can't compete with free. It's a direction music will go in. The manufacturing and production cost of music has gone down to almost nothing. You can make it, distribute it and make endless copies for almost nothing. Clearly you are going to have to monetize the areas around free if you're going to survive -- the merchandise, the tours. That's something we've done as a label. Most of the money Buzzin' Fly makes is from parties, events and third-party licensing. You have to move with the times and adapt.
Most people involved in dance music, most DJ/producers, make their money from the gigs. They use the records as profile. A lot of labels don't even do advances on singles; they'll do a 50/50 profit share, and the artists will not see much on the back end. They'll be grateful just to see a record out. Then they make money on the weekends.
Are commercial mix-CDs still viable for you?
The problem is the competition. Podcasts have really eaten into that market in a big way. You can go to Resident Advisor [website] and get a brand new cool mix every month, and it's hard to compete with that. If you do put together an interesting collection of tracks, license [owners] are looking for 200, 300 quid a track [for permission to use them]. It's a risky business. You looking at a few grand for a CD. Interestingly, talking about Chris Anderson, one of the things that's worked for us is accepting that there are networks that offer free content, some of which is ours, rather than complain, and use that network of fans they speak to in order to get what we want. We sell tickets to events through Resident Advisor with virtually no marketing expense, selling out all our parities. That's taking advantage of something that would be a disadvantage.
You still have a mix-CD of your own coming out.
I do have the intention to put something out in the first half of next year. I want it to be special. I did some cool re-edits last year. I'm approaching people to reuse them. I did one for an artist and I approached [the label] 4AD and they were very against it. They didn't want the track messed with in any way. You end up making a mix-CD out of what's available rather than what you want to do.
You released music by West Coast artist Justin Martin early on. Is California still a well of talent for you?
The West Coast sound of the mid-'90s lost its appeal in Europe, which has been completely overtaken by the sounds coming out of Germany. But a lot of those guys still have quite big careers: Miguel Migs, Kaskade and Mark Farina are all doing the circuit out there. But the sound hasn't moved on. How much can I inject the new, European sound into my sets in America without alienating the crowd?
You like the dark, techie sound?
It's more the way the music's being made in Europe in the last few years. The music has clearly been influenced by a new kind of drug culture in Europe -- late-night parties fueled by really trippy drugs and a dubbier, sub-bassy kind of sound that has really dominated the scene. It's created a new groove. It's not just happening in the dark clubs of northern Europe but also at the beach parties of Ibiza. Dubfire from Deep Dish went as far as he could go commercially with Sharam [of Deep Dish] and took a look off the top of the hill and said, I don't want to be here -- there's more interesting music being made in Europe. Producers like Radio Slave have really carved out a whole genre to themselves in some ways
I think it's very addictive as a dance-floor sound. What I find interesting is utilizing that kind of tracky, dubby kind of template then bringing in the kind of pathos and melody and flickers and vocals and instrumentation that people associate with my music. Things like Latin and Afro and saxophones are starting to reappear
I never would have thought I'd hear that Ben Watt is spinning such dark, twisted sounds.
I play at 5 a.m. all over Europe whenever I play. It's certainly a sound you would hear if you listened to the residency I had at the Space Terrance in Ibiza over the summer. I play all over Europe now, and there's a deep melodic pattern to what I play. And it certainly has a dubby quality as well.
Has this darker sound seeped into your label?
You're always being reactive as well as proactive when you run a label. You try to take a risk, and sometimes you put something out because you think of it as being very now and you love it and you're playing it in your DJ sets. I'm putting out something from Loko from Argentina. Love him to bits.
I just try and keep doing it in an interesting way that keeps me interested and the crowds interested. There's no master plan. I don't see Buzzin' Fly as a brand. We're more of an intervention. I just keep on doing it for the love of it throwing the small parties because we love it. And we do the occasional big ones because we need the money. It's not trying to build this up into Hed Kandi [a big dance label]. I've done my thing trying to make money in the music business. The money came by default: We just happened to have a couple big records in the '90s, which we were lucky to make money out of. But it has never been my driving force in music. You get up in the morning and talk about it, write about it, and Twitter about it because that's what you got to do, you know. If I wanted to make money I wouldn't running a dance label.
Ben Watt DJs Wednesday, Oct. 28 at Melodic at Ecco, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. 21+. Doors at $12 advance. Info: clubmelodic.com.
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